Norm Geras again addresses “human rights”, in the context of a review by John Gray of Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. (I haven’t read the Moyn; I’m responding to Gray, and to Norm.) Gray is a European Leftist of the school that excoriates American intervention in Iraq, and seeks to assign moral repugnance to that intervention, and to George W. Bush and Tony Blair for conceiving it and carrying it out; he uses his review as a springboard to support that assignment. His focus is to deprecate the argument that the intervention secured human rights to Iraqis in some degree, and his method is to deny the very validity of “human rights” as a reasonable proposition. You should read both his essay and Geras’s response before continuing, lest much of this be meaningless.

Geras extracts and numbers eight propositions from Gray’s essay. I balk much earlier than he does, at #2 and #3 taken together. Gray’s formulation (“secured”) makes it clear that he has, like much (if not all) of the Left, confused natural with constructed or [sneer] positive [/sneer] rights. Natural rights can be violated, but have no need to be “secured” — one may kill, thus violating the victim’s right to life, but absent that intervention the right is exercised freely.

It is only the “positive” rights that can ‘only be respected in the context of an effective modern state’. Should a food-producer be so surly and uncooperative as to fail to recognize the “right to nutrition” of another party, it is necessary to send thugs the police to “secure” the “right” by forcing him to disgorge.

#4 is indeed baloney, but neither Norm nor Gray is on point. The essence of natural rights is that a State that avoids violating them is more stable. A State that avoids killing its citizens for trivial reasons is less likely to find that those citizens take up arms against it; a State that does not punish free speech is more likely to hear and address its citizens’ concerns, and thus less likely to require instruments of oppression; a State that does not interfere in the people’s pursuit(s) of happiness is less likely to find itself resented and opposed. Such a State is also likely to be a less uncomfortable neighbor — the tactic of demonizing the folk on the other side of the river in order to distract the people’s attentions from State misbehavior is very old.

It is beyond doubt that a cynical and self-interested apprehension of the last point was one of the motives for the invasion of Iraq. Saddam’s regime was a very uncomfortable neighbor, and relieving that discomfort was one of the motives, perhaps a primary one. Two thoughts occur: First, that I see no moral or ethical objection to a “win-win” in which the Iraqi people benefit as much as or more than the United States does; Second, that people who are still willing (as the Left, especially the European Left, is) to excuse, or even approve, e.g., the USSR’s intervention in Czechoslovakia, made on the ground that the regime thus overthrown was an uncomfortable neighbor, have no standing to criticize another State’s intervention on the same ground.

Every action, from rolling over in bed to launching a thermonuclear war, sets off a chain of events that is in many ways unpredictable and may have a wide range of possible outcomes. In the case of Iraq, the likely range of consequences was bound by, on the one hand, a worst-case result (establishment of a new but equally uncomfortable regime, perhaps theocratic) and a best-case one (creation of a liberal democracy). There is no reason beyond blind political partisanship to suppose that Bush, Blair, et. al., were unaware that the range of possibilities existed, and every reason to suppose that they were aware, since the efforts they directed have consistently aimed for the best case while accepting that a lesser result might be all that could be reasonably achieved. The governing motto is “aim high, at least you won’t shoot your own foot”.

Gray’s points #5 and #6 are, again, based on the necessity for violent intervention to secure “positive rights”, coupled with the notion that the State should have a monopoly on violent intervention; utopian, indeed. #7 is non sequitur, applicable to the case only because of Gray’s purblind partisanship; “politics”, the term subsuming an astonishing range of possible actions, is an inescapable part of anything involving two or more people, and to suppose that any politician is unaware of that says more about the supposer than about his target.

#8, again, confuses natural with “positive” rights. It is in the interest of the State — more properly, in the interest of the individuals who comprise the mechanisms of the State — to recognize the natural rights, because that results in stability, with consequent perpetuation of their powers and perquisites. Framing that as a moral or ethical question is, to my mind, an error precisely because it leads to “positive” rights. An actor within a regime who self-limits his power by refraining from interfering with natural rights can remain relatively secure in that limited position. A member of a regime which must reave away the farmer’s right to his own produce in order to guarantee to others a right to food, or suppress free speech in order to support a right not to be offended, must expect to be resented and therefore opposed, and consequently must seek greater and greater power for himself and the regime in order to overcome the opposition and maintain his position. I submit that addressing it on that pragmatic basis is more likely to achieve a happy result than anything based on ethics, morals, or “compassion”.