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Standards of living

This is one of those periods when the world has had to concentrate so intensely on economic goals that it hardly seems to have any other. Yet material sufficiency is only a step toward the true ''standard of living'' that makes existence satisfying. Indeed, though it is no argument for poverty, many persons have not let poverty keep them from aspiring to goals of freedom and humanity that make for quality of life beyond materialistic definitions.

Such points called for attention this week as the economic headlines made room for ones to do with human rights. Though the phrase has become a kind of international political football, the essence must be the goal beyond economic goals.

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People have proved they can achieve spiritual liberation whatever their circumstances, and this can lead to the achievement of human rights. But human rights can be a stage toward attaining and expressing enlightened freedom of thought. Communist societies, stressing satisfaction of material wants, show the bleakness of this goal without the basic human right of freedom.

There is a bit of encouragement in the US State Department's annual report on human rights, with its finding that, on balance, there has been an improvement in the world. But the record in many countries remains abysmally bad. Vietnam has become ''the worst country to live in.'' In South Africa there is the crashing irony that ''national elections are free and fair, but only whites may presently participate.'' Rights have suffered in Lebanon because of last year's invasion, in Afghanistan because of the earlier one.

The list of setbacks, along with marginal gains, could go on. It is all supposed to be considered by Congress as decisions on foreign aid are reached.

There could be grist here, too, for the East-West conference that has just resumed in Madrid to review the Helsinki declaration on European security, cooperation, and human rights. The Soviet Union was found to be one of the worst offenders in the past year, Czechoslovakia one of the countries hardest hit.

But human rights are something not simply for forums but for individual thought and action. Rights can be fostered in one's neighborhood as well as on one's planet. To forget them in the push for economic progress would be to turn the idea of progress on its head.

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