Is it justified to use the word “rights” in the context of economic rights such as the right not to suffer extreme poverty? Are these rights comparable to classical freedom rights or are they an example of the way in which superficial reasoning destroys the meaning of words? Are they rights or are they mere aspirations or desires masquerading as rights?
The claim that the expression economic rights is an oxymoron is based on the following reasoning. Rights have to be enforceable. There is no right without a remedy. If a right is violated, then it must be possible to redress the situation in a court of justice. It has to be possible to find somebody who is responsible for the violation and who can stop the violation. If nobody can be forced to respect a right because nobody has the power and duty to respect it, then it is useless and wrong to speak about a right. Take for example the “right” to have a climate in which the sun always shines and in which the temperature is constantly between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius. This can be a desire but it can never be a right because it is not enforceable. There is no remedy if it is violated; there is no way to redress the violation. A court of justice cannot decide that the government should take action to realize this “right”. Nobody is responsible for a violation and nobody can stop a violation. Nobody can be forced to respect the “right” because nobody has the power to respect it, and hence there is no right.
It is not uncommon to hear the same kind of reasoning in the case of economic rights, although in international law these rights enjoy a similar level of protection as classical freedom rights or civil rights. What we do in the case of a violation of classical rights – ask a judge to force the violator, for example the government, to respect our rights – is often impossible in the case of economic rights. If there is no work, then a judge cannot force the government to give us work. If there is no money, then a government cannot have the duty and responsibility to provide social security and thereby eliminate poverty. Ought implies can. The rule that we should not impose a duty on someone who is unable to fulfill it, does not pose any problems in the case of freedom rights. If the government violates our right to free speech, then a judge can force the government to protect our right because this protection only requires that the government stop its actions.
This criticism of economic rights is based on an exaggerated distinction between forbearance and active protection. It is true that freedom rights often require forbearance and economic rights active involvement and commitment. But things can also be the other way around. All human rights depend on judicial and police institutions that in turn depend on the protection of the state. Even a right such as free speech needs the active involvement of the judiciary and hence the state in order to be protected. If our right to free speech is violated, then we may need the help of a judge and perhaps even the police in order to force the violator to stop his actions. And for some states, it can be just as difficult to fulfill their duty to provide efficient judiciaries and police forces as it is to fulfill their duty to provide work and social security.
If freedom rights need as much active involvement as forbearance, then the same is true for certain economic rights. The right to food in an amount sufficient for survival is often better served by government forbearance than by government action. Look for example at the Great Leap Forward and its disastrous consequences for the people of China. All human rights need actions as well as forbearance. According to the circumstances, a right can be more or less positive or negative. The right to food in Mao’s China was relatively negative and directed against state intervention. In many inner cities, it is relatively positive and directed at the passivity of the state. All human rights require both intervention and abstention. And it is, therefore, unfair to dismiss economic rights on the grounds that they impose duties on the government that are different from the duties imposed by “real” rights.