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Making Sense of the State Department's New Commission on Unalienable Rights

June 13, 2019 in Economics

By Roger Pilon

Roger Pilon

When Thomas Jefferson declared that we’re all born with
unalienable natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness, little could he have known that more than 200 years
hence, another secretary of state (Jefferson later became our
first) would create a Commission on Unalienable Rights to provide the
secretary with “fresh thinking about human rights” and
propose “reforms of human rights discourse where it has
departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law
and natural rights.”

The reaction to Secretary Pompeo’s
announcement late last month was swift, especially on the left. Was
this move a response to the U.N.’s obsession with so-called
economic and social rights—rights to jobs, housing, health
care and the like—which dominate international human-rights
discourse and practice today? Or was this talk of our
nation’s founding principles, natural law, and natural rights
actually code, signaling that in future the State Department would
focus less on protecting women’s and LGBT rights? Or was
it both? Let’s take those concerns in order, after a little
theory.

This endeavor to seat
human rights discourse in America’s founding principles is
important, but it must be done right, failing which it will
undermine those principles.

Although the secretary speaks indifferently of natural law and
natural rights, they’re not the same. True, natural rights
emerged historically from natural law. And consistent with a
prominent religious strain of natural law still evident, Jefferson
spoke in the Declaration of “the Laws of Nature and of
Nature’s God” and also of our rights as “endowed
by [our] Creator.” But those theological invocations were
exceedingly general, suited properly for the varied beliefs of his
day. In truth, a product of the Enlightenment—English,
Scottish, and continental—America stands basically in the
natural rights tradition.

Properly understood, our natural rights are grounded not in
prescriptive natural law, handed down by a lawgiver, much less in
any religious beliefs, but in universal human reason, as John Locke
and most of the Founders repeatedly held. And they held too that
liberty—the right to pursue happiness by our own subjective
lights, consistent with the equal rights of others—was the
very essence of our natural rights, as the Declaration’s
famous second paragraph makes clear. Rights come first: the equal
rights of all, no one bound to another; politics and law second, to
secure those rights.

That brings us to our first concern: Might this commission
question the modern social and economic rights? It might, for
they’re not natural rights. They’re created through
legislation, requiring redistributive schemes that bind some to
others. Unlike natural rights to freedom, they’re not
universalizable.

Were that to happen, it would be good. Found in the U.N.’s
Universal Declaration of Human …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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