Defaulting on America’s Human Rights Obligations

Defaulting on America's Human Rights Obligations


By James Ferencsik.

This past week, the world was in uncharted territory.  There was not a template of what do if the world’s leading superpower hit the self-destruct button, because no superpower, to-date, had reached that level of comical idiocy.  The world quickly realized a potential US default was out of its hands, and it could only resolve to never face the threat again.  Xinhua, China’s news agency, for example, boldly declared on-air that the only way to “permanently stay away from the spillover of the intensifying domestic political turmoil of the United States” is to start “building a de-Americanized world.”  As the dust begins to settle, America needs to realize that teetering on the edge of default is not only immoral but categorically odious.  It could cause significant damage to global faith in democratic governance and ultimately the status of human rights around the world.

Imagine you are five again.  Your best friend comes over for a play date, and you see he has the newest and coolest toy around.  The first thing you will think is, “how did he get that toy?”  The underlying question is, “what can I do to get that toy?”  If he cleaned his room to get that toy, then you will probably do the same.  Adults and body politics think like this as well; however, the toys become standard of living: access to healthcare, disposable income, and the like.  The fundamental premise of this example is humans want comfortable lives for themselves and their progeny.

This rational egoism has propelled paradigm shifts throughout history: hunting and gathering to settling into civilizations, an unspecialized workforce to a specialized workforce, mercantilism to capitalism, and absolute monarchy to limited government.  More often than not, individuals can see which actions benefit their self-interests, and body politics can see which institutions benefit their self-interests.  This has allowed humanity to evolve socio-culturally as well as physiologically. 

Thus institutions, products of our cultures and social contracts, develop evolutionarily as well.  We look at our peers for ways to better preserve ourselves.  For example, when the U.S. considers education reform, the majority of the discussion surrounds the advantages and disadvantages of educational models in Finland, China, Canada, et cetera.  When humanity can delineate a clear cause for an increase in standard of living, the world quickly copies it.

In 1688, Great Britain removed its crypto-Catholic king James II, and Parliament used the moment to place significant controls upon the authority of the monarch.  Britain’s subsequent rise to geopolitical preeminence began to create a general perception that a limited government does not only prevent tyranny but also catalyzes economic growth.  Peoples felt that adopting a similar form of government would lead to similar results.  The rise of America and fall of the Soviet Union only strengthened that perception and propelled it to the modern age. 

As body politics adopted more democratic forms of government, there has been an unmistakable rise in the average human’s standard of living and respect for human rights.  Notable economists, including Clark Medalist Daron Acemoglu, have argued the existence of a strong causal relationship.  Nominal Gross World Product has increased by a factor of 65 since 1900 and 720 since 1700.  The United Nations, representing almost every sovereign state, has declared that we all have certain, inalienable human rights.  Despite significant progress on human rights, this progress is in danger of plateauing. 

The perception that democracy is effective is quickly dissipating with U.S. actions.  U.S. debt exceeds its GDP; it is still licking the wounds of a substantial recession; S&P downgraded its credit rating; and its Congress appears to be an intractable mess – and that was well before last week.  Last Thursday, the day after default was averted, the New York Times ran an article littered with quotes exemplifying that shift.  “I never thought a global superpower like the U.S. could ever be in a comparable position to Greece,” commented Theodore Couloumbis, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Athens. (link to NY Times)  Osama Shawki, a shopkeeper in Cairo, said “I think the U.S. is losing its place.” On top of this, China appears to present a viable alternative.

China’s economy is growing at a portentous pace and the IMF predicts that it will surpass that of the U.S. in 2016.  President Xi Jinping is starting to push a narrative of a “Chinese dream” akin to the American Dream.   Many are starting to discuss the Chinese model to economic success, focusing on its government’s technocratic and efficient nature.  Also, emerging nations like Brazil have closely copied China’s state-run capitalist model.  Now, a citizen in a developing country looking to ensure greater economic opportunity for his or her progeny has two distinct models to look to: the United States and China. 

This has lasting negative consequences for the status of human rights and the global standard of living.  One distinct difference between the Chinese and American model is a respect for freedom of expression.  According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, there are only 25 nations in the world less democratic than China.  It seems every week a prominent Chinese blogger or activist is being jailed for expressing his or her views, and any political opposition to the reigning Communist Party is squashed in its infancy.  I fear leaders and average citizens alike in developing countries will view freedom of expression as unessential to economic success.  Dictators will cling to power by claiming that they, like China, can engineer prosperity. 

In addition to continuing to disrespect human rights, dictators will do what dictators do: extract wealth from their subjects.  They will only encourage growth and innovation as a means of enriching themselves.  This will prevent the creation of channels of economic mobility and opportunity and lengthen the suffering of the poor. 

An irresponsible America will create a world that is less free and suffocated by the choke of authoritarian rule.  It is paramount that America maintains global faith in the democratic process and the ideals its politicians deify.  Humanity has come too far at too high a price to let the inane partisan politics of the United States turn it around.  It is time America embraces its true impact on the world and acts if there was more than an election to lose.

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