Margaret Thatcher explained the stark difference between American and European political traditions with elegant economy. The Iron Lady said that European nations were made by history but the United States was made by philosophy.
Last month, the State Department issued a thoughtful and carefully reasoned report on that quintessentially American philosophy, and the unique nation that came into existence to conserve and champion it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had tasked a commission with exploring the role of “unalienable rights” in U.S. foreign policy. To do so entailed an ideological assault against not only the foreign despotisms that willfully deprive their subjects of those rights. The doctrine of natural rights also agitates against the growing inclination of the political left to make all of politics a matter of rights.
The report explores the cause of natural law and natural rights, as articulated by the Declaration of Independence (as well as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). In this theory, rights inhere in human individuals at birth, which is why we call them natural. “The sacred rights of mankind,” wrote Alexander Hamilton, “are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature.”
Thus government does not create rights, nor does it dispense them. It merely recognizes and respects them. As George Will likes to say, the most important word in the Declaration of Independence is secure: “[T]o secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
The hostile response to the report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights—and by extension the Declaration of Independence on which it is grounded—puts in sharp relief the ferocious tribalism disfiguring American politics today. The keen student of history can only marvel at how we have reached this point. The assumption of natural rights and government’s limited role to secure those rights, the bedrock premise of American political thought, finds itself widely embattled today. It is under pressure on university campuses and in the prestige media, and even challenged by self-professed advocates of human rights. Amnesty International, to pluck one notable example, called Pompeo’s anodyne effort “a dangerous political stunt that could spark a race to the bottom by human rights-abusing governments around the world.”
At a time when many Americans are no longer the recipients of sound civic instruction and thus understand poorly, if at all, the premises of their nation, this episode furnishes a welcome opportunity to reach a new—or, better put, to refresh an old—understanding.
The United States was from its beginning a republic “dedicated” to certain self-evident truths, foremost among them that “all men are created equal.” These founding principles of equal rights and human freedom—America’s public philosophy—contain what Will (in his bracing tome The Conservative Sensibility) calls “an epistemological assertion” that important political truths are not merely knowable but known.
In the world of 1776, the truths held to be self-evident by America’s founders were ferociously contested by kings and monarchs who claimed a divine right. Today, although despots still contest America’s great epistemological assertion, the problem in the West is closer to the opposite: everyone claims the truth is known, but with the crucial stipulation that no one’s truth is better or worse than anyone else’s.
Tom Nichols has written deftly about this phenomenon. “It is a new Declaration of Independence: no longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”
Thus does the American Founders’ assertion of truth, and its implication that not all claims to truth are equally valid, comes off as “judgmental” to modern ears. When Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind more than a quarter-century ago, he began his broadside against American academia by noting that the relativity of truth is the core article of faith among those who control the commanding heights of American culture. This postmodern allegiance to the equality of ideas, in Bloom’s words, was “not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate,” and for its adherents “the condition of a free society.”
This habit of making a virtue out of radical openness, and the relativistic ideology that sustains it, continues to permeate America’s intellectual landscape to such a degree that as indolent a mind as the American president’s can express it effortlessly. Even some of the president’s prominent critics have deeply imbibed this relativism, as they demonstrate when they regard the existence of Chinese gulags as a strictly Chinese concern.
However, it is the progressive left that has raised this practice of nonjudgmentalism to an art form. A central aim of progressivism has been to blur the distinction between what have been called “negative rights” (those that, like the Bill of Rights, protect life and liberty) and “positive rights” (those that obligate the government to provide certain services in pursuit of equality). This project brings concentrated focus on economic and social rights rather than fundamental political freedoms, and this ever-widening circle of rights has brought the older, limited system of rights under scrutiny.
Smart progressives understand that the choice they propose is a binary one. If their expansive vision of rights is accepted as legitimate, it would bring the older vision—with its ironclad protections for free speech, and its ideals of a colorblind society, rational discourse, and the scientific method—into disrepute. These classical liberal ideals self-evidently clash with newly asserted rights, since they have already begun to be curtailed to make way for them.
This is a temptation that the Unalienable Rights Commission stoutly resists in favor of maintaining uncompromising respect for the fundamental rights of a free society. The commission assails the left’s elastic conception of rights on the logic that Frederick the Great would recognize: “to defend everything is to defend nothing.” It argues that this proliferation of elective rights for certain groups (some of which are good in and of themselves) endangers the essential liberties of all.
Modern politics, built on progressive foundations, assumes that natural rights constitute an incomplete and therefore inadequate body of rights. The classical liberals standing against authoritarian regimes and struggling for their basic liberties from Hong Kong to Hama do not have the luxury of those who curse the West’s lack of freedom. They plainly admire its tradition of freedom and devoutly wish they enjoyed a measure of it themselves.
The full scope of America’s civic and political crisis is only revealed when one considers that the philosophy of natural right on which America is based is not merely beset by those who publicly declare against it, or those who cannot recognize the resources that preserve it. Many of its ostensible defenders, especially in the Trump administration, further undermine it. The very president that Pompeo serves, and on whose behalf he engages in regular mendacity, has not forcefully spoken up in defense of human rights, whether in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or eastern Ukraine. To the contrary, Trump has done more to encourage these rampant and mass violations of human rights. His likely imminent departure from office will surely be a boon to the cause of human rights.
The American experience, as related by the Unalienable Rights Commission, is a complex story of excruciating lapses from America’s founding promise and persistent efforts to form a more perfect union. The commission does not shy away from these ghastly historical failures—most significantly in the case of slavery and the racial apartheid of the Jim Crow era—and asserts that the United States cannot effectively promote core human rights abroad without honoring them at home. Of this there can be no doubt. But the cause of human rights will remain impotent against utterly hostile forces if moral purity—as opposed to moral striving—is demanded of its greatest custodians.