The Declaration of Human Rights: Does Every Human Really Have a Right to Food and Shelter?


Last week, my daughter came home from school telling me she learned about a “Declaration of Rights.” I assumed she was referring to the Bill of Rights or maybe the Declaration of Independence. Turns out they were discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (DHR) passed by the United Nations in 1948.

The DHR begins by recognizing that human beings possess inherent dignity and inalienable rights, which are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. These rights are to be protected by the rule of law.

What are these fundamental rights? Many should sound familiar to Americans as they are enshrined in our founding documents; the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. For instance, the DHR provides every human being has the right to life, liberty and security of person. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. No one shall be subject to torture. No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, and everyone is entitled to a fair hearing before an independent tribunal. Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly and association.

However, the DHR doesn’t stop there. It provides for several economic rights. For instance, the DHR asserts that everyone has the right to work and protection against unemployment. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including holidays with pay. They have the right to “favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” Everyone has the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”  

My daughter was shown several DHR public announcements, including this video.

The narrator tells us “These are your human rights ... You don’t have to buy them, or apply for them or ask permission to have them, they’re just yours ... It’s just that simple. Some people may try to ignore your rights or violate them or pretend they don’t exist, but they can’t change the fact that they’re yours.”

We don’t have to buy food, shelter, clothing or health care. It’s yours. Don’t even bother asking for permission, just take it. Those who ask to be compensated for the cost of producing these basic necessities are violating your basic human rights.

On January 11, 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a pitch for many of these economic rights in his State of the Union Address. FDR acknowledged that our country had its beginning, and grew to become a strong nation “under the protection of certain inalienable political rights” including freedom of speech, press, worship, and trial by jury. “They were our rights to life and liberty.” But the president went on to lament that as the nation grew, these rights “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He argued that “true individual freedom could not exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.”

As such, FDR called for a Second Bill of Rights, including many of the economic rights highlighted above in the DHR. He suggested each of us have a right to a job, and a right to earn enough to provide adequate food, clothing and recreation. According to FDR, every farmer has a right to sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living, and every family has a right to a decent home.

Notice the difference between the economic rights articulated by FDR and the DHR when compared to those articulated in our founding documents. While the rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution serve to expand liberty and freedom for all, the economic rights simply create entitlements, obligations and servitude. When one man has a right to food, water, shelter, and health care, another is obligated to provide these basic necessities. If one has the right to a job, another is obligated to hire him. The latter is nothing more than a servant to the former.

If the farmer who grows crops that nobody wants is entitled to a profit nonetheless, so is the auto manufacturer. If every human being is entitled to food, shelter, and recreation, it matters not whether the individual is able or willing to earn them for himself.

Human beings have always had to labor to provide for their own sustenance and well-being. Our ancestors spent long hours tilling the land, hunting game, and building shelter. They were not entitled to their basic necessities. They had to work for them. It’s no different today.

As noted in the DHR, inalienable human rights are the foundation of freedom. The economic rights outlined in the DHR and FDR’s Second Bill of Rights create obligations and servitude; not freedom.