Quick up: Mistaken signature

Quick up: Mistaken signature

The United Nations drafted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IC-ESC) in 1966. It claims food, clothing, housing, and medical care are "fundamental human rights." In fact, it claims these are components of a broad human right to "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one's family".

These rights described by the IC-ESC are classified as "positive" rights – entitlements to receive things from other people. Positive rights are only recognized in collectivist societies, which believe the collective has the right to control the individual. They are not recognized in individualist societies, which believe the collective does not have the right control the individual.

The United States is an individualist society that practices "negative" rights – protections against certain behavior from other people. The Constitution makes that clear. However, in 1979, President Carter signed the IC-ESC anyway – a critical step toward adopting positive rights in the United States. Congress did not look on this favorably.

After signing, Carter remarked, "I will seek ratification of these covenants by the Congress of the United States at the earliest possible date." Yet the Senate did not ratify the the IC-ESC, even though it later ratified a sibling document Carter had signed at the same time, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (IC-CPR). The difference was clear. Civil and political rights are negative rights, and could be fairly easily ratified as United States law. Economic, social, and cultural rights are positive rights, and could not be ratified without throwing American governance and jurisprudence into chaos.

Positive and negative rights are mutually exclusive. You can't have the right to take someone's property if they have a right to be free from arbitrary taking of their property. This is why the IC-ESC is such a convenient justification for political violence. Telling people they are entitled to wealth of ambiguous quantity from other people has a way of creating conflict with those other people.

The IC-ESC is still pending ratification by the Senate today. But the problem has not changed in 44 years. You can't practice both positive and negative rights. (From a practical perspective, you probably can't practice positive rights for any meaningful duration.) So it's time to make a statement to the world: we believe in protecting people, not promising entitlements we can't deliver. The United States should withdraw the President's signature from the IC-ESC.