Economic Human Rights (2): Hierarchy of Duty Bearers, Ctd.

There are no good reasons to discredit economic rights, such as the right to a decent standard of living or the right not to be poor. These rights must have the same standing as other types of rights, mainly because different types of rights are interdependent and economic rights are prerequisites for other types of rights. But, it is equally wrong to give priority to economic rights or to violate other types of rights in order to respect economic rights (for the same reason, that is, interdependence). The Chinese government often makes this mistake.

When people have a right not to be poor, who has a duty to help them? In western welfare states, one has the tendency to point to the state and to the so-called social safety net which these states have created (unemployment benefits, healthcare subsidies etc.). However, the state is not the only and not the first party responsible for the protection of economic rights. If we don’t accept this, and argue that the state is the first or perhaps even the only party responsible for the protection of the poor and their economic rights, then we are open to the criticism of the “big state”.

On the other hand, the opposite position is also wrong. The free market does not independently ensure respect for economic rights (although it helps). Active measures, based on duties imposed on specific duty bearers and emanating from economic rights, are also necessary.

The first and most important duty is one to yourself. People should be, when possible, self-supportive and able to help themselves. People don’t like to ask for help. We should try to create the circumstances in which people can satisfy their own basic needs and can be self-supportive and responsible for their own fate (or at least we should not destroy these circumstances). People value autonomy, control over their own lives and independence. They generally prefer not to depend on help.

As long as this is possible, economic rights are irrelevant and no specific duties come into play. Economic rights are necessary only when people fail to be self-supportive, either because of misfortune, genetic deficiencies, accidents, crime, institutional bias, racism, neo-colonialism etc.’a0In these cases, economic rights create different kind of duties for different persons and with different intensity (or priority or hierarchy):

  • personal assistance or charity
  • redistribution by the state
  • development aid
  • etc.

The hierarchy in this system of duties is the following. When economic rights become necessary, it is first in a face-to-face situation, for example within the family or between friends or members of a group (they are horizontal rights). This is based on the valid assumption that closeness means a greater ability to help. He or she who can do more, should do more. It would be wrong to ask a distant persons to invest a relatively greater effort to accomplish something, when a person closer by could accomplish the same with less effort. And closeness typically, but not always, means a greater ability to act. A mother can take better care of her children than someone else. A co-citizen of a state, because he or she pays taxes to the social safety net, is better placed to help the poor in his country, then an outsider would be.

And because these people can do more, they have a moral obligation to do more. Take the example of two people watching a third person drowning in a river. One of these witnesses is a good swimmer, the other less so. It is obvious who has the greater duty to assist. But both have.

But when this face-to-face assistance fails – and it regularly does, either because of a lack of morality, or because all the people in the face-to-face community suffer the same fate – then our duties arising from economic rights take on a larger geographical and ultimately also an international sphere, in which one person should help other and more distant persons (if one’s personal surplus is large enough to do so) (economic rights are still horizontal).

And when this fails as well, and only when this fails, can a state intervene (economic rights become vertical – although one could claim that they are still horizontal because the state, through its system of taxation, merely enforces philanthropy). When the state intervenes, it has to do so first and foremost for the benefit of its own citizens, again because it is closer and better able to help. It has a monopoly of power and force, and can collect taxes and redistribute wealth. But when a particular state isn’t self-supportive – as is the case for the majority of states – then international assistance is necessary.

Duty is a bottom-up affair. Accordingly, economic rights should not be viewed primarily as the business of a state; otherwise we will lose both the benefits of self-support (autonomy) and the community spirit which results from spontaneous mutual assistance. Allowing economic rights to be realized at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen the feeling of belonging. The fact that our economic rights are realized in part by our responsible fellow citizens, enhances community feelings and again supports the statement that human rights are not individualistic and do not only deal with the relationship between citizens and a state. Focusing too much on the duties of the state will create a mentality of passive reliance on government support and a mentality of dependence.

A word of caution: none of this implies chauvinism or nationalism. The nation, state or family in which one is born is arbitrary, and hence of no moral concern. All individuals everywhere have equal rights and equal moral claims to the goods necessary for subsistence. Thomas Pogge has insisted on this point. But people don’t have equal duties resulting from these rights. Our duties are stronger with regard to some people, namely those closer by and those we are better able to help. But ultimately, we have some duties to everyone.

19 thoughts on “Economic Human Rights (2): Hierarchy of Duty Bearers, Ctd.”

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  2. […] This had a perverse effect: certain politicians now found it easy to claim that spending on the poor was ineffective and a waste of money. It’s no coincidence that trickle down economics became so popular in the 1980s. The poverty measurement, rather than helping the government become more effective in its struggle against poverty, has led to policies that reduced benefits. Of course, I’m not saying that poverty reduction is just a matter of government benefits, or that benefits can’t have adverse effects. Read more here. […]


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