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6 quotes: The Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights

This week, a federal committee accomplished the rarest of all achievements: It produced a government document worth reading. On Thursday, July 16, the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights released a clear, enlightened, and comprehensive report on the origins, authentic content, and illegitimate expansion of human rights. The report is perhaps the best civic education on the matter in decades.

“[H]uman rights are now misunderstood by many, manipulated by some, rejected by the world’s worst violators, and subject to ominous new threats,” it says. The report traces the origins of the American understanding of “unalienable rights,” how the Declaration of Independence compares with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a proper approach to promoting human rights in foreign policy. This remarkable report supports Tocquevillian subsidiarity, a Lockean view of purpose of government, and an accurate summary of the Three-Fifths Compromise.

Here are six quotations from this worthwhile government document.

The three forces that shaped American liberty: Christianity, republicanism, and classical liberalism

Among the traditions that formed the American spirit, three stand out. Protestant Christianity, widely practiced by the citizenry at the time, was infused with the beautiful Biblical teachings that every human being is imbued with dignity and bears responsibilities toward fellow human beings, because each is made in the image of God. The civic republican ideal, rooted in classical Rome, stressed that freedom and equality under law depend on an ethical citizenry that embraces the obligations of self-government. And classical liberalism put at the front and center of politics the moral premise that human beings are by nature free and equal, which strengthened the political conviction that legitimate government derives from the consent of the governed.

 

Notwithstanding the enduring tensions among them, each of the distinctive traditions that nourished the American spirit contributed to the core conviction that government’s primary responsibility was to secure unalienable rights — that is, rights inherent in all persons.

Why government must be limited

Limited government is crucial to the protection of unalienable rights because majorities are inclined to impair individual freedom, and public officials are prone to putting their private preferences and partisan ambitions ahead of the public interest. This is not to deny the capacity for public-spirited action on the part of the people or public officials, but to recognize the need for institutional safeguards for rights because of the unreliability of high-minded motives.

This passage is virtually a paraphrased exposition of Lord Acton’s most famous dictum: “Power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely.”

Private property assures human rights

For the founders, property refers not only to physical goods and the fruit of one’s labor but also encompasses life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They assumed, following philosopher John Locke, that the protection of property rights benefits all by increasing the incentive for producing goods and delivering services desired by others.

 

The benefits of property rights, though, are not only pecuniary. Protection of property rights is also central to the effective exercise of positive rights and to the pursuit of happiness in family, community, and worship. Without the ability to maintain control over one’s labor, goods, land, home, and other material possessions, one can neither enjoy individual rights nor can society build a common life. Moreover, the choices we make about what and how to produce, exchange, distribute, and consume can be tightly bound up with the kinds of human beings we wish to become. Not least, the right of private property sustains a sphere generally off limits to government, a sphere in which individuals, their families, and the communities they form can pursue happiness in peace and prosperity.

Did slavery render the Constitution invalid?

Many have held that the Constitution is fatally flawed because of its compromise with slavery. In an 1854 Fourth of July rally, prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Constitution as “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell,” and “null and void before God.”

 

Others insisted that the Constitution contained the seeds of slavery’s elimination. Originally, the former slave Frederick Douglass agreed with Garrison. Later, though, in his own Fourth of July oration, he said, “In that instrument, I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” …

 

Abraham Lincoln maintained that the Constitution and the moral and political commitments that informed it made a decisive contribution to the abolition of slavery. The American founding set slavery, he stated in 1858 in Springfield, Illinois, “in the course of ultimate extinction.” The key, according to Lincoln, was the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation of rights shared equally by all.

Liberty depends on virtue

[F]rom the point of view of the founders, securing unalienable rights is the leading feature of the public interest. And the effective exercise of rights depends on the virtues, or certain qualities of mind and character including self-control, practical judgment, and courage that enable people to benefit from freedom; respect the rights of others; take responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities; and engage in self-government. …

 

Public virtue — meaning the willing subordination of private interest to the common good — is also necessary. Hence the importance of the civic-republican experience, deeply rooted in the country’s self-governing townships, and the strong families, religious communities, and variety of voluntary associations that stand between the citizen and the state. These bodies also foster private virtue including what Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America called “self-interest well understood,” which involves cultivation of the self-discipline and skills crucial to the achievement of one’s goals.

 

In The Federalist, the unsurpassed commentary on the Constitution, James Madison highlights the dependence of the American experiment in free and democratic government on the character and competence of its citizens.

At a time when taxpayer-funded displays state that the “Protestant work ethic,” the nuclear family, and self-reliance reflect “whiteness,” it is refreshing to see these ballasts of liberty set firmly within universal human nature.

Two great threats to global human rights: ignoring and inflating “rights”

Further erosion of the human rights project has resulted from … overuse of rights language with a dampening effect on compromise and democratic decision-making. … There is good reason to worry that the prodigious expansion of human rights has weakened rather than strengthened the claims of human rights and left the most disadvantaged more vulnerable. More rights do not always yield more justice. Transforming every worthy political preference into a claim of human rights inevitably dilutes the authority of human rights. …

 

Such political disputes are usually best left up to resolution through ordinary democratic processes of bargaining, education, persuasion, compromise, and voting. The tendency to fight political battles with the vocabulary of human rights risks stifling the kind of robust discussion on which a vibrant democracy depends. The effort to shut down legitimate debate by recasting contestable policy preferences as fixed and unquestionable human rights imperatives promotes intolerance, impedes reconciliation, devalues core rights, and denies rights in the name of rights. In sum, the United States should be open to, but cautious in, endorsing new claims of human rights.

Bonus: Does religious freedom violate the Kingship of Christ?

Some mistakenly suppose that so generous a conception of [religious] liberty must rest on skepticism about salvation and justice. Why give people freedom to choose if God’s will and the imperatives of justice are knowable? In fact, a certain skepticism is involved, but it is directed not at faith and justice but at the capacity of government officials to rule authoritatively on the deepest and greatest questions. The Madisonian view of religious liberty … proceeds from a theistic premise about the sources of human dignity even as it denies the state the power to dictate final answers about ultimate matters.

You can read the full report here. Its publication has opened a two-week public comment period. You may send your polite comments and critiques to commission@state.gov and/or Designated Federal Officer Duncan Walker, who may be reached at walkerdh3@state.gov.

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.