Why Do We Need Human Rights? (11): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy

Some authoritarian governments claim that human rights and democracy have to be sacrificed for the sake of economic development and economic progress. Here are some of the reasons given in support of this claim.

Discipline in production and consumption

Discipline in production and consumption is believed to be more important for economic growth than freedom. This discipline requires discipline in general in society, and therefore also a strong state. The exaggerated attention to rights instead of duties is incompatible with discipline. Duties are much more useful in economic development than rights. Instead of wasting scarce resources on consumption, people should moderate themselves and resources should be used for necessary investments. In addition, the free choice of labor is less important than the ability of the state to direct labor towards certain development projects. There may even be a rationale for forced labor.

And finally, if you want economic development, wages need to be low, union activity needs to be minimal, working hours need to be long and perhaps you have to turn a blind eye to child labor. None of this is possible in a democracy that tries to respect human rights.

You need a strong state for all of this, able to force people to be disciplined in both consumption and production.

Discipline in politics

You also need a strong state able to implement and enforce long term plans. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term planning and so on, all of which is incompatible with democracy and rotation in office. A democracy doesn’t look further than the next election and is unable to plan economic development. Democracy is the national equivalent of the shortsighted consumer spending everything instead of investing for the future. A democratic government will take measures which guarantee the short term interests of electors and elected, even if these measures are detrimental to the long term economic well-being of the nation.

A strong state doesn’t have to fear election results and can focus on long term planning. It has the power to enforce certain measures which are unpopular in the short run—for example because they imply limits on short term consumption, because they redirect funds towards long term investments or because they entail labor planning—but which yield great dividends in the future.

On top of that, human rights promote individualism and egoism because they are claims of the individual against society. Together with adversarial democracy they hamper national cooperation and harmony which are necessary for economic success.

Radical, not temporary, incompatibility

So according to this narrative, political freedom and human rights have to be rejected because they are by definition incompatible with economic development. And perhaps even with prosperity as such: they may not even be a luxury which poor countries cannot afford yet and which are useless when bellies are empty; they are even less than that. If you choose freedom, then not only will it be impossible to escape from underdevelopment – it will be impossible to maintain prosperity.


Now, what can we say against this? Let’s take the different arguments in turn. If you assume that discipline in consumption and production is a good thing, then you basically create an export dependent economy. It’s well known that domestic consumption drives economic growth (see also here). If consumption is discouraged (and savings and investments encouraged), and if wages are low and working hours long, then you may get an initial boost in the economy, but this is no strategy for long term success. Not only does it imply dependence on exports and hence vulnerability to shocks occurring in the economies of the trading partners; it also keeps living standards low. And that can hardly be the purpose of economic development. China has clearly understood this and is trying to boost domestic demand (see also here).

The utility of child labor is obviously shortsighted – no economy can prosper without an educated citizenry – and the need for planning and long term consistency in economic policy is also a dubious argument. Centrally planned economies aren’t known for their successes. The state is not necessarily the most appropriate engine for development. Investment and planning decisions are probably best left to the market, and those investments that are best done by the government don’t require an authoritarian form of government. I don’t see how a dictatorship is better placed to plan transport infrastructure or energy provision for example. On the contrary even: the lack of transparency in a dictatorship makes it likely that such investments turn out to be corruption machines.

The argument that democracies are too fickle and shortsighted for economic planning and investments is also a bit weak. It’s difficult to deny that a democratic government, because of the way it comes to power, has more legitimacy and is therefore better placed to take difficult and unpopular decisions. People are more willing to accept or live with unpopular policies if they have a government that can be forced to justify its actions in public. Besides, the point is moot because most authoritarian leaders aren’t the long term planners and do-gooders they are supposed to be: most think only of the short term, namely their own short term financial profit.

What about the lack of cooperation, harmony and unity of democracies, and the selfishness cultivated by human rights? First of all, it’s not evident that national cooperation and harmony are best for economic development. Maybe individualism, entrepreneurship, inventiveness and doing things different are more important. And secondly, why would we assume that human rights are necessarily individualistic and selfish? There can never be an exaggerated attention to rights at the expense of duties. There are no rights without duties. And many so-called individualistic human rights create strong groups (freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc.).

Also, why would we have to think that democracy is more adversarial than autocracy? The democratic procedures for changing governments create social stability because they help to avoid revolt. Authoritarian harmony is often only skin deep – if it exists at all – because it’s based on suppression of differences. Things that are suppressed have a habit of popping up later in a more violent form.

The point is that human rights and democracy are magnificent weapons in the struggle for economic development rather than a luxury which poor people can’t afford or a false blessing which will render every economic achievement impossible or short-lived.

9 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Human Rights? (11): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy”

  1. […] It’s often argued that economic growth is enhanced by certain policies and actions that imply violations of human rights. The Chinese government in particular is quick to use this argument. And the whole “Asian values” debate – somewhat outdated now – was based on it. Especially developing countries supposedly can’t afford the luxury of human rights. They need discipline and organization in production and consumption, not freedom. Read more here, here and here. […]


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