According to a famous model by Kaushik Basu, if governments ban child labor but fail to enforce those bans – governments in countries where child labor is prevalent often have weak law enforcement in general – then they create the wrong incentives for employers and for the families of child laborers. Employers react by continuing the practice of child labor because they can often get away with it, but at the same time they lower the wages of child workers because they except to get caught at some point and be fined. They anticipate and compensate these fines by lowering wages. (Children usually don’t have the power to resist wage reductions). The families of the children in turn react by forcing more of their children to work as a way to compensate for the lost income. There’s some evidence here that this effect does indeed occur.
Perhaps we should kick the habit of relying only and automatically on legislation in order to enforce human rights. This may be a good strategy in countries that have well-functioning enforcement systems, but in developing countries it may do more harm than good. (Perhaps this is a symptom of the much criticized shortsightedness of western international development efforts). After all, it’s not as if there aren’t any non–legislative means to promote human rights.
Here‘s another example of human rights legislation that actually leads to diminished respect for human rights. More on the difficult relationship between human rights and the law is here. More posts in this series are here.
“Slave redemption” is an effort to buy the freedom of women trafficked into prostitution, coerced domestic servants and other modern slaves. In essence, you offer to pay the slave-holder (the pimp for example) a price for the slave that exceeds his or her present and future value.
It’s a very controversial policy. Any individual who acquires his or her freedom in this way is obviously better off, but the policy may set up a self-defeating process:
When you have people running around buying up slaves, you help create a market demand for more slaves… It’s like paying the burglar for the television set he just stole. … The slave traders end up with more money, buying more guns and hiring more thugs to go out and take more slaves. (source)
A very similar process may take hold of another, more recent initiative. Fonderie47 is an
organization that buys AK-47s at above-market-prices in conflict zones and turns them into extremely expensive accessories, all in the name of helping Africa. Apparently, the logic is that this will increase the price of AK-47s, thereby decreasing their pervasive presence in conflict zones. (source)
Of course, and again, the very opposite is likely to occur. Gun dealers will just take in larger stocks of AK-47s – like the traffickers enslave more people – because of demand expectations and higher prices. Then they’ll find out that the guns-to-jewelry initiative can’t follow suit – and perhaps turns out to be a hype – after which the excess guns are dumped in war zones. Furthermore, even if the initiative keeps going and succeeds in bringing down the numbers of AK-47s in war zones, the dealers will just buy other weapons with the extra funds they now have thanks to the initiative.
You can read such stories in two ways, according to your pre-existing biases: either the stories teach us that marketization doesn’t solve everything and that we should tackle such problems with the use of force; or they teach us that we shouldn’t intervene in the market. What I personally learned from them is that people are very creative and human rights advocates are no exception. That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s often no substitute for structural solutions that aim for the root causes of problems.
More posts in this series here.
Another example of good intentions going wrong:
One of the many puzzles surrounding Muammar Qaddafi was his refusal to go into exile. Once NATO intervened on behalf of the rebels and Tripoli fell, Qaddafi must have known that he would eventually lose the war and that this would mean death. Instead of leaving the country, he decided to stay.
Why? One surprising answer has to do with the International Criminal Court. It used to be that exile was an attractive long-term option for dictators to take. Rather than stay and fight, they could live their lives in wealth and comfort in beautiful and stable places such as Paris or the Bahamas.
This changed as more and more countries ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Now seeking asylum is no longer easy or particularly attractive. Dictators can try to convince countries such as France, Britain, Venezuela, Mexico or Spain to let them settle in their capital cities or along their coastlines. But since all have ratified Rome, moving there is tantamount to turning oneself in to be prosecuted for war crimes. Qaddafi could seek refuge in countries that have not yet ratified Rome, such as the United States or Cuba or Zimbabwe or Sudan or Saudi Arabia. But those countries are either unwilling to accept him (the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) or unable to credibly commit to protecting him over time (Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan). How long could Qaddafi trust that the current regime in Cuba or Zimbabwe will remain in power to protect him? …
What Qaddafi’s behavior reveals is a potentially unexpected and unfortunate side-effect of an increasingly successful ICC. By limiting the options nasty dictators have to seek exile, it is increasingly forcing them to stay. And by forcing them to stay, it could, inadvertently, be encouraging war. (source)
More on the ICC here. More self-defeating human rights policies here.
[T]he effects of [the] change in the imprisonment rate [in the U.S.] … have been concentrated among those most likely to form fragile families: poor and minority men with little schooling. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. … Because having a parent go to prison is now so common for poor, minority children and so negatively affects them, the authors argue that mass imprisonment may increase future racial and class inequality — and may even lead to more crime in the long term, thereby undoing any benefits of the prison boom. U.S. crime policy has thus, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and reduced the life chances of their children. (source, source)
This is an example of a self-defeating human rights policy: in an attempt to improve the protection of security rights and property rights of a population, a policy of increased incarceration rates has an adverse effect on the rights of the incarcerated, their families and children, and possibly even society at large (as increased inequality resulting from high incarceration rates among society’s most vulnerable groups will perhaps lead to more crime – although we can’t assume that increasing poverty and inequality will automatically provoke those who are impoverished because of incarceration to resort to crime).
Intuitively, if poor people don’t have land of their own and are forced to work for a few major landowners who have monopolized all the fertile land in the country, there’s a bargaining problem: poor people have no other options and because they are so numerous they can be played out against each other by the landowners. Wages tend to remain low in such a scenario (supply and demand, remember). That’s a recipe for a very unequal society. So the intuitive case for land reform is strong, especially when you consider that equality in land ownership isn’t just a matter of fairness but is also good for economic growth.
On the other hand, some notable attempts have gone horribly awry. Land reform policies in Zimbabwe – supposedly implemented for the benefit of the poor but probably for other reasons – have made things even worse for the poor. Why? Cutting up large chunks of land and giving a lot of poor people a very small piece can undo economies of scale. Furthermore, expropriating large landowners forces them out of business, and a lot of know-how will be lost.
So, what’s the deal? I guess it all depends on how land reform is done. Things don’t have to turn ugly. Land reform doesn’t have to be counter-productive. Property rights in general, and more specifically property of land in poor agrarian countries, are very important for the poor.
It is sometimes implied that improving property rights primarily favors the rich, conjuring up the image of rich owners of capital securing greater rents. However, there is increasing evidence that secure land rights, in particular, are an important vehicle for the poor that may promote both equity and efficiency. Lin…, for example, showed that the move from collective to household farming in China starting in 1978 led to large productivity increases in agriculture. …
Obtaining property rights over land in urban areas can also help poor households to gain access to credit. (source)
Human rights policies don’t always work out the way we want them to. Almost any significant action has unintended consequences, and in some cases these consequences can turn out to be the exact opposite of what we intended. As Kierkegaard said, life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards. Some of the best intentioned human rights activism just perpetuates the rights violations it wants to combat, and perhaps even makes things worse.
I now found another example in an interesting paper by Blattman and Beber. The paper is about child soldiering and looks at some of the things governments can do about it. Child soldiers are often recruited by insurgent groups. Governments can decide to increase counter-insurgency efforts in order to stop the insurgents from recruiting children. But this counter-insurgency increases the minimum force size requirement for the rebel group, hence also the rebel leaders’ incentives to abduct children.
Now suppose the government reaction is not to step up hostilities but to develop educational and economic opportunities for children so that children have larger outside choices which make it more likely that they escape from and less likely that they are lured by the rebels. However, according to Blattman and Beber, intermediate levels of development of such choices could push the optimal age of recruitment of child soldiers downwards. And if outside choices increase, the incentives for the rebel group to take over the country also increase. If rebel group incentives increase, the incentives to recruit children also increase.