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The development of a broad variety of rights is a prominent feature of social and political life in the late second millennium. The establishment of political rights in the U.S. Constitution and its first ten amendments were a radical break from the political norms of the late eighteenth century. The growth and spread of these rights, and the philosophy they embodied, had a profound influence on the development of the United States and on ideas throughout the world.
The notion that good countries grant specific rights to their citizens has evolved to the point that many persons believe that innate "human rights" belong to all people - and that these rights transcend and subordinate national governments and social norms. Governments exist to provide resources to actualize the promises of human rights. Not surprisingly, ostensibly universal rights look much like those that developed in North America and Europe.
Elemental political rights, such as freedoms of speech and religion of the sort embodied in the U.S. Constitution, are political forces that largely define democratic societies. They allow much opportunity for individual growth and personal freedom. Many persons thus see such rights as powerful forces for good. I will not argue differently.
The expansion of rights from beyond elemental guarantees of personal opportunity and protections from state tyranny to much more numerous, tailored rights that guarantee results in narrow aspects of life, however, is causing problems. Rights are costly and dangerous when they disrupt traditional and effective organizational structures, contradict religious and secular moral values, and unbalance previously functional social systems. They render ineffective or incompetent the foreign policies of states led or strongly influenced by strong human-rights adherents. They lead to and prolong conflicts rather than resolve them. The unbridled growth of human rights accentuates differences among persons and groups, threatens internal order and social cohesion, and transforms nations into mere states. In the worst cases the uncontrolled growth of rights, like cancer cells, can kill the hosts that nurture them - and thereby kill themselves.
The United States most clearly reflects an advanced development of human rights, both domestically and in foreign policies, but it is not unique. Other countries and a powerful international group of human rights advocates - in and out of national governments - have altered the conduct of international affairs.
Costs of U.S. Domestic Rights
The proliferation of rights in the United States is pandemic. Once restricted to the major rights embodied in the Constitution, the legal, regulatory, cultural, and commercial rights of residents of the United States are massive and growing. Creation of rights has accelerated since the 1960s, when Great Society social programs were based in part on rights-based arguments. These benefits are part of the entitlement structure of the U.S. federal government and its mandates on state and local governments. This phenomenon helped generate what is known as an entitlement ethic - the notion that receipt of government services and cash is a right. This view, evident in many ways, permeates U.S. society.(1)
The creation of rights has spread from fundamental political guarantees to economic safety nets, consumption-support programs, government administrative procedures, and trivial matters of personal convenience. The creation of rights has shifted toward narrow functional issues and the assurance of outcomes rather than processes, opportunities, and protections. New legislative, administrative, and court-ordered rights in recent years gave handicapped persons rights to access to public transportation and buildings, often at substantial private and public financial cost. Partners of homosexuals won rights to medical insurance coverage similar to legally married persons in some jurisdictions. The U.S. Congress embodied a second "taxpayer bill of rights" in legislation in 1998 to modestly reform the Internal Revenue Service. Many people argue that respect is an entitlement right, not something that is earned. Commercial firms see the appeal of rights and offer variations of "consumers' rights." The list is long.
The establishment of rights creates high standards for acceptable performance that society and government cannot achieve. Because rights as entitlements are not things to be earned or purchased at market prices, people demand immediate consumption of lots of them. People expect the rights to meet absolute standards of quality and timeliness that usually are not attainable. Resources are scarce. Moreover, some rights grant persons changes in the behavior of people with whom they associate, even casually. As animals with limited intellectual capacities and abundant sociopolitical teachings or prejudices embodied in their cultures, people cannot and often do not want to perform to the standards of contemporary Western idealism.
The complex of alleged rights is internally inconsistent. So many rights exist that all U.S. citizens now are victims of discrimination - the failure of government or society to assure one or more explicit or perceived rights. The United States now has true equality of victimization. Further,the gap between slowly rising resources and more rapidly increasing demands to satisfy rights-rationalized agendas is growing. Thisamounts to a new variant of the "revolution of rising expectations'" that originally referred to the political consequences of the slow realization of economic ambitions.
The proliferation of human rights is a boon for rights-oriented bureaucracies and trial lawyers, but it damages the social fabric that turns groups of people into communities and communities into a nation. Because the only asset any government ultimately has is its legitimacy, the cost of a government's inability to satisfy rights-based demands is overwhelming. That cost rises further when governments, and the political parties that seek to control them, favor some rights over competing claims to please political backers or to curry favor with voters.(2)
Excessive human rights are anathema to nationhood because they denigrate the compromise, discipline, and sacrifice needed for collective work in pursuit of common goals in favor of the immediate gratification of individual desires. With personal desires enshrined as rights through justifications of ideology or theology, there is no need to share them or to compromise on their definition, cost, or speed of actualization. Rights are absolute by definition. With claims to rights clear, the shared community values and goals that helped bond society when rights were fewer and resource constraints more obvious are much less important. There is less need to work together and thus less of the glue of nationhood. Even when nationhood is diminished or destroyed, however, government structures remain to service the rights of individuals and small groups, including the employment rights of bureaucracies and unions built to provide services justified by rights.
Although initially created as individual …