The Place of Human Rights in Morality

Morality can be divided into three parts:

  1. the good thing to do
  2. the proper thing to do
  3. and the right thing to do.

1. What you do can be a good thing without it necessarily being the proper or the right thing to do. If your neighbor is ill and you’re washing your own windows, it would be very good of you to also wash his. You would be beneficent. However, it’s obviously not your moral duty to wash his windows and no one will condemn you if you don’t. 

2. A somewhat more demanding type of action is something that you should do (or ought to do, which is basically the same in English). It’s strongly advisable that you help strangers in need. It’s the proper thing to do. You should do it. If you don’t help a stranger in need when you can, you’ll be condemned for your inaction. However, helping a stranger in need is probably not a duty as it is formulated here. It’s too vague. Helping all strangers in need is impossible, and a duty requires the capacity to fulfil it. 

3. Hence a duty is more specific. It’s something you must do – not merely something you should do – and something you have the means to do. Contrary to the good and the proper, it’s compulsory and obligatory. It’s the right thing to do, and you have a duty to do it. In some cases, this duty is based on someone else’s right. You must do something because someone else’s right requires you to do it. For example, you must help the homeless stranger on the corner of your block because that person has a right to a decent standard of living; and you have a duty to pay taxes that will fund a national healthcare system because people – your neighbor but also strangers – have a right to healthcare when they can’t afford it themselves. Or, negatively, you have a duty not to invade your neighbor’s privacy while washing his windows because he has a right to privacy.

However, not all moral duties in this sense have a corresponding right. For example, you have a duty to keep your promises and respect the terms of the contracts you engage in. Like respecting human rights, keeping your promises is not merely a good thing to do or something that you should do. You must do it (unless of course there are good reasons not to; nothing I’ve said here implies that duties should be absolute). But no one has a human right to kept promises. Hence, the class of right actions is larger than the actions (or omissions) required by human rights.

So we have three types of moral actions, each more demanding than the last: the good, the proper and the right. The place of human rights is within the class of right actions. Respecting people’s rights is not merely a good thing to do because you will be condemned if you don’t. It’s also more than the proper thing to do. It’s not just something that is strongly advisable or something that you should do. It’s a duty. You must do it.

Morality is much larger than the duties imposed by human rights, even though respecting people’s rights is obviously a part of morality. Morality is about more than duties, and the duties that are moral are about more than the duties imposed by human rights. 

[This post has been slightly edited post-publication after a remark by ]

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (43): Positionality and Transpositionality

Human beings are inescapably positional. We understand the world from the position in which we are. In the words of Amartya Sen, what we observe and how we observe it depends on our position vis-à-vis the object we observe. ”Object” can also be person, an idea etc., and “position” can mean your physical location – if you see a horse from behind you may think it’s a donkey – but also your mood (you see things differently according to your mood), your priors etc.

Another characteristic of human beings is that we want to observe the world as accurately or objectively as we can. “Objectively“ here means focused on the object we observe rather than on the position from which we observe it. The problem is that we always observe something from a certain position and that this positionality can make accuracy or objectivity hard to achieve. We need human rights, and not just our own rights but the rights of others as well, to correct our positionality and achieve something close to objectivity. Someone else may be looking at the horse from the front, and can tell us – using her rights – that from her perspective the horse looks like a horse, not a donkey. Someone with a better mood about someone else can tell us that our view of that person is negatively influenced by our mood. And so on. People exercising their rights can help us achieve objectivity.

But our own rights also help us a lot. If we don’t have rights, then we can’t move about – physically or intellectually – as easily as we have to in order to see things from other perspectives. If our fellow human beings don’t have rights, then they can’t easily tell us about their different perspectives. In both cases, the accuracy of our observation of the world suffers. Accuracy or objectivity require that we look at the whole object (or person or idea or problem etc.) rather than just one side of it. Without rights it’s difficult to do that. More fundamentally, without rights it may not even occur to us that there’s more than one side because we don’t hear about other sides. Not only is it hard in a world devoid of rights to move and occupy other perspectives or to hear about other perspectives; it’s hard to know that there’s a problem at all.

Objectivity is then a kind of transpositionality: an approach to the world which doesn’t really transcend our positionality – we can’t do that because we can’t look at things “from nowhere” – but which nevertheless liberates us from a limited form of positionality that may be detrimental to accuracy.

Of course, accuracy and objective are not to be taken in an absolute sense. Even in a world with full respect for rights and with people willing and able to occupy many different positions and perspectives and to talk to each other about those perspectives, it may not always be possible to achieve an accurate observation of the world, or even to improve our accuracy. For example – and this is Sen’s example – if we all look at the moon from our own perspective and share our different perspectives among ourselves, we may still conclude that it’s a rather small disk up there in the sky. As long as we haven’t built telescopes or moon rockets, our human rights won’t help us achieve an accurate understand of that part of our world. We may achieve transpositionality but not objectivity.

The good thing is that this is probably an exception and that our rights will normally help us in many cases to improve the accuracy of our understanding of the world. After all, ideas, persons and everyday objects don’t require sophisticated tools to be examined from different perspectives. But they do require human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (50): Rebooting Nationalism

Like young children have to learn what dreams are so as not to be afraid of them, we will have to unlearn what the nation is so as not to be infatuated by it. Pride in a nation is not what the nation is. Be proud of yourself and your children because being proud of something without the ability to take credit for it is plagiarism. Nationalists are serial plagiarists. They appropriate the good of their nation (while the bad in their nation often appropriates them).

Nationalists defend this plagiarism by way of the notion of national identity. They assume that certain cherished traditions of the group and certain accomplishments of members of it derive at least in part from a national identity shared by all. This common identity is believed to cause the good in the nation, and because it is shared by all members it allows all to claim a share in the good. That is what national pride is. You claim to be proud of being Flemish because of all those great Flemish painters. But unless you remove in some way the difference between you as a person and the Flemish painters as persons – and you attempt to remove that difference by positing a common identity, a national identity – your pride would be nothing more than appropriation of someone else’s greatness.

The notion of national identity is what lies behind a lot of animosity towards foreigners. Arguments against immigration for example are fundamentally about identity, even when they appear to be about more mundane matters. Talk about protecting jobs and social security are not what they seem to be. We are a nation separate from others, and we should protect our identity. That means resisting foreign influence in all matters. We are masters of our realm, and we don’t want people coming here because if they do they will start to influence our being, our identity. That’s what separates tourists from immigrants. The former are harmless, but the latter, because they work here or enjoy our social benefits, will want to stay. And if they stay, they will change us. Talk about labor shortage or unaffordability of social security is just a front for identity politics. This is obvious from the fact that data on the economic effects of immigration has never supported the economic arguments against immigration, and yet these arguments continue to be expressed. Something deeper must be at stake.

We should instead view a nation as a cooperative arrangement for mutual benefit, both internally and against legitimate foreign threats. It has a number of traditions that are valuable because, and only because they improve the mutual cooperation. Forget about national identity. It’s not even clear that there is a thing called individual identity. You want to be proud of something? Do something noteworthy. You want to belong? A mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement is a nice thing to belong to. And if you have to, be proud of that arrangement to the extent that you contribute.

So, by all means, make your borders. A cooperative needs a delineation. You need to identify the cooperators and give them a cooperative say on the matters of the whole (a democracy works best in small, separate groups). But don’t exclude people for imaginary reasons or in the absence of real threats to the cooperative. There’s no national identity that immigrants can come to destroy. Do they disrupt your mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement? Are they criminals for example? Go ahead and exclude them (incarceration may, however, be a sufficient form of exclusion). And keep your eyes open to the many ways in which immigrants enhance the mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement. For example, they create jobs, they allow natives to move up the job ladder, they pay tax money (often more than they take), they have interesting food etc.

Don’t remove your borders, because you may face real threats. But open them, because opening them will in all likelihood benefit your cooperative. And even if there’s no effect, you must do it to respect the rights of the newcomers. Rights can only be limited when that is necessary for the rights of others. And it’s normally very hard to argue that limiting the rights of immigrants is necessary in order to protect the rights of natives. Hence you often see a heavy thumb on the scales: the rights of both parties are not given equal weight when the rights of immigrants are on one side of the equation.

How should this balancing work in general? When the rights of two parties are in conflict with each other, respecting the rights of one party usually means limiting the rights of the other party. Think of the journalist claiming his speech rights in order to violate the right to privacy of a politician. Someone – often a judge but we can all make the call – has to decide which party’s rights should give way. The normal criterion is the damage done to the rights of either party. In my example, unless the private fact that the journalist wants to publish is very important for the work of the politician, the latter’s right to privacy should prevail over the speech rights of the journalist who undoubtedly has many more important stories he can cover without harming the rights of others.

The same is true with immigrants versus natives. Both have rights, and immigration can perhaps, in some circumstances, cause violations of the rights of natives. However, it normally doesn’t. Which means that the right to movement of the immigrants should prevail. It’s only when the natives have a very strong case showing massive rights violations on their part caused by immigration that immigration can be stopped or limited. Don’t forget that on the immigrant side of the equation there’s not only the right to free movement but also rights such freedom of association, the right not to suffer poverty etc. You need a lot to outweigh those rights, and a lot is typically not available. In most cases there’s not even a bit.

More on nationalism here. More posts in this series here.

Murky Yet Suggestive Evidence That Democracy Promotes Economic Growth

Cross-country analysis often shows only a weakly positive correlation between democracy and economic growth. The correlation is weak because there are some authoritarian countries that have strong growth figures. Most notably China of course. The impressive growth rates of a few oppressive regimes has successfully undermined the once popular theory about democracy’s positive effect on growth, and has even fostered the opposite belief: that authoritarian government is necessary for growth. (The story goes somewhat like this: authoritarian rule means longterm planning, discipline in production and consumption, national harmony and popular respect for often difficult decisions, which in turn means efficiency and productivity, and hence growth).

However, those non-democratic countries that do indeed show high growth rates shouldn’t be viewed as typical: there are just as many authoritarian countries with very weak growth figures. It’s a bit silly therefore to derive a general law about authoritarian economic success when that supposed law can be so easily falsified.

The success of China and a few other authoritarian countries doesn’t warrant a general conclusion about the beneficial effects of autocracy on growth. Bill Easterly in his “Tyranny of Experts” has argued that the prosperity of successful autocracies may not be due to a lack of freedom. Most of those countries experienced a recent move towards relatively more freedom and democracy. It was only after China started to soften its horrific totalitarian rule that prosperity began to rise. It’s not crazy, therefore, to assume that a more rapid liberalization would have resulted in even higher growth rates. Furthermore, most autocracies start from nowhere. It’s relatively easy to produce good growth figures when baseline prosperity is very low, as was China’s some decades ago (not in the least because of authoritarian rule). It’s relatively easy, even – one is tempted to say – for fools and autocrats.

The low baseline from which most autocracies start shows up when we compare not the growth rates but the level of GDP between countries. The correlation between democracy and GDP is stronger when we look at the level rather than the growth of GDP. Richer countries (with the exception of most wealthy Muslim countries) tend to be or become democracies. The data linked to in the previous sentence plot income in 1971 against democracy scores in the following decades, you can see that the causation seems to go from income to democracy. A high level of GDP predicts a flourishing (or at least continuation) of democracy. However, this could again be used by the authoritarian growth crowd. They can use this to argue that poor countries need autocracy in order to kick-start growth, because democracy can only come when the level of GDP is sufficiently high (the “democracy as luxury” argument). It’s probably true that prosperity fosters democracy (for the obvious reasons: democracy requires money, leisure, education etc.). But it’s good to see some evidence of causation in the opposite direction, from democracy to growth – if only to undermine self-congratulatory autocrats. For example, here‘s a study plotting current income against older democracy scores, suggesting that democracy also promotes growth. And here are some more correlations between the levels of GDP and of democracy. (More here).

If we accept that there is indeed a causal effect of democracy on the level of GDP, how exactly does that effect occur? Perhaps transparency, the rule of law, accountability, property rights and other characteristics of democracy are good for growth.

If we want further evidence of a causal effect of democracy on growth, we can do an in-country analysis. This paper examines the effect of democratic transitions on economic growth. The encouraging conclusion is that countries which have experienced a transition to democracy experience higher average growth after the transition.

The paper plots the evolution of real per capita GDP growth in the years surrounding a successful democratization (the year of the democratization being T), compared to the global growth rates in each year. It shows that the transition itself may imply economic costs, but in the longer term democracy pays off.

I should also mention a recent paper by Acemoglu et al that points in the same direction.

Crime and Human Rights (22): Blame Is So 20th Century

Blame is useless in criminal punishment. We don’t need it. Rather than blaming the criminal, as we so often do, we should pay sole attention to criminal actions. It’s those actions that are the problem. Crimes are bad – i.a. because a lot of crimes result in rights violations – and whether criminals are bad is of secondary importance. What we need to do is put an end to rights violations and crimes. In order to do that we have to focus on actions: on the consequences of certain harmful actions, and on ways to prevent them from occurring in the future.

Blame doesn’t help us to stop harmful actions. At least not immediately. (One could argue that blame teaches people about morality, but that’s a longterm goal). What does help, in some cases, is a focus on character. However, the purpose of this focus on character is not to build a case for blame. An understanding of a criminal’s character – of his or her general viciousness or dickishness – can help us avoid future crimes and rights violations because this understanding can tell us something about the need for incapacitation. A bad person poses a higher risk of recidivism than someone who has made a mistake or has committed one intentional evil act. However, this punishment of incapacitation isn’t the result of the criminal’s blameworthiness. The only reason to incapacitate a criminal is the risk of future harmful actions.

What we tend to do is the opposite. If we speak about a criminal’s character, it’s usually because we want to blame the criminal beyond what we would normally think is necessary. There are at least three stages of blame: people are blamed for doing something wrong accidentally or stupidly; people who do something wrong intentionally are blamed somewhat more; and people who do something because of their nasty character are blamed even more. (In criminal trials it’s common that judges take into account past actions as either aggravating or mitigating circumstances).

We often want to impose additional blame on someone who has done wrong and has a history of doing wrong because we believe that blame should be about character. Bad people should receive more blame than people who do one thing wrong. If two people commit the same crime but one does it because he or she is a bad person and the other for opportunistic reasons for example, then the former should receive more blame simply because he or she is a bad person. A bad character is worse than one bad intentional act.

What I want to do is sever the link between blame and character, and use a person’s character not as a source of blame but as a means to assess the likelihood of future wrongdoing and to avoid crimes and rights violations. Rather than use people’s character as a source of blame – which is very hard anyway given what we don’t know about genetics, early childhood experiences etc. – we should do character assessment, to the extent that it is possible, because it teaches us something about the need for incapacitation as a means to avoid harmful actions.

Obviously, this has consequences for the types and severity of the criminal punishments we can impose. (A person’s character or habitual behavior shouldn’t be an aggravating circumstance in itself, irrespective of the need for incapacitation). However, what I’m arguing here may have consequences beyond the realm of criminal punishment. It may be true that we blame too often and too much in general. A child who is blamed for wrongdoing may thereby learn the rules of morality; a worker who is blamed for misconduct may become a better worker, etc. But we should admit that we usually don’t have a good reason for blaming people. People’s intentions are hard to figure out. And it’s even harder to judge someone’s character, except in a few extreme cases. We’re also in the dark about what drives people: are their actions really the result of blameworthy choices, or is there something deeper such as their genetic make-up or early experiences that makes them do what they do? Hard to tell, and yet blame seems so easy.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (52): Legal Rights, and Something More

Ask a lawyer and she will say that human rights are a kind of law that people can appeal to in a court of law. Ask a member of Amnesty International and she will say that human rights are moral claims about what people – all people, everywhere – are entitled to on the basis of their humanity, even if the laws of their country don’t give them what they are entitled to. Ask an anthropologist and she will say that human rights are moral or legal claims that are part of a certain culture somewhere.

And all of them are right, of course.

Human rights are, in many cases, legal rights, together with other legal rights which aren’t human rights (for example the right to acquire a driver’s license at the age of 18). However, some human rights in some countries in particular aren’t yet recognized in the local legal system. In that case, rights are “mere” moral claims, rhetorical claims one could say, with an uncertain effectiveness compared to legal rights. Perhaps these moral claims are “legal rights in waiting”. Indeed, many moral claims are uttered in an attempt to turn them into legal claims if at all possible. An example could be the right to free speech in China.

However, not all moral claims have this intention. It’s not always obvious that the law is the best means to foster respect for moral claims. The right to work, for instance, may be better served by sound economic policy than by its transformation into a legal right. In the case of some moral claims – and now I turn to point 3 in the drawing above – it’s even wrong to try and turn them into laws. A woman’s right to equal standing and voice in her household for example – which is a right based on the right not to be discriminated – should probably not be turned into a legal right because we don’t want the law to mess with people’s households.

The fourth point in the drawing refers to morality not in the prescriptive but in the descriptive sense: rights can be part of a culture’s accepted ethical standards. In which case it may or may not also be part of that culture’s legal system (if the right is deeply entrenched in the culture it may not be necessary to recognize it in law).

Each of these four types of human rights are equally “real”. You sometimes hear the argument that only legal rights are “real” rights, and that moral rights – or natural rights, or human rights or whatever – are “nonsense upon stilts“. This is a strange assertion, when you think about it. Moral claims can be quite effective. Amnesty International and others have done great work over the years. Conversely, many legal rights are less effective than we tend to think. Most jurisdictions have incorporated the right to life through laws against murder, manslaughter, aggressive war etc. And yet murder and war are still quite common.

The four types of rights are connected and interdependent. Human rights are both the children and the parents of law. Law is often an effective means to make rights real, and in that sense rights are the children of the law. But laws are often legal translations of pre-existing moral claims, which makes rights the parents of the law. Human rights are also the children and the parents of culture. It’s undeniable that rights have developed in cultural contexts that were amenable to rights (and I’m not only talking about the West, by the way). Conversely, it’s equally true that rights create their own culture. Something similar is the case for morality: rights are the children of morality because they are means to realize certain moral values, but at the same time they become moral values themselves.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (90): Rights and Virtue Ethics

At first sight, virtue ethics seems irrelevant to human rights. Rights are about what people do to each other and what the state does to people. They’re about rules and consequences, not about people’s good character or virtuous dispositions. Deontological or consequential ethics look like they’re more adequate from a rights perspective. Whether or not people possess the right virtues can of course make a difference with regard to the level of respect for rights. Courageous people will sometimes use their courage to help others in need and help them protect their rights. Honest people will not steal from each other. Compassionate people will assist the poor. Judges and police officers with a sense of duty will help to right wrongs.

However, it’s risky to depend on virtues. Virtues are a rare commodity, and if we need virtues in order to have rights then rights as well will be rare. That’s why some who call themselves realists about human nature argue that we should economize on virtue. Better, they say, to mobilize people’s self-interest as a means to enhance overall respect for rights. For example, if people cherish their own rights – as most of them do – then it may be in their self-interest to cherish the rights of others as well, because they can reasonably hope for reciprocity. It’s also the case that most rights don’t make a lot of sense if they’re not widely spread. It’s quite useless, for instance, to be the only person on earth having the right to speak. We speak with each other. So if it’s in our self-interest to have a right to speak, our self-interest will automatically favor the same right for others.

Opponents of a strong focus on virtues do not only turn towards enlightened self-interest but also insist that we can do a lot by trying to improve institutions rather than individual dispositions. Good institutions do not only protect people’s rights but also promote virtues. Examples of institutional solutions are courts that reliably protect people’s property rights and personal security rights. Or trade agreements and immigration rules that don’t aggravate global poverty. Once these institutions are in place people will recognize their benefits and develop the virtues necessary to keep them in place. Virtue ethics, according to this view, has things backwards.

However, I do think virtue ethics has something interesting to say about human rights. Virtue ethics focuses on character, not on the rules we should follow or on the good consequences of some rules or some ways of acting. And the advantage of focusing on character is that we introduce a sense of reliability. If human rights depend on frivolous self-interest and fragile institutions – the same self-interest and institutions that so often destroy rights – then they are precarious. If, on the other hand, we argue with virtue ethicists that the consequences of acting in a certain way or of following a certain rule have in themselves no ethical content unless our actions or obedience to rules are preceded and caused by virtuous dispositions and good character (similar to Kant’s “good will” for example), then we can build rights on a firmer ground. Virtues, by definition, are reliable and permanent. Our character doesn’t depend on who we are today, but on who we are predictably. (Although one can of course cultivate one’s virtues and become more virtuous over time).

Maybe human rights activists have a tendency to promote rules over motivations and good outcomes over good intentions. While we can have good outcomes and rules that are respected without also having people acting on good intentions, perhaps it’s true that we’ll have more secure outcomes and rules when we find a way to promote virtues and good intentions. A virtue ethicist will of course claim that we need our virtues for their own sake and not for their instrumental role in rights protection, but he or she will not object to that role. Of course, everything I’ve said here depends on the controversial claim that we are indeed able to promote virtue.

By the way, there’s an interesting parallel between virtue ethics and confucianism.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (89): Anti-Consequentialist Consequentialism

There are two words in “human rights”. “Rights” are claims that override the claims, wishes or welfare of a government, a majority, or even the totality of a population minus one. In other words, they are claims that need to be respected whatever other claims are present, such as the claims of law, morality, welfare, religion etc. Rights should be respected irrespective of the law of the land, of someone’s legal status, of someone’s religion, race, gender, citizenship, country of residence or moral conduct. That’s where the other word comes in: all “human” beings have rights and these rights should be respected simply because human beings are human. No other reason is required. No law, no conduct, no welfare consequences. These two words – “rights” and “human” – are connected: both are about priority, overriding importance and lack of conditionality.

This would seem to imply that human rights are the ultimate anti-consequentialist morality. We are not to enslave, torture or murder one person even if that would increase total welfare. Forcibly removing one eye from a series of two-eyed people in order to give blind people one eye would clearly increase overall welfare since the gains for the blind are greater than the losses for the others. And yet human rights prohibit coercive organ transplantations. However, it’s not entirely correct to view human rights as anti-consequentialist. Human rights are also, and somewhat paradoxically, consequentialist. In two ways:

  • First, the welfare of the majority or of the “society” can to some extent be defined as respect for human rights. Torturing one terrorist in order to discover and defuse a ticking time bomb would allow us to safeguard the right to life and bodily integrity of a large number of other people or even of society as a whole. Rights need to be balanced against each other, and when more rights or more important rights for a large number of people can be safeguarded by way of a violation of the rights of one, then that’s the result or the “consequence” we should favor over the alternative, which is protecting the rights of one to the detriment of the rights of many. The balance is clearly in favor of the many, and that’s a consequentialist calculus. (I have to say here that these are not, in practice, the only alternatives and ticking time bomb arguments are often very misleading. But as a theoretical example it will do. I have a separate discussion of the limits of this kind of calculus here).
  • Second, human rights are means to achieve some goods or values. We don’t have rights because it’s good to have rights. We have them because they have good consequences. I need a right to free speech because having free speech results in certain things that are good for me: knowledge, self-development etc.

There’s considerable tension between the consequentialist and anti-consequentialist strains in human rights. It’s a tough problem. I’ve tried to come up with ways to relieve this tension in some older posts.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (19): A Game Theory Approach

Game theory is a useful tool for trying to understand the interaction between the struggle for rights and the countervailing forces (often states). Let’s look at a few examples. In the case of popular protests and revolutionary reaction against oppressive regimes, an important decision both sides have to take is whether or not to use violence. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once said, violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard. In other words, protesters may have reason to escalate their expression of discontent, just to make sure their point comes across and those in power realize that things are serious. On the other hand, the violence of protests or revolutions can easily escalate beyond what is necessary or effective. Difficult to keep violence under control, and the ultimate outcome of a violent revolution may not at all be what the protesters initially desired. We see that all too often. (Present-day Egypt is a case in point).

From the perspective of those in power, things look quite similar. Again, some violence can be a good thing (from their point of view), but it shouldn’t be too much. Oppressive regimes have reason to use a certain amount of violence in order to stay in power, but if they go beyond that amount they risk violent reaction. However, it’s not just violent reaction that may be a problem. While moderate violence helps an autocrat to retain control, he doesn’t want to engage in violent repression for a very long time. Long term violence, even moderate violence, renders public discussion and persuasion impossible. As a result of this destruction of the public space (in the Arendtian sense), support from the people is increasingly harder to come by and opposition is more likely. That’s not in the interest of the regime.

And it’s not just autocracies; democracies as well have to engage in strategic decision games. Take for instance border controls. There’s an interesting story about migration from Suriname to the Netherlands. Until 1975, Suriname was part of the Netherlands and the Surinamese people could travel back and forth between the Netherlands and their home country. The Netherlands wanted to stop this migration, but the result was that the Surinamese rushed to “beat the ban” and moved in massive numbers. Half of the population of Suriname ended up in the Netherlands. Something similar happened with the 1962 UK Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act took away the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter Britain freely and also produced a rush to “beat the ban”.

It’s often the case that the numbers of permanent immigrants jump up just before the imposition of border controls between countries that had free movement arrangements. Migrants who previously moved back and forth, depending on the job market or the state of the economy both at home and in their destination countries, decide to stay in the destination countries because once they go back home they can’t return. Border controls have the same effect on “illegal” immigrants who often decide to stay because they can’t risk the dangerous border crossing more than once. So states that want to limit the numbers of migrants should, paradoxically, open their borders at least to some extent. Not too much, probably, but not too little either.

From the perspective of the migrants: if we want to promote freedom of movement – which is a right – then we may do best to go steady and not open the “flood gates” all at once. High numbers of migrants may reduce native support for immigration. When natives are allowed to make up their minds about the pros and cons of immigration gradually, then there will be “natural” growth in support for increased immigration as people start to see the benefits and get over their preconceived ideas about disadvantages. (See also this).

You can of think of literally thousands of games like these: a new democracy transitioning from a violent authoritarian regime has to decide how much forgiveness and unpunished injustice it can afford, and how much justice and discontent among the ranks of the old regime it can afford; Ukraine and the international community have to decide if they can afford to give up the Crimea and risk further annexations by an emboldened Russia, or if they can afford to push back and risk conflict with Russia. The list of cases can go on and on.

The interesting question is this: which general lessons for human rights promotion can we take away from this? Apart from the obvious and rather boring lessons that game theory taught us long ago – try to understand unintended consequences, take into account your opponent’s incentives, anticipate his moves etc. – there’s the lesson about multiple equilibria. Zero border restrictions will tend to move towards an equilibrium of high restrictions because tribal fears will create a backlash. These tribal fears will perhaps only be swayed by a learning curve based on and made possible by gradualism. But very strict migration restrictions will also make this learning curve impossible since very few migrants will come and people will not get the opportunity to revise their prejudices about immigration. Immigration restrictions are therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best equilibrium seems to be the gradual expansion of freedom of movement.

Something very similar is the case for transitional justice. A strong focus on prosecution of the old guard will – like instant open borders – can create a backlash among the often numerous supporters and collaborators of the old regime. This backlash may undermine the new democracy and lead to a restoration of the pre-democratic equilibrium. The opposite strategy, no attention to transitional justice at all, may also undermine the new regime as the victims of the old regime will have no reason to give support to the new one. Gradual prosecution of the top cadre of the old regime, combined with truth commissions, atonement and forgiveness looks likely to provide a stable “learning curve” for the new democracy.

And you can write your own paragraphs about cases like violent protest, the Crimea etc. The stories will all be quite similar. Human rights promoters should in general think harder about the expected equilibrium of their actions. The lesson is probably that among different possible strategies the gradual one wins from the all or nothing approach because the equilibrium that results from all or nothing tends to be nothing (also in the case of oppressors by the way). Gradualism of course doesn’t preclude ambitious long term goals.

More on game theory and rights here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Crime and Human Rights (21): A Proposal For a Better System of Criminal Punishment

Like many of you, I’m in favor of a radical overhaul of our criminal justice systems. We’ve made tremendous progress over the centuries, and yet the way we treat criminals today is still an abomination for which future generations will rightfully scold us. I was therefore pleasantly surprised – initially at least – to learn about a revolutionary proposal coming from Rebecca Roache. There’s a write-up here, and the headline sure grabs the attention: “Prisoners could serve 1,000 year sentence in eight hours”. The proposal:

Future biotechnology could be used to trick a prisoner’s mind into thinking they have served a 1,000 year sentence, a group of scientists have claimed.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache is in charge of a team of scholars focused upon the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. Dr Roache claims the prison sentence of serious criminals could be made worse by extending their lives.

Speaking to Aeon magazine, Dr Roache said drugs could be developed to distort prisoners’ minds into thinking time was passing more slowly. “There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence,” she said.

A second scenario would be to upload human minds to computers to speed up the rate at which the mind works … “If the speed-up were a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours … Uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours. This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time.” (source)

These innovations – or should I say imagined innovations since the technologies aren’t available yet – are defended on the basis of cost, humanity and proportionality.

  • Radically reduced prison sentences are cheaper for society, and more humane for the prisoner.
  • By tricking prisoners’ brains into believing that they serve a very long time while in fact only serving a short time, we’ll make it possible to offer them a life after prison.
  • By making it possible to impose very, very long sentences – or rather the chemically induced experience of very long sentences – one could make punishment truly proportional and retributive. Retribution is currently limited at life sentences (for those civilized countries that don’t impose the death penalty). When drugs will make it possible to impose sentences that last much longer than a lifetime, one can punish the very worst criminals proportionally to their crimes. Hitler could be locked up for ages. Roache writes about a particularly horrendous crime punished by an “almost laughably inadequate” sentence of 30 years in prison. “Sufficient punishment” is what this is about, and Roache is quite explicit in adopting the retributive and proportionality approach to justice.

There’s an obvious contradiction between these justifications. While it’s certainly good and humane to give prisoners a life after their sentences – no matter how long these are (or are perceived to be) – tricking people into believing that they are hundreds of years in prison is actually kind of cruel. And there’s no need for this cruelty. I’ve argued elsewhere that the role of retribution, proportionality and desert in criminal punishment should be strictly limited, and certainly not expanded as in Roache’s proposal. The number of months or years a person is to be imprisoned should be determined by the need to incapacitate him or her and to protect society from harm. Tricking people into believing that they have been in jail for thousands of years and then setting them free after a few hours will only create resentful human beings in the prime of their lives, willing and able to take revenge on the society that has punished them in this way. Of course, the endorsement of retributivism is not a necessary precondition for favoring the proposed technologies, and with some tweaking the technologies may actually do some good. We’ll see, perhaps.

More posts in this series are here.

Cultural Rights (15): Crimea and the Ethics of Secession

I’m afraid I’m one of those people who can’t remain silent when everyone else is talking about something. So, a few words about the situation in Crimea. The Russian government and some of the Russians in Crimea are making the argument for secession on the basis of national self-determination and the rights of Russian speakers in the region. It may be useful to have a look at the moral merits of that argument, first in a general and theoretical sense and then applied to the specific case of Crimea. (I’m not discussing the legal merits here).

Ideally, the right to secession shouldn’t exist. An ideal state grants individuals and cultural or ethnic groups all the rights they require, including (limited) self-government and self-determination. Even a very large and diverse state could – and probably should – do that. That is why the right to secession can only have a place in non-ideal theory. But what place? I believe it won’t be among the priorities. In the non-ideal world – the current one – the right to secession should not be the first option, mainly because other, less risky means to realize certain rights would often be available. For example: devolution, agitation, representation etc.

Secession is, most of the time, a one-sided decision that doesn’t have the approval of the state from which a territory wants to secede. Hence the risk of violent conflict, and this risk should be balanced against the possible benefits of secession, especially when non-secessionist and therefore less risky means can yield the same benefits. But even if we’re dealing with a mutual decision, secession may not be the optimal solution because the seceding entity can become the kind of state that doesn’t guarantees all the rights of the new minorities living within its new borders. I wouldn’t even call a mutually agreed separation a secession, by the way.

Of course, there will be cases of extreme oppression that warrant unilateral secession on the grounds that other, less risky means are simply unavailable. For example, it’s difficult to make the case that a secession of part of the territory of North Korea – even one that turns violent and deadly – is not the right thing to do, morally speaking. Both the specific right to self-determination of the seceding Koreans and their other rights would seem to warrant a certain cost.

So what are the reasons that make secession the morally right thing to do? If we agree to limit the concept of secession to a one-sided decision then a secession is justified when:

  1. the purpose is the realization of the human rights of a group of people – including their right to self-government – and this realization is impossible by any other, less risky means within their current state (secession for the purpose of a power grab is then not justified);
  2. the new political entity will most likely grant a higher level of protection of human rights within its territory, including the rights of the new minorities;
  3. and the secession decision is approved by a majority – or perhaps a super majority – of the seceding group. (Self-government is one of the rights that may justify secession, and so it can’t be violated by the act of secession itself).

There may be more necessary preconditions for secession to be ethical, but I believe the combined presence of these 3 are a bare minimum. (The same preconditions would have to be present in the case of bilaterally agreed “secession”, with perhaps the added condition that also a majority of the remaining state should agree. But I’m not sure about that).

The problem, of course, is that much of this is by definition unknown beforehand. The group that wants to secede knows the rights violations it now endures, but doesn’t know the possible effectiveness of non-secessionist means or the possible risks of secession. The nature of the future government of the new political entity is unknown as well, and it’s therefore uncertain how that government will perform regarding the rights of both the new minorities and the majority.

Let’s now return to the case of Crimea. I’m obviously not an expert on the region, but as far as I can tell, none of the three conditions for justified secession are present. It’s clear that the Russian speaking majority in Crimea (if it is a majority) has (or had?) at its disposal other non-secessionist means to further its cause. The upheavals in Kiev did not make long term improvements regarding the rights of the Russian speaking majority in Crimea impossible. There was no reason to believe that the new government of the Ukraine would engage in massive rights violations in Crimea. And, in any case, it’s not clear that the inhabitants of the Crimea – including the non-Russians – will have a higher level of rights protection in the Russian state or in a separate, new state under the tutelage of Russia. If anything, the opposite is more likely. (If Ukraine were to become a member of the EU, that would mean even better prospects for the rights of all Ukrainian citizens).

The second condition for justified secession is equally absent. Whether Crimea will become part of Russia or a separate state in Russia’s sphere of influence, past experience with minority rights in Russia or its dependencies isn’t reassuring.

And with regard to the third condition, we can all agree that the referendum was a sham. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible to know whether or not a majority of the inhabitants of Crimea are genuinely in favor of secession from Ukraine. A rushed referendum under the threat of violence doesn’t tell us anything apart from the fact that even Putin craves the appearance of democratic legitimacy. Perhaps a year ago we could have known. But not anymore.

More on cultural rights here.

Income Inequality (30): A Primer on Inequality and Economic Growth

Countries that are more equal in income terms are also richer. But how about the relationship between inequality and economic growth? The classic causal story, based on work by Simon Kuznets,

maintains that there’s an inverted U-shaped relationship over long periods of economic development. As emerging economies grow they initially become less equal as the few with high financial endowments profit off of their ownership of key productive resources, like land. Then, as industrialization evolves, much more of the population has the chance to participate in higher value-added work which reduces inequality. (source)

In this argument, growth determines inequality: first growth drives inequality up, and then it gradually reduces it.

However, this Kuznetsian view has come under fire recently. Thomas Piketty for instance, in his “Capital in the Twenty-First Century“, has criticized Kuznets’ view that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own given increasing growth. According to Piketty, increasing wealth concentration is a likely outcome for the foreseeable future. Kuznets findings were based on a historical anomaly. And indeed, the lines in this graph do not turn downwards to form an inverted U-shape.

Which is why it’s perhaps better to look at the causation in another way: maybe inequality or equality determine growth rather than vice versa. For example, there’s this study arguing that high income inequality is likely to inhibit growth, especially in developing countries.

Inequality inhibits growth, especially in developing countries, because

high income inequality can discourage the evolution of the economic and political institutions associated with accountable government (which in turn enable a market environment conducive to investment and growth); and … high income inequality can undermine the civic and social life that sustains effective collective decision-making, especially in multi-ethnic settings. (source)

This study comes to a similar conclusion. It argues that, in general, more inequality endangers the sustainability of growth. Long consistent spells of economic growth are correlated with low levels of income inequality.

A growth spell in this study is a period of at least five years that begins with an unusual increase in the growth rate and ends with an unusual drop in growth.

It may seem counterintuitive that inequality is strongly associated with less sustained growth. After all, some inequality is essential to the effective functioning of a market economy and the incentives needed for investment and growth … But too much inequality might be destructive to growth. Beyond the risk that inequality may amplify the potential for financial crisis, it may also bring political instability, which can discourage investment. Inequality may make it harder for governments to make difficult but necessary choices in the face of shocks, such as raising taxes or cutting public spending to avoid a debt crisis. Or inequality may reflect poor people’s lack of access to financial services, which gives them fewer opportunities to invest in education and entrepreneurial activity. … [S]ocieties with more equal income distributions have more durable growth. … [A] 10 percentile decrease in inequality (represented by a change in the Gini coefficient from 40 to 37) increases the expected length of a growth spell by 50 percent. (source)

Some additional support for this view comes from the fact that redistributive policies – which are anti-inequality policies – don’t actually harm growth. Redistribution doesn’t help either, according to this graph, but maybe it counteracts the negative effect of inequality on growth given that it counteracts inequality. In that sense, it does help.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (57): Some Clues From the Broken Windows Theory?

The Broken Windows Theory (henceforth BWT) was first described by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 article. The idea is that social disorder – exemplified by a neighborhood where many windows are broken – fosters crime. Disorder sets certain destructive norms and signals that those norms are OK. Broken windows, even a few, that are left unfixed will soon come to represent a lack of accountability and judicial redress. Unrepaired broken windows are a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. Hence people will not refrain from breaking more and you’ll have a vicious cycle of disorder. This is a kind of lawlessness that will eventually also lead to bigger crimes.

If, on the other hand, a part of town is well-maintained, people will be less likely to engage in acts of vandalism there because they know that they will be held accountable if they do. The same is true for other types of antisocial behavior such as littering. Throw one thing away in a clean environment, and you’ll have the police at your door. Throw something on an existing pile and you’ll feel better.

The BWT can perhaps explain certain human rights violations. I see two ways in which it can: it explains crime, and most crimes are human rights violations; and perhaps the same broken window logic applies to human rights violations themselves: one rights violation that goes unpunished may start a sequence of impunity and repeated violations.

However, this means assuming that the BWT is more than just a theory and can be supported by facts. There’s some controversy as to whether it can be.

NB: Wilson’s Broken Window theory should not be confused with Bastiat’s theory.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (88): Justice and Proportionality

The notion of proportionality is central to many theories of justice:

  • the criminal should receive punishment that is proportional to the crime;
  • in war and law enforcement, the army or the police should not use disproportionate amounts of force;
  • people’s economic rewards should be proportional to what they deserve and to the amounts of personal effort, skill or whatever you believe is a basis of desert;
  • the people’s representatives in democratic institutions should represent equal proportions of the population;
  • people should pay taxes in proportion to their income;
  • etc.

But why should “things” be proportional? Perhaps it’s some kind of esthetic ideal: a beautiful body is a proportional one; a tasty dish is one with the right proportions of ingredients. So maybe justice is merely about beauty and taste. The world is just if things are not out of proportion, because if they were that would insult our esthetic taste. The word “fair” in “fairness” – often a synonym for justice – also means beautiful.

But I find that hard to believe. People want justice for other reasons than a desire for beauty, and demands of proportionality are about something more than esthetics. But whatever the reasons, proportionality has it’s place in theories of justice, and it would be illusory to try and get rid of it. The notion seems deeply engrained in moral intuitions.

However, while we should in general accept that proportionality plays a role in justice, we should also criticize some uses of proportionality. It’s hard to deny that more serious crimes should be met with more serious punishments, but it’s equally hard to deny that there should be an upper limit to this (you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times) and that criminal punishment should also serve other goals than people’s desire to have things in proportion. Punishment is used in order to protect the public against the criminal, and if a non-proportional punishment serves this goal then maybe we shouldn’t insist on proportionality for proportionality’s sake.

It’s also possible to criticize the use of proportionality in discussions about economic rewards, redistribution, poverty relief etc. If you want to argue that people who are more deserving have a claim to more compensation – and that undeserving people should receive less or nothing – then you need a good account of desert. However, such an account is elusive if not outright impossible. Effort and skill may not be signs of desert but rather the product of undeserved genetic inheritance. Difficult to know, and very intrusive if you want to find out. Proportional distribution as a method of realizing an idea of justice based on desert depends on desert being a good basis of justice. If it isn’t, proportionality may lead to injustice rather than justice because it may leave the poor to starve.

There’s a third case in which proportionality can undermine justice instead of promoting it. Governments may want to limit certain rights because they believe that this is necessary for a public good such as protection against terrorism, in which case they often make claims about proportionality. The possible consequences of terrorism are supposedly so severe that limitations of people’s right to privacy or right not to be tortured are proportional responses, even if these limitations are far-reaching. You can’t lift a heavy rock with an elastic band. The tool should be proportional to the end you want to achieve, and a world without terrorism requires some heavy tools. But again, proportionality as a method to achieve justice – a just world is a world without terrorists killing innocent people – may achieve the opposite. The harm caused by limitations of rights is often greater than the harm of terrorism.

A final example of the way in which proportionality can lead us astray when thinking about justice. Many of us tend to believe that we owe more to those close to us and that justice is in the first instance something between members of the nation state. And it is indeed common to see concerns about human rights violations diminish in proportion to the distance between those who are concerned and those whose rights are violated. However, if ideas about closeness are overemphasized in thinking about justice – and they often are since patriotism, nationalism, racism and other forms of in-group bias are quite common – then proportionality will again cause injustice rather than justice.

The point of all this is not to criticize proportionality as such but the manner in which it is used. Proportionality is one method to achieve justice, and can, given some prerequisites, help us to achieve justice. You can’t fight terrorism with good will alone. You shouldn’t impose life sentences for traffic violations. And you shouldn’t give everyone equal economic rewards. But let’s not overemphasize one very peculiar method to achieve justice, a method moreover that is often based on shaky assumptions such as desert, the moral relevance of closeness or the effectiveness and necessity of certain policies.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (79): Poverty Traps

Many among us will experience short spans of poverty at some stages in our lives. I lose my job or my unemployment benefits, I have a catastrophic but transitory health problem, an extreme weather event destroys my crop, or an economic crisis forces me to declare bankruptcy. As a result, I have to live off my savings or my parents and friends will have to lend me money. Still, in time I find another job; my health improves as I benefit from cheap healthcare (perhaps provided or subsidized by the government); the weather returns to normal and I can resume my profitable farming activity; or I can start a new business under the protection of bankruptcy laws that don’t burden me with debt.

However, I may also be what’s called a “structurally” poor person, meaning that I’m poor for most if not the whole of my life. Perhaps I was even born into poverty. The reason may be that I find myself in a “poverty trap”, a self-reinforcing mechanism which causes poverty to persist. In other words, I’m poor because I’m poor. And because I’m poor I’ll always be poor. I’ll die without ever having had an “adequate” standard of living, all the while passing on my poverty to my descendants.

Here are some examples of poverty traps:

  • I have a job, but the wage is low. As with many low wage jobs, I have almost no control over my work schedule. That means I can’t take on a second job and I can’t send my kids to child care. I have to spend time, money, effort and other people’s good will to take care of my kids. My job is physically hard and so I tend to have some health problems. My life is relatively expensive and it’s hard to find a better job. My salary doesn’t really cover my spending needs, hence I’m poor.
  • I can’t afford to pay the security deposit for a rental apartment, so I’m stuck in an expensive motel or I have to live with my parents who can barely afford their own survival. I also don’t have a refrigerator or a microwave, so I have to buy more expensive food. I have to wash my clothes by hand because… you guessed it. This takes a lot of time, time that I can’t spend on wage labor.
  • I don’t have tap water or heating because those aren’t things that people have where I’m from. I use wood for fuel like everyone else. The result is deforestation, soil degradation, lower crop yields and yet more poverty. My children have to help me – which is why I have a lot of them – to the detriment of their education. My kids will probably inherit my poverty because of this.
  • A lot of the things I’m forced to do because I’m poor are illegal. The lights of my car broke down, and I got a fine. I should have made the financial sacrifice and get them replaced, but I gambled on not being caught. I couldn’t pay the fine and my car was repossessed. Now I have to take public transport but can’t pay for that either. So I often get a fine for that as well. I know some homeless people who get a fine just for being homeless.
  • My calorie intake is too low to give me the strength to work. The quality of work I’m able to offer is inadequate for obtaining the food I require, and the food I do get isn’t enough to allow me to deliver quality work. My productivity is low, my earnings are low, and ultimately I can’t even keep a job or work the farm. My low calorie intake levels lead to health problems. My inadequate housing makes those problems even worse. My ill health, caused by my poverty, makes my poverty worse. I’m more likely to catch a disease, and also less likely to recover from it.
  • Like many poor people I have a low credit rating, making it difficult to get credit. The credit I do get is very expensive, which sort of defeats the point. Now, I do need the credit because I don’t have any savings. People say that I exhibit a high discount rate, that I’m too present-oriented and that I’m unable to delay gratification. Instead of borrowing money at high interest rates as a means to satisfy my unrealistic consumption desires, I should moderate myself and save for the future. But I’m present-oriented because I live in an environment in which I can’t trust people. Better to consume what I have than to save it and lose it later.
  • People also say that my issues with gratification extend to my sex life. I was indeed a teenage mother, and my education suffered as a result. This in turn affected my job prospects and my income. But this wasn’t just stupidity on my part. Being a mother gave meaning to my life. Other meaningful options just didn’t seem realistic.

So, there you have it. I think a lot of these stories are very real, and the problems that poor people face are often self-reinforcing. Of course, I don’t want to deny human agency. There are people who, even in the face of the worst possible circumstances, can fight their way out of poverty traps. So “trap” may be too strong a word. Individual responsibility still plays a role. Yet, let’s not forget that a poverty trap is sometimes intergenerational, as I’ve said before. Some children are born into a trap, and you can’t insist on responsibility and agency when we’re talking about children. A child growing up in a poor family may suffer in its early development. Undernourishment for instance can have a lasting impact on learning ability and earnings as an adult. Children of the poor are perhaps even more affected than the parents because the latter need a minimum calorie intake to work. They have to eat first. If they choose not to eat first, they will only make the poverty of the household worse.

Just to be clear: I’m not talking about an entire economy or country being stuck in a poverty trap. If you were expecting a post about that, I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time. I’m not wading into the treacherous debate about the necessity of large foreign aid injections to break the cycle of poor nations that can’t save enough to finance investment necessary to growth.

This post seems to be going on forever, so I’ll limit myself to a description of the problem. The solution – how to get out of poverty traps – is a topic for another day.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (49): Rights and Non-Rights Based Reasons to Favor Open Borders

It’s fairly easy to make a rights-based case for open borders – or, more realistically, for reduced immigration restrictions: human beings have

All of these rights depend, in some cases, on the possibility to migrate. And there’s no reason to believe that the actionability of these rights stops at the border (maybe the legal actionability stops there, but not the moral one).

Sure, you can have rights-based reasons to limit immigration, but those are relatively weak. People have a right to private property and to exclude others from their property, but it’s a stretch to argue that a nation of people has a “property” right to a territory. It’s also true that people have a right to democratic self-government, but again this is not a good reason to limit immigration (you can allow immigration and refuse to grant immigrants the right to vote, although you probably shouldn’t). What about the right to cultural identity? Relax. A culture that can’t survive the presence of neighbors is probably not worth saving.

The best right-based reason to limit immigration is perhaps freedom of association: although this right can be used to argue in favor of immigration – when a native and an immigrant decide to associate in, for example, a business relationship, then who are we to stop them? – it can also be interpreted as a right to exclude. A right to associate includes the right not to associate with certain people. One can make the case that allowing people to live in a country is a form of association that people who already live there can accept or refuse. However, is a nation really an association? Anti-patriots and cosmopolitans exist, and yet they are not excluded from the nation. Hence, it’s doubtful whether a nation is an association in the relevant sense. If it’s not, then it doesn’t have a right to exclude, at least not a right to exclude that is similar or equal to the right of proper associations.

So, we do have robust rights-based reasons in favor of open borders, but these aren’t the only reasons. Here’s a list of some types of people who normally don’t use rights as the basis for their thinking but who nevertheless have good reasons to favor open borders (or at least reduced immigration restrictions):

  • Hayekians: In most current immigration systems, governments exclude “bad” immigrants and admit “good” ones. E.g. they exclude criminals, terrorists and economic refugees but try to attract high skilled geniuses. However, Hayekians should doubt that governments have the knowhow that is necessary to do this. Better to remove immigration regulations and leave it to the market – i.e. immigrants and their employers – to sort this out. The government should then focus on keeping out the criminals and the terrorist.
  • Christians/Jews/Muslims: The Abrahamic religions remember the Exodus. If some children of God suffer an injustice for the simple reason of living somewhere rather than somewhere else (a present-day example of such an injustice would be the place premium) then the adherents of one of the Abrahamic religions have a moral obligation to rectify this. Charity can be one option, but open borders seem to be a much more effective remedy.
  • Economists: All those who favor GDP growth should favor open borders which could lead to a one-time boost in world GDP by an estimated 50 to 150%.
  • Law-and-order people: The average immigrant is less likely to commit crime than the average native-born person.
  • Socialists/Social-democrats: Left-leaning folks are primarily concerned with the poorest social classes. Hence, they also should favor immigration because there’s evidence that low-skilled native workers may be able to move up the job ladder when low-skilled immigrants arrive (some low-skilled natives will lose the wage competition but can then be compensated by the welfare state to which a lot of migrants contribute through the taxes that they pay).
  • Etc.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Poverty (16): The Capabilities Approach and the Unstraightening of the Poverty Line

We usually define poverty as a level of income or financial assets below a certain “poverty line”. This poverty line is set, often implicitly, at a level that is supposed to make the difference between decent survival and a life unworthy of human beings. The line is typically a single line, identical across all individuals – or even across nations. The best example is the $1 a day line. This is a single, universal line, adjusted only for purchasing power parity. Many national poverty lines are also fixed and identical for all citizens.

The problems with these fixed and uniform lines have been noticed by many, notably by Amartya Sen. According to Sen – and he’s right I think – being poor means being unable to achieve certain minimally satisfactory states of being and doing, for example the state of being sufficiently nourished, of being mobile, of being free of disease and ignorance, of being sheltered against the forces of nature etc. Poverty is about what people are or are not able to do and about who they are able to be. Poverty is capability-deprivation.

A poverty line only makes sense if it’s set at an amount of money, income or resources that is sufficient to guarantee the required capabilities. A first problem: it’s not at all clear that existing poverty lines are indeed set at a level sufficient to guarantee this. $1 a day in particular seems low, intuitively. Of course there are pragmatic reasons to set the line at a low level (one has to make priorities in life and help the worst off first). But then you’ll have a hard time calling it a poverty line, given the definition of poverty as the inability to achieve certain minimally satisfactory states of being and doing. Call it a survival line instead.

A second, and more serious problem arises from the fact that poverty lines are fixed and uniform. People, however, are obviously not uniform. Different people require different things in order to achieve the same capabilities. A pregnant women or a young mother needs more nutritional resources than the average person in order to achieve the state of being sufficiently nourished. A physically handicapped person needs more resources to achieve the capability of being mobile. If you focus on the average person – which is what you do with a uniform poverty line – then you’ll fail to identify some as being poor, while erroneously identifying others as being poor. And the environment also plays a role. A person living in unsanitary conditions may be forced to drink infected water. This affects his or her calorie absorption, implying a larger than average amount of food necessary to be sufficiently nourished. Cold weather means more effort to protect against the environment. And so on.

Identical capabilities require different levels of resources or income. A single, fixed poverty line obscures this reality. The only good poverty line is individually specific. However, that’s completely impractical. Differentiation across demographic groups, regions, occupations, lifecycle etc. might be more feasible, but at the cost of simplicity. Be that as it may. I would already be happy with increased awareness that there is indeed a problem. Talk of a “line” reduces this awareness, but I’m realistic enough to understand the appeal of something as simple as a line.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (31): Automation and the Hollowing Out of the Labor Market

Conventional wisdom has it that automation comes at the expense of low-skilled jobs and aggravates income inequality because of labor displacement at the bottom of the income distribution. It turns out that this is a bit too conventional, and not only because it runs afoul of the lump of labor fallacy (machines need to be built and people can go on and do other things). Mid-level jobs are also hit by automation, and perhaps even more than jobs at the bottom of the skill continuum. This has been called the “hollowing out” of the labor market. This hollowing out, caused in part by automation, in turns causes an increase in income inequality. This is mere arithmetic: if the middle drops, then the extremes become relatively more important and inequality rises. Ryan Avent puts it well:

Work published in 2006 by David Autor, Lawrence Katz, and Melissa Kearney argued that employment and wage growth in America have “polarised” in recent decades, a conclusion that has been reinforced by subsequent research. Employment in high- and low-skill positions has risen substantially relative to middle-skill jobs. The resulting employment distribution generates a distribution of wages that is similarly polarised and more unequal than that which prevailed prior to this period. (source)

Why does technological automation focus mainly on middle skill levels?

Daron Acemoglu and Mr Autor pioneered a “task approach” to labour markets. Tasks can be completed by either labour or capital. The more routine a task is, the more susceptible it is to automation. But whether or not a task is automated depends upon the relative supply—and the real wage—of workers of various skill levels. Subsequent work has shown that automation and trade are responsible for displacement of routine tasks previously done by middle-skill workers, in both manufacturing and clerical or service activities, leading to polarisation of local and national labour markets.  (source)

Technological automation focuses mainly on middle skill levels because it’s relatively easy at that level, easier sometimes than at the extremes of high and low skilled tasks. “Easier” here means both technologically easier and more cost effective. Highly skilled tasks, such as teaching a philosophy course, are difficult for machines to do because they are complex (although we do sometimes see high-skilled jobs being automated, such as legal research for example). In the case of low-skilled tasks, some of these are surprisingly hard to automate, as in the case of truck driving or toilet cleaning. Even low-skilled jobs that aren’t technically hard to automate aren’t always automated because the pay-off may be too low – people doing those jobs are poorly paid so developing expensive machines to do it for them isn’t worth the trouble.

And then there’s the added worry that displacement of many low-skilled workers would create a permanent underclass unable to participate in the economy – unable, in other words, to buy the goods and services produced by machines. There’s a famous anecdote about Henry Ford mocking a labor union president in one of his factories, saying it wouldn’t be easy to get the robots to pay their union dues. To which the union president responded that Ford wasn’t going to get the robots to buy his cars.

The hollowing out of the labor market, driven by mid-level automation, has therefore a direct effect on income inequality, but it also a few indirect effects. For example, automation means lower production costs, and the savings or the added value go primarily to shareholders through capital gains and stock appreciation. Since stock ownership and capital income are concentrated among those already better off, income inequality is further increased.

If technology decreases the relative importance of human labor in a particular production process, the owners of capital equipment will be able to capture a bigger share of income from the goods and services produced. (source)

Another indirect effect: increasing automation of manufacturing jobs pushes unionization rates down, which in turn decreases bargaining power among low-skilled workers. This, in the end, aggravates inequality yet again.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (51): Types of Rights

Even a cursory look at some of the more famous human rights treaties or declarations makes it clear that the different rights that are listed in them are often quite different from each other in the sense that they intend to do different things. Some rights give people freedoms. Other rights offer protection or certain benefits. Still other rights recognize a status. And some rights are more like goals.

An example of a freedom is speech or property. The rules against torture or slavery are protections. Education is a benefit. Rights of defendants in court are status rights. And work and a minimum standard of living are goal-rights.

In fact, it’s wrong to say that rights themselves do things such as giving people freedoms, protecting them or offering them benefits. It’s duty bearers, responding to their obligations, who make freedoms real when they abstain or forbear, who protect, who give certain benefits or assist people in achieving those benefits, who respect or recognize people’s status, and who work towards progressive realization of certain goals. These different types of obligations are implicit in the different types of rights – sometimes even explicit.

It’s important to make these distinctions between types of rights and types of duties because people need to understand their duties and what is expected of them. If the human right to have a certain minimum standard of living is understood as a protection rather than a goal, then a third world government failing to eradicate poverty and yet making as much progress as it can would be wrongly condemned as violating this right. Likewise it would be wrong to view the elimination of torture as a goal requiring progressive realization.

Of course, these distinctions aren’t as neat as I present them here. You can make the case that poverty reduction is not just a goal but also a freedom. Government abstention rather than goal centered intervention is sometimes a better means to fight poverty. The same is true for the right to work. And slavery is just as much a matter of status as something that people need to be protected against. And so on.

More on types of rights is here. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (42): Agency

A human being is an “agent” in the sense of a person able to act in the world. The words “agent”, “act” and “agency” all come from the Latin “agere”, “to set in motion, drive, lead, conduct etc.” Human agents have goals in life and pursue them through their purposeful actions.

Now, if a human being is an agent or has agency, then we should give her rights because we have to define the range of activities that she is allowed to engage in. We have to decide what she can do without obstruction and defend her against obstruction if necessary. Otherwise her agency will be largely ineffective. It’s constitutive of human beings to pursue goals and hence we owe it to them to create a framework in which they can reliably do so. Whether or not they actually realize their goals is another matter, dependent upon lots of things – circumstances, luck, resources, ambition etc. We can’t and shouldn’t promise people that they’ll get what they’re after, but making it impossible for them to try is a denial of their humanity. The point is that we can only make it possible for them to try if we give them rights. Of course, people without rights or people suffering rights violations can sometimes act purposefully. But they’ll always be precarious agents. A predictable and reliable form of agency depends on respect for rights.

This kind of justification of human rights is by definition a limited one. It isn’t complete. There are people who have no agency in the relevant sense of the word – for example babies or the severely handicapped – but who still have rights. So we’ll have to look for additional justifications, which is what I’ve tried to do in the other posts in this series.

The Ethics of Human Rights (87): General and Special Moral Obligations

People have two kinds of moral obligations:

  • Some of our duties are duties to all people. We have those duties simply because people are human beings. These are general moral duties that apply regardless of specific relationships.
  • Other duties are duties that we owe to a subset of people. These are special obligations we have to those with whom we have some sort of special relationship.

An example of the former are the duties generated by human rights or the duty not to lie; an example of the latter are our duties as parents, friends and citizens.

Both types of duties have a basis in moral intuition. Most of us believe that we should try to save a child drowning before our eyes, any drowning child, whatever our relationship or lack of relationship with it. But most of us would also allow a parent to save his own child first if it was drowning together with an unknown child and if he had to make a choice. Some special obligations are the same as general obligations, just with an added urgency (as in the case of the drowning child). Other special obligations are totally different from general obligations (we have a duty to raise our children, but we don’t have a similar duty towards the children of others, not even a less urgent duty).

This is all boilerplate. What’s interesting to me is the double nature of human rights duties. These are obviously general duties, but I do believe that in some cases we should prioritize the rights of those with whom we have a special relationship. Human rights create special duties in the sense of general duties that are more urgent in the case of some people. The right to life of our drowning children does indeed create a more urgent obligation than the right to life of the millions of extremely poor and starving children elsewhere in the world. Part of the explanation is that we often can do more to save our own child. We are normally close by, we know the risks and we know exactly what to do when things go wrong. The same isn’t always true in the case of distant strangers. Can implies ought. But that doesn’t really capture the essence of our special obligation, I think. It’s the relationship that generates the special duty, not just the fact that we can offer more immediate and effective help. After all, as Peter Singer has pointed out, immediate and effective help is sometimes also an option for distant strangers.

The problem is that special obligations tend to take over. There’s a lot of in-group bias and the rights of those close to us receive an overdose of attention, sometimes to the detriment of the rights of strangers (“strangers” not always in the literal sense of the word, because most fellow-citizens are literally strangers and yet they often enjoy more rights than foreign strangers). A lot of people only see special obligations and ignore general obligations.

Hence, it’s understandable and commendable that the focus in human rights talk is on the impersonal and general obligations that they yield. This focus, however, should not obscure the very real special obligations that also result from human rights. A lot of immediate good can be done when we admit that human rights create special obligations. There’s often a very tricky balancing act to perform here, but few of us admit it. Many tend to favor special obligations, while others react by speaking only of general obligations. Very rarely do we see people working through the difficulties of when to decide in favor of one or the other type of duty; for example, the difficulties of knowing when it is right to save your own child when you can save hundreds of distant children with the same amount of effort. When do we simply follow in-group bias, and when do we have a good reason to favor the in-group members? When are we real humanitarians and when are we heartlessly blind to the justified demands of those who are close to us? I think we should admit that the choice between partiality and impartiality is often a difficult one, and that those of us who systematically favor one or the other point of view are wrong most of the time.

More on partiality/impartiality here. More posts in this series are here.

We Need to Start Working Differently

Unemployment, starvation, war and unrequited love are probably more important and more urgent concerns, but the almost complete lack of serious thinking about the nature of work never ceases to amaze me. Most of us work and we spend a considerable portion of our lives doing our work, and yet how many of us do a job only because we need the paycheck? Far too often, work is a toil, not always a physical toil for us Westerners but a psychological one, because we work in systems we don’t understand, let alone control, or because we contribute an insignificant, boring, detailed part of a larger process we don’t really care about. We go to work, not to produce, be creative or self-develop, but simply to make a living, to have some cash, and in a few cases to have prestige, status, power or some other good external to the production process in which we engage or the product to which we contribute.

Work is not connected to who we are or wish to become. Who does not dream of another life? The statistics about job satisfaction and job motivation are depressing.

Work should be about creativity, excellence, development and self-expression rather than wages, survival and status. How do we get there? That will be tough, but giving workers more control of their factories or businesses and increasing automation of the uninteresting parts of work would be a good start. Even if many of us – in the West at least – are no longer machine appendices in the style of Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, we’re often still tied to routine jobs that are part of a system the purpose of which is obscure to us or leaves us indifferent. Our contribution is not insignificant – or we wouldn’t get paid – and yet we are replaceable. The larger purpose of it all escapes us or doesn’t matter.

We shouldn’t forget that the division of labor into fragmented tasks in a highly hierarchical organization – and “organization” here also means markets (a taxi cab’s ride is just as much his boss) – is probably not so much a requirement of modern markets or production technologies but rather the consequence of a very specific way of viewing work relationships, namely relationships between highly qualified “managers” and simple executors. Other ways of working are possible and should be promoted.

The Causes of Poverty (78): High Discount Rates and Lack of Delayed Gratification

You talk to conservatives about the reasons why poor people are poor, and chances are that the discussion turns to lack of self-control, high discount rates and inability to delay gratification. “High discount rates” means that things in the present or near future are viewed as having a higher payoff than things in the distant future. If you have a high discount rate, you focus on immediate gratification. This in turn shows up in low savings rates, high debt, obesity, teen pregnancy, drug use, high drop out rates, low school attendance and other vices supposedly common among the poor.

Some even argue that differences between people in the apparent levels of self-control, discount rates or time preferences – which is all the same thing – appear at a very early age and are therefore probably innate. The famous marshmallow test will then get a favorable citation: you give kids a marshmallow and tell them they can either eat it now or, if they wait a few minutes, have two marshmallows. Kids who wait do better later in life.

However, recent studies have suggested that the marshmallow test does not, in fact, reveal innate (in)ability. The environment in which tests such as these take place determines to a large extent the levels of self-control revealed through them. Whether or not people are capable of delayed gratification depends not on their abilities but on their assessment of the reliability of the world around them. When the world is not worthy of trust, the best course of action is often to live for today.

This attitude towards the world and the future is probably internalized from a young age onward, which makes it hard to change. What it takes is to offer young children a reliable environment allowing them to develop levels of trust which will in turn yield low discount rates and the ability to delay gratification later in life. But in order to do that we’ll need to reduce parental poverty. Claims about lack of self-control as a cause of poverty then have things completely backward. Rather than a cause we’re dealing with an effect of poverty.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (77): The Lottery of Birth and the Country You Live In

Charles Kenny explains to what extent the country you live in affects your livelihood:

[P]overty in Africa and Asia isn’t the result of something about individual Kenyans and Pakistanis, it is instead something about Kenya and Pakistan. Individuals the world over have the same drives and capacities, but the societies and places in which they live present radically different opportunities to turn that drive into wealth, health, and well-being.

That’s clear from evidence compiled by Princeton economist Orley Ashenfelter for the National Bureau of Economic Research. He looks at the wages earned by staff working at McDonald’s franchises around the world and compares what they earn to the cost of a Big Mac in that same franchise. The Big Mac is a standard product, and the way it is made worldwide is highly standardized. The skill level involved in making it (such as it is) is the same everywhere. And yet McDonald’s employees worldwide earn dramatically different amounts in terms of Big Macs per hour.

In the United States, a McDonald’s employee earns an average of $7.22 an hour, and a Big Mac costs an average of $3.04. So the employee earns 2.4 Big Macs per hour. In India, an employee earns $.46 an hour. The average Indian Big Mac (made of chicken, which is cheaper than beef) costs only $1.29. Still, the employee earns only one-third of a Big Mac for each hour worked. Same job, same skills—and yet Indian workers at McDonald’s earn one-seventh the real hourly wage of a US employee. There’s a huge “place premium” to working in the United States rather than India.

The place premium affects more than just low-end service jobs. Economist Michael Clemens, a colleague of mine at the Center for Global Development, studied a group of Indians working in an India-based international software firm who applied for a temporary work visa to the United States to do the same work in the same firm, just on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Some of them then won the lottery by which visas were issued, while others lost. The winning workers, who were still in the same firm and still doing the same type of job on the same projects, suddenly saw dramatic differences in their pay.

The ones who moved to the United States started earning double what their colleagues back in India were earning (adjusted for purchasing power). They were earning more not because they were different from the colleagues they left behind—selection was not based on education, talent, or drive but was entirely random. And once they returned to India, they went back to earning pretty much the same as their colleagues who had never left. They briefly earned more in the United States simply because they were in the United States rather than India. (source)

Some more numbers are here, regarding how much more workers in the U.S. make compared to identical workers in developing countries; e.g. Nigerians and Yemenis stand to gain upwards of 10 times as much from moving to the U.S.

The place premium is a strong argument in favor of reducing migration restrictions: it doesn’t seem just that people’s income is determined by the good or bad luck of having been born somewhere, and the use of force to keep people in their country of birth only aggravates the injustice. However, by the same logic we can also argue for a more generous welfare state: it’s not just your country of birth that affects your income. Your parents, social class, genetic endowment, health prospects, looks etc. are also a lottery that affects your income and good fortune.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights and International Law (25): Rights Inflation

There has been a steady increase in the number of different human rights recognized in international treaties.A similar, though less outspoken growth took place on the national level. The founding document of modern human rights law, the Universal Declaration, only contained 30 rights. I’ve complained several times before about this “inflation” of rights. On the one hand, human rights serve the realization of certain universal human values, and if some of these values face new obstacles then new human rights may be necessary. For example, if the internet has now become indispensable for human communication and expression then a right to internet access should be recognized. Let’s not forget that human rights have always evolved.

On the other hand, a right should be something important. It’s exceptional by definition. Not all rules or aspirations ought to be labelled as human rights. A right is a particularly strong moral claim, giving rise to equally strong duties. A proliferation of duties makes it hard to fulfill duties, and a blurring of the lines between important and less important duties results in a loss of sense of urgency. And finally, rights cost money. The more rights we have, the less money we can spend on each.

More posts on this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (30): Assortative Mating

Intuitively, it seems obvious that assortative mating leads to higher wealth and income inequality. If rich people marry each other and poor people marry each other, then family incomes will be more unequal than when people routinely marry across class divides. Hence, recent increases in inequality may be due to higher rates of assortative mating, at least in the US:

Data from the United States Census Bureau suggests there has been a rise in assortative mating. Additionally, assortative mating affects household income inequality. In particular, if matching in 2005 between husbands and wives had been random, instead of the pattern observed in the data, then the Gini coefficient would have fallen from the observed 0.43 to 0.34, so that income inequality would be smaller. (source, source)

Now, obviously we should prefer a world in which wealthy men have the opportunity to marry high earning and educated women, because such a world is one in which women have more equal opportunities. It’s also a good thing that wealthy women continue working after marriage. In addition, we shouldn’t try to manage people’s marriages, no matter how strong we feel about income inequality. I guess that goes without saying. However, what we could do is modify the tax system so that wealthy individuals do not receive additional benefits when they marry. Or we could tax them more.

Before we do anything we should be realistic about the causal effects that we try to neutralize. There are many causes of inequality, and I think – but can’t prove – that assortative mating isn’t as important as is claimed in the quote above (the authors of the cited study compare the real world to a world in which mating is random, and such a world is inconceivable). A big part of rising inequality is due to the top 1% of the income scale. The people in that bracket probably also look for partners similar to themselves, but assortative mating can’t explain the enormous income gains that they have seen over the last decades.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (72): Ineffective Governance by Definition?

Democracies are characterized by high transaction costs: it’s tougher to get things done in a democracy compared to systems where rulers don’t have to consult, discuss, compromise, reconsider and revise. A democracy costs more, in every sense of the word: you need more time, more money and more effort to reach a decision, and the final result isn’t always the best possible one because it’s a compromise between the views of every sector of society, all of which have to be treated with respect. These views are often extremely divergent and yet a decision – a law, a policy, a judicial verdict etc. – has to take into account at least those views that together have majority support. It has to do so either by force of law or because the execution of the decision requires popular support in order to be realistically implemented. Viewpoint divergence can in some cases even mean incompatibility, with gridlock as a result. If it’s impossible to arrive at a decision because of gridlock, then the problem goes way beyond high transaction costs. There is no transaction and hence no cost to arrive at it.

All in all, democracy looks like a very ineffective, confused and slow way of deciding things. If this is true, then even an ideal democracy would be vulnerable to this criticism – perhaps even more so than existing democracies since consultation is typically more important in ideal theory than in reality. If even ideal democracy can’t solve the problem of effectiveness, then we should abandon democracy rather than try to perfect it. Forget about it and replace it by the best possible autocratic type of government, in which a leader or group of leaders can make decisions behind closed doors, without consultation or compromise and without having to revisit previous decisions when the democratic balance of power has shifted.

Defenders of democracy have two lines of defense against “dictator envy”: a normative and an empirical one.

Normative defense of democracy

You could concede democracy’s relative ineffectiveness and at the same time argue that effectiveness isn’t the only value. While it’s important to get things done, it’s equally important to get the right things done. Democracy’s widespread consultation of various groups raises the probability of getting things right. When opposing viewpoints have to struggle for supremacy, the arguments behind them tend to be better. I’ve tried to spell this out here and here.

Moreover, while it’s important to get things done and to get the right things done, it’s equally important to get them done in the right way: consultation and compromise result in decisions that have widespread support, and such decisions, while they may take longer, will also last longer. Popular support, while reducing the effectiveness of making decisions, may increase the likelihood of effective implementation of these decisions.

Empirical defense of democracy

It’s also possible to argue that democracy is in fact not relatively ineffective and that autocratic regimes are much less effective then we tend to assume. For example:

Soviet records show that secretive government has high costs, hidden at the time because of secrecy itself. These costs were of many kinds. Transaction costs arose through two channels – one procedural and the other behavioural. First, leak-proof government depended on costly procedures designed to assure secrecy. Second, harsh penalisation for secrecy violations induced fear and mistrust, causing officials to change their behaviour in costly ways. … [O]fficials had to devote considerable efforts to complying with secrecy rules. (source)

At least the transaction costs and other forms of ineffectiveness are in the open in a democracy. Autocratic states also have these problems, and perhaps even to a larger degree, but as they are hidden from sight, these states can give the impression of being relatively effective.

More posts in this series.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (29): The Declining Share of National Income Going to Labor

What I want to do here is look at a possible cause of increasing income inequality, namely the relative shares of labor and capital income. Your labor income is your wage, your pension, your bonus, your company health insurance etc. Most people have a labor income. You only have capital income if you receive dividend payments, capital gains, interest payments on savings etc.

During the last decades, the share of labor compensation in total national income has declined, and this has been a global phenomenon, occurring in most countries.

Can we blame this decline for the increase in income inequality during the same period? Only in part, I think, because there has also been a divergence within labor in the sense that some people, mostly high earners, have seen their labor income rise much faster than others. Income inequality is indeed, to some extent, wage inequality. The growth of the finance sector, where people are well-paid, is part of the explanation for the increasing wage inequality, at least in some countries. Tax policy, declining bargaining power among the low earners and wage competition from poorer countries – again affecting mainly low-end workers – may be other explanations for rising wage inequality, also depending on the country (unionization rates, for example, haven’t evolved in the same manner everywhere).

But I guess it’s true that not all of income inequality is wage inequality and that incomes from capital, such as profits, dividends, stock options etc. also explain something. Capital income is, compared to labor income, unevenly distributed across a population, and concentrated among the wealthy.

If capital income is more concentrated among the wealthy then a rise in capital income leads to a rise in income inequality. Part of this is just arithmetical: the flip-side of a lower share of national income coming from labor is a higher share of income coming from capital. Capital income needn’t be higher in absolute terms in order to get a larger share. If there’s widespread wage stagnation – perhaps due to international wage competition, trade and outsourcing – then capital income may rise relatively, if not absolutely. However, in some countries such as the US we also see an absolute rise of capital income.

More on capital gains here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (28): Political Capture and Deregulation

Does income inequality result from “political capture” by the rich? Political capture is the process by which wealth buys policies that are favorable to the wealthy, who in turn become more wealthy. Through campaign contributions, lobbying, the monopolization of discourse etc. the wealthy may be able to convince politicians to approve policies such as deregulation, non-progressive tax rates, tax loopholes, weakened social safety nets, IP etc. Policies aimed at undermining the regulation of the role of money in politics also fit the list, in a meta sort of way. “One dollar one vote” rather than “one person one vote” would obviously be a perversion of democracy, but I’ll now focus on the purely economic effects of political capture, and more specifically on how wealth-backed deregulation affects the distribution of income.

In theory, political capture doesn’t necessarily aggravate income inequality because the economy isn’t always zero sum: policies favorable to the rich, and pushed by the rich, can also have benefits for the rest. Some types of deregulation may be an example. The word “deregulation” summons images of large companies being allowed to pollute, to pay their workers below subsistence wages etc. However, deregulation can also mean getting rid of occupational licensing which often serves no other purpose than to protect incumbents and frustrate enterprising low-income individuals. Deregulation more generally – again in theory – may lead to increased competition and therefore lower prices, something that also benefits the poor.

However, in practice we see that the wave of deregulation during the last decades, especially in the financial and banking sector, has coincided with increasing income inequality, at least in the US.

It’s not just the total level of inequality that is correlated with deregulation; more specifically, wages in the finance sector show the same trend.

Of course, correlation is not causation. Deregulation may not have been the product of political capture, or not entirely, and may not have been an important cause of rising inequality. But the correlations shown in the graphs above do put the burden of proof on those who deny causation.

But also if you accept the possibility of causation, you’ll need a convincing story. It’s true, I think, that deregulation has increased the number of activities that financial companies can engage in, and has therefore led to a rising demand for higher skilled workers and to more performance related compensation. Financial professionals made up almost twice as much of the top 1 percent of the US income distribution in 2005 as they did in 1979. However, deregulation is only part of the explanation of the disproportionate rise in compensation in the finance sector. Stock options and tax policy are also to blame. Of course, tax policy can also result from political capture, but that just goes to show that any explanation of inequality needs to look at a variety of factors. Inequality isn’t just the product of deregulation.

Another post on the same topic is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (76): Farmer vs. Hunter Thinking

Tim Harford mentions an interesting study about the origins of different ideas about justice. Farmer cultures seem to stress desert, whereas hunter cultures believe that solidarity is the more important focus of justice. Hunters tend to share because their “incomes” are volatile: some days they catch too much, other days not enough. Luck also determines farmer incomes, but to a lesser extent. Bad weather means bad luck, but it’s also bad luck for neighboring farms. A sharing culture won’t solve that kind of bad luck in the same way as it will in the case of bad luck while hunting. Another reason why a sharing culture will be less important in farmer cultures is the fact that farm crops can be stored more easily than meat in primitive societies.

A farmer mentality will therefore stress self-sufficiency over sharing, and perhaps this will fuel desert-based theories of justice even centuries after farming or hunting has ceased to be an important social role. That may have an impact on the way a society deals with poverty. If you adopt a desert-based theory of justice then you’re normally less inclined to enact policies that reduce poverty since you believe that poverty is deserved. If people deserve their poverty then they can’t claim assistance, and if assistance were to be given anyway that would be an injustice to those whose stock of means is used as a source of assistance, because they too deserve what they have.

It’s tempting to use this farmer-hunter difference to describe the different approaches to poverty in Europe and the US. There’s more opposition to the welfare state in the US, and desert-based theories of justice are more popular there. Hard work and self-sufficiency are common topics of political talk in the US, whereas words such as solidarity and equality are more often used in Europe.

And of course the US was founded as an agrarian society (Thomas Jefferson for instance was a staunch agrarian), with the South of the country remaining agrarian deep into the 19th century.

However, careful with national stereotypes. It’s not as if the whole of the US is hardhearted. It’s a matter of degree.

Steven Pinker has come up with a similar story, although he contrasts farmer and herder cultures.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (86): The Rights of the Dead, Ctd.

Most of you will have heard the story by now: a brain-dead pregnant woman is forced to stay on life support in Texas:

[T]he Munoz family … are being forced to keep Marlise Munoz alive even though she was declared brain dead before Thanksgiving when she was 14 weeks pregnant and despite her clearly expressed wishes to her husband, Erick Munoz, that she did not want this to happen. … [A]s her parents and her husband prepared to say their final goodbyes in the intensive care unit at John Peter Smith Hospital here and to honor her wish not to be left on life support, they were stunned when a doctor told them the hospital was not going to comply with their instructions. Mrs. Munoz was 14 weeks pregnant, the doctor said, and Texas is one of more than two dozen states that prohibit, with varying degrees of strictness, medical officials from cutting off life support to a pregnant patient. (source)

More than a month later, Mrs. Munoz remains connected to life-support machines on the third floor of the I.C.U., where a medical team monitors the heartbeat of the fetus, now in its 20th week of development.

I’m guessing many of us are horrified by this. But what is it exactly that puts us off? Perhaps it’s the fact that the mother is used as a mere means for the fetus and that the doctors ignore her wishes. We find it disrespectful and we think she has a right to be respected and to be treated as a human being rather than just a means without a will, even after death. However, the mother is indeed dead and therefore can’t be harmed in any meaningful way. Perhaps there’s a solution if we recognize that rights aren’t just about the avoidance of harm.

More on the rights of the dead herehere and here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (75): Different Types of Colonization

Some time ago, Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson argued that areas of the globe where early colonists did not face a high mortality risk – such as North America and Australia – are now much richer countries. Many ex-colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, on the other hand, where colonists did face high mortality rates because of tropical diseases such as malaria, are now poorer.

Why is that? AJR claim that the reason is institutional. In those poor countries, the only institutions that were created in early colonial times were extractive. If only a small elite of colonists could survive the local diseases, colonizing nations had little incentive to create durable and non-extractive institutions or provide public services like health and education to the masses of the local populations. More livable colonies could be occupied en masse by the natives of the colonizing nations. These natives required institutions and had the knowhow to create them. The societies that developed there were therefore better organized and far more equal (if you leave out the indigenous populations who were often exterminated). The early institutional built-up, the argument goes, has survived until today, and it’s commonly accepted that good institutions play a key role in development.

Make of it what you will. Perhaps it obscures more than it reveals. In the wrong hands, this argument can be used to exonerate present-day autocratic rulers. After all, it takes time to build institutions, especially in countries burdened by a long tradition of (the wrong kind of) colonialism. Path dependence can be a lousy excuse.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (74): Family Structure, Ctd.

The more traditionally minded among us often blame family structure for high poverty rates. Family structure is of course a euphemism hiding several very specific moral judgments about people’s behavior, about single motherhood, divorce, paternal negligence and incarceration. Those are the things that supposedly make people poor. “Family structure” just sounds nicer and more neutral.

At first sight, this does make some sense. It is a lot harder, financially and otherwise, to raise kids on your own, and if you find yourself in this situation it’s often your own fault or the other parent’s fault. Having a kid or not is a choice given the availability of contraception and abortion. Divorce is a choice. Finding yourself in prison as a parent is a choice. And even if you’re not a parent, marriage or cohabitation is just plainly cheaper than living on your own because you can share costs. You’ll have to buy just as much food as a single person, but the cost of rent, heating, internet access, the use of a car etc. can be split. A lot of consumption goods are non-rival, and marriage and cohabitation are wonderful places for non-rival goods (the park as well, but you can be lonely there).

Given the high rate of children living with single parents it’s not a priori crazy to assume that there’s a link with poverty rates. It does seem to be the case that poverty rates among single parents are higher than average.

However, we have to be careful when assuming causation. While it can be the case that your income is lower than it would have been had you (remained) married or chosen not to be a single parent, it might just as well be true that your preexisting poverty causes you to be single.

Suppose you are a single person making $9,000 a year and therefore live in poverty. Now suppose you meet someone else making $9,000 and you are considering marrying them. If you marry, the family income goes to $18,000 and is therefore above the poverty line. On a very superficial take, this seems like it would be a real improvement. But that is only if you assume your potential spouse will necessarily remain employed. If they lose their job, you will go from supporting one person with $9,000/yr to supporting two people with $9,000/yr. On the low-end of the labor market, precarity is very common and so this is a very real risk. (source)

There’s also some literature about how teenage pregnancy results from poverty: poor teenagers often see parenthood as one of the few meaningful options that are available (work, education etc. may not be realistic options).

Another point: traditionalists who make the argument that we should promote marriage in order to reduce poverty can perhaps be somewhat dishonest about their motivations. It may be that what they really want is more marriage for its own sake and just dress it up as an anti-poverty measure because arguing outright for more marriage for its own sake is just not that convincing anymore. It’s telling that cohabitation doesn’t figure as an equivalent alternative in their arguments, even though in theory marriage and cohabitation have the same effect on poverty.

And there may be another hidden motivation. Traditionalist proponents of marriage are often situated at the right of the political spectrum, and being right-wing often also implies being opposed to the welfare state. Arguing that poverty should be solved by way of increased marriage rates is perhaps just a roundabout way of downsizing the welfare state: why should we have a welfare state if marriage can solve poverty? Some make this argument explicitly, saying that welfare destroys marriage because it allows people to survive without getting married (I can’t find a citation just now).

What I dislike about the focus on family structure is not really these possible motivations, but rather the inherent simplifications and victim blaming. There are a lot of causes of poverty, and behavior is probably not the most important one. Many single parents are doing a fine job, both financially and otherwise. Low marriage rates are common in many countries, including those where poverty rates are low. And those single parents who struggle probably do so for other reasons than family structure. It’s also true that many working married parents are poor, whereas most celebrity divorcees don’t have a trouble in the world.

A final remark: even if higher marriage rates would be an effective anti-poverty measure, how on earth do we get more people to marry? Tax cuts? A government sponsored dating service? Flower shop vouchers? It all seems so impractical, especially given the ease of other anti-poverty measures (for example…). And not just impractical but also paternalistic and lacking in respect for people’s choices.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (56): The Weather, Ctd.

How does the weather affect people’s rights? In an older post I cited a study claiming that colder temperatures in pre-modern Europe made persecution of Jewish communities more likely. The economic hardship resulting from cold weather in agrarian societies is one possible cause of rights violations, but perhaps not a very relevant one in our post-industrial societies faced with the risk of global warming. A warmer climate can also have an effect on rights. First, higher temperatures may increase irritability, aggression and interpersonal violence resulting in small scale rights violations. Perhaps there’s an added risk that this type of violence escalates and becomes group violence or even war. Second, global warming may have devastating economic effects: drought may decimate crops or reduce the inhabitable surface of the earth, and these consequences of warming may in turn cause tensions between population groups, tensions which can become violent conflicts.

The first effect is well documented. For example,

hotter US cities still yield significantly higher violence rates than cooler cities, even after statistically controlling for 12 social risk factors, including age, education, race, and economic factors. (source)

Whether or not this can escalate and morph into larger scale conflicts is less clear. There is this study which found an

increase in conflict associated with increasing surface temperature in locations that are temperate or warm on average. … [C]limate’s influence on security persists in both historical and modern periods, is generalizable to populations around the globe, arises from climatic events that are both rapid and gradual, and influences numerous types of conflict that range across all spatial scales. The majority of studies suggest that conflict increases and social stability decreases when temperatures are hot and precipitation is extreme, but in situations where average temperature is already temperate, anomalously low temperatures may also undermine stability.

And then there’s also this:

for each one standard deviation change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, the median effect was a 14 percent increase in conflict between groups, and a 4 percent increase in conflict between individuals. (source)

If this is correct, future climate change may be truly apocalyptic if we don’t learn to adapt. How exactly higher temperatures cause conflict is unclear. The effect of heat on individual temper seems an unlikely explanation for large scale conflict. Perhaps the effect is indirect: heat may for example reduce economic output, which in turn may make conflict more likely. Perhaps drought causes conflicts over land, which in turn may map upon pre-existing ethnic tensions.

For a criticism of the cited studies, go here. Additional doubts regarding these findings come from this paper which found that cold could stir up as much trouble as heat. Generally speaking, colder periods force more people to stay inside more of the time. That’s due to both the cold and the fact that the cold usually comes with more hours of darkness. Hence there’s a lower risk of interpersonal conflict such as assault or robbery. Tempers are also generally subdued when it’s cold. However, prolonged spells of coldness can in theory have similar economic effects as heat and drought, as is shown by the study of anti-Semitism in pre-modern Europe cited above.

It seems that it’s too early to be certain about the effect of the weather on rights violations. If there’s an effect, it’s not large enough to be immediately obvious, as is the case for other effects such as tyranny, poverty and war.

More posts in this series are here. More on the link between rights and environmental concerns is here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (85): What is Tolerance?

Tolerance is another word for respect for human rights. You are tolerant when you’re confronted with people who exercise their rights in a way you don’t like and when you nevertheless allow or permit them to exercise their rights. The word “permit” implies that you could intervene with people exercising their rights if you wanted to – that, in other words, intervention is an option that is relatively costless to yourself and that is likely to succeed – but you refrain from intervention anyway. You are tolerant when you let people exercise their rights, not because you fear that intervention is costly or futile, but because you choose to let them exercise their rights.

That is also why tolerance of human rights violations is impossible and why tolerance is limited. We should tolerate people who exercise their rights but not those who violate the rights of others, and neither should we tolerate those who violate the rights of others while exercising their own rights. If tolerance is respect for human rights then tolerance of rights violations is by definition impossible. Hence, it’s more correct to say that tolerance is respect for human rights as long as those rights do not lead to violations of the rights of others.

People often view tolerance as no more than a convenient way to keep the peace, to co-exist with others and to avoid the possibly very high costs of trying to change the behavior or the beliefs of others. Making other people more like us would perhaps be better but it’s dangerous, especially if it requires the use of force. And when it does, it’s not just dangerous but also futile: forcing people to believe the right thing is impossible (correct beliefs come voluntarily from the inside). Hence the common view that tolerance is a fallback option when better things are impossible or too dangerous. When you can’t force people to change or when it’s too dangerous to try to change them, you have no choice but to tolerate them. Tolerance becomes a necessary evil.

However we could also view tolerance as an active and positive disposition rather than a passive declaration of defeat when faced with danger or an impossible goal. It can be seen as an active kind of respect for the rights of others. We are not really tolerant when we passively respect the rights of others simply because we have to, because violating those rights would be dangerous or because we can’t bring about the desired result anyway. We are tolerant when we actively choose to respect the rights of others even if we could easily and costlessly violate them. When you’re forced to be tolerant, when you have no better option and when you haven’t chosen to be tolerant you can hardly be called tolerant. In other words, tolerant people are those who believe they have a good reason to violate the rights of others (for example because they view other people’s exercise of their rights as immoral) but who decide not to violate them anyway for the simple reason that they don’t want to violate them. People who don’t violate the rights of the intolerable because they have no choice, because the risks are too great or because they can’t achieve what they want are not really tolerant.

What Are Human Rights? (50): Rights and Roles

Before rights became human rights they were privileges: in feudal times, certain professions had certain rights, towns had rights, social classes had rights etc. Often only members of a so-called “guild” had a right to trade or to engage in a profession. The simple fact of being born into the aristocracy gave the members of that class rights that no one else had or could have.

When the development of the capitalist economy made it more likely that people born in one class, profession or town ended up in another one, it became more practical and wise to claim rights as human beings rather than rights as an aristocrat, a Venetian or a member of the wood worker guild. If a revolution were to destroy your status as a Lord or if an economic crisis were to force you to move to another town and enter another profession, at least you would still have your human rights.

A remnant of this is still visible in human rights as they are today. Although all human rights are explicitly the rights of all human beings, some rights at least are rights of human beings engaging in certain social roles and are unintelligible outside the context of those social roles. The right to political participation is a right of human beings as citizens and doesn’t make sense if you haven’t first made sense of the role of citizenship. The right to work, the right to a decent wage, the right to a certain standard of living and the right to unemployment benefits are rights of people as workers. The right to marry is a right of human beings as family members. The difference with the “rights as privileges” of before is that all human beings are free to engage in all roles if they want to.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (41): Our Interests or Our Autonomy?

Two competing answers to a fundamental question about rights are doing the rounds: why do we need rights anyway? There’s an interest theory of rights which gives one answer, and then there’s a will theory of rights which gives another, incompatible answer. (There are other theories but most of the discussion is between these two). Very, very simplistically, the answers are these:

  • Will theory (WT), otherwise known as choice theory, argues that the purpose of rights is to protect and foster individual autonomy. An individual who has rights is a small-scale sovereign. WT attempts to establish the validity of human rights based on the unique human capacity for freedom. Rights help to protect and realize this capacity. This implies that the rights holder has the moral power to waive or annul his or her rights. All rights are derived from the essential right of all human beings to be free.
  • Interest theory (IT) argues that the principal function of human rights is to protect and promote certain essential human interests. This is another way of saying that rights protect what is beneficial to individuals:

Necessary though insufficient for the holding of a legal right by X is that the duty correlative to the right, when actual, normatively protects some aspect of X’s situation that on balance is typically beneficial for a being like X. (source)

Both theories have appealing and somewhat less appealing features. One appealing aspect of WT is that it wants to offer equal freedom to all. People want things, face choices – good and bad – and need opportunities to do things. Rights offer the ability to make preferred choices and provide the opportunities to do things. The understanding that most rights are alienable is also positive, in my view.

However, more problematic – and some say fatal – is the fact that WT rules out the holding of rights by animals, dead people, future persons, infants, comatose people, severely mentally disabled people, senile people and fetuses. In WT, people only have rights when they are competent to claim rights, and members of the cited groups can’t typically claim rights. If they don’t have rights, we can do whatever we want to them. Not a good conclusion.

Personally, I think the most appealing feature of IT is that it more or less corresponds to my own value theory of rights (which I argued for here). Also not to be frowned upon is the fact that IT avoids the problem of the rights of non-autonomous beings.

One problem with IT is the vagueness of the term “interests”. What is an interest? Should it be the case that an individual understands an interest as an interest (in other words, should an interest be a felt interest)? Or is it enough that the interest is objectively a human interest? In the former case, IT replicates the problem of the comatose and others who can’t be said to understand their interests. In the latter case, we’ll quickly end up with paternalism and we’ll also have to enter the treacherous domain of human nature.

Another problem is that most versions of IT don’t define which specific interests we’re talking about, and which interests create rights. Consequently, IT also remains vague about the exact rights people have. In one sense, that may be positive. Rights have to evolve. But I think that the vagueness here is to be deplored.

Also, rights don’t only exist to benefit the rights holder. Your freedom of speech is in my interest as well (more on that here). Again, IT can’t deal with this very well.

To conclude, if we have to choose between IT and WT, I guess the problems faced by IT are less deep. The exclusion of large groups of beings in WT is very hard to solve. Compared to that, one can at least see some possible solutions to the problems raised by IT.

More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (29): The “Get Off the Couch” Solution

When leftists complain about high levels of income inequality, their opponents on the right sometimes argue that inequality is the natural outcome of personal desert. If you’re wealthy, you should be praised for your work, and if you find yourself on the wrong side of inequality you should invest more effort and try harder to be socially mobile. If you think inequality is a problem, then in fact you blame the industrious for being industrious and you exculpate the rest. Societies like the US offer lots of opportunities to escape the social class of your parents, and many do in fact escape. So if you don’t, look at yourself first.

This view is actually quite common on the right. According to a Pew survey, 38 percent of Americans are judgmental, declaring that poverty stems from a lack of individual effort, while 46 percent does not fault the poor, agreeing that their plight is the outcome of unfavorable circumstances. A large majority of Republicans – 57 to 27 – says that people are poor because of a lack of effort.

The right-wing view has a certain prima facie appeal. We all believe that effort should be rewarded. And when social mobility is easy and people aren’t artificially held back and tied to the class of their parents, then perhaps inequality is indeed the result of unequal effort and lifestyle choices. In other words, inequality is what people deserve. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility and people have some level of equal opportunity, then they basically choose their position in society: they choose to invest effort and develop their skills, or they don’t.

However, upon closer inspection the narrative is unpersuasive. It’s not always true that individuals can simply decide to develop their skills and invest effort in their social mobility. Skills aren’t just “developed”; some people are born with more talent than other people, or with talents that yield more financial profit than other talents. True, talent requires development and effort, but even effort may be a naturally acquired capacity or a capacity that requires favorable conditions in early childhood. I think we all agree that a stable and reasonably affluent family life as well as a good education are indispensable, on average, for the development of talent and of a personal ethic that favors effort and discipline. Many people at the wrong end of inequality can offer some of this to their children, but to a much lesser degree than wealthier parents. Here are some data on so-called enrichment expenditures.

And it’s not just expenses. The children of wealthy parents have other advantages compared to poor children, advantages they wouldn’t have in a less unequal society, for instance networks, internship opportunities etc. Because of extra expenses in education and other less material advantages, these children are more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. As a result, inequality counteracts social mobility. And we see that in the numbers: the more unequal a society, the less social mobility. That’s the message of Miles Corak’s famous Great Gatsby Curve.

If you argue that income inequality is not really a problem when there is a high level of social mobility and when people have good opportunities to become socially mobile – in other words when they have good opportunities to climb the social ladder and escape the social class or income group into which they were born – then you’re really taking things backwards. Social mobility can’t be a solution to inequality because inequality makes mobility very difficult. High levels of social mobility assume that we create more equality of opportunity. However, this is a dead end. As I’ve argued here, equality of opportunity is a highly problematic and unrealistic concept.

More posts on income inequality are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (23): The Great Leader Theory of Democratization

The death of Nelson Mandela is the perfect occasion to clear up some myths about the Great Leader Theory of democratization. Mandela has become almost the archetype of a great man and a great leader, and deservedly so. He was certainly instrumental and some would say essential in the democratization of South Africa. But what can we say in general about the role of leaders? That’s a lot harder and I’m afraid the answers will reveal some of our deep seated biases.

When countries turn to democracy, to what extent does it help to have a charismatic leader leading the process? Either an insider leading the old system to a new one, such as Gorbachev who in a sense started a top-down transformation. Or outsiders such as Wałęsa, Mandela and perhaps also Aung San Suu Kyi leading a popular opposition movement against those in power, overthrowing the old leaders, taking over from them and riding on a wave op popular support towards a new democracy. The opposite theory is also common: the Great Dictator who almost single handedly destroys democratic forces at home and wards off supposedly overwhelming international pressure. Castro comes to mind here.

Political science has shown that there are many causes of democratization, and that several causes are effective simultaneously, with different weights for each effective cause in each particular case. I hope my blog series on democratization has left no doubts about that. This reality is often obscured by the temptation to give undue weight to the “Great Leader” factor, because that is a cause that can be readily observed, as opposed to many other causes such as internal friction within elites, the economy, outside pressure etc. The appeal of the “Great Leader” theory hinges on the mysterious talent or faculty of charisma: no one knows what it means, what it does or how it does it, but it’s widely believed that charisma yields great power and influence. Combined with a view of the “populace” as dimwitted sheeple easily impressed – for good or for bad – by this mysterious faculty of charisma, it becomes almost self-evident that great leaders must have an overriding effect on regime change (or regime continuation as the case may be). It’s obvious that there are some biases at work here: we give more weight to what we can easily observe and ignore deeper causes that often need both detailed knowledge of specific circumstances and statistical or scientific analysis.

Note that I don’t claim leaders have no role to play. On the contrary. Mandela is a great historical figure – as are the others I’ve cited – precisely because he had an effect. All I’m saying is that we should be aware of our biases. The Great Leader Theory becomes all the more suspect when we look at the long term survival and flourishing of democracy – as opposed to the democratic revolution itself. It’s clear that leaders by themselves play only a limited role in the long term prospects of democracy: institutional development, economic prosperity, rule of law, the diminishing role of violence and of the military, bureaucratic development and other indispensable building bricks of democracy can never result from the actions of a single person. I’m afraid this is all too obvious when we look at Mandela’s country, or many other democracies for that matter.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (55): Bad Luck

To what extent does luck determine the level of realization of our human rights? We have our rights, whether we’re lucky or not, oppressed or not, free or not. The level at which we can actually enjoy those rights, on the other hand, is determined by lots of things: for example, the nature and actions of our government, the practices and beliefs of the culture that we inhabit, the state of the economy and also, it seems, the degree of good or back luck we have as individuals.

First and probably foremost: where we are born is a matter of luck, good or bad. Emigration is sometimes an option. Citizens of poor countries and subjects of oppressive states – those are often the same people – are not, or usually not, prisoners of their countries. However, emigration does imply a cost and entry rights in better countries aren’t unlimited. The bad luck of being born in and being stuck in a dictatorship obviously has a general and continuous impact on the rights of most subjects of the dictator. But luck also plays a role in the degree of this impact. Dictators are known for their random behavior, and some subjects may have the additional bad luck of receiving some special governmental attention. However, if you’re unfortunate enough to be born or stuck in the wrong place, you’re suffering from a decidedly man-made type of bad luck. If people gave each other freedom of movement and stopped oppressing each other, place of birth would no longer be a matter of luck.

When we are born is arguable just as important as where we are born. Life in the Middle Ages was in many respects of inferior quality compared to life today, and inferior quality often meant rights violations. One can also wonder to what extent our behavior today will impact the rights of future generations. A different time of birth can make the difference between good and bad luck. But again, this is a man-made difference.

Disability is to some extent a matter of bad luck, whether it is inborn or acquired disability. And disability has an impact on a lot of human rights. However, it’s wrong to view disability as only a matter of bad luck; the way in which we organize society determines what counts as a disability. A society that has decided to communicate principally through written language makes blindness a much bigger problem than a society based on oral communication. As in the previous examples, if disability is bad luck, it’s to a large extent man-made bad luck.

It seems that poverty as well is due to bad luck, at least in some cases. Bad luck can make you poor, and not just because it means being born in a poor country. If you happen to be black, ugly or obese, you have a much higher risk of being poor. Skin color, appearance and in some cases obesity are, unfortunately, instances of bad luck given some widespread opinions on the proper way to treat black, ugly or obese people. Poverty itself is a human rights violation, but it also has a negative impact on other human rights, such as the right to education, the right to health etc. However, as in the case of disability, appearance and skin color are not in themselves causes of bad luck; the way society is organized turns them into causes of bad luck.

More speculative: our genes are obviously also a matter of luck. If it would turn out that our genes determine whether or not we’re suicidal, criminal or self-destructive in other manners, then that would explain a lot of rights violations and unrealized rights.

More posts is this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (48): The Arguments Against Immigration, and How They Are Mistaken

I’m going to try to list the most common arguments against immigration, and show how they are devoid of any basis in facts. Since I’m talking facts, I’ll include some handy references to scientific evidence debunking the arguments. (The references will sometimes be found in older blogposts, so you may have to click through a few times. If you feel that I’m shamelessly overlooking some seminal papers, please tell me in comments).

1. The labor cost argument


Immigrants are willing to work for low wages, especially the illegal ones. The result is unfair wage competition with natives who will see their wages drop as a result, or who may even be priced out of the labor market altogether. The welfare of native workers requires that we limit immigration.


Immigration actually increases native wages because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. Low skilled immigrants also make it possible for natives to spend less time on non-paid, low-skilled activities that they can outsource. As a result, the latter can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. The wage competition claim can also be refuted by pointing to the fact that native workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations.

Not only is there a positive wage effect of immigration (with perhaps a small exception for native high school drop outs), but immigration also creates or saves jobs. The easier it is to find cheap immigrant labor at home the less likely that production will relocate offshore. More here.

2. The social safety net argument


Immigrants come over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits, since the income of even the relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to the welfare benefits in rich countries. This is unsustainable, since welfare benefits have to be financed, and working native populations often have a hard time producing enough tax revenue in order to support native welfare beneficiaries. Allowing immigrants to come but then excluding them from welfare benefits seems harsh and unjust. Hence it’s better not to allow them to come in the first place.


Immigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. The labor force participation rate for illegal immigrants in the US is higher than that of the native-born. In the UK, immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits.

3. The “importing poverty” argument


Immigrants are less well off than natives. That’s precisely why they want to migrate. Allowing them in reduces the average wealth of the destination country.


Many immigrants are indeed less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re often less skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration may push up the national poverty rate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same immigration flow will probably push down the global poverty rate: migrants usually improve their lot by migrating – they probably wouldn’t migrate if that were not the case.

4. The crime argument


Immigrants cause an increase in the crime rate. They often come from countries with dysfunctional states and bad enforcement institutions. Hence, they have grown to be more tolerant of violations of the law. The poverty of their countries of origin also pushes them towards more crime. Less crime is a good thing, hence less immigration is also a good thing.


Immigration is associated with lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates.

5. The lack of integration argument


Immigrants, especially those from other cultures (and that would be most immigrants, since it’s the poor who want to migrate and the poor are almost by definition from outside the West), find it hard to fit in. As a result, there will be frictions between the immigrant population and the original inhabitants. These frictions benefit nobody, hence we should restrict immigration.


Natives are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior like bullying, dropping out of school, domestic violence, harassment, vandalism etc. The evidence is here.

6. The cultural argument


The local culture will not be able to survive a large influx of high fertility immigrants from completely different cultures. People have a legitimate interest in the preservation of their distinctive cultural identity. Hence immigration should be restricted.


A cultural identity is obviously a valuable good. However, it’s not at all clear that immigration threatens the cultures of destinations countries. Those destination countries are multicultural to begin with. Most immigrants are also  willing and able to adapt (see previous point). Moreover, cultural change is not by definition a bad thing, both for those arriving and for those already there. And finally, cultural change is not always likely to happen anyway: throughout history, even those minority cultures living in highly hostile environments where the majority controls the state have been able to survive and flourish. Often a threat to a culture is the cause of increased cultural awareness.

7. The educational argument


Immigrant children push down the quality of schools and therefore harm the education of native children. Immigrant children have different types of disadvantages: they speak the local language less well, they have cultural burdens inhibiting education, and perhaps even IQ burdens. The welfare of native children requires that we limit immigration.


Higher rates of immigration encourage native children to study harder – to complete high school and to go to university – so that they can avoid competing with immigrant high-school dropouts in the labor market.


All of these claims about immigration are based on supposed harms to the population of the destination country. (There’s one argument I didn’t mention, namely the brain drain argument, that focuses on the effects of migration on origin countries, but that one is just as flawed as the rest). Not only is this a very selfish mode of argument, ignoring the clear benefits for (potential) immigrants, but – as it turns out – also a very misguided one, based on factual errors. However, even if it were the case that immigration imposes some form of financial costs on host countries, then that wouldn’t necessarily be the final argument against immigration, since these cost can be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice.

More posts in this series are here.

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (9): Child Labor Legislation

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 nonlegislative 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.

The Causes of Poverty (73): Low IQ?

This kind of reasoning is all too common: the poor are stupid and they are poor because they make stupid decisions. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly the rich who indulge in this kind of pop-psychology, because if true it would also mean that they are wealthy because they are smart.

However, the rich don’t necessarily have higher IQ. There’s no correlation at all between wealth and IQ, not even a weak one.

And that’s not really surprising: a lot of high paying activities do not require high IQ (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin). Conversely, it’s not uncommon for smart people to be poor.

So, if the wealthy aren’t making a living that is proportionate to their intelligence, then their wages are determined by other factors: specific skills if we want to be kind; networking, nepotism, degrees paid for by their parents if we want to be nasty. And the wages of the poor aren’t caused by their IQ either.

However, let’s just assume for a minute that the poor do indeed have lower IQ than average. Maybe all this would tell us is that the pressure and stress of poverty reduces our cognitive abilities. So, if there’s is an effect, the causation goes the other way: the poor aren’t poor because they are stupid; they are stupid – if they are indeed stupid – because they are poor.

A more fundamental objection to the “poverty is caused by low IQ” narrative: IQ itself is a highly dubious notion. Children’s IQ scores are all over the places, changing almost overnight (up and down). Over longer periods of time, average IQ among populations rises (which is known as the Flynn effect). There is also no agreement on the heritability of IQ – the fluid nature of IQ results seems to argue against heritability. So intelligence is neither fixed nor obviously innate. Environmental factors – including education – change people’s IQ. Much has been made of the fact that African Americans score lower than European Americans on IQ test. However, when black or mixed-race children are raised in white rather than black homes, their test scores rise dramatically. And then I don’t even mention the cultural, gender or race biases inherent in a lot of the IQ test questions (for example, it’s clear that IQ tests are designed for very specific roles in a post-industrial advanced society).

Even more fundamentally: there is no one single and fixed quality or ability called “intelligence” that IQ tests could measure. What these tests do measure is one very particular type of intelligence. They don’t measure planning abilities, long term memory, creativity, emotional intelligence or any practical intelligence such as street smarts, and yet most of us would consider those abilities as essential parts of intelligence.

But again, let’s assume that the “poor = low IQ” claim is true, that the causation goes from low IQ to poverty and not vice versa, that IQ is a good measure of intelligence, that we have a good and objective definition of intelligence, and that the scientifically ascertained lack of innate intelligence among the poor is impervious to any social intervention such as education and redistribution. What would that imply? Inherited disadvantage is unfair and unjust. People should not suffer from inherited disadvantage. Even if the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor are the result of innate IQ, that would not lead to a conclusion favorable to the “poor = low IQ” crowd, because the conclusion would be that the poor need to be compensated.

More on poverty and IQ here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (71): An Instantaneous Face-Based Competence Assessment

We already knew that good looks give political candidates a sizable advantage. We’ve probably known this for ages, even before we had television. Now it seems that looks are important in democracies in other ways as well, and not just because they are intrinsically appealing. They tell us something about candidates’ competence to rule over us, or at least that’s what we think. Let me rephrase that, because “think” is too strong a word here. We “feel” it, and we do so immediately. Here’s a new study that claims voters judge politicians’ competence levels on the basis of a quick, almost instantaneous look at their faces:

[Princeton psychologist Alexander] Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates. … While we are never forced to vote based on one factor alone, the apparent predictive power of competence judgements reveals how deeply that quick impression may color our evaluation of more serious considerations. (source)

This reminds me of the equally well established finding that the voice of a politician also influences his or her share of the votes. I’m not here to undermine your belief in democracy, on the contrary, but a reality based belief is always better than a naive one.

More about lookism. More posts in this series.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (45): Anonymity in Surveys Changes Survey Results

Whether interviewees are given anonymity or not makes a big difference in survey results:

When people are assured of anonymity, it turns out, a lot more of them will acknowledge that they have had same-sex experiences and that they don’t entirely identify as heterosexual. But it also turns out that when people are assured of anonymity, they will show significantly higher rates of anti-gay sentiment. These results suggest that recent surveys have been understating, at least to some degree, two different things: the current level of same-sex activity and the current level of opposition to gay rights. (source)

Anonymity can result in data that are closer to the truth, so it’s tempting to require it, especially in the case of surveys that may suffer from social desirability bias (surveys asking about opinions that people are reluctant to divulge because these opinions are socially unacceptable – the Bradley effect is one example). However, anonymity can also create problems. For example, it may make it difficult to avoid questioning the same people more than once.

Go here for other posts in this series.

The Ethics of Human Rights (84): Aggregation Across Persons

Is aggregation across persons – making a decision that some people should bear losses so that others might gain more – ever permissible?

On the one hand, studies have shown that people faced with trolley problems would often sacrifice one person in order to save several others. Ticking bomb arguments – in which a single terrorist is tortured so that millions can be saved from an impending explosion – can also count on the agreement of large majorities.

On the other hand, an exchange like this one leaves most of us shocked:

Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created [in the USSR], the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
Hobsbawm: Yes.

The thinking in both cases is plainly utilitarian – that it’s acceptable to trade off the lives of some so that others can benefit. And yet our reactions to the two cases are polar opposites.

What can account for this difference? In the former examples, the good is more obvious, namely the saving of lives. The good that could – perhaps – have come from communist tyranny is rather more vague, more uncertain and less immediate. Trolley problems and the ticking time bomb scenario also present a balance between the good and the harm that supposedly needs to be done in order to achieve the good that is more clearly in favor of the good: it’s typically just one person that has to be sacrificed or tortured, not millions as in the case of communism.

So there’s a clear, immediate and widespread good that is supposed to come from the trolley sacrifice and the ticking time bomb torture (I say “supposed” because the hypotheticals don’t tend to occur in reality), and the harm that needs to be done to achieve the good is limited. This suggests that we favor threshold deontology: things which we normally aren’t supposed to do are allowed when the consequences of doing it are overwhelmingly good (or the consequences of not doing it are overwhelmingly bad). This theory is different from plain Hobsbawmian utilitarianism in the sense that it’s not a simple aggregation of good and bad across persons resulting in a choice for the best balance, no matter how small the margin of the good relative to the bad. A crude utilitarianism such as this does not agree with most people’s moral intuitions. Neither does dogmatic deontologism which imposes rules that have to be respected no matter the consequences.

However, threshold deontology creates its own problems, not the least of which are the determination of the exact threshold level and the Sorites paradox (suppose you have a heap of sand from which you individually remove grains: when is it no longer a heap, assuming that removing a single grain never turns a heap into a non-heap?).

The moral problems described here are relevant to the topic of this blog because the harm or the good that needs to be balanced is often a harm done to or a good done for human rights.

Other posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (83): The Snowball Effect of Equality of Opportunity

Like social mobility, equality of opportunity is one of those vague political ideals favored by those who want to offer a “vision of the future” but don’t really know what they’re talking about. I agree that it sounds nice, and no one would want to be against it. But the concept of equality of opportunity is highly problematic, at least for those willing to think it through to its logical conclusions. What you get is an initially modest sounding goal – modest compared to, let’s say, equality of outcomes – which then rapidly snowballs into something huge and, in the end, something highly undesirable. Here’s how this snowballing can occur in 7 steps (I personally gave up at around the third step):

  1. Equality of opportunity, in a basic sense, just means that careers, jobs and positions are open to all applicants and that applicants are judged only on their merit and qualifications. Their social class, family connections, friendships etc. don’t matter. Equality of opportunity (henceforth EO) is therefore a condition for meritocracy.
  2. But then people should also have an equal opportunity to acquire merit and to become qualified. In other words, they should have EO in education as well. Slots in school – or perhaps even slots in the best schools – should be open to all applicants, or at least to all those who are willing and able to study. And not just formally “open”, but accessible: poor students or people belonging to historically disadvantaged groups should get scholarships, grants, subsidies, preferential admission etc.
  3. However, all this is useless if people don’t have an equal opportunity to become willing and able to study. Children, especially poor children, should have the opportunity to grow up in an environment that fosters an ethic favoring work and study. That may imply abolishing poverty and other circumstances that sometimes inhibit a good ethic, since we want all people to have an equal opportunity to raise children. We don’t want EO by way of forced sterilization of the poors or the redistribution of their children.
  4. It’s not just deprivation that undermines EO. What about those born with disabilities or without native talents? Does not EO require that we also remedy or offset these kinds of disadvantages? After all, even if the severely disabled or the talentless have (acquired) the right ethic, have managed to get into a good school, have studied hard, and aren’t discriminated against by prejudiced employers, it often doesn’t make economic sense to hire them. So, EO may require that they are either compensated in some way, or that people like that aren’t born in the first place. Genetic engineering, designer babies and so on may then enhance EO.
  5. What about ugly people? There’s clearly a bias against them. They are often treated as if they have no talents, or as if they are disabled. And extreme ugliness can just as well be seen as a disability in the world we live in. Again, genetic engineering may help. Or maybe legislation against discrimination in employment should include rules against lookism. And if such legislation isn’t effective, then compensation should be an option. Or perhaps even subsidized plastic surgery. How else could one guarantee EO for the ugly among us?
  6. EO can also be undermined by persistent differences in early socialization. For example, if girls are successfully socialized into domestic roles, then no amount of schooling, anti-discrimination legislation or employer benevolence will give girls and women EO.
  7. Imagine now that we have solved all those problems and successfully broadened EO to include groups that don’t have it automatically. People will be qualified and meritorious, but in different fields because they have different preferences and different talents. This leads to a final problem for EO: EO is only a fact if we have solved the previous 6 problems and if all human capacities are encouraged and rewarded. Imagine someone has a talent only for classical music, but all consumers have an aversion for classical music. She obviously doesn’t have EO. It doesn’t matter that she is free to apply to all positions, that employers do not have a bias against her, that she received a subsidized education in music, that she has the right ethic and that she hasn’t been socialized into an unchosen role. If people aren’t interested she won’t be able to be a classical musician, except as a hobby for which she may or may not have time. So maybe she should be compensated. In general, EO depends on customers of the goods and services produced and marketed by people free and able to act on the opportunities that they have. Customers may be reluctant to buy goods or services that they don’t care about or that are produced by blacks, poors, gays etc. EO may then require anti-discrimination laws imposed on customers.

I guess I’ve lost most of you a few steps back. And rightly so. EO does have a tendency to become a reductio ad absurdum. This doesn’t mean that disability, lookism, socialization, the lottery of birth, customer prejudice etc. aren’t important problems. On the contrary. The thing is that these problems should perhaps not be framed in terms of EO. And legislation, compensation, subsidies and so on are perhaps not the best solutions.

However, EO should remain a worthy ideal – if we give it up we’ll only have nepotism and discrimination as an alternative – but we’ll have to find a way to limit its scope and stop the risk of snowballing. I’ve already offered a possible limit in earlier posts. You won’t be surprised to hear that human rights should be the outer limits of EO.

More on EO here and here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (82): The Link Between Human Rights and Social Mobility

Most of us think about social mobility as some kind of political ideal or even as a necessary feature of a just society. Many theories of justice make space for social mobility, as they do for equality of opportunity, fairness, the wellbeing of the worst off etc. And indeed, it’s hard to be against social mobility. Cynics might say that politicians extol the virtues of social mobility in order to camouflage or even justify actual inequalities (“if people can be socially mobile, then the resulting inequalities are deserved”, or “inequalities aren’t bad because people can be mobile and escape their class”). However, it’s not because a concept is misused for political reasons that it loses it’s theoretical or even practical value. If democracy is used as a cover to invade Iraq, then that doesn’t mean democracy is bad.

Hence, we should embrace social mobility. Human rights as well are often seen as a political ideal or a requirement of justice. How do social mobility and human rights relate to each other? At first sight, there’s no relationship at all, except that both are part of a lot of theories of justice. Social mobility is about the possibility to enter another – usually higher – income class than the one you were born in (the one of your parents). Human rights, on the other hand, are generally silent about income, except in rare cases such as the right to a decent standard of living or the right to unemployment insurance. And those cases are about minimum levels of income, not about the equal opportunity to achieve any level of income. Most human rights aren’t about income at all, let alone changes in income. Hence, social mobility is not required by human rights.

Does that mean that a society without social mobility can be one where all human rights are perfectly respected? It depends. Let’s imagine a kind of Dickensian society in which everyone knows their place. Poor people have poor children. Those poor children also have poor children. And all poor people die poor. Same thing for the rich. At first sight, such a society, or even one closely resembling it, is free of rights violations, and yet it clearly does not value human equality. And if you look more closely, it doesn’t really value human rights either. For instance, it’s likely that this society does not offer equal rights to education, for if it did some poor people would break ranks. Neither does such a society respect non-discrimination rules at work. Companies and government employers are probably very classist in their employment decisions, otherwise one would tend to see some poor again breaking ranks. Non-discrimination rules are human rights, and this is therefore another example of the way in which human rights are violated in a society lacking social mobility.

In short, a Dickensian society like the one described here has to be extremely classist and has to marshal extensive means in order to keep people in their place. It can only do so by way of massive violations of some human rights.

While a society like this is the exception in our modern world, there are many societies that resemble it. As a rule, we can say that societies with less than average social mobility will have more than average rights violations, all else being equal. Hence, social mobility is relevant to human rights in the sense that an effort to suppress social mobility almost always has an impact on the level of respect for human rights.

I guess this means that a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected. One can imagine a society in which there’s no discrimination, equal rights, no poverty and equal opportunity, but in which people are still socially mobile. A child of middle class parents can turn out to be a genius and enter the top earning class. Even in human rights utopia, one doesn’t want to enforce equal pay for everyone because incentives are good (in general). Vice versa, the children of genius parents can turn out to be average and end up in a lower income class. If this doesn’t happen, one can assume discrimination and favoritism.

The opposite isn’t the case: a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected, but a society with social mobility can be a brutal dictatorship:

Imagine a dictator who imprisons his subjects, but gives wealth and power to some chosen at random. There’ll be a lot of social mobility, but no justice or liberty. (source)

This shows that social mobility, although difficult to dismiss, is not enough because it does not require freedom and rights. It can even hide and justify deeper injustices. It’s also not enough because it removes attention away from the conditions of life in the lowest income strata. Instead of making it easier for people to enter higher income strata, it’s often better to improve their lives where they are: make their jobs better and more pleasant; give them a say in their companies; focus on the content of their jobs etc. Often, that is what they want rather than a higher station in life.

More on social mobility is here. Other posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (18): To What Extent Can We Count on the Free Market?

Why not use the free market to promote human rights? The free market – or the market for short – is the name of the institution, protected by government rules, which allows individual or collective agents such as firms to freely exchange goods and services. Agents exchange things in the market for self-interested reasons and they tend to use money as the medium of exchange, but that doesn’t mean we’ll only see greed and accumulation of wealth resulting from the operation of the market. I’ll show that we can, to some extent, count on the market to further the cause of human rights.

But let’s start by complicating things a bit:

  • The market can either benefit or harm human rights.
  • And human rights can either benefit or harm the operations of the market.

Hence, the relationship between market and rights is difficult, to say the least. Here are a few examples:

Some human rights are a direct benefit to the market. Take for example the right to private property. This is a human right and it’s one that is generally conceived to be essential for the efficient operation of a market (some even argue that this right justifies free markets, but I want to sidestep issues of justification here and focus on consequences). You can construct a similar argument in the case of other rights such as the right to free movement, to assembly etc. At other times, however, human rights can hinder the market: privacy is a human right but privacy can cause asymmetrical information which in turn causes market dysfunctions.

Markets can have a similar two-sided effect on human rights. Conventional wisdom says that the market is the institution that delivers the highest possible level of prosperity, compared to other ways of organizing the economy. Higher prosperity may benefit certain specific human rights such as the right not to suffer poverty, the right to work etc. This benefit may occur because additional wealth “trickles down” or because additional wealth means additional redistribution. In general, it’s the case that rights cost money, so increased prosperity should, all else being equal, lead to increased rights protection across the board.

A more indirect way in which the market benefits rights is through it’s focus on individualism: the market – as opposed to a centrally planned economy – allows individuals to choose when and what to trade. Individual freedom is also at the heart of human rights. Some have also argued that the rational self-interest that is typical of people engaging in market transactions counters some dangerous and often violent passions such as xenophobia, nationalism and racism. If people trade with one another, they may become more tolerant of one another, if only because trade requires contact, respect, trust and peace. Tolerance and peace are of course also beneficial to human rights. And, finally, both the market and human rights requires the rule of law. If markets foster the rule of law, then that will benefit rights as well.

However, other aspects of markets can harm human rights. A strict interpretation of property rights – something we often hear from defenders of the market – may make redistribution difficult if not impossible, and some rights depend sometimes on redistribution. Think again of the right not to suffer poverty. More generally, markets can have two types of effects that may harm human rights indirectly:

  • Markets tend to “colonize” areas of life where an exchange of things for money is perhaps not the best way to proceed. Some goods can only be valued when they are shared rather than exchanged (e.g. art). In other cases, exchanging goods can destroy their value (e.g. political votes), just as pricing goods can destroy their value (e.g. gifts). I can also mention some types of commodification of the body such as prostitution or organ trade. While commodification of the body is not necessarily a rights violation in itself, it does devalue the dignity of human life. People are treated as means rather than ends, and a devaluation of human beings makes human rights violations more likely.
  • In some sense, this instrumentalization of the other is inherent in all market transactions, not just those in which bodies or body parts are traded. Market transactions are by definition self-interested and impersonal. We only buy or sell when that makes us better off and we don’t need to get to know our buyers or sellers. We use them simply to satisfy our needs. While self-interest and lack of personal relationships in one area of life do not necessarily harm relationships, communities, caring and common deliberation on the public interest in other areas, they can do so when markets “colonize” those other areas.

And, finally, there’s the risk of exploitation in market transactions, which I have discussed here.

I’m more interested in the effects of the market on human rights than in the effects of human rights on the market. Human rights are the ultimate good, and markets are generally a means (at best, markets are one form of exercise of certain human rights). Since the effects of the market on rights can go either way, the question becomes one of limits. If the market harms human rights, or if it expands into areas where market-transactions can indirectly harm human rights, then we have good reasons to limit the operations of the market. However, when doing so we must take care not to go too far and undo the positive effects of markets.

These limitations don’t always have to be of a legal nature. A good public education system can create a culture that helps to keep markets in their place. Governments can acquire art collections and thus remove them from the market. Or they can promote organ donation in various ways (e.g. reciprocity and presumed consent) so that organ shortages don’t force people into markets (legal or illegal markets). Welfare can help poor people avoid exploitative market transactions. And so on. However, legislation is often unavoidable if we want to protect rights against the market.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (49): Universal Rights

Human rights are universal rights, rights that all human beings have for no other reason than being human. That’s almost a tautological statement, and one which has been repeated millions of times. Universality is implicit in the name. This sets human rights apart from other types of rights, such as legal rights which only matter to those subject to the particular jurisdiction in which these legal rights apply, or contract rights which apply only to the people bound by a particular contract.

Despite this definition of human rights, their universality is often contested. Does a person with Down Syndrome have the right to work? Does a newborn baby have the right to free speech? Does a criminal have a right to freedom of movement? Do all potential immigrants have a right to unemployment benefits? Does a terrorist who can order his colleagues to stop torturing three other people have the right not to be tortured? Questions like these are often rhetorical: the unstated but understood answer is “of course not”. People who ask these questions perhaps do so because they want to deny the universality of human rights, and this denial in turn may come in handy when they try to justify violating the rights of some.

There’s in fact an easy answer to this apparent paradox. The universality of human rights is, like human rights themselves not a fact but an aspiration. We have to work to make it a fact, all the time knowing that we’ll probably never get there. We have to work to improve people’s capacities so that they can more fully enjoy their rights. In the case of the disabled, we should recognize that disability, rather than an inborn or acquired lack of capacity, is in fact – in part at least – a capacity that is reduced as a result of the way in which we have chosen to organize society. In the case of criminals, we tend to assume rather too quickly that criminal punishment necessarily involves restrictions of people freedom of movement. And so on. None of the rhetorical questions cited above strikes a fatal blow to the ideal of universality.

More on universality is here. More posts in this series are here.