Where I have difficulty, however, is with the idea that those with different views should have no say in the matter because, as with the Bush administration’s position on free trade, a moral principle, or a right, has been invoked. The intended effect of spelling out civil and political rights in the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of Rights was to make it clear that there is no justification for their abridgment. Rights trump all other policy considerations. Those on the left who place matters such as housing, health care, or the environment on the same plane and call them rights proclaim that they can be dealt with in the same way. They cannot be subjected to policy determinations. They, too, should be outside the realm of democratic decision-making, as is made plain by the first five words of the American Bill of Rights concerning civil and political rights: “Congress shall make no law.”

The concept of progressive realization of rights, which is favored by many on the left as a way to deal with the problems in poor countries, makes nonsense out of the idea of rights. In the process of recognizing that these so-called rights are dependent on economic resources, it undermines the principle that rights always take precedence over all other considerations. The implication is that such rights as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right not to be subjected to cruel treatment may also be limited when states lack resources or when they come into conflict with other considerations. Indeed, many repressive governments have caught on, and justify denials of civil and political rights on the grounds that they are developing countries and, therefore, are not able to respect such rights as freedom of expression.

Orwell wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The way that words such as freedom, liberty, and rights are used seems to me to illustrate his point, and this is something that citizens and their representatives in the press should resist. Our government uses these words to proclaim its virtue and its power, and both the government and its opponents on the left in all parts of the world use them to insist that the economic policies they favor are beyond debate. In the process, both sides diminish the value of these words in expressing the need to limit power, question exclusive claims to virtue, and foster debate.

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Aryeh Neier , a former executive director of Human Rights Watch, is president of the Open Society Institute.