Economic Human Rights (3): A Right to Have a Right – Economic Rights as Prerequisites for Other Rights

Economic rights are important prerequisites for public and political life and for the full use of freedom rights and political rights. They are seldom claimed for their own sake only. They are a means for something else. If they are respected, they take away an obstacle on the road to public and political life and to the full use of classical human rights. They are only the first step on a long journey. There are values other than a decent continuation of life and we need other types of human rights in order to protect these other values. Economic rights are important but insufficient. Economic rights guarantee the continuation of life in a decent way (not just the continuation of life tout court, because this is guaranteed by the “classical” right to life) and thereby guarantee the possibility, and only the possibility, of something more, for example a public and political life. They cannot turn this possibility into a reality. Only freedom rights and political rights can do so.Economic rights are seldom claimed for their own sake because

darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty … [T]he predicament of the poor … is that their lives are without consequence, and that they remain excluded from the light of the public realm. Hannah Arendt

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed … He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market … [H]e is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen … To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. John Adams

Man is unknown and unseen and, on top of that, he cannot see, he cannot learn from others, follow others, contradict others etc. Economic rights together with freedom rights and political rights take away this darkness and allow people to see and to be seen. When economic rights satisfy basic needs, they only create the possibility of and some of the prerequisites for public and political life. Contrary to classical rights, they do not create the reality of such a life. Economic rights give access to this life but they do not regulate and guarantee this life. Economic rights have a rather negative role: they taken away the obstacles on the road to public and political life, whereas the classical rights contribute in a positive way because they protect and promote public and political life.

Nevertheless, economic rights are very important, even though some people think of them as a joke (when will we have the right to sunshine, do they ask). Economic rights are necessary for the full use of classical rights. An economic right is therefore a right to a right. We have the right to be in a position in which we can fully enjoy our rights. Economic rights are required in order to establish the conditions necessary for the exercise of classical rights.

“[E]very human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized” (Declaration on the Right to Development).

However, the opposite is also true: you have to have classical rights in order to enjoy your economic rights.

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