We need no lessons from those who try to undermine the American idea of rights.

In Vienna this week representatives of every country on Earth are in conference on human rights. The conference's principal aim -- as is to be expected of any conclave of 183 governments, the majority of which are despotic -- is to destroy the human rights idea.

On Monday, Secretary of State Christopher went to Vienna to hold the fort. The results were mixed.

The destroyers -- led by China, Iran, Cuba, Vietnam and other paragons of human rights -- are not very subtle. Their strategy is to shred the idea of human rights by having the world deny that they are universal and by insisting that they "must be considered in the context of ... national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds."

That is U.N.-ese for saying that human rights is a Western invention and that non-Westerners have their own definition of human rights, which -- as a cursory look at China, Myanmar, Iran and other signatories of the so-called Bangkok Declaration of April 1993 will tell you -- includes the right to repress.

The only right this gang truly believes in is "the right to development," meaning their right to Western aid money. That these thugs and kleptocrats should elevate their claim to a piece of your paycheck to an inalienable human right is a sign of the contempt with which human rights are treated in international forums.

Given what he had to deal with, Christopher delivered a speech offering a fine, hard-line defense of the universality of human rights. He even coined a good line: "We cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression."

Unfortunately, the attack on universality is only one aggression against the human rights idea, and the easiest to fend off. There is another, more subtle attack that Christopher did not parry. In fact, he caved.

He agreed to embrace the "International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights," a document that for 15 years the United States has refused to ratify. Why? Because it undermines what we in America have long understood by the idea of rights.

The enemies of human rights like to pretend that there are two kinds: "political rights" (free speech, worship etc.) that the West emphasizes, and "economic and social and cultural rights" (the right to social and economic services guaranteed by the state) that non-Western countries champion.

What's wrong with expanding the list of rights to include such nice things as the right to a guaranteed job, the right to "social insurance," the right "to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress" and the right to "periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays"?

What's wrong is that these rights undermine -- intentionally undermine -- the very idea of political rights. A right is something that the individual claims against the state. You have the right to free speech. It is a personal liberty, a sphere of activity protected from state encroachment.

Economic rights are not claims of the individual against the state. They are claims on the state, demands for things to be granted by the state to the individual. As such, they guarantee the individual's dependence on the state for the necessities of life and thus are instruments for increasing state power over the individual.

Now if the government owes you economic and social and cultural well-being by right, it is no wonder that many governments then claim that they cannot possibly be burdened with those restrictive "political rights" -- say, having to tolerate an opposition -- and still deliver the goods. The Soviets used to say: "We have economic rights -- a guaranteed job, free health care, cheap transportation. You have political rights -- free speech, free worship, free emigration. To each his own."

Of course, it was all a lie. The Soviet people lived not just in repression, but in abysmal living conditions. They had neither political nor economic well-being. The West had both.

That is because this supposed trade-off between economic and political rights is nonsense. In fact, those societies that cherish political rights also offer their citizens the most economic and social possibilities.

With the fall of the Soviet empire and the exposure for all the world of its Potemkin "rights," the debate on economic vs. political rights is over. We won. Having won the debate, the administration now proceeds to concede it.

Christopher not only promised to submit the economic, social and cultural rights convention for Senate ratification. He praised it and a few other unratified treaties as "far-reaching documents" and "solemn commitments." The New York Times quotes State Department officials as saying that they made the concession to avoid "a sterile debate in Vienna."

Sterile? If everything is a human right, then nothing is a human right. That is the obvious reason for this proliferation of "rights": to diminish and dilute the very idea of rights. That is why every thug regime in the world is so committed to these "rights." That is why the gang at Bangkok "reaffirmed the interdependence and indivisibility of economic, social, cultural and civil and political rights and the need to give equal emphasis to all categories of human rights."

It is true that the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 had some economic and social clauses. But that does not justify compounding the error with an entirely new and comprehensively destructive covenant.

"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," writes historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., " ... included both 'civil and political rights' and 'economic, social and cultural rights,' the second category designed to please states that denied their subjects the first."

Why please them again?