For the Record - December 7, 2016

‘For the Record’ is a new section on our website where our Fellows-in-Residence have a chance to present some research ideas informally, reflect on their experience at the Center, or report on Center events.

This month’s post is from Samuel Moyn, Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law and Professor of History at Harvard University. Professor Moyn has written several books in the fields of human rights history and European intellectual history including The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Prof. Moyn is a Berggruen Fellow-in-Residence at the Center this year.

In this post, Samuel argues that human rights doctrines, though important, suffer from some serious limitations and that we have to turn our attention to broader notions of distributive justice if we are to deal with the challenges of our time.

Donald Trump and Human Rights

The election of Donald Trump raises fears of grave human rights violations. But his election also suggests that our recent interest in human rights has its own limits.

If worse comes to worst, the movements and structures of international human rights are there to stigmatize the excesses of American policy, especially in a nightmare scenario where the country turns on its own citizens. It is equally if not more nightmarish to consider what the government might inflict on noncitizens, including the torture Trump has brashly talked about, the deportation he promises to visit on undocumented immigrants, or the brutal war he has occasionally mentioned, with its expectable consequences for civilians. Much expert commentary, however, optimistically explains that torture is probably off the table, since its last uses created even stronger protections. As for deportation and war, both could certainly get far worse under Trump, but from an already unacceptable baseline no one should excuse or prettify.

The mainstream response of many American and international observers appears to be to normalize Trump, perhaps in the false hope he will play by the rules of the ordinary political game, bending them but not breaking them. For all the vigilance required in case Trump dashes such hope, it is also important to get beyond emergency thinking to address the crisis of social justice that his election reflects. True: Trump won by only a few votes in selected places, and lost the popular vote. But as Matt Karp has argued, a closer look at the results betrays a deeper syndrome. For a long time, the Democratic Party has adopted policies on distributive justice that have moved away from the middle and working class in favor of the very rich and very poor. This direction is better than the set of policies their Republican counterparts — and, with his Wall Street appointments, now Trump himself — support, favoring the very rich alone. But it is not much better.

Human rights do not seem like the best available standards for addressing this negligence of the middle and working classes. A broader approach to distributive justice, in contrast, would do better. We constantly relearn the lesson that failure to address overall fairness can lead to electoral disaster and even nightmare scenarios for human rights. The first wave of globalization led to populist backlash a century ago, and now it is happening again.

This time, even with Trump’s election, it is not too late to stop it. We are entering a new era in which we will have to decide how to balance our concern for the immediate crisis with our strategizing about the long term and the root cause. Human rights — at least as they are generally understood today — have proven useful for the first necessary task but not the second and equally crucial one. If we only deal with our emergencies, we will condemn ourselves to perpetual confusion about why they constantly recur, as if we were powerless to stop them.