Here at the 2040 Initiative, we are big fans of The Upshot – the New York Times feature that takes the long view of social and demographic trends, often marshaling statistics in interesting and revealing ways.
Last week’s Letter from the Editor “Inequality at the Supreme Court” highlighted two cases that are up before the Court this Term. Though both cases raise issues relating to inequality, the primary insight of the column may be summarized as follows: “Not all inequalities are created equal.”
One of the inequalities is inequality in access to marriage by same-sex partners who wish to marry in states that restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Though the constitutional tide has turned dramatically, with same-sex marriage now the law in over two-thirds of the states, the Supreme Court is hearing challenges to prohibitions in several of the remaining holdouts.
The other inequality is inequality in access to health care. The Court upheld Obamacare against a constitutional challenge just three years ago (though it struck down the law’s provision for extending Medicaid, which has led to about half the states refusing the extension). Now Obamacare opponents are back, arguing that statutory language limits certain aspects of the law to the states, which would make federal participation unlawful.
The Upshot’s insight is that inequality in access to marriage is a civil right, while inequality in access to health care is an economic right.
The progression of civil rights in this country has been consistent in moving from fewer to more. Expansion is the historical norm: “The progress is uneven — and hard-won, as the surviving Selma marchers know well — but it is undeniable.”
Economic rights are a different story: “The fate of health insurance for about seven million people — the stakes in the health care case — is not on such solid historical footing.” Economic inequality, even within the last century, has waxed and waned and is currently waxing again. Economic inequality is currently at levels not seen in this country since right before the Great Depression.
U.S. positions on human rights reflect the disparate values placed on civil and political rights on the one hand (more) and economic rights on the other (less). Over two decades ago, we signed on to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, agreeing to protect civil and political rights for our citizens. These are familiar rights such as those contained in the Bill of Rights.
The U.S. has yet, however, to sign on to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which calls its signatories to protect rights such as health care, work, housing, unions, and education. These rights, which are largely unprotected by our Constitution, still languish – as the furor over Obamacare demonstrates.
Our constitutional tradition is strong on the democratic values of popular control and individual protection from government, values that civil and political rights secure.
Our constitutional tradition is much more hesitant, one might say developmentally delayed, on the democratic values of equality and protection of individuals by government, values that economic rights secure.
The reasons are tied up in our history. The Framers prime motivation was curtailing the abuses of monarchy. And race has long retarded class-conscious economic politics.
The question we face today, looking forward a generation, is whether the nation can overcome knee-jerk reactions against economic protections for all, for citizens of all colors and ethnicities. Have we reached the point where we can bring economic rights forward to stand beside civil and political rights?
Palma Joy Strand