The Freedom Conundrum, The French and American concepts of basic human rights differ. By Mathew Lesh.19 August 2017. 9:00 AM.

  Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks on moral rights, democracy and dictatorship.

Speaking at the beginning of a panel on What should ‘the West’ stand for, Sacks made the important point that the West isn’t a single line of thinking. He pointed to Friedrich Hayek’s distinction between the Anglo-American and the French concept of human rights, which is laid bare in two of the West’s key revolutionary documents.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen declares that ‘all men are born and remain equal in rights’. In contrast, the American Declaration of Independence, influenced by John Locke, holds ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, (and) that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ They may sound similar, but they are not.

The French concept of human rights in effect calls for equality of outcomes (‘created and remain equal’), not just equality of opportunity like the American Declaration (‘created equal’). The French concept necessitates maximal government to keep people ‘equal’. This inevitably infringes on liberty to develop our differences – and, in many ways, is what sowed the seeds for the downfall of the French Revolution as it turned to The Terror to make people ‘equal’. In contrast, the American formula of human rights requires limited government to allow individuals to pursue their own concept of human flourishing.

In addition, the French idea of human rights is based upon the state as the guarantor of rights. In contrast, the American Revolution was predicated on a very strong civil society. This is one of the facets of America that fascinated Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterful Democracy in America:  “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite… In America I encountered sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.”

These associations stand between the individual and the state, enabling the individual and society to achieve our common goals without coercion.  However, there has been an almost unnoticed cultural climate change in the past half-century: the rise of the French concept of the state by elites. ‘We are all French now,’ Sacks said. The state is now maximal in its role, and so are the demands laid upon it. Much of this links to the weakness of civil society.

Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone diagnosed the death of ‘social capital’, that is, the breakdown of civil society organisations and community bonds. The book’s title comes from his finding that more people are bowling than ever before – but instead of bowling in clubs, Americans are bowling alone. The breakdown of community bonds, that operated through mutual benefit organisations, charities, and churches, has been enabled by a growing state and led to the perceived necessity for bigger government.

We often forget that, for example, unemployment benefits are quite a new concept. In Australia, unemployment assistance was first introduced by the Labor Government in 1945. Before that, people turned to the community for help when they lost their job. Your neighbours and family dropped off food and donated clothes, and charities provided support. Albeit for benign reasons, this all changed with the advent of unemployment assistance. In effect, the growth in the role of government has crowded out community.

The consequences of this have proven dire. ‘The French tradition leaves very little between the individual and the state, and the end result of that is that when the individual feels that the state is not meeting its needs, it turns to populist politics,’ Sacks says. The state inevitably fails to deliver, and as Harvard professor Pippa Norris diagnoses in Democratic Deficit, there is a growing gap between expectations of the governed and outcomes of government. Feeling powerless, people are now turning to strong individuals, who often are not friends of liberty, to defeat the elites.

Therefore, the threat facing the West is not in fact external – it is internal. As Sacks concludes:

The great danger is the moral vacuum at the heart of Western political structures. The French system believes that liberty is a political achievement. The Anglo-American tradition believes that freedom is at least also a moral achievement, and without that moral substance, born, and cultured, and cultivated, in families, communities and traditions, some religious and some national, the West will be left with a vacuum out of which disorder will follow.

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