Rights and Wrongs

The most common words in politics can be the most deceptive
December 24, 2007

In 2002, a year after the terrorist attacks on new York and Washington, the Bush administration published a new version of “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” That document helped to signal the administration’s intent to launch a war against Iraq by asserting the readiness of the United States to engage in preemptive wars against its designated enemies even where it did not face an imminent threat.

Preemption was, of course, the focus of public attention on the National Security Strategy. Yet the document is also notable for the frequency with which it uses three simple words—“freedom,” “liberty,” and “rights”—to describe American policies and America’s position in the world. The opening sentences of the introduction by President Bush invoke a messianic struggle between light and darkness:

The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity.

Though I have devoted my career to trying to protect rights, this was a disquieting statement. I think of rights as limits on power. We delegate certain powers to the state to promote the common good, but those powers do not include—or so says the United States Constitution—the power to stop us from expressing our thoughts, or the power to punish us unfairly, or the power to torture us or invade our privacy, or to deny us the equal protection of the laws. These are our rights. We are free because we can exercise these rights. We enjoy liberty because we can secure protection of these rights when they are threatened.

A “decisive victory for the forces of freedom” is another matter. In this rendering, freedom is not merely a limit on power. Rather, it is an instrument of power. Cast as an ideology—almost fetishized—freedom is said to have triumphed over its enemies because of its superior virtue. This is made clear by the next phrase, which claims that, in the wake of this victory, there is only “a single sustainable model for success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” Those overcome by the forces of freedom have no choice but to accept the only true faith.

Twenty years earlier, in June 1982, President Ronald Reagan made a speech to the British parliament in which he launched what he called a “crusade for freedom.” Reagan’s main focus at the time was on the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union and the armed conflicts in Central America that he saw as part of that struggle. As the speech did not deal with the Middle East, Reagan’s choice of words did not attract much comment at the time. Yet if you set President Bush’s introduction to the 2002 National Security Strategy alongside President Reagan’s 1982 speech at Westminster, it is apparent that Bush’s “decisive victory” and “single sustainable model” are a continuation of Reagan’s “crusade.” In both cases, “freedom” is a weapon of war to vanquish infidels. President Bush’s frequent assertions that terrorists hate America’s freedoms and are trying to destroy “our way of life” seems to reflect his view that al Qaeda sees the current struggle the same way.

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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.

As an example of the way economic rights would work, consider the question of the right to health care. One person may require kidney dialysis, another may need a heart bypass operation, another may have to have long-term cancer care, and yet another may need lifelong antiretroviral therapy. In each case, failure to provide this care would probably mean that the person who needs it will die. Surely, therefore, if health care is a right, the state has an obligation to provide such treatment to each of these persons and all others who have similar needs. Moreover, the manner in which such care is provided should meet a high standard. That heart bypass operation, for example, should be conducted by a well-qualified surgeon operating in state-of-the-art facilities.

As should be evident, substantial resources that lie well beyond the reach of most countries are required to provide such care. In my view, a wealthy country such as the United States should, as a matter of good public policy, provide such care to all citizens who need it. Yet to achieve this even in the United States, unless public spending on health care were greatly increased, deep cuts would have to be made in spending on primary health care. If total spending on health care were increased to the degree required for both lifesaving care for the chronically ill as well as primary care for all, there would seem to be two alternative ways to cover the extra costs. One would be to decrease spending on other aspects of government—education, transportation, criminal justice, or national security, for example; the other would be to increase taxes. As a citizen, I espouse the shifts in spending priorities and in tax policy needed to provide comprehensive health care for all.

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.

Aryeh Neier is the president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations.