Upholding Human Rights as the Duty of Government

Lately, in these times of economic turmoil, governments around the world seem to be more concerned with protecting the interests of private enterprises rather than alleviating the daily struggles of the general population.  The resources spent on the latter pales in comparison to the former.

Ironically, public opposition to this misplaced priority has been fairly muted.  Due to decades of capitalist indoctrination, where the virtues of privatization are preached as gospel, many have become unsure of the role their governments should play in the public sphere.  For example, most will agree that the poor deserves assistance to afford food, but will not be so certain whether providing employment is a duty or a prerogative of the government. 

It is the author’s intention, in this article, to re-examine the rational sequence of arguments that would provide us a logical framework to identify the role of a government.  Most of the analytical reasoning has already been presented in Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense.  Published in 1776, it is a significant piece of historical literature which has sustained the motivation of Americans to secede from Britain in the American Revolution, which of course, led to the founding of the United States.

According to him, society is formed by the need of humans to synergize their efforts for greater benefit to all.  This is because certain tasks cannot be performed by a single person alone, such as removing and erecting a timber.  Therefore, people live in clusters in order to harness the benefits of combined labour. 

However, due to moral defects of individuals, they would eventually transgress each other (e.g. stealing).  Consequently, a government is formed to address the problem of
security.  A government enforces a code of conduct through the law of the land, so that constituents may have freedom within the boundaries of that code.  Paine succinctly summarized: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness.”

Paine drew influence from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which is published in 1689.  In it, Locke introduced the notion of an implicit social contract, whereby individuals give up some of the absolute freedom they enjoy in solitude, in exchange for security within a community.  On this premise, if the government fails to honour its obligations, the legitimacy for it to impose the law on its constituents becomes weakened. 

Paine viewed the role of government to be largely confined to security matters, which appear meagre compared to the multi-functional role of today’s government.  Perhaps, it is because Britain, being far away, cannot possibly provide any satisfactory services other than protecting the colony from external threats.  More likely though, it is because communities back then were more autonomous and did not depend as much on governmental services as we do today. 

Back then, society was much simpler than now in terms of economic activity, size and technology.  Therefore, most of the decisions that affected the collective welfare were decided at the municipal level, not at the federal level.  Regardless of what reason Paine held in confining the duty of government to security matters, it is clear that he understood the raison d'être of societies is for the common good. 

As society grows in complexity, the need for greater oversight to harness the synergy of combined labour increases in tandem.  Consequently, constituents in a society begin to give up more and more of their freedom to the government as new laws are imposed to regulate new conditions of synergy.  The loss of freedom is reflected in the loss of direct democratic control over investment decisions using public funds, over dispensation of public services and over economic policies, for example.  Due to the new social dynamics, GDP per capita has increased many-folds.

Naturally, as compensation for the further loss of autonomy, more demands are made of the government.  When these demands are not met, violent conflicts sometimes result, as seen in the Haymarket affair on the 4th of May 1886 and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.  

None of the demands made by the public is unreasonable.  In view of the tremendous increase in productivity, the public simply wants the fruits of their combined labour to be shared, in other words, to enable all individuals to live with dignity.  Finally, in 1948, these demands are formalized in a new social contract, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 

61 years after the introduction of UDHR, the appraisal on its progress is abysmal.  The world remains a conflict-prone place.  The many wars that are fought resulted in untold miseries.  In today's world of material abundance, it is appalling that people with ready, able hands can end up without food or a roof over their heads.   It is equally inexplicable, that old, sick people in the wealthiest country in the world, US may need to choose between medicine, food or heat on a freezing winter day. 

Locally, our situation does not fare any better.  We have numerous repressive laws to rob us of our public space and our natural right of expression.  We have indigenous people who are routinely plundered of their land and livelihood.  We have suffered routinely from ill-enacted policies of the government, some of which have resulted in a deeply polarized society along class lines. 

If Paine and Locke only expected security from their government, it is atrocious to think that our government cannot even fulfil that basic pledge, let alone those lofty goals of the UDHR.  Today, we are crippled by fear of crime because the guardian of our security, the police, is too busy dealing with political dissenters.  To make the matter worse, our government is undermining security by inciting hatred among ethnic groups and by taking over the other estate, the judiciary, so that they can rule with impunity. 

Interestingly, similar to typical commercial contracts, the UDHR provides for recourse through “rebellion against tyranny and oppression” if this social contract is breached and all other avenues of recourse are exhausted.  Some may agree that this has already started, as witnessed from the Bersih and Hindraf rallies. 

A commoner in today’s society is like a feather in the wind.  He is blown about by decisions and policies of the government that he has no direct control over.  In relinquishing his right of direct participation, in addition to upholding the law of the land, it is only natural that he be adequately compensated. 

It follows that the UDHR functions as the contemporary social contract.  As the name so elucidates, the demands made in it are the peoples’ rights, not privileges.  We must insist that the government honours all the pledges they made, simply because “the simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right”, as Paine wrote. 

 – Soo Jin Hou