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Is a right a right?
Or wishful thinking?
John Locke in the 17th century summarized what was owed to humans under natural law, by saying, “No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Thomas Jefferson in 1776 employed a more elegant formula of rights: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Bill of Rights, appended to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, added freedom of religion, of speech, of the press and of assembly, besides the rights to bear arms and to be tried by a jury. In 1948 the United Nations lengthened the list of rights still further, throwing in the right to work, the right to marry, the right to an education, the right to rest and holidays, the right to culture and art, and the right to social security.
What does this all mean? The right to life seems straightforward enough, but governments take lives in war and sometimes by execution. The right to liberty sounds like being left alone, but no one is left entirely alone. Governments make demands on us all the time, and so do family and neighbors. What good is the right to possessions—property—if government can seize your property in the form of taxes?
The obvious response is that there are exceptions to every right. Fair enough. But how many exceptions can we allow before an asserted right becomes merely a preference, even if a strong preference?
And how many people have to sign on before a preference becomes a right? Those who assert rights are often tempted to cast them in the broadest terms possible. Locke and Jefferson spoke of natural law and natural rights, suggesting that they were talking about all humans, or at least all men—the group Jefferson referenced specifically in saying, “All men are created equal.”
Whether or not Locke and Jefferson were actually thinking so broadly—as opposed to overstating their case for political effect—there’s no evidence that most men, or women, in the 17th and 18th centuries believed they had such rights, or even that they ought to have such rights. Philosophizing about natural rights was the province of a select group of people in a small part of the world. Englishmen talked about the rights of Englishmen—to be secure from unreasonable search in their homes, for example, or to be exempt from taxes not approved by their duly chosen representatives. Americans adopted these rights and adapted them to their own circumstances. Against the lofty language of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights to apply to Americans, and in particular to Americans in their relationship to the national government. States were free to favor adherents of one religion over others, for example, and some continued to do so for decades.
Meanwhile in Asia, where most of the world’s population lived in the late 18th century, and Africa, which comprised another large fraction, hardly a whisper was heard of rights applying to all people. It’s probably fair to say that to the great majority of people at that time, the concept of universal rights never even occurred; and if it had, it would have seemed bizarre or pernicious. Where not utterly implausible, people tended to assume a favored position for their own group, be it a band, a tribe, a caste, a nation, a religious sect; and they looked down on other groups, often suppressing them where they could.
Indeed, it’s a fair question whether the idea of universal rights—human rights, claimable by all humans simply on account of their being human—is a majority view even today. Most of the member states of the United Nations eventually ratified parts of the 1948 declaration of rights, but the conduct of many of them belied their votes. The United States enforced Jim Crow laws for nearly two decades after signing. China, the world’s most populous nation today, doesn’t practice or allow the most basic political freedoms. In India, soon to surpass China as the most populous, caste notions survive in practice if less often in law. In much of the Muslim world, freedom of religion is treated as heresy or sedition, just as it was for centuries in much of the Christian world.
So what do we make of the concept of human rights? Does a minority of humanity—or even a majority, for that matter—have the right to dictate rights to the rest, even if those rights are said to be in the interests of all? And does it have the right to lecture or sanction those who disagree?
To cite two examples: Do the democratic countries have the right to tell China it ought to become a democracy? Do countries that accord women equal rights have the right to tell other countries—for example, conservative Muslim countries—that they must do so too?
The answer might be yes. Maybe there are universalist principles. But how would one make that case without appealing to the very universalism that other peoples and countries reject?
At this point, the discussion seems to become almost theological. I’m right because . . . because I’m right. Nature’s God, to use Jefferson’s formulation, told me so.
A better approach might be to practice, not preach. The best arguments are made by example. If countries that respect human rights deliver better lives to their people than countries that don’t, the word will get out.
This approach has worked for the United States for centuries. Many millions have moved here because they found better lives in America than they left behind. They came for freedom and opportunity, the direct and indirect result of respect for individual rights.
Of course, for this strategy to be effective, we have to keep working on securing rights here, which in itself is a fulltime job.