Thanks to George McGraw, Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, for his kind and thoughtful Counterpoint to my original post. He and his organization are clearly dedicated to the noble cause of providing clean water and sanitation to all, a cause which everyone can and should support. It is also a very sensible objective that would aid the world’s poor much more than trendier causes such as “climate change” and “population control” which tend to view the human person and his industriousness as fundamental problems to be solved through central planning, birth control, sterilization and abortion.
McGraw is certainly right to say that the Holy See does not believe that water should be free for all, despite the purposely provocative title of my post. And the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document does indeed presuppose market mechanisms for the distribution of water resources. My fear, however, is that while paying lip service to the validity of market economics and the role of profit, many religious-minded people still have a low opinion of business and fail to recognize that markets have been and remain the best way to allocate resources, especially absolutely necessary ones such as food and water. The profit motive may not be the most high-minded way of caring for the poor, but it has proven to be the most reliable and effective one. No one claims that markets are perfect; they are still more likely to meet human needs that the alternatives, whether these are government services or private charity.
I agree that there are circumstances in which food and water must be provided to those who cannot pay for them, but this does not make them “free” or without cost. Someone else still has to produce and deliver them to the poor, and it will be the government who does the commanding at some level. This is necessary in emergency situations, though still not always the best solution, as the relief efforts in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath proved. My main concern is that introducing a legally-recognized “right to water” shifts the focus from the rights and duties of the private sector to those of the government, and away from the individual and toward the collective. It should also be recognized that the public, subsidized provision of a good often displaces or “crowds out” private sector providers, to the detriment of the development of local businesses, a sine qua non if countries are to escape poverty.
Having worked for the Holy See at the United Nations, I witnessed all sorts of perverted thinking on the issue of human rights. The UN was where, for instance, the Soviet Union and its satellites continually pushed for “economic, social and cultural rights” at the expense of the political and civil rights promoted by the West. This was yet another cynical ploy to deny individual rights and collectivize society. Since the end of communism, many of these “new” rights, also called “second- and third-generation” rights, have become less obviously ideological but remain problematic. As the very notion of “generational” development makes clear, there is no clear standard by which to measure or order these rights. This is the “progressive” rather than the truly liberal understanding of human rights and it ought to be rejected as such. Two of my graduate-school professors, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, put it well in a 1982 essay on “The Philosophical Foundation of Human Rights”:
[Economic, social and cultural rights] are merely things that most people want, and that the poorer countries wish they could persuade the richer ones to give them. They are open-ended and hence often unreasonable. There is no way, for example, that an underdeveloped country can provide adequate education or medical care for all its citizens. By proclaiming these as universal human rights, however, such countries arm themselves with the most respectable of reasons for pressing for global redistribution of wealth. No one can blame them for that; but we can question the status as “human rights” of what are, in a sense, letters to Santa Claus.
I have to admit to being a bit surprised by the Catholic World News report on my blog post that placed me in opposition to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It’s not every day that I have to prove my Catholic bona fides, so I should clarify my understanding of what the Church means by the “right to water.” (The RealClearReligion website may have contributed to the problem by titling its link to my piece “There is No Right to Water.”) All Catholics and indeed all people of good will should believe that human beings are entitled to the necessities of food and water as human beings; in no way do I support depriving anyone of these at any stage of life. And the Church is not wrong to identify “rights” that are due to the person as a result of his ontological dignity. My point was that calling for a legally-recognized international human right to water may not be the best way to ensure that everyone actually has access to it; results should matter just as much as putting some nice-sounding words on paper. The difficulty results, in my opinion, from the long-standing abuse of the term “human rights” that I previously mentioned and a lot of subsequent incoherence, not least coming from academics looking for justification for their soft-left-wing policy preferences.
The Church is, nevertheless, a pre-modern institution that has a different understanding of human rights and human nature than liberals and progressives do, and the presuppositions of Church teaching on human dignity are crucial. As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once put it, “The Catholic doctrine of human rights is not based on Lockean empiricism or individualism. It has a more ancient and distinguished pedigree.” Without emphasizing the presuppositions made by this pedigree, any call for new rights is likely to be misconstrued and misapplied. We need to recover the fullness of Catholic moral and social teaching without exacerbating the problem, while also appreciating the role that private enterprise has within the liberal tradition.