Another significant aspect of President Bush’s introduction to the National Security Strategy is that it brackets “free enterprise” and “economic freedom” with political freedom. Indeed, the National Security Strategy goes on to say, “The concept of ‘free trade’ arose as a moral principle even before it became a pillar of economics.” For the Bush administration, free trade is not just good economic policy; it is, in common with other moral principles, sacrosanct. Those who do not support free trade are, therefore, guilty of sacrilege. The religious basis of the Bush administration’s commitment to this definition of freedom was underscored in the president’s second inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 2005, in which he said that “every man and woman on this Earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth.” Freedom would triumph, the president continued, because “history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty.” To disagree with this version of freedom, in other words, is to cross swords with god herself.
The Bush administration and its allies may be the most obvious abusers of the words “freedom,” “liberty,” and “rights,” but talk of “rights” is also pervasive on the left. Their use of the term is not restricted to the civil and political rights identified in the French Declaration of Rights of 1789 or the American Bill of Rights of 1791. Those great charters shaped the views of those who think of rights as limits on the state. The French declaration proclaimed the presumption of innocence, while the first ten amendments to the American Constitution set forth the protections to which all are entitled before they may be subjected to a criminal penalty; and both charters guaranteed that each of us may speak, write, publish, or worship without the interference of the state. (The French declaration also asserted that all are equal in rights, whereas in the American case, it was only in a further series of amendments, adopted after the Civil War, that the concept of equal rights was incorporated into the Constitution.)
Today, however, it is customary on the left to add a great many rights to those enumerated in the French Declaration of Rights or the American Bill of Rights (supplemented by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments that abolished slavery and recognized equal rights). These additional rights include economic rights, such as a “right to health care,” a “right to housing,” and a “right to food,” and what are sometimes called “third-generation rights” such as the “right to a healthy environment.”
Yet calling such matters “rights” raises profound questions about what is meant by “rights.” The effort by the left to equate economic rights with traditional civil and political rights is the mirror image of the effort by the Bush administration to equate free trade and economic freedom with political freedom. Although economic freedom and economic rights sound similar, they actually signify opposite approaches. The champions of economic freedom contend that there may be no restraints on the uses of capital. On the other side, the proponents of economic rights not only want to restrain the way that capital is used but also to require its redistribution as a matter of rights.
Use of the term “rights” to deal with economic issues is a worldwide phenomenon; the obvious inability of poor countries to provide all the benefits that the left has designated as rights has not acted as a restraint. Instead, it has given birth to other concepts. One is that rights should be realized progressively as countries acquire the necessary resources for economic development. The other is that there is yet another right: a so-called right to development. Implementation of this right requires the transfer of resources from countries that are wealthy to those that are poor.