Jonathan Liedl, Managing Editor Emeritus
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These “inalienable rights,” described by our Founders in the Declaration of Independence, are etched into the political ethos of America. Conservatives in particular cite them with great frequency in the course of modern policy debates. Protection for the unborn, exemptions for the religiously-minded, and a free market in which to advance one’s livelihood with minimal government interference are just a few stances that are inspired by the Founders’ particular conception of natural rights.
Upholding these allegedly God-given rights seems to be of paramount importance to conservatives, and rightly so. Allowing Jefferson’s assertion that inalienable rights do, in fact, exist (and there are non-negligible thinkers within the Catholic tradition – Alasdair MacIntyre being perhaps the most noteworthy modern example – who believe they do not), failing to apply them consistently amounts to disregarding what our Creator has ordained.
Furthermore, the integrity of the rule of law requires consistent application of the documents on which our nation was founded, the Declaration amongst them. In other words, though these documents may not be “living” in the way that liberals view the Constitution, their spirit must certainly be alive and well for the law to be legitimate. If these papers are no more than dusty historical artifacts, whose dictates and philosophical underpinnings have little relevance to the present, the very foundation of our government itself is undermined. Therefore, conservatives have positioned themselves as the champions of preserving the vitality of our founding documents and the ideas therein described.
However, with this in mind, it is disappointing to note that America, conservatives most definitely included, has failed to consistently uphold the inalienable rights that undergird American political philosophy. In making this claim, I have in mind a specific demographic: non-Americans.
Non-Americans, are, obviously, not Americans. They are not entitled to certain rights and privileges that come with being a citizen of America, just as Americans do not have access to the benefits that are part of citizenship in some other country (except for, of course, those lucky individuals who are dual-citizens). However, are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the inalienable rights described in a categorically American document by a quintessentially American thinker, derived from being an American citizen? Absolutely not, and this is entirely my point.
According to Jefferson and those who subscribe to his views, these rights are God-given, “endowed” to men “by their Creator.” And as “all men are created equal,” all men are equally endowed with these inalienable rights, regardless of skin, regardless of creed, and yes, even regardless of citizenship. The rights described by the Founders are not given to us by our government, but are inherent in each and every human person. In other words, all men possess the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, completely and utterly independent of what piece of land they live on and under what government they live.
From this understanding, I believe it is incumbent upon America to recognize and respect the natural rights of all peoples, regardless of citizenship and regardless of whether or not the individuals in question even believe that they possess these rights. Endowment of said rights is not conditional upon self-recognition or even acceptance; it is an objective truth, or so the theory goes. In a religious parallel, we do not (or at least we should not) hold that atheists are somehow not valued by God simply because they deny the existence of God. Likewise, we must interact with citizens of other countries in a way that respects the integrity of their inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of their or their government’s views on the matter.
I am not suggesting that America impose its concept of natural rights on other sovereign nations, forcibly pressuring them to comply with our own standards in the governance of their own people. Such an approach seems like it would bring about more harm than good. Furthermore, it’s self-defeating in the sense that it disregards foreign citizens’ ability to self-determine their own form of government, a component that seems to be intrinsic to the right to liberty.
What I am suggesting is quite simple. Insofar as the American government interacts with citizens of other countries, it should take just as much care to respect their inalienable rights as it does when interacting with American citizens.
As alluded to previously, I do not believe this is generally the modus operandi under which the American government operates. To be sure, I think America has done a number of commendable things on the global scene, but I think one would be deluded if they believed that American policy-makers hold the inalienable rights of non-Americans to be as legitimate or defense-worthy as those of American citizens.
In fact, in some instances the natural rights of foreigners are sacrificed (or disregarded) for far less. The inalienable right to liberty of the Iranian people was certainly subjugated in 1953, when an American-backed coup d’état, unseated the democratically-elected prime minister. The motive? Regaining control of Iran’s oil reserves, which had been nationalized in 1951.
In a more modern instance, take the case of recently-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A dictator who had ruled under martial law since 1981, Mubarak was routinely despised throughout Egypt, maintaining power by throwing political opponents in prison and suppressing free speech via a ruthless secret police. Yet he was not just tolerated, but unabashedly propped up by the American government, whose interests in the Middle East were best served by keeping him in power at the expense of the Egyptian people’s liberty.
Finally, let us consider the drone campaigns being waged in Yemen and Pakistan, a topic debated in the last edition of the Rover. While drone strikes themselves are plausibly legitimate tools of war, the manner in which they have been used has been highly dubious. Drone strikes are responsible for an alarming number of civilian casualties. While collateral damage may be an unfortunate, but acceptable part of conventional warfare, the death of innocents far removed from the field of battle cannot be tolerated, and demonstrates a fundamental disregard for the right to life of innocent non-American citizens.
The fact that these and similar policies are enacted and supported by conservatives is troubling. For one, it highlights a disconnect between conviction and practice. Either all men are not endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, in which case the foundation of American conservatism is wrong; or we are not being logically consistent in our application of these rights.
America was the first nation founded on the concept of natural rights for all men, and conservatives remain the champion of this political philosophy today. Therefore, it is essential that they, above all others, begin to be more consistent in their application of the concept of inalienable rights, lest they undermine the concept’s legitimacy.
Jonathan Liedl graduated in 2011. He thinks the current GOP establishment “jumped the shark” when its members raucously booed a candidate who suggested America infuse its foreign policy with the explicit instructions of Jesus Christ. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.