Economic Human Rights (31b): Certain Objections

Economic rights are a subset of human rights. Put very briefly and simplistically, they are what could be called anti-poverty rights: for example, there’s a right to a certain standard of living, to social security, to work, to fair wages, to healthcare, housing etc.

It’s an understatement to say that there’s no universal consensus on these rights. Some say that these aren’t “real” human rights (like Bill Easterly for example). Others say that these rights are useless or even harmful. Here are a few of the most common objections raised against economic rights.

The big state criticism

Economic rights are believed to require invasion of privacy and hence violations of an important freedom right (freedom rights such as free speech, privacy, habeas corpus etc. are usually distinguished from economic rights, political rights etc.). In order to verify whether people have a right to social security benefits or healthcare benefits, the state has to check people’s income (legal and illegal), their family composition, their health, their medical consumption, their lifestyle etc.

The assumption behind this criticism is that the state is the only or the main party responsible for the realization of economic rights. This is not the case. People in need can call on other people to help. And these other people have a moral responsibility to help. The duties of mutual assistance, charity and philanthropy point to a horizontal aspect of economic rights. People in need do not only have a vertical right to assistance, or a right directed at the state. Their economic rights can be addressed at their fellow citizens, and these have a duty to respect and protect these rights. It’s only when horizontal duties fail that the state should intervene. If we think of economic rights in this way, the dangers of an overbearing state don’t look that ominous anymore.

The rule that economic rights should – in part – be realized by citizens has another advantage as well: economic rights tend to foster community spirit and feelings of solidarity and belonging.

But this insistence on solidarity shouldn’t obscure the rule that people have a responsibility to help themselves and support themselves. This kind of independence is a part of freedom and an important good. Solidarity comes into play only when self-help is unsuccessful or impossible, and the state comes into play only when solidarity is unsuccessful or absent.

Different kinds of duties

Another objection: some say that economic rights, if they are rights at all, are radically different from “normal” human rights – also called freedom rights – and can therefore be given a lower priority (and maybe aren’t even real rights at all). Freedom rights imply duties of abstention or forbearance, whereas economic rights require duties of active help, involvement and intervention. In the case of violations of freedom rights, the remedy is easy: stop doing what you’re doing. In the case of violations of economic “rights”, the remedy is often very difficult if not impossible. If there is no work, no one can give it to me. If a country is poor, no one can raise the standard of living.

When freedom rights are violated, the victim can go to a court and a judge can force the violator to stop his or her actions. When economic rights are violated, it’s useless to go to a court. Not only isn’t there an obvious violator who can be stopped, there is often no one who can stop the violation from happening. Hence it looks like these rights are unenforceable and often have no remedy. Rather than rights, it seems that they are aspirations or policy goals, often long term policy goals.

However, there’s again an erroneous assumption underlying all of this. The distinction between the two types of duties – forbearance and active assistance – isn’t clean-cut. Freedom rights require active intervention by the state in order to enforce forbearance. They require an efficient judiciary and police force. For some states, this may be as unattainable as prosperity. In fact, it’s precisely because of a lack of prosperity that many states are unable to guarantee protection for freedom rights. Of course, the fact that economic rights are a prerequisite for freedom rights isn’t a sufficient reason to call them rights. But neither is it a reason not to call them rights.

Conversely, economic rights often require more forbearance than active intervention. Economic rights in China during the Great Leap Forward would have been better served by state forbearance. All types of human rights require forbearance and intervention. Perhaps economic rights generally need more intervention, but that is a difference in degree and not in essence, and it isn’t a sufficient reason to reject the label of “rights” for the aspirations inherent in economic rights.

Ought implies can

There’s another criticism of economic rights, related to the previous one. Economic rights are said to violate a general rule for rights: ought implies can; there can be no obligation to do something if there is no capability to do it. You cannot have a duty to help someone who’s drowning if you can’t swim yourself. Hence the person drowning doesn’t have a right to be assisted by you. The same is said to be true of economic rights which therefore aren’t real rights. If a poor country doesn’t have the resources to help its poor citizens, then these citizens don’t have a right to be helped.

However, we don’t follow the same logic in the case of freedom rights. Freedom rights also require resources, as we have seen. When a state doesn’t have the resources necessary to protect its citizens’ freedom rights, we usually don’t say that the citizens of such a state have lost their freedom rights. People have rights irrespective of the probability that they can be protected. Or better: the less people’s rights are protected, the more important it is that they have rights. And anyway, violations of economic rights don’t occur because there are insufficient resources but because of an unequal distribution of resource, nationally or internationally. So the “can” part of “ought implies can” isn’t as fanciful as the critics of economic rights believe.

Economic rights are superfluous and useless

This is supposed to be the case because free markets should automatically produce a certain standard of living for everyone that is high enough to realize the goals inherent in economic rights. Free trade, deregulated markets and low taxes cause profits to rise, which in turn means more investments, which in turn means more and better jobs and higher incomes. All boats rise on a rising tide.

Now, it’s my belief that history – and especially recent history – has shown that this isn’t enough. Free markets are beneficial, but they don’t automatically provide high standards of living for everyone.

Economic rights are harmful and counterproductive

This is a stronger version of the “useless” argument. Economic rights are believed to require a big state (see above), high taxes and intrusive regulation. All of this hinders the economy and the creation of wealth. As a result of economic rights, there is less wealth to redistribute, and economic rights therefore undo what they want to achieve.

They are also harmful in another way: they violate freedom rights, especially the right to privacy and the right to property (because of redistribution). We’ve already seen that we can mitigate this risk when we include horizontal duties. But even if this risk is real, why should property and privacy automatically rank higher than the absence of poverty? If we assume that economic rights are real rights, then it’s not surprising to see that they can contradict other rights. Contradictions between human rights are very common. The right to privacy is often in conflict with free speech for example. Sometimes one right has to be limited for the sake of another. So why should this be a problem when dealing with economic rights?

Of course, one shouldn’t dramatize. Economic rights and freedom rights are generally not incompatible. On the contrary, they are interdependent. Freedom for the poor often doesn’t mean a whole lot. But, on the other hand, the squeaky hinge gets the oil: poverty has to have a voice if it is to be eliminated.

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