Economic Human Rights (34): The Cost of Human Rights, and of Economic Rights More Specifically

Human rights cost money. It’s often claimed that economic human rights aren’t really human rights because they are so expensive for many governments in the world that they can’t realistically impose duties: governments of poor countries can’t be expected to respect a duty to provide healthcare, housing, food, work etc. Ought implies can. You can’t be under an obligation if there’s no way you can honor that obligation. It’s claimed, therefore, that economic rights are mere aspirations rather than rights.

Yet, the same argument can be made about the supposedly more distinguished and respectable freedom rights. It’s strange, many countries in the world can’t manage to create the institutions and the governance to enforce freedom rights, simply because they don’t have the means (and sometimes the willingness), and yet this fact doesn’t make people think twice about the reality of freedom rights.

Providing effective and non-corrupt police forces and judiciaries is expensive. Probably just as expensive as providing a good public healthcare system. True, rights have to be enforceable, and duties shouldn’t be farcically unrealistic. But I fail to see the ontological difference here between freedom rights and economic rights.

We also shouldn’t overestimate the cost of economic rights. The purpose of these rights is not to have a government that gives healthcare, food, work etc. to every single citizen. That would destroy the economy. A system of economic rights will require that most people provide these goods for themselves through work and economic activity. It will also require that citizens show generosity and help each other. Economic rights also create duties for fellow-citizens. The government supplies the goods in the remaining cases, when self-help and mutual help are not enough.

As a result, the cost of economic rights isn’t as high as a cursory reading of these rights would imply. Conversely, the cost of freedom rights is often higher than one would conclude at first sight: true, these rights often require abstinence and forbearance (“don’t invade my privacy or inhibit my speech”) and that’s something cheap. But the enforcement and equal protection of those rights and the enforcement of forbearance requires an efficient government, which is expensive.

Something about another cost issue related to human rights, namely the relative cost of freedom and dictatorship, is here.

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12 thoughts on “Economic Human Rights (34): The Cost of Human Rights, and of Economic Rights More Specifically”

  1. Hi!

    That is, if a given country does not have the necessary values and institutions to keep and improve the conditions that make possible a civilized society, speaking about things such that human rights, economic freedom, freedom of speech, separation of powers, democracy and so on is the same as giving a TV set to a family that has no access to electricity.

    It is no surprise that the most backward countries around the globe are exactly those ones that could not cultivate the values that make possible a civilized society. The most strange thing about it all is that the values that could drive those countries away from their backward condition are despised by their respective populations and elites — let alone the local leftists.

    This is interesting:

    “[. . .] It’s strange, many countries in the world can’t manage to create the institutions and the governance to enforce freedom rights, simply because they don’t have the means (and sometimes the willingness), and yet this fact doesn’t make people think twice about the reality of freedom rights.”

    I don’t think it is strange as you said. If you look at those countries that have never managed to build institutions and governance means to do what you said, those countries are exactly those ones that have never cultivated and accepted the values that make the civilized world a real thing.

    The values that make possible what you said — basically the classical liberalism values (liberalism in the Enlightenment/Adam Smith meaning) — are not equally accepted among countries and societies.

    The only cases in the recorded history, where countries and societies could create the conditions you aforementioned, are exactly those countries and societies that could, in some sense, cultivate and accept the values of classical liberalism.

    Those countries that could not do that are under illiteracy, starvation, war, despair, genocide and terror. That’s not a matter of political taste and/or personal opinion, but a statistical fact.

    See You!

    Marcelo

    Like

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