The Problem With the Libertarian View on Human Rights, in a Nutshell

A few days ago, we were treated, once again, to a typical sexist rant by the awful Rush Limbaugh. This time, it seems that he’s provoked some kind of boycott. Some advertisers and listeners are turning their backs to the radio host, voting with their feet and their wallets. In a sense, this is a typical libertarian response:

[V]iolating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action. Rush has not been jailed for his views, nor has anyone even whispered a suggestion to that effect. There have been no calls for his radio transmitter to be jammed. No one is even demanding he be fined, which might be possible under the FCC‘s arcane and arbitrary decency laws. Instead, what his critics are doing is exercising one of their own fundamental American rights, their right as consumers to frequent the businesses they choose. (source)

I agree that this right of consumers and advertisers to shop where they want and pay for what they want is an important one, although probably not as important as libertarians have it. I have no beef with that. What worries me more and what brings out libertarians’ flawed understanding of human rights is the peculiar opinion on free speech that is evident from the quote above. It’s an opinion that libertarians apply to all human rights, namely that violations of human rights only and always  result from government actions. Actions by fellow citizens – such as boycotts of radio talk show hosts – can never, according to libertarianism, result in rights violations.

The problem with libertarians is that they take cases such as the one we’re discussing now – and which indeed do not involve violations of free speech – and then extrapolate this in order to argue that there are never any similar cases in which citizens’ actions do result in violations of free speech. In the case under review, Limbaugh’s freedom of speech is evidently secure: the government hasn’t intervened, fortunately, and the action of listeners and advertisers don’t make it harder or impossible for Limbaugh to express himself. No one’s freedom of speech presupposes other people’s duty to listen or a duty to support speech through advertising money. Limbaugh’s freedom of speech would be secure even if the boycott were large enough for him to lose his radio pulpit. People don’t need to be a talk show host in order to have freedom of speech.

However, in other cases, it is possible that non-governmental actions – actions by fellow citizens in other words – result in violations of one’s freedom of speech. Some examples: the heckler’s veto, the silencing of critics of Islam by way of threats of violence, the chilling effect of political correctness etc. The same is true for all other human rights: it’s not the government that engages in FGM, that flies planes into the WTC buildings, that attacks gay couples on the street etc.

The central libertarian teaching about human rights as expressed in the quote above (“violating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action”) is therefore an error of fact. The error is probably unavoidable given libertarianism’s focus on the evils of government. This is all the more regrettable given the fact that libertarianism is, in theory, a philosophical school that should be very friendly to human rights. (Robert Nozick, perhaps the most famous libertarian philosopher, starts his magnum opus with the words: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them without violating their rights”).

My argument here may be lacking in nuance and may not do justice to one or other subtype of the admittedly very large and diverse family of libertarianisms. If so, please feel free to correct me in comments.

More on the related topic of dimensions of human rights is here. More on libertarianism.

Economic Human Rights (33): Sweatshops

No one’s in favor of sweatshops in developing countries (or elsewhere for that matter). But that doesn’t mean you have to believe that campaigning against them is a good thing. It’s quite possible to simultaneously believe that something is bad and that its disappearance would make things even worse. Generally, people work in the disgusting circumstances of a sweatshop because the alternative is even worse. People tend to select the occupation that’s least harmful and most profitable for them.

So even though sweatshops do indeed look like a microcosm of human rights violations – degrading working conditions, low salaries, and long hours, exposure to harmful materials, hazardous situations and extreme temperatures, abuse, exploitation (including sexual exploitation) and child labor – they may be better than the alternatives – a fine world we live in – and the fact that most sweatshop workers aren’t coerced by their employers indicates that this is the case.

Sweatshops insult our western sense of justice because we have a relatively low threshold for injustice. Without the opportunity to work in a sweatshop, many people in the Third World would be forced into subsistence farming, scavenging of garbage dumps, begging or even prostitution. All these alternatives may offer lower incomes and worse conditions. Campaigning against sweatshops can lead to their closure and force people into the even less appealing alternatives.

That’s why I argue against campaigns and boycotts. However, campaigns don’t have to lead to the closure of sweatshops and loss of jobs, and can even make things better – go figure:

We find that anti-sweatshop campaigns led to large real wages increases for targeted enterprises. We also examine whether higher wages led these firms to cut employment or relocate elsewhere. The results suggest that there were some costs in terms of reduced investment, falling profits, and increased probability of closure for smaller plants, but we fail to find significant effects on employment. (source, source)

A successful multinational may be profitable enough to be able to afford wage increases [as a response to campaigns], and may prefer to take wage increases on the chin rather than move its business around. (source)

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (3): The Resource Curse

Why do countries with lots of natural resources tend to do worse than countries with less resource wealth, both in terms of economic growth and in political, social and human rights terms? We see that countries which own lots of natural resources such as diamonds, oil or other valuables that are found in the ground, are often relatively poor, badly governed, violent and suffering from gross violations of human rights.

There are many possible causes of this curse (also called “the paradox of plenty”):

1. Lack of economic diversification

Other economic sectors tend to get neglected by the government because there is a guaranteed income from the natural resources. These sectors therefore cannot develop and cannot become an alternative when the resources are taking hits. The fluctuations of the international prices of the resources can cause extreme highs and lows in national economic growth. This is bad in itself, but also makes it difficult for the government to do long term planning, since the level of revenues cannot be predicted. Dependence on one economic sector means vulnerability.

Another disadvantage of concentrating the economy on one resource sector, is that these sector often provide few jobs, especially for local people. The oil industry for example needs highly specialized workers, who are mostly foreigners. On top of that, these sectors do not require many forward or backward connections in the economy (such as suppliers, local customers, refiners etc.), which again doesn’t help the local job creation.

Even if the government tries to diversify the economy, it may fail to do so because the resource sector is more profitable for local individual economic agents.

Resource dependent countries also see their best talents going to the resource industry which pays better wages than the rest of the economy or the government sector. As a result, the latter are unable to perform adequately. See point 4 below.

2. Corruption

Corruption tends to flourish when governments own almost the entire economy and have their hands on the natural resources. More on corruption in a future post.

3. Social division

Abundance of natural resources can produce or prolong violent conflicts within societies as different groups try to control (parts of) the resources. Separatist groups may emerge, trying to control the part of the territory most rich in resources. This is often aggravated by existing social or cultural division. Division may also appear between parts of the government (e.g. local government vs central government, or between different parts of the central administration).

The resources therefore may cause divisions and conflict, and thereby cause deficiencies in government, economic turmoil, and social unrest. But the resources may also prolong conflicts because groups which manage to take control of (parts of) the resources may use these to arm themselves or otherwise gain influence and power.

4. Government’s unaccoutability and inefficiency

Countries which do not depend on natural resources are often more efficient in taxing their citizens, because they do not have funds which are quasi-automatically generated by resources. As a result, they are forced to develop the government machinery in an efficient way, hence a reduced risk of government break-down. The citizens in return, as they are taxed, will demand accountability, efficient spending etc.

Conversely, the political leaders in resource-dependent countries don’t have to care about their citizens. They create support by allocating money, generated by the resources, to favored interest parties, and thereby increasing the level of corruption. And if citizens object, they have the material means to suppress protest. They don’t appreciate an effective government administration as this carries the risk of control, oversight and other anti-corruption measures (see point 2). So they have an interest in bad government.

It is obvious that bad government, rights violations and economic stagnation have many causes. The resource curse is only one. There are countries which are blessed with resources and which do well at the same time. And there are mismanaged countries that don’t have any resources. As in all correlations, the causation may go in the other way: bad government can create dependence on exports of natural resources.

“When a country’s chaos and economic policies scare off foreign investors and send local entrepreneurs abroad to look for better opportunities, the economy becomes skewed. Factories may close and businesses may flee, but petroleum and precious metals remain for the taking. Resource extraction becomes ‘the default sector’ that still functions after other industries have come to a halt.” (source)

What to do about it?

Leif Wenar has argued that a strict application of property rights could help reduce or correct the resource curse. When dictators or insurgents sell off a country’s resources to foreigners or multi-national companies, while terrorizing the people into submission, they are in fact selling goods that they stole from those people. They have no right to sell what they don’t own. The natural resources of a country belong equally to all the people of that country. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.

And

“the people, whose resources are being sold off, become not the beneficiaries of this wealth but the victim of those who use their own wealth to repress them”. Leif Wenar (source)

One could take legal action in western jurisdictions to try to enforce the property rights of the citizens of resource cursed countries and to charge multinational corporations with the crime of receiving stolen goods.

Western countries, investors and consumers could also boycott companies that invest in resource-cursed countries, or try to pressure campaign them to get out of these countries, or they could stop to invest in these companies.

When people finally get a grip on their resources, they open the path to better government, a better economy and better protection for human rights. Perhaps then they will not have to die trying to recapture a tiny part of the resources that are their lawful property, as happened in many cases in Nigeria, for example, where people often try to tap some oil from the pipelines channeling their property to the west. In doing so, they risk their lives. As a consequence of their actions, the pipelines can explode.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (6): The Behavior of Corporations

Private companies, especially companies engaging in international trade and multinational companies, have duties in the field of human rights. They can violate human rights or they can act positively to protect them.

  • They are obliged to respect human rights, just as individuals or states. They can create labor conditions that respect human rights (fair wages, no child labor etc.).
  • Multinational companies should not use the competition between workers (for example workers from different countries with different levels of wages or different labor conditions) to force down wages or loosen labor regulations.
  • Multinational companies can be an example to local companies in the way they treat workers, and they can require that local companies that co-operate with them respect certain rules, such as the rules regarding labor conditions.
  • Also non-multi-national companies that engage in international trade can require that their suppliers respect human rights. They can always threaten to go to another supplier.
  • Companies have the technology, the know-how and the money that some governments need; hence they have the means to convince these governments to respect human rights.
  • It is in the interest of companies that countries respect human rights and the principles of democracy. They need the rule of law (which is a human right), predictability, law enforcement, stability, an effective judiciary etc. It is also in their interest that the local population can afford to buy their products or services. So they may even be able to promote economic rights.

Companies that violate rights, that trade with dictatorships or with other companies that do not respect human rights, become more and more sensitive to the negative consequences of their choices. Their image and profits can suffer. Their good name is economically more interesting than rights violations, certainly in the long term. Public opinion can turn against them and consumers can stop buying their products or services.

Banks and arms producing companies have a particular responsibility. Banks could monitor and possibly even freeze the assets of dictators. Arms companies should avoid delivering arms to dictators.

Children’s Rights (2): Child Labor

Child labor not only keeps children from attending school. It often harms them physically and mentally. It is therefore a double problem from the point of view of the human rights of children.

  1. It denies them the education that they need for the exercise of and struggle for their human rights. Without education the freedom of thought and opinion becomes rather academic since thought and opinion requires a certain level of education. Political participation without literacy is also quite difficult. Without education people will find it difficult to struggle against rights violations and to find meaningful work when they are adults. So child labor can have lifetime consequences for human rights.
  2. The conditions in which children have to work often lead directly to violations of their rights, such as the right to good health. Moreover the kinds of jobs children have to do are often extremely stultifying, creating feelings of insignificance and hopelessness, with disastrous consequences for their personality and future development.

Legal aspects

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in article 26, includes the right to education and hence, implicitly (not explicitly), the prohibition of child labor since the two are incompatible. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states, rather carefully in order not to frighten away developing countries who might otherwise not have accepted the treaty:

“Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law”.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides the strongest legal language prohibiting illegal child labor but does not make child labor illegal.

Numbers

The International Labor Organization estimates that 246 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work (or about 15% of the world’s children, about 35% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa).

They work in very different industries but mostly in commercial agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining, parents’ business and domestic service either at home or in other homes, in factories, sweatshops, fields, tourist attractions etc. Some children work in illicit activities like the drug trade and prostitution or as soldiers. Often their situation is aggravated by child slavery, child trafficking, debt bondage and forced labor.

Where?

In Western countries, child labor has gradually died out. It was common during the industrial revolution (and before) when children as young as four were employed in factories with dangerous working conditions, but labor laws, education laws and technological progress (and some say colonialism) have caused its disappearance.

From Unicef:

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the worldwide highest share of child labourers. In the 18 countries in this region with data on child labour, 38 percent of all children between 7 and 14 years of age are engaged in work that can be considered harmful to their development. Among these children, slightly more than half (20 percent of the total) also attend school while another 18 percent are only engaged in labour. Overall, 60 percent of all children between 7 and 14 years attend school. 21 percent of all children are neither in school nor do they engage in labour. These children may, however, perform work that is not considered labour, for example household work for less than 28 hours per week… [T]he share of child labourers among girls is the same as among boys, about 38 percent. On the other hand, the area of residence is strongly associated with child labour: rural children (43 percent) work much more than urban children (25 percent).

Why?

It’s often the poverty of their parents that forces millions of young children out of school and into work. But companies obviously also have an interest in hiring children. Children earn less, are less vocal defenders of their rights, are more easily forced to accept certain “work procedures” etc. For some professions, the anatomy of children also gives them an advantage compared to adults (mining for instance). Many companies, including Western multinationals, often find the temptation too hard to resist, and the consumers engage in moral complicity when purchasing products assembled or manufactured in developing countries with child labor. Consumer boycotts of such products, however, without compensating measures such as the provision of education for the children in question or benefits to poor families, may simply result in an even worse situation when children are forced into other labor activities, often more hazardous or detrimental.

A child may sometimes consent to work if, for example, the salary is relatively attractive, but such consent may not be informed consent. Child labor may still be an undesirable situation for a child in the long run.

Economic advantages of the abolition of child labor

Child labor undermines the general economy because it lowers general labor standards and wages for all workers (adult workers often suffer from unfair competition since they normally would be paid more and are generally more vocal about their labor conditions). It may have a short-term beneficial effect on a country’s international competitiveness because it allows countries to produce at lower costs and with fewer regulations, but internally in the country it affects the general labor standards and work force.

Human Rights and International Law (1): Boycotting the China Olympics Because of Human Rights Violations in China and Sudan/Darfur

Some time ago, there was a story in the press about Steven Spielberg canceling his decision to work for the China Olympics. As a consequence, the discussion about a possible boycott (comparable to the boycott of the USSR Olympics after the invasion of Afghanistan) got some more publicity. Here are some general words about sanctions for the sake of human rights.

Boycotts, embargoes and other international sanctions (economic sanctions for example or a ban on foreign direct investments or bank loans) are peaceful means, used by the international community, to convince a country to stop violating human rights or to stop assisting a third country that is violating rights.

A disadvantage of sanctions is that they are most effective against relatively weak states. They can only work when they are directed against countries that are vulnerable to outside pressure (that, for example, depend on imports of products which are not, or not sufficiently, produced at home) and when a critical mass of countries, especially large countries, join in. Moreover, sanctions are not very popular in the countries imposing them. They often hurt that country’s economy. Its businesses can no longer export to or invest in the target countries, and jobs may be lost.

Sanctions are allowed in international law when

“they are taken in consequence of a breach of international rules imposing duties erga omnes, hence conferring on any State a right to claim respect for the rules”. Antonio Cassese

These rules are, for example, human rights. However, even if every state is allowed to impose sanctions in these cases, it is better that the international community as a whole imposes the sanctions, and not only for efficiency reasons. Collective measures allow us to dismiss the charge of partiality and self-interest. They will also emphasise the symbolic value of the sanctions.

Sanctions have often been successful, for example in the Philippines and in Nicaragua, as well as in Argentina and Uruguay under the Carter administration. Sanctions can be successful when the aim is to weaken the industrial, technological and military powers of a state. Purely symbolic sanctions, such as a boycott of the Olympic Games, are probably less useful. Cultural sanctions are even worse, because they are harmful. They cut off the flow of information. It becomes very difficult to monitor rights violations, the opposition cannot contact the outside world and new ideas cannot take root. Perhaps even the rulers will start to see that other systems can be successful if they are allowed to communicate with the outside world.

It is advisable to impose selective sanctions rather than all-out embargoes that harm the population indiscriminately. Sometimes, it can be enough to stop arms deliveries or oil exports. Not all kinds of sanctions necessarily harm the civilian population.

It can never be the purpose to punish an entire population collectively. All-out embargoes are not only unjust, they are also counterproductive. They do not harm those who are supposed to be harmed, namely the rulers. On the contrary, they reinforce the rulers. The population will identify, not always without reason, the “foreigners” as those responsible for their predicament, a predicament which may be even worse than the one which caused the sanctions. They will rally behind their rulers because the sentiment of “we against the world” will spill over in virulent nationalism. Popular dissatisfaction will be directed to the outside world and away from the rulers. Sanctions are least effective in countries ruled by people who are insensitive to their population’s hardship, or, in other words, in countries where they are most needed.

And even if large-scale hardship caused by sanctions can persuade some rulers to step down or reform, it does not seem right to use or abuse the population in this way. Using people or punishing innocent people is perhaps the most serious violation of human rights.

If sanctions are imposed, then it is important to estimate the possibility of success. One should try to evaluate their efficiency beforehand. The imposition of sanctions and the choice of the kind of sanctions should be decided on the basis of, among other things:

  • the fact that less far-reaching measures have been tried and have failed
  • an evaluation of the type of adversary and the sorts of pressure he is unable to resist
  • the “collateral damage” that is likely to result from the imposition of sanctions
  • an evaluation of the stamina of those imposing the sanctions, their willingness to go ahead, and the number of countries that are willing to go ahead
  • an evaluation of the possible negative consequences for those imposing the sanctions and of the effect of these consequences on their stamina
  • an evaluation of the possibility to evade the sanctions
  • the possibility and the willingness to enforce the sanctions by way of a blockade, for example.