Gongol.com Archives: July 2022

Brian Gongol


July 17, 2022

The United States of America Words and rights

The hot-headed political climate that exists today could stand to take some advice from James Madison: "The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them." Madison, writing Federalist Paper No. 37, was discussing the difficulty of writing the Constitution itself, and went on to lament that "however accurately objects may be discriminated in themselves, and however accurately the discrimination may be considered, the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered." ■ Thanks to social media, the Internet more generally, and the largest mass media ecosystem the world has ever known, our world is drenched in debates that often use words badly. But just as it was vital so close to the birth of the United States for people like Madison to know and use their words carefully, so too is it essential that we try to be just as careful today. ■ Choosing words badly, or misapplying their definitions, can undermine worthwhile goals, depriving important ideas of the attention and appreciation they deserve. People and movements need to self-police so that their words don't keep them from achieving their goals. ■ A particularly important example of this problem is the sort of "mission creep" that has overtaken the original meaning of the phrase "human rights". All too often, people misapply the term to things that are universal human needs. It may seem like a trivial escalation, but the difference sits at the root of many of our most intractable arguments as a society. ■ To say "This thing is a universal need, and I think everyone should have it" is a fine claim to make in a democracy. Lots of things are universal needs: Food, clothing, shelter, and water are indisputably among them. Defensible arguments can be made that education, health care, and even Internet access are universal needs. But when prominent, thoughtful people escalate those universal needs to the level of human rights, it muddles the discussion and diminishes the capability for us to discuss them in the context that would help us solve problems. ■ Human rights are those things that belong to us as human beings and of which only other human beings can deprive us: Liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience. It is a human right to have a name, to petition one's government, or to have a fair trial. ■ If a good is resource-constrained, then it isn't a human right; it's a universal need. In other words, if nature can deprive us of something, then it is not a human right. Access to health care, or to clean water, or to housing, are universal human needs, but they don't qualify as human rights. Resource constraints make a difference. People plainly cannot live without water, for example. But how can a "right" to clean drinking water be enforced if one chooses to live high atop a mountain or in the middle of a desert? ■ We achieve progress in the name of human rights by right by advancing societies based upon individual liberty and democratic governance under the rule of law. We can only advance the cause of satisfying universal human needs by promoting economic growth. ■ Though ideally we would see them advance hand-in-hand, these things are fundamentally different from one another. But governments have achieved considerable progress on universal needs while performing miserably on any reasonable measure of human rights. How the world should respond to a regime like that is entirely different from how it should respond to a government that shows respect for human rights but remains resource-poor. ■ The distinction is easier to draw when looking from afar, but America's domestic politics need to engage more thoughtfully in keeping "human rights" and "universal needs" in their respective lanes. All too often, the casual mislabeling of whole bundles of wants as "human rights" dilutes the very reasonable debates we must have about questions like "How? How much? And by whom?" that decide whether universal needs will actually be satisfied or just remain wish lists for Santa Claus. Knowing that our words matter is just as important now as it was when Madison put his own words to print.


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