Third-World Ways in Cambridge USA

Wall Street Journal, December 28, 1983.


“Property rights,” said the Cuban delegate, “are out of fashion at the United Nations.” This was said a couple of years ago in a response to a speech of mine, and, since he knew me to be a newcomer, it was said somewhat condescendingly, by way of initiating me into the ways of the U.N. world. Since then, and especially after six weeks in Geneva at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, I have come to appreciate that the Cuban delegate was – on this subject at least – speaking the truth. Property rights are indeed out of fashion at the U.N., but human rights – and the presumed distinction is accepted as a matter of dogma – are very much in fashion in all U.N. forums. Prominent among these now is the right of development. By designating development a human right, the Third World countries hope to gain at least quasi-legal status for what they insist is the duty corresponding to it. In this effort they have the full support of the Soviet bloc. And why not? The argument is that this (so-called) right is not yet enjoyed in the Third World because the First World – by which they all mean the U.S. – selfishly refuses to acknowledge its (so-called) duty, which is to distribute a portion of its wealth among them. It is fruitless to protest that there is no such duty because there is no such right. Moreover, by doing so, Americans open themselves to the charge of being indifferent to the poverty that characterizes the condition of so many people. But this is obviously not true.

American Enterprise Institute