Pope Benedict, human rights, freedom and equality

I suppose I am not the right person to be giving an unbiased take on the Pope’s recent remarks to the English and Welsh Bishops on their ad limina visit to Rome on this secular economics blog. However, the Chief Rabbi has waded into the debate making similar points to those I have been making, and also quoting F. A. Hayek, so I feel justified. The issue also has a lot of parallels with those that Len Shackleton frequently blogs about: freedom of association and freedom to contract in labour markets go hand-in-hand.

In case you have missed the debate, the Pope has told the Bishops that they should continue to speak out against legislation (specifically equality legislation) which circumscribes religious freedom. The usual example given is where legislation restricts the freedom of relgious schools to choose not to employ practising homosexuals. Though the debate is often seen in those terms (that is, about the employment of gay people) so that easy headlines can be written about discrimination against that group, it should also be mentioned that the same school would not wish to employ a headteacher who was a practising non-married heterosexual (or re-married divorcee) either. There is a constistency in the Catholic position which some gay activists respect.

The problem is that we have moved from a free society to one based on rights. Freedoms do not conflict (or at least they are managed by agreements – contracts) whereas rights do conflict because they impose duties as a corollary. Let us take the example of a right to the adoption of children by gay couples – something that has led to the disbanding of Catholic adoption agencies. In a land governed by “freedom” gay couples would be entitled to adopt through any agency which wished to provide services and the Catholic adoption agencies could offer their services to whoever they chose (let us say just to married couples – but see below). Indeed, specialist gay adoption agencies could spring up. In a land governed by “rights”, gay couples have a right to have adoption services to be provided by any entity that provides adoption services. That imposes a duty on Catholic adoption agencies and circumscribes their freedom (and the net result is a reduced variety of adoption agencies). Rights come into conflict. Does the Church have a right as a religion to set up an adoption agency in accordance with its moral views? Not if homosexuals – or unmarried heterosexuals – have a right to adoption from all agencies. Do homosexuals – and unmarried heterosexuals – have a right to adoption from all agencies, without discrimination? Not if Church groups have a right to set up adoption agencies in accordance with their moral views. Resolving these incompatible rights can only lead to open conflict (the current position – where there is a great deal of bitterness on both sides of the debate). Yet, if all accept freedom as the basis for social and economic relationships, there need be no conflict though each side will, no doubt, want to persuade the other of the correctness of their views.

This argument can be widened to freedom of association more generally. I am perfectly comfortable with women-only clubs, socialist-only clubs and freemason-only clubs though I would not want to be a member (indeed could not be a member) of any of them. Similarly it should be possible to have men-only clubs and so on. And religious groups should also be free to form associations and act in accordance with their own moral principles.

But the Church has only itself to blame on many of these issues. The continental influence in general, and soggy-socialist influence amongst the English-speaking Bishops, has made the Church at large often conflate “freedom” and “rights” in public statements and not distinguish effectively between them. The Church’s own consistent theory of rights is somewhat different from most secular understandings and this is not articulated well either and is certainly not well understood. Bishops in England and Wales have not spoken out against “rights-based” equality legislation until it affects their own patch. And Catholic agencies have also acted inconsistently. It was not consistent, for example, for Catholic agencies to facilitate adoption for heterosexual singles and then turn round and say they would not do the same for gay couples because a child needs both a mother and a father and should be put in that setting if at all possible. Jeremy Paxman very effectively nailed the now Archbishop of Westminster on that very point on Newsnight and the whole argument surrounding Catholic adoption agencies was then finished in the view of many people.

The Church could simply extend one of the great planks of Vatican II. In dealing with the communist countries it effectively said that the Church will not try to create Catholic government if she were given full freedom to operate in communist countries – including the freedom to speak out against oppression of human dignity. This would mean the defending of what the Church regarded as genuine human rights deriving from natural law (for example – the right to hold property). It should cherish and speak out in favour of freedom of association more – even though there would be many associations formed that the Church did not like! The Church should pursue its mission by persuasion. “Rights” agendas, unless strictly limited in scope, lead to conflict. There is no logical end-point to a “rights-based” legal code which gives rights to some and imposes unacceptable duties on others, whereas we can live in freedom harmoniously. Indeed, once such rights-based codes are accepted in principle, we put in place the vested interests that will simply work for their extension, so we create a huge “human rights and equality” industry. Of course, not all problems will be resolved by making freedom the basis of law. One thinks of abortion, for example, where most religions would believe that the unborn child should get the same legal protection as those who were born but some believe otherwise. However, a belief in freedom in general surely provides the only widely-acceptable basis for religious freedom in a secular society.

More and more ‘discrimination’ (which in principle I am in favour of) is outlawed. This clearly does restrict people’s freedom. Why has this happened, to an extent that would have been unthinkable one hundred years ago?I suspect it may be because the extent of government activity has grown so much — government spending now taking around 50 per cent of the national income, compared with perhaps 10 per cent in 1910.There is some merit in governments, with their coercive — and often monopoly — powers not being permitted to discriminate. But that should not prevent the rest of us doing so. One indirect way of reducing this ‘problem’ is to significantly reduce the size of government.

In fact, not being allowed to discriminate does stop social networks based on trust from developing. Then who complains that the market economy erodes social capital? Socialists.

As a non-Catholic, I think this is an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Well done!

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