Mises Daily Articles
The Omelet Has No Rights
"Butch," my young son, was making an omelet one morning and I was supposed to be supervising the project. But my mind was more on the United Nations as a symbol of hope — the hope for universal peace and the protection of human rights.
As Butch broke the eggs into the bowl there came to mind a saying, popular among party men of the Soviet Union:
When you are making an omelet, you must break the eggs.
If one thinks of the eggs as comparable to individual persons and the omelet as comparable to some political conglomerate of persons such as the Soviet Union, he will have a picture of the underlying basis for the world conflict over human rights. And the United Nations, like a mother hen, is trying to sit on both concepts at once, hoping to hatch peace from the sitting.
Just about everybody wants peace and wants human rights protected. So it is useless to waste time and space restating these general objectives of the United Nations. Instead, let us examine the lack of unity as to means. For it is over the tools of peace that we are really at war — an ideological war threatening to descend into bloody war.
The UN is purely a political agent designed to empower certain men to rule over other men. By its very design it enthrones might as right, because that is the only way its constituent members can bring their power into the focus of action.
Look, for instance, at the Declaration of Human Rights. It is patterned closely after the constitutions of the most dictatorial governments in the world today, in a manner to which I shall make reference without full details here.1 Furthermore, the nine meetings of the Commission on Human Rights have been devoted mainly to converting the provisions of the Declaration of Human Rights into legal forms to be adopted as treaties by the various nations.
Some may contend that this is being too harsh or unfair about an agency set up merely to discuss things. Some wag has said that the United Nations is only an impersonal entity in the form of a mouth without teeth, designed to talk out of both sides at once with its tongue in its cheek. But did we need a new agency before we could talk with our neighbor? If a political agency designed to change the conduct of people denies itself teeth with which to chew the cud for which it was created, it will be something brand new.
If teeth are added and bite too hard, can't any nation just quit the UN? But the charter makes no provision for the voluntary withdrawal of any member. An outvoted minority is presumed to have no right to disaffiliate. Even the right of objection in the form of peaceful withdrawal becomes, in effect, an act of aggression against the UN itself.
The Collectivist View
How could the UN be expected to operate in any other manner than as an omelet of rights with might making right? Think of its design, not its professed purposes. In order to determine the path of its future, think of its political composition and what those countries do about human rights within their own borders. As the Freeman once expressed it, "We have put the top criminal on the Police Commission."
In a troubled world where human freedoms are at low ebb, the only way ever to regain lost freedoms is to disfranchise the omelet concept of world political power, under any label and for any professed purpose. To see this more clearly, it must be understood why the omelet concept and the egg concept of human rights are mutually exclusive.
The omelet, or collectivist, concept holds that the social omelet is the sole concern and objective of humanity. "When you are making an omelet, you must break the eggs." By this view, human rights are vested completely in the collective of persons, not in individuals. Since the will of the collective is deemed to be the same thing as justice, it follows that rights reside in the omelet and not in the individual eggs. So it becomes humane and socially justifiable to break the eggs for the omelet because that is what eggs are for. "Siberian vacations" and political murders, together with all lesser forms of violation of individuals' freedom, are on the agenda of respectable action from the standpoint of rights — omelet style. Individual eggs left intact for a time are to serve in some later omelet.
The other view of human rights, the libertarian view, may be called that of the individual egg. It holds that human rights reside entirely in individual persons as such. This reasoning is based on the biological and spiritual nature of man. It looks upon every collective of persons, whether the Elks Club or the nation, as nothing more than a temporary arrangement of persons for purposes of some convenience; and if all persons are removed from the collective, there remains only an empty organizational shell devoid of any problem of human rights. Since the functional unit of all life and all action is the individual person, it is here that any sound concept of human rights must be anchored. The adherents to this view offer this aphorism to represent their position about human rights:
You can't hatch chicks from an omelet.
The individual person is the only unit that acts, even in an army under strictest orders doing the goose step. No single sensation of a person can be transferred to another person. His every thought is individually constructed, and can be transmitted to another only with difficulty and inaccuracies.
According to this libertarian concept, the concern of human rights is with the chain of life embedded solely in individual "eggs." And once the shell of individual rights has been broken, with the contents dedicated to some collective omelet, the embryo of human freedom will have been killed and the life chain broken forever. This view, to put it crudely but bluntly, is that human rights no longer prevail in the cannibals' kettle of stew.
Eater or Eaten?
Adherents of the first of these two views may claim for it a superiority in justice on grounds of the "general welfare," asserting that it does not stoop to the selfish interests of some one person. But the adherents of the second view will raise these questions: who is to eat the omelet — for whom is it being made? Whence comes his right to be the eater rather than the eaten? Who had the right to decide? Whose general good does the omelet serve?
It is only as we assume man to be free and to have right of choice that there is any question of human rights at all. The term human rights is really just another name for freedom itself. No person, to be sure, can enjoy rights or freedom denied him by his stronger friends or neighbors or fellow citizens, because with their greater power they force him to accede to their demands. But I am not speaking of rights in this sense of power rule.
A deeper meaning of rights precludes all dictates of the collective, per se. In fact., the will of the collective, like a circle of mirrors that reflects only mirrors, is an empty thing except as it is fed from outside by guides which arise from the hearts and minds of individual persons. They are the ones dictated by one's wisdom and conscience, whether or not a majority agrees at the moment. You feel that in justice your neighbor has no right to restrain you in certain ways, and those are the kinds of rights with which we are here concerned.
In the Western culture of which we are a part, we assume that the human organism has personal choice in all his voluntary acts, so that he may do this or that, go here or there — now or later. Predestination in any complete sense is generally rejected.
Our natural environment, to be sure, imposes predestined consequences. It sets limits on the range of one's choices and places blocks of inconvenience in his path. These natural limitations are beyond our control. We cannot, for instance, veto the law of gravity; we can only work with it, as by the use of a parachute. Anyone who assumes that since he can build a bridge, he can also build a new law of gravity, is making a fatal mistake.
Aside from the restraints nature places on a person's freedom, he may restrain himself or he may be forcefully restrained by others.
Self-restraint is the response to that wee small voice that speaks so loudly to each of us, yet which cannot be heard directly by any other person. Some call it conscience. Some call it God. It encompasses all we know as morals. Perhaps nobody knows exactly and fully the sources of self-restraint, but few deny its role as master perhaps the most effective one — which, by speaking so directly and forcefully, guides our actions as free persons.
The other type of restraint is that of force and power, by sheer mastery of man over man. This may take many forms, among which slavery is a simple and clear one. Another is the rule of man by man through some sort of political organization, always man-made and man-controlled. The UN is of the latter type. As a mechanism, it is the frying pan on which to cook the omelet of rights.
The UN employees are expected to be loyal to the United Nations above all else, according to the "Report on Standards of Conduct in the International Service."
A simple truth is that one cannot serve two masters because it is impossible to obey two conflicting orders. As applied to the problem of human rights, this means that one cannot serve both his conscience and some political mechanism at the same time, in the sense of ruler.
Whenever one is in the sorry plight of having conflicting orders from two sources, he must choose his master and suffer the consequences. It is always enticing to subordinate the conscience because the retributions it imposes are less clear and vivid than the gallows flaunted in his face by his fellow men in the role of master. God in His design gave man, as a necessary part of the right of freedom, the chance to do evil as well as good. Had He denied to man the chance to do evil, it would have been necessary also to deny him the right to freedom itself — the problem of human rights.
On Serving Two Masters
Some will say that if a political institution is founded on moral precepts under God, as in our Declaration of Independence and the essence of the Bill of Rights under early legal interpretations, one can in fact serve both masters. But both cannot be masters, and it is an illusion to think that they are. The test — the only valid test — is this: whose dictates are followed whenever the two give conflicting orders?
The history of our own nation attests to the impossibility of serving two masters. This is revealed in the reversal of original spirit and presumed intent of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The original moral precepts about personal rights have now been basically negated, by legal interpretation as well as by popular acceptance. God is now expected to take many of his orders from political masters, in the role of a subordinate. Not only that, but those who represent us in the UN and do its chores are expected to push God even one step further down in authority, since loyalty to the UN is to be above loyalty to the United States.
Differences can coexist if force is not enthroned to eliminate differences. There can be an egg and there can be an omelet, if allowed separate existence. But the same egg cannot serve both, and every egg is doomed whenever the omelet is enthroned to rule. The plea of unity by compromise is a trap for the egg; it can't be half broken. The omelet as a means denies the egg as an end.
In any area of differences, living with disunity is the price that must be paid for freedom. Some are willing to give up freedom in the hope of attaining unity, only to lose both. This is because a maximum of real unity is found under freedom rather than under enslavement.
So, since two masters cannot be served at once and since individual liberty is the master we want, the libertarian's hopes for solution of the problem of human rights lie elsewhere than in any international agency of political power. Lord Acton, when speaking of human rights with his rare historical perspective on human freedom, said,
Absolute power and restrictions on its exercise cannot exist together. It is but a new form of the old contest between the spirit of true freedom and despotism in its most dexterous disguise.2
Whether one accepts the religious concept of Suarez or the reasoned one of Grotius, he must assume that there is a human right above any law written by mere man; that the higher law shall in justice prevail whenever a contradiction forces one to choose between masters. As Coke said, this is "written with the finger of God in the heart of man … the eternal law, the moral law."
The libertarian cannot look to the United Nations as an agency of hope to solve the world's problems of peace, freedom, and human rights. He knows that by its very design the UN cannot serve as the incubator for human rights, because you can't hatch eggs on a frying pan suited only to cooking omelet. After all our efforts to use the UN as a battleground over the weapons of peace, one is forced to agree with Mr. Dulles, who said, "Our nation is today less liked, more isolated and more endangered than ever before in its history…"