Thinking about Unalienable Rights
The US State Department recently published its draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, which is meant to serve as a guide to US foreign policy as it relates to human rights. The creation of the Commission was controversial, and many human rights groups objected to its creation and to its mandate. Progressives felt that the intent of Secretary of State Pompeo was to use the Commission to support a conservative agenda that was to place religious and property rights above other rights, such as same-sex marriage, abortion and LGBTQ rights.
A New York Times editorial by Pranshu Verma that criticized the project stated that the project ‘could reverse the country’s longstanding belief that “all rights are created equal”.’ I had not heard of this longstanding belief. An Internet search revealed that nobody else has heard of this belief either. Being charitable, perhaps Mr. Verma had only misread the Declaration of Independence. But this “all rights are created equal” stuff is nonsense.
Unalienable rights are different. The unalienable rights described in the Declaration of Independence arise from “The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” They are natural rights and all people possess them equally. Some might say they are god-given rights, but they still exist whether or not you believe in god. Thomas Jefferson wrote that among these unalienable rights were the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The list provided by Jefferson is not all-inclusive and there are additional unnamed unalienable rights such as the right of religious freedom, property rights and free speech rights. Even the Bill of Rights is not all-inclusive and additional rights have been added to the US Constitution over time.
Unalienable rights reside within us. They exist at birth (or perhaps even conception). We are free to think our own thoughts. We are free to speak our minds. We have the right to the proceeds of our labor (sometimes called property). These are natural rights. But we do not have natural rights to food, clothing and shelter. While everyone needs to have these basic human necessities, these are external goods and we must expend effort in order to get them. They do not reside within us and we must go out and labor to provide them for ourselves and our families.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets forth an international statement of human rights that includes many of the unalienable rights set out by the Declaration of Independence, but also includes some positive rights such as a right to social security, a right to work, and rights to food, clothing, housing and medical care, among others. These necessities must be created. Such positive rights require the labor and capital of people in order to exist. And if some people are unable (or unwilling) to provide the labor and capital to create these positive rights, then it will require the labor and capital of other people to provide such rights. But requiring people to labor on behalf of other people or to give up their property to them can violate the unalienable rights we talked about earlier.
The Commission’s report on Unalienable Rights notes that when people come together in a society, they must give power to government in order to guarantee their unalienable rights and this grant of power, in fact, comes at the expense of a portion of their unalienable rights. We give power to the courts in order to seek redress of our grievances rather than acting directly. We give up a portion of our property in the form of taxes to give government the ability to provide justice, security and the other amenities that were the reason we wanted to create a just society in the first place.
Rights are not absolute. The right to life can be taken away. We can cede some liberty in order to live in a just society. We can give some of our property in order to give the government the ability to maintain a just society and even to give some of that property to other people so that they can live a decent life. But how much to give and how much to receive is a negotiation. This is why the concept of “all rights are created equal” is nonsense. If we are going to negotiate our rights in our attempt to create a just society, then different rights have different values to different people.
New York University psychology professor Jonathan Haidt wrote in his book, The Righteous Mind, that progressives, conservatives and libertarians (as well as all the other possible political variations) have different views of the importance of certain moral principles and place different values on the rights related to those principles. What is the value of the unalienable right of the freedom to go maskless during a pandemic against the unalienable right to life of people endangered by the maskless person?
Progressives have assailed Secretary of State Pompeo for imposing his evangelical beliefs on State Department policy through the draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights rather than submitting to the imposition of the left’s beliefs in the rights to abortion, same-sex marriage and others. The report notes that some of the rights are generally agreed upon and others are controversial.
The division we are experiencing in America arises from people not being willing to negotiate their rights. They believe that if they negotiate away some of their rights, they are betraying who they are. They are unwilling to be flexible because they believe that their lives and beliefs matter. But they don’t understand that different people have different beliefs and that having some flexibility in the negotiation of the application of various rights is essential to the creation of a civil society. The only other alternative is oppression.
The draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights goes on to discuss how the rights based on America’s founding principles combined with the rights put forth by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be applied to US foreign policy. The report notes that the US has not always been faithful to its ideals in its international relations and has not always been a good example for the rest of the world. But the fact that we have often fallen short of living up to our ideals and principles is not an indictment of the ideals and principles but of ourselves.
In fairness, the US has tried to live up to its ideals and principles and has been better than many countries in adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Authoritarian countries reject American civil rights principles and the UDHR. Saudi Arabia refused to vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that it violated Sharia law. Many Muslim countries later signed the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam as an alternative to the Western oriented Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some countries have signed both declarations even though several clauses are in direct opposition. Other countries callously disregard the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The United Nations was designed as an inclusive forum where all of the nations of the world would be represented as were its dependencies and affiliates. But the United Nations was conceived by the United States and it was thought that it would function based on universal values such as those expressed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the nations of the UN are anything but united. And many reject what they see as Western values, not universal values. As a result, the original intent of the victorious allies at the end of WWII has been subverted.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights had its functions captured and subverted by nations with poor human rights records. It was disbanded in 2006 and replaced by the UN Human Rights Council, but this new council suffers from the same disease that killed the previous commission. The current members of the council includes Sudan, Somalia, Congo, the Philippines and Venezuela. Past members have included China, Russia, Cuba and many other human rights violators. The United States dropped out of the council because it was under the control of human rights violators and seemed solely concerned with Israel and not with other countries. In other words, The UN Human Rights Council is not a good vehicle to extend human rights around the world.
The US needs to develop its own global human rights agenda because those principles are the foundation of our existence. The report goes on to say that our role as leader of the free world derives from our firm support of civil rights around the world and their implementation at home. The coming global struggle between the great powers will not be a contest of armies or economies, it will be contest of different visions of human rights.
President Trump does not appear to believe in American principles and has done much to undermine them and erode America’s position in the world. President Obama placed positive rights on the same plane as our civil rights while President Bush naively believed that people in the Middle East shared the same principles as we do. But Secretary Pompeo’s commission has produced a rational and well-reasoned report to guide America’s foreign policy during the coming struggle. However, it will likely sit on a shelf in the White House basement right next to H.R. McMasters National Security Strategy report.