What Are Human Rights? (41): No Right Without a Remedy

Ubi jus ibi remedium: where there is a right, there must be a remedy in case of violation of the right. It’s an old but somewhat misguided principle. If you focus too much on it, you’ll miss the essence of human rights. It has some superficial appeal: when nothing can be done about a rights violation, you might just as well not have a right at all. Conversely, the presence of remedies may deter future wrongdoers.

However, if you dig deeper, you’ll notice some problems. First, the principle is often used to disparage economic human rights: what’s the use of promulgating a right to work, when the presence of work depends on economic circumstances rather than on decisions by judges or on government policy? Compare this to the right to free speech: when a government shuts down a newspaper, a judge can – ideally – order the government to step back. Or compare it to the right to property: when someone steals your stuff, a judge can order to thief to give it back or compensate you financially. If we want to hold on to economic rights – and I think we should – we have to soften the remedy principle.

But there are problems even if we don’t care about economic rights. A remedy is often inadequate or even unavailable. Judges are ineffective or complicit in dictatorships. Do we say that the citizens of those dictatorships do not have rights simply because they don’t have remedies? I don’t think so.

Even if we focus on states with a well-functioning rule of law, there are many rights without remedies. Suppose the police harasses you repeatedly for no good reason. They regularly invade your house and strip search you. As a result, your sense of security and privacy is gone. You live in constant fear and humiliation. You appeal to a judge who manages to stop the police and who awards you financial damages. And yet, you’ll probably be traumatized for the rest of your life. In short, you have no real remedy. The same is even more obvious in the case of a violation of the right to life. There’s obviously no remedy, but that doesn’t make the right to life useless. It’s still a strong moral claim that often has beneficial effects.

Even when real remedies are possible, they may require more than a few words spoken by a judge. Take for instance racial segregation in the U.S. Courts have repeatedly ruled it unconstitutional in the 1950s and 60s, but it took decades of complex laws and policies to diminish its effect. Again, the difference with economic rights tends to disappear. For instance, a healthy environment for job creation in the private economy also requires good and complex government policies maintained over many years.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (39): Human Rights and Human Duties

For some people, there’s too much talk about human rights. They see human rights as a symptom of a typically modern type of moral decay, of a culture of self-importance and egoism, and of an exaggerated sense of entitlement. We want more and more of society and the state, and at the same time we are less willing to contribute. Instead of rights talk, they say, we should promote a sense of duty. Instead of rights declarations and rights in constitutions and treaties, we should have lists of duties and responsibilities, and have the state enforce those duties rather than rights.

You often hear this duty talk when the topic is crime (defendants have “too many rights”) or anti-social behavior (whatever that means), but it seems to be focused mainly on economic human rights. Rather than a right to unemployment benefits people have a duty to work and to support themselves. Rather than a right to very expensive healthcare for everyone, people have a duty to live a healthy life. And so on.

My point here is not to deny the importance of the duties mentioned above, or of a lot of other duties. And neither do I want to claim that human rights talk can’t be frivolous. I merely want to mention a couple of risks that come with duty talk. First of all, there’s the danger of rights becoming dependent on duties. If duties are given too much importance, people will be tempted to claim that your rights can only come after you have proven to be a responsible person. That would be wrong. Rights are unconditional. People have rights, end of story. They don’t have rights because they are responsible citizens respecting their social duties. Even irresponsible citizens, and even criminals have rights.

In addition, duty talk is somewhat superfluous. Duties are inherent in rights. Someone’s rights are everyone else’s duties. (It’s wrong to view respect for rights as the duty of the state only). I don’t have a right to violate your right; I have a duty to respect it. Rights would be meaningless words without such duties. So what’s the added value of emphasizing duties?

More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (42): Some Facts About Welfare in the U.S.

Welfare – meaning the provision by the government of a minimum level of material wellbeing and social support for all citizens – is a strange thing in the U.S.: it’s not directed mainly at the poor, it’s underfunded, it seems to be compatible with a high poverty rate, and it’s not colorblind – at least not in its effects.

Take a look at the following facts (source):

  • In 2010, nearly half of Americans lived in a household that received direct government benefits. That’s up from 37.7% in 1998.
  • At the same time, government revenues have been declining: adjusted for inflation, federal tax revenue was the same in 2009 as it was 1997, even though the U.S. population grew by 37 million during that period. In 2011, the federal government took in $2.3 trillion in tax revenue, and spent the exact same amount on military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone.
  • The share of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare going to the bottom fifth of households (based on income) has fallen from 54% in 1979 to 36% in 2007.
  • The result of all of this: nearly 1 in 6 Americans – and more than 1 in 4 blacks – still live in poverty. The unemployment rate in 2009 was around 10% – for young, uneducated African-American males it was even 48.5%.

None of this should lead to the conclusion that the U.S. welfare system is completely dysfunctional – unemployment insurance, for instance, has rescued millions of Americans from poverty during the last recession. What it should lead to is serious consideration of the possibility and desirability of a completely new system.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (33): Something More Than Goals

You can often hear the claim that economic rights such as the right to healthcare, food and work are not really rights but merely desirable goals. A first reply would be that all types of rights, not just economic rights, are also goals. Free speech is just as much a goal as healthcare, food and work. But not all goals are rights, so it’s reasonable to ask if economic rights are really rights. What is a right? It can be different things, but it should, minimally, impose a duty. A duty implies feasibility. Ought implies can. There’s no point imposing duties on people which they are unable to respect.

A typical objection against economic rights is that they impose precisely such duties, duties which are not and will not be feasible in many countries in the world. Imposing a right to healthcare, food and work in Somalia, for instance, is imposing an illusion. It’s just too expensive. Hence, because they impose impossible duties, economic rights can’t really be rights. They are merely goals.

Now, I did argue before that the relative expensiveness of economic rights compared to “freedom” rights is often very much exaggerated. Which is why Somalia and other countries have also failed to secure freedom rights successfully. Part of their lack of success is due to their unwillingness to leave people be – which they could at no expense – but another part is due to their unwillingness and inability to fund the institutions necessary to enforce people’s freedom. Yet, no one claims that these failures turn free speech into a mere goal or aspiration rather than a right.

Furthermore, the international treaties that impose respect for economic rights have taken the cost criticism into account. They often frame economic rights in terms of “progressive realization”. Countries don’t violate the treaties if they can show that they have taken all possible measures to ensure the progressive – as opposed to immediate – realization of economic rights.

If we turn rights into goals, we lose a lot. Goals are a lot weaker in terms of moral force than rights. Those who are without food can no longer demand that something is done, that they are the victims of an injustice, and that they have a right to food. All they can do is ask or beg that a certain social goal, one among probably thousands, is taken a bit more seriously.

Finally, is it really so farcical to impose duties that exceed people’s abilities to comply? Aren’t we doing that all the time? It’s common to view “telling the truth” as a moral duty, a very strong one even. And yet, we all know that this exceeds our abilities to comply. We lie all the time, and if you deny this, you’re lying. The best we can do, morally, is precisely “progressive realization”: trying to lie as little as we can, and less than we’re used to. The same progressive realization rescues economic rights as rights: rather than imposing a duty to realize the goal inherent in the rights, they impose a duty to try to realize that goal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethics of Human Rights (28): Private Charity vs the Welfare State

In a previous post, I wrote about my personal views regarding the best ways to help the poor. I favor private philanthropy or charity over the welfare state. Some of the reasons are:

  • The welfare state imposes certain costs on the economy, thereby damaging the prospects of the future poor.
  • Closeness and affinity imply a greater ability to help. And he or she who can do more, should do more (can implies ought). Citizens are better placed than the government to help poor people in their community/family because they better understand the needs.
  • Spontaneous mutual assistance fosters community spirit. Allowing poverty reduction to take place at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen feelings of belonging.

When all this fails – as it often will – and only when this fails, can a state intervene and can the welfare mechanisms and redistribution systems based on taxation begin to operate (these merely enforce deficient private philanthropy).

However, some claim that the welfare state crowds out private charity. If you don’t care about private charity and want a government monopoly on care for the poor, you won’t mind if there is crowding out. And if you don’t care about private charity or about government assistance to the poor, you won’t mind either. But I guess most people agree with me that both charity and the government have a part to play (although they may not agree with my chosen priorities). So it’s good to see that

government welfare programs [do not] appear to displace an equivalent amount of private charity. Private giving does not vary inversely with the size of government programs and there is little evidence for a “crowding out” effect. Many private charities, in fact, rely on government funding to some extent. Private charitable giving to the poor, defined in narrow terms, runs in the range of $10 to $15 billion a year [in the U.S.], and few observers believe that this sum is capable of significant augmentation in the short run, regardless of government policy. Tyler Cowen (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (32): The Economic Cost of Taxing the Rich

Taxation is linked to human rights in several ways:

I personally belief that a progressive tax is best in light of the last two concerns. In a progressive taxation system, higher earners pay a larger percentage of their income on taxes. Compared to a regressive taxation system (people with higher incomes pay less in percentage of their income, as in the case of a consumption tax or VAT) or a flat tax (the tax percentage is the same for all income groups), a progressive tax reduces income inequality: it makes incomes more equal in a direct way because it reduces the income of higher-earning families by a larger percentage than the income of lower earning ones; but also in an indirect way because this system – under certain conditions – yields more tax revenues which can then be spent on poverty reduction and the safety net. Also, it seems to be a good example of a just and fair system. The strongest shoulders should carry the most heavy burden. Someone earning a low income can end up in poverty after paying a small percentage in taxes; a wealthy person will perhaps not even notice paying a relatively large sum in taxes.

The counter-narrative states that high tax rates discourage people; they are a disincentive to hard work and effort. High tax rates for high incomes discourage people who work relatively hard (they work hard supposedly because they earn a lot). Because high tax rates punish the most productive elements in a society, the whole of society suffers. More productive people will limit their productivity because they don’t want to fall into a higher tax bracket, and the money they pay in taxes can’t be invested in the economy. Taxing the rich therefore has an unacceptable economic cost. Conversely, low tax rates for the rich produce benefits for all (this is trickle down economics, read also about the Laffer curve).

But this narrative doesn’t quite stand the test of data. As is clear from this link, high tax rates don’t slow down economic growth, and low tax rates don’t speed it up. This paper also supports the claim that moderate, as opposed to dramatic, increases in marginal rates don’t have any impact on the willingness of the wealthy to participate in the economy. They won’t go Galt. Atlas won’t shrug, except to signal indifference.

The top income tax rate was 91% (beginning at taxable income of $400,000) … [in] the period from 1951 through 1963. Those were the golden years of the U.S. economy, in which the average annual rate of productivity growth was 3.1% (compared with about 1.5% after 1981). Of course, the growth might have been even faster had the marginal tax rates been lower, but the coincidence of high rates and high productivity raises challenging questions for those who believe that high marginal tax rates carry an unacceptable cost. (source)

To be fair, marginal tax rates are a crude measures of tax burden. There’s a difference between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates.

  • A marginal tax rate is the tax rate that applies to the last dollar of the tax base (taxable income or spending, usually income). It’s not the rate at which all your dollars are taxed. It’s the maximum rate you’re paying on any of your dollars of taxable income.
  • An effective tax rate refers to the actual rate, i.e., the rate existing in fact, for the entire income, after tax deductions and credits and taking into account lower rates for lower income brackets (see here). It’s your total tax obligation (including your income tax and any other additional taxes and/or credits), divided by your total taxable income.

But even if we look at the effective tax rates of the rich, we see that this has steadily decreased over the decades, with little or no positive effect on overall economic performance.

And when there’s no positive effect of decreasing tax rates, there’s probably also no negative effect of increasing tax rates. To the extent that the wealthy (and productive, although those groups obviously don’t overlap completely) respond to changes in the tax system, their responses focus not on increased/decreased labor, productivity or investment, but on tax avoidance (see here).

Economic Human Rights (31b): Certain Objections

Economic rights are a subset of human rights. Put very briefly and simplistically, they are what could be called anti-poverty rights: for example, there’s a right to a certain standard of living, to social security, to work, to fair wages, to healthcare, housing etc.

It’s an understatement to say that there’s no universal consensus on these rights. Some say that these aren’t “real” human rights (like Bill Easterly for example). Others say that these rights are useless or even harmful. Here are a few of the most common objections raised against economic rights.

The big state criticism

Economic rights are believed to require invasion of privacy and hence violations of an important freedom right (freedom rights such as free speech, privacy, habeas corpus etc. are usually distinguished from economic rights, political rights etc.). In order to verify whether people have a right to social security benefits or healthcare benefits, the state has to check people’s income (legal and illegal), their family composition, their health, their medical consumption, their lifestyle etc.

The assumption behind this criticism is that the state is the only or the main party responsible for the realization of economic rights. This is not the case. People in need can call on other people to help. And these other people have a moral responsibility to help. The duties of mutual assistance, charity and philanthropy point to a horizontal aspect of economic rights. People in need do not only have a vertical right to assistance, or a right directed at the state. Their economic rights can be addressed at their fellow citizens, and these have a duty to respect and protect these rights. It’s only when horizontal duties fail that the state should intervene. If we think of economic rights in this way, the dangers of an overbearing state don’t look that ominous anymore.

The rule that economic rights should – in part – be realized by citizens has another advantage as well: economic rights tend to foster community spirit and feelings of solidarity and belonging.

But this insistence on solidarity shouldn’t obscure the rule that people have a responsibility to help themselves and support themselves. This kind of independence is a part of freedom and an important good. Solidarity comes into play only when self-help is unsuccessful or impossible, and the state comes into play only when solidarity is unsuccessful or absent.

Different kinds of duties

Another objection: some say that economic rights, if they are rights at all, are radically different from “normal” human rights – also called freedom rights – and can therefore be given a lower priority (and maybe aren’t even real rights at all). Freedom rights imply duties of abstention or forbearance, whereas economic rights require duties of active help, involvement and intervention. In the case of violations of freedom rights, the remedy is easy: stop doing what you’re doing. In the case of violations of economic “rights”, the remedy is often very difficult if not impossible. If there is no work, no one can give it to me. If a country is poor, no one can raise the standard of living.

When freedom rights are violated, the victim can go to a court and a judge can force the violator to stop his or her actions. When economic rights are violated, it’s useless to go to a court. Not only isn’t there an obvious violator who can be stopped, there is often no one who can stop the violation from happening. Hence it looks like these rights are unenforceable and often have no remedy. Rather than rights, it seems that they are aspirations or policy goals, often long term policy goals.

However, there’s again an erroneous assumption underlying all of this. The distinction between the two types of duties – forbearance and active assistance – isn’t clean-cut. Freedom rights require active intervention by the state in order to enforce forbearance. They require an efficient judiciary and police force. For some states, this may be as unattainable as prosperity. In fact, it’s precisely because of a lack of prosperity that many states are unable to guarantee protection for freedom rights. Of course, the fact that economic rights are a prerequisite for freedom rights isn’t a sufficient reason to call them rights. But neither is it a reason not to call them rights.

Conversely, economic rights often require more forbearance than active intervention. Economic rights in China during the Great Leap Forward would have been better served by state forbearance. All types of human rights require forbearance and intervention. Perhaps economic rights generally need more intervention, but that is a difference in degree and not in essence, and it isn’t a sufficient reason to reject the label of “rights” for the aspirations inherent in economic rights.

Ought implies can

There’s another criticism of economic rights, related to the previous one. Economic rights are said to violate a general rule for rights: ought implies can; there can be no obligation to do something if there is no capability to do it. You cannot have a duty to help someone who’s drowning if you can’t swim yourself. Hence the person drowning doesn’t have a right to be assisted by you. The same is said to be true of economic rights which therefore aren’t real rights. If a poor country doesn’t have the resources to help its poor citizens, then these citizens don’t have a right to be helped.

However, we don’t follow the same logic in the case of freedom rights. Freedom rights also require resources, as we have seen. When a state doesn’t have the resources necessary to protect its citizens’ freedom rights, we usually don’t say that the citizens of such a state have lost their freedom rights. People have rights irrespective of the probability that they can be protected. Or better: the less people’s rights are protected, the more important it is that they have rights. And anyway, violations of economic rights don’t occur because there are insufficient resources but because of an unequal distribution of resource, nationally or internationally. So the “can” part of “ought implies can” isn’t as fanciful as the critics of economic rights believe.

Economic rights are superfluous and useless

This is supposed to be the case because free markets should automatically produce a certain standard of living for everyone that is high enough to realize the goals inherent in economic rights. Free trade, deregulated markets and low taxes cause profits to rise, which in turn means more investments, which in turn means more and better jobs and higher incomes. All boats rise on a rising tide.

Now, it’s my belief that history – and especially recent history – has shown that this isn’t enough. Free markets are beneficial, but they don’t automatically provide high standards of living for everyone.

Economic rights are harmful and counterproductive

This is a stronger version of the “useless” argument. Economic rights are believed to require a big state (see above), high taxes and intrusive regulation. All of this hinders the economy and the creation of wealth. As a result of economic rights, there is less wealth to redistribute, and economic rights therefore undo what they want to achieve.

They are also harmful in another way: they violate freedom rights, especially the right to privacy and the right to property (because of redistribution). We’ve already seen that we can mitigate this risk when we include horizontal duties. But even if this risk is real, why should property and privacy automatically rank higher than the absence of poverty? If we assume that economic rights are real rights, then it’s not surprising to see that they can contradict other rights. Contradictions between human rights are very common. The right to privacy is often in conflict with free speech for example. Sometimes one right has to be limited for the sake of another. So why should this be a problem when dealing with economic rights?

Of course, one shouldn’t dramatize. Economic rights and freedom rights are generally not incompatible. On the contrary, they are interdependent. Freedom for the poor often doesn’t mean a whole lot. But, on the other hand, the squeaky hinge gets the oil: poverty has to have a voice if it is to be eliminated.

What Are Human Rights? (20): Universal Rights

Legally and morally, human rights are universal norms and rules. Almost all countries in the world have accepted international treaties that translate human rights into law, or have accepted membership of international institutions which proclaim to respect human rights or work towards the realization of human rights (such as the UN). Moreover, most if not all national constitutions proclaim human rights to be part of the country’s highest law. Even North-Korea recently changed its constitution in this sense.

The example of North-Korea makes it obvious that legal universality isn’t the same thing as universality tout court. There are in fact three types of universality – legal, moral and factual universality: universal acceptance of legal rules, universal acceptance of moral rules, and universal respect for legal/moral rules. Ultimately, it’s the last one that counts, of course. These three types don’t require each other, but the last one obviously benefits from the presence of the first two:

  • Legal universality. Legal consensus doesn’t require moral or factual universality. Countries can adopt legal rules for other reasons than moral conviction, and legal rules are – by definition I would say, otherwise we wouldn’t need any legal rules – regularly violated.
  • Moral universality: there’s moral universality when human rights are part of the “morality of the world” (or Weltethos), or – in other words – are accepted as peremptory moral rules by all of the world’s cultures, nations, subcultures, religions etc. This doesn’t require legal universality. You can have moral consensus and still have a rogue dictator somewhere who has refused to sign a treaty. Nor does it require factual universality, again because you don’t need a rule – legal or moral – for something that is a fact.
  • Factual universality: human rights are not just norms but facts; there are no human rights violations. Again, this doesn’t require legal or moral universality, since actual respect for human rights may have other causes than legal or moral pressure. However, it’s fair to say that without legal and  – especially – moral universality, factual universality is highly unlikely (although many would say that it’s utopian in any case).

Notwithstanding the prominence of human rights talk in almost all domains of life and all corners of the world, there is no moral universality. There are certain ideologies and schools of thought (yes, there’s a difference) that argue against the universal value of human rights. Either they argue against human rights in general, or – more commonly – they argue against certain elements of the system of human rights: for instance, they may reject certain types of human rights (e.g. economic rights), or they may reject the “absoluteness” of human rights and accept that certain human rights can be bracketed in certain circumstances when higher values are in danger (e.g. the use of torture in emergencies). Examples of arguments against the universality of the entire system of human rights can be found in the theory called “cultural relativism“, or in the view that economic development has priority over human rights.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (6): Freedom and Economic Rights

If freedom is a good only because of the value that lies in exercising it, then those who lack the capacity or resources to exercise a given freedom are being denied the enjoyment of it, even though they may not formally be being obstructed. David Beetham (source)

Either freedom is important, or it isn’t important. It can’t be the case that freedom is important for certain people and that it may be legitimately denied to other people. I don’t think that we’ll still find many people defending such a position.

If people should be allowed to enjoy freedom equally, then we should try to remove the obstacles which make it harder for some people, compared to others, to enjoy freedom. Traditionally, these obstacles were believed to be government restrictions on freedom, such as laws against certain religions, laws against the expression of certain ideas, or laws discriminating against people of a certain race or gender for example. Gradually, people began to understand that private actions can also counteract equal freedom: slavery, gender discrimination in the family etc.

A third step was the realization – still incomplete – that equal freedom doesn’t only suffer from active obstruction – public or private – but also from unequal capacities or resources. Equal freedom requires both the absence of coercion and the presence of resources. People who lack a decent income, a basic education and good health will never be as free as their fellow human beings who possess these resources.

The question is then, how can people acquire these resources in case they lack them? Much depends of course on their own efforts. Their fellow human beings may decide to act charitably and in a spirit of “fraternité”. A lack of charity is as effective as discrimination when it comes to restricting equal freedom. And the same is true for governments.

However, people who find themselves at the wrong end of unequal freedom don’t have to count on government or private charity. They have a right to those resources necessary for equal freedom. This right has been translated into the concept of economic rights. Read more.

The Ethics of Human Rights (16): The Extent of Our Duties Towards the Poor

Not only the state has a duty to help the poor and to protect their economic rights. The individual should also intervene in order to realize the economic rights of his or her fellow citizens and fellow human beings. He or she can intervene in different ways: through caritas or altruism, through trade and exchange etc. (Simply giving the example and inspiring others by way of your own success, as in this cartoon, is not enough).

It is only when these interventions fail or never take place and individuals neglect their duties, that the state must act by way of redistribution. After all, redistribution is a limit on freedom and on property rights (which are very important) and should therefore be kept to a minimum.

I mentioned our fellow human beings. The extent of our duties towards the poor is an interesting discussion in contemporary philosophy. Some say that we have only duties towards our fellow citizens; others that we have a duty towards everyone. Whereas in principle, everyone regardless of borders has the same right to our assistance, there has to be some differentiation in practice. Our duties arising from economic rights are not the same towards everyone. In general, we have more duties towards certain persons than towards other persons. This is because of the principle “ought implies can” (if you cannot swim, then you do not have a duty to rescue persons from drowning), which is a general principle of law and morality. None of us can give material assistance to everybody in need of assistance. We all have a limited amount of resources, and even if we have more than we require for our basic needs, we will not be able to assist everybody.

That is why we have to be selective. Our own children, for example, take precedence. We have more duties towards our children than towards other people. Closeness means that you can do more, and if you can do more, you ought to do more. Can also implies ought. Closeness, therefore, plays a part in the degree of duty, although not in the existence of duty. If we can help everybody, then we have to help everybody. This is especially the case when we transcend the level of individuals. Wealthy groups – for example a wealthy country or a group of wealthy countries – can help many people and maybe even everybody, and hence have a duty to do so.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (1): Impossible?

Freedom vs. Equality, or Equal Freedom/Free Equality?

In this blog series, I want to look for philosophical arguments in favor of the link between freedom and equality and against the traditional opposition between these values. The conclusion will be that the best way of defending this link is by adopting a certain definition of freedom, namely freedom as self-realization, self-development and autonomy. Other types of freedom are more difficult to combine with the demands of equality.

An important part of the link between freedom and equality is the law and the state. Protection by the law, security because of the law, the creation of a public space by the law, political participation in a democratic state based on the law, are all factors which combine in producing an equal liberty for all, liberty in the sense of self-rule, freedom of choice and the possibility to determine your own life and to develop your self.

In this first post of the series, I will limit myself to the statement of the problem. Why should there be a contradiction between freedom and equality? Over the last centuries, it has indeed become kind of a tradition to juxtapose freedom and equality and to view these two important human values as opposing goals, one inevitably leading to the limitation of the other.

Some examples

One can point to the way in which the claims of equality, as they are expressed in economic rights and policies of income redistribution, limit the freedom of the wealthier parts of the population, in particular the freedom to do with their possessions as they want.

Moreover, the struggle against poverty can become the overriding preoccupation and often even an excuse for violations of freedom rights (the Chinese government can be criticized for this). Non-economic injustices are often readily accepted once people are convinced that these injustices are needed to combat economic injustices.

Another example of the way in which the struggle for equality limits the freedom of certain groups is given by some kinds of affirmative action programs. And a final example, the principle of non-discrimination may require limiting the freedom of expression of those who promote racism or other forms of discrimination.

Conversely, freedom can also limit equality. Although I’m all in favor of economic freedom, I have to admit that the unfettered free market and the absolute protection of property – a freedom right – can produce or exacerbate economic inequalities. When the unequal distribution of talent and starting-capital is not checked by government intervention then the outcome tends to be more economic inequality, the exceptional “rags to riches” story notwithstanding. It is obvious that people who are born in wealthy families have more opportunities and less risks than others.

This is true even if we don’t assume that people only use their abilities and starting capital for selfish purposes. There is charity and solidarity, but even if we combine this with so-called trickle-down effects or Invisible hand effects (the wealth of the wealthy benefits the less wealthy because they can work for the wealthy etc.) we have to admit that some people will lose and will find themselves in a situation which is not only economically unequal but also detrimental for their wellbeing.

Economic rights, the rights to these basic resources and capabilities, are not the automatic product of voluntary caritas, free solidarity, economic freedom or the invisible hand. Some kind of government intervention and coercion is necessary in order to redistribute wealth and undo the most heinous forms of economic inequality.

Another example: an absolute freedom of expression which includes the protection of hatred and racist speech, can lead to inequality, discrimination and even genocide.

The choice between freedom and equality

Most if not all people consider both freedom and equality to be important human values and goals. But because of the apparent contradiction between these goals, people tend to make a choice, and prefer one to the other. It is this choice which separates conservatives and liberals, or people from the right and left; the former preferring liberty, the latter equality (simplistically).

No one, however, throws the other value overboard. Either equality or freedom is merely deemed somewhat less important in certain specific cases. Not all things that are good and desirable are necessarily compatible. Sometimes one good thing will have to be abandoned or limited in order to protect another good thing. And I don’t exclude that this can be the case of equality and freedom. However, what I will try to do in this series is to show that things aren’t so problematic and that, given a correct understanding of freedom in particular, conflicts are not necessary.

Economic Human Rights (19): Spreading the Wealth Around

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. … The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. … It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion. Adam Smith

The purpose of economic rights is the equal possession of a minimum supply of those fundamental material means, which are necessary for the continuation of life in a decent way. If there are some people who have less than the minimum, economic rights will redistribute some of these means. In other words, these rights will take some things away from those who have enough and give it to those who do not have enough. This is possible because, globally or even nationally in some cases, there is enough for everybody. The only problem is the unequal distribution.

The Causes of Poverty (8): Lack of Economic Freedom

Open markets offer the only realistic hope of pulling billions of people in developing countries out of abject poverty, while sustaining prosperity in the industrialized world. Kofi Annan

Africa must be allowed to trade itself out of poverty. Bob Geldof

Human rights do not include a right to have economic freedom or to have a free market. But one can argue that economic freedom is a necessary consequence of human rights and that the absence of economic freedom is an indication of a country’s disrespect for human rights. The right to do with your property as you like, to move freely and to associate freely are all human rights and are prerequisites and causes of economic freedom.

There’s also a strong case in favor of the theory that economic freedom promotes prosperity and hence also respect for economic rights.

Economic freedom consists of personal choice, the ability to make voluntary transactions, the freedom to compete, and security of privately owned property. This is the definition of the Fraser Institute. This institute tries to measure the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries support economic freedom. Their index measures:

  • size of government
  • legal structure and security of property rights
  • access to sound money
  • freedom to trade internationally and
  • regulation of credit, labor and business.

They conclude that economic freedom has grown considerably in recent decades and that economic freedom is correlated with income.

 

The complete list of countries is here. I don’t want to suggest that economic freedom should be absolute. There has to be regulation of markets (for health reasons, safety reasons, reasons of fair competition etc.) as well as political corrections of the effects of markets on issues of social justice, poverty and equality.

Moreover, when discussing economic freedom we shouldn’t only think of the internal structure of states but also their interaction: import tariffs, quota, subsidies and other protectionist measures also inhibit free trade, often at the expense of poor traders and farmers in developing countries.

What Are Human Rights? (15): Constitutionally Universal

The theme of this post is the often difficult relationship between citizenship and human rights. This relationship is difficult because human rights, which are explicitly rights for all people everywhere, without distinctions of any kind, seem to require citizenship, and hence a distinction between groups of somehow differentiated people, for their protection. Without citizenship, it is argued, human rights remain a wish rather than a reality, potential rather than effective. Indeed, we often see that non-citizens such as refugees, asylum-seekers or stateless people suffer more rights violations than the citizens of the countries in which they happen to find themselves, even if these countries are comparatively well functioning democracies.

I want to argue that there are no legal reasons to consider citizenship as some kind of necessary condition for the protection of the rights of people within the territory of a state. Or, to put it negatively, that there are no legal reasons to treat the rights of non-citizens with less respect than the rights of citizens, or to accept violations of the rights of non-citizens with more ease than violations of the rights of citizens. There has to be, in other words, equality of protection between citizens and non-citizens. Citizenship therefore should be irrelevant for the protection of the human rights of the people within a given state territory. The state should be blind in this respect and treat non-citizens as if they were citizens. Non-citizens should have the same legal, judicial and other means to stand up for their rights.

The legal argument is based on Article 2, paragraph 1 of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states the following:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

The widely held but mistaken belief that the rights of non-citizens residing in a state are, perhaps inevitably, more precarious than the rights of the citizens living beside them, goes back to the historically important role of citizenship in the practice of protecting human rights. Theoretically, citizenship is irrelevant to human rights. These rights are the equal rights of all human beings, equally and unconditionally. It is not justified to say that one should be white, male, citizen or whatever to be able to enjoy the protection of these rights. Universality, equality and unconditionality are perhaps the main characteristics of human rights. That is where they got their name. They would not be called human rights if this were not the case.

Although theoretically these rights come with no conditions attached, in reality and in practice there are many necessary conditions for their effective protection: a well functioning judiciary, a separation of powers, a certain mentality, certain economic conditions etc. Too many to name them all, unfortunately. But the one we should name and explain is citizenship. Historically, it was because people were citizens of a state that they could use and improve the institutions and judicial instruments of the state, including the executive powers, to enforce their rights. It is this historical contingency, the fact that people have always found their citizenship very useful for their human rights, which has led many to believe that there is some kind of special link between citizenship and human rights which makes it possible and acceptable to treat the rights of non-citizens with less respect. That rights are only accessible to citizens. That the rights of man have often been the “rights of an Englishman” in the words of Burke.

“The survivors of the extermination camps, the inmates of concentration and internment camps, and even the comparatively happy stateless people could see … that the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism).

The state, although it does not grant rights, has to recognize them and make them real, but not only for citizens. The constitution, the main instrument for recognizing human rights, should and nowadays often does explicitly guarantee rights for humans, and not merely rights for citizens. Everybody within the territory of the state, not only the citizens of the state, can then enjoy the human rights protected by the constitution. Citizens as well as non-citizens can then go to court and challenge unjust laws or acts of state. Both categories of people have legal personality. This is often called the constitutional universality of rights.

The protection of the economic rights of non-citizens is an even more contentious matter. Should non-citizens have the same healthcare protection, social security, education etc.? In principle yes, but some countries may have such a large number of non-citizens in their territory that the economic viability of their social security system comes under threat. The tax payers ability to fund the system is limited, and non-citizens normally don’t pay taxes.

Marx and Democracy

According to Marxism, democracy suffers from a contradiction between political equality on the one hand (equal votes but also equal rights, equality before the law etc. – see here and here) and economic or material equality on the other hand. The absence of the latter prevents the full realization of political and even judicial equality (equality before the law). Wealthy persons have more means (such as money, time, education etc.) to inform themselves, to lobby, to influence, to get themselves elected, to defend themselves in court etc. A merely formal principle such as political equality loses much of its effectiveness when some can use their wealth to control political debates and decisions. Even more so, political equality, democracy and equal human rights (not only the right to private property) serve to cover up, justify and even maintain material inequality, exploitation and class rule in a capitalist society.

Real material equality and therefore also real political and judicial equality can only be brought about by an anti-capitalist revolution which brings down the capitalist system of property along with the legal and political tools that are used to protect this property. Material redistribution is not enough because it does not affect material inequality in a substantial way. It only provides a minimum of basic goods. The remaining material inequality still affects political equality. Democracy is self-defeating. It can never deliver what it promises because it does not go far enough. It can only give people formal instead of substantial equality. Elections, rotation in office, economic rights etc. are superficial phenomena without effect on the deeper economic processes of exploitation and class rule. Democracy must therefore be replaced by something better.

Marxism claims that there can only be real political equality and real equality of power when the most important goods – the means of production – are the equal property of all citizens. In all other cases, the rich will have more opportunities to benefit from political participation and judicial protection. Equal rights will lead to an unequal outcome, and this is intentional.

Much of this is, of course, correct. Wealthy groups can and do use elections and human rights to pursue their interests, often at the expense of less fortunate groups. They may even use democracy to maintain exploitation. They can speak better thanks to their education; they have a better knowledge of the ways in which to defend interests; they know their rights; they have friends in high places, etc. That is why compensating measures have to be taken, not only in order to respect economic rights, but political rights as well. By way of these measures, the state redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, in order to grant the poor more political influence and not just in order to satisfy their basic needs. Other measures enhance the independence of political parties with regard to wealthy pressure groups (for example public instead of private funding for political parties).

It is clear that we are not dealing with a potentially fatal argument against democracy. Wealth causes political inequality everywhere, not just in a democracy. Democracy and human rights are in fact the only solution to the problem of the unequal political result of economic inequality. Democracy and human rights are not merely formal. Equal voting power, equality before the law and equal rights do not cover up and do not maintain the social division between rich and poor. Democracy does not hide divisions; it shows them and it shows them in a better way than any other form of government. And because it allows divisions to become public, it offers the best chance of eliminating or softening unjust divisions. Democracy does not only serve the interests of the wealthy classes. Poor, exploited or oppressed groups also benefit from freedom of expression, from the election of their own representatives and from the possibility to claim rights (economic rights, for instance, equalize political influence because they create leisure time which can be spent on politics). Even the bare fact of being able to show an injustice is an advantage in the struggle against this injustice. If you are not able to see an injustice – and this can happen in an unfree society – then you are not aware of its existence and you can do nothing about it. Democracy at least gives poverty a voice.

The struggle against injustice means questioning society and the powers-that-be (also the economic powers). It is easier to question social relationships in a society in which political power can be questioned. Publicly questioning political power in a democracy is a process in which the entire people, rich and poor, are involved. This process legitimizes the act of questioning per se and therefore also the act of questioning injustices in society. Elections and rights are not a force against change. They create infinite possibilities, including the possibility to change economic structures.

Of course, the political and legal elimination of the difference between rich and poor (they all have an equal vote, equal rights and equality before the law) does not automatically result in the elimination of the social difference between rich and poor. However, democracy and human rights can diminish the influence of property and wealth because:

  • They give legal and political means to the poor in order to defend their interests; no other form of government performs better in this field because no other form of government gives the same opportunities to the poor (the opportunity to show injustices, to elect representatives, to lobby governments, to claim rights etc.).
  • They diminish the difference between rich and poor by way of redistribution; they allow for compensating measures to be taken, measures which help to preserve the value of political participation for all (for example redistribution, but also measures such as subsidies for independent TV-channels or for political parties which then become more independent from private wealth and private interests).

If certain divisions are made politically and legally irrelevant (by way of equal rights, equality before the law, equal vote etc.), then this is not necessarily part of a conscious strategy to maintain these divisions in real life. If it were part of such a strategy, it would probably produce the opposite of what is intended. The chances that injustices disappear are much higher in a society in which injustices can be shown and questioned, and only a democracy can be this kind of society. A society which can question itself because it can question the relations of power, is more likely to change. This is shown by the recent history of most western democracies where many injustices have been abolished by way of democracy and human rights. The labor movement, the suffragette movement and feminism would have been impossible without democracy and rights. Workers, women, immigrants etc. have all made successful use of the possibility to claim rights, to elect representatives, to enact legislation etc.

Political influence will probably never be equal for everybody (talent also plays a role, and it is difficult to correct for the effects of talent). But there is more and there is less. Democracy is probably the best we can hope for. On top of that, democracy constantly enhances the equality of influence, even though every victory creates a new problem. The Internet, for example, will empower many people and will enhance political equality, but it will also exclude many other people, namely those without the necessary computer skills or without the infrastructure necessary to use the Internet on an equal basis. It can become a new source of political inequality. We will have to finds ways in which to equalize the access to and the use of the Internet because we want to maintain or increase political equality. In the meanwhile, however, a new kind of inequality should not make us lose sight of the enormous progress for equality which the Internet allowed us to achieve. Many people, who today use the Internet to participate in politics, never participated in the past.

Economic Human Rights (5): Rights or Aspirations?

Is it justified to use the word “rights” in the context of economic rights such as the right not to suffer extreme poverty? Are these rights comparable to classical freedom rights or are they an example of the way in which superficial reasoning destroys the meaning of words? Are they rights or are they mere aspirations or desires masquerading as rights?

The claim that the expression economic rights is an oxymoron is based on the following reasoning. Rights have to be enforceable. There is no right without a remedy. If a right is violated, then it must be possible to redress the situation in a court of justice. It has to be possible to find somebody who is responsible for the violation and who can stop the violation. If nobody can be forced to respect a right because nobody has the power and duty to respect it, then it is useless and wrong to speak about a right. Take for example the “right” to have a climate in which the sun always shines and in which the temperature is constantly between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius. This can be a desire but it can never be a right because it is not enforceable. There is no remedy if it is violated; there is no way to redress the violation. A court of justice cannot decide that the government should take action to realize this “right”. Nobody is responsible for a violation and nobody can stop a violation. Nobody can be forced to respect the “right” because nobody has the power to respect it, and hence there is no right.

It is not uncommon to hear the same kind of reasoning in the case of economic rights, although in international law these rights enjoy a similar level of protection as classical freedom rights or civil rights. What we do in the case of a violation of classical rights – ask a judge to force the violator, for example the government, to respect our rights – is often impossible in the case of economic rights. If there is no work, then a judge cannot force the government to give us work. If there is no money, then a government cannot have the duty and responsibility to provide social security and thereby eliminate poverty. Ought implies can. The rule that we should not impose a duty on someone who is unable to fulfill it, does not pose any problems in the case of freedom rights. If the government violates our right to free speech, then a judge can force the government to protect our right because this protection only requires that the government stop its actions.

This criticism of economic rights is based on an exaggerated distinction between forbearance and active protection. It is true that freedom rights often require forbearance and economic rights active involvement and commitment. But things can also be the other way around. All human rights depend on judicial and police institutions that in turn depend on the protection of the state. Even a right such as free speech needs the active involvement of the judiciary and hence the state in order to be protected. If our right to free speech is violated, then we may need the help of a judge and perhaps even the police in order to force the violator to stop his actions. And for some states, it can be just as difficult to fulfill their duty to provide efficient judiciaries and police forces as it is to fulfill their duty to provide work and social security.

If freedom rights need as much active involvement as forbearance, then the same is true for certain economic rights. The right to food in an amount sufficient for survival is often better served by government forbearance than by government action. Look for example at the Great Leap Forward and its disastrous consequences for the people of China. All human rights need actions as well as forbearance. According to the circumstances, a right can be more or less positive or negative. The right to food in Mao’s China was relatively negative and directed against state intervention. In many inner cities, it is relatively positive and directed at the passivity of the state. All human rights require both intervention and abstention. And it is, therefore, unfair to dismiss economic rights on the grounds that they impose duties on the government that are different from the duties imposed by “real” rights.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (4): Economic Rights

Of Equality–as if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself–as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same. Walt Whitman

Whitman was probably not thinking of economic rights, but let’s assume he was. There are two reasons why economic rights should be applied universally and why my economic rights depend on yours and vice versa: they address the universal problem of poverty, and they are prerequisites for cultural, public and political life. Poverty hampers public and political life in several ways:

  1. A poor individual has insufficient access to cultural, public and political life because he or she lacks the time, the means, the education and the information necessary for this kind of life. A certain level of detachment from the urgencies and necessities of nature, from basic biological needs and from the struggle to survive, as well as a certain predictable supply of food, a house, good health etc. are prerequisites for cultural, public and political life.
  2. Cultural, public and political life in general, for all individuals, whether poor or not, presupposes the equal participation of everybody. The more participants, the better and richer our cultural, public and political life will be.
  3. Poverty leads to violence, revolt and hate, and this destabilizes the institutions necessary for the protection of public and political life (this is true also at an international level: economic development of less advanced classes and countries is in the interest of everybody, because it takes away the causes of national or international destabilization).

So economic rights protect everybody’s cultural, public and political life, not only the public and political life of those who need economic rights to satisfy their immediate basic needs. Everybody, the rich included, benefit from economic rights because they benefit from maximum participation in cultural, public and political life and from the absence of violent revolt.

Of course, economic rights are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for public and political life. Classical rights are needed as well.

Economic Human Rights (4): Taxation

What if different kinds of equality contradict each other? For example equality before the law on the one hand (laws must be equal for everybody and should not discriminate) and material equality as promoted by economic rights on the other hand.

Material equality is often promoted by way of taxation based on legislation. The purpose of taxation is the redistribution of property. The problem is that redistribution only benefits one group of people and harms the interests of the rest of the population. Taxation laws do not seem to be equal for everybody and do not have the same result for everybody. It seems as if they discriminate against certain people. A wealthy person can claim that laws must be the same for everybody and that a law which forces one person to give and allows another to receive is illegitimate. A law against murder does not, at the same time, force one person to abstain from murder and allow another person to murder. So why should a law on taxation be allowed to discriminate?

First of all, there is no reason to believe that the principle of equality before the law is an absolute principle. It must be possible to make trade-offs between principles. If one principle – for example equality before the law – does serious harm to another principle – for example material equality – then it may be acceptable to sacrifice or limit one principle for the sake of another. Sometimes, one has to make a choice and one has to establish priorities. This goes both ways. Too much attention to material equality can be counteracted by way of the principle of equality before the law.

However, it may not be necessary to limit the principle of equality before the law. Taxation laws do not discriminate, at least when we define discrimination as giving something to one person and denying it to another without good reason. Economic rights indeed give something to one person and not to another. Even more so, they take away something from one person in order to give it to another. However, the former person is not denied the thing that is given to the latter. He or she has and continues to have the same thing as the one given to the latter. The consequences of taxes are equal for everybody because they make sure that everybody has the same minimum of material means. Taxation laws do not cause discrimination or inequality. On the contrary, they are designed to eliminate discrimination and inequality, not only at the level of material well-being but also at the level of political influence, because material inequality causes political inequality.

We have discrimination when a law only benefits one group of persons and when there is no good reason why other persons should not benefit. It is clear that there is no good reason why wealthy people should benefit from taxation laws in the same way as poor people, except of course when they themselves become poor. Everybody can be in a position in which he or she needs taxation laws.

The right to free speech does not benefit everybody in an equal way either. Some people gain more from this right than other people. A colored person suffering from discrimination needs this right more than a white, middle-class person without political worries. However, there is no reason to claim that this right contradicts the principle of equality before the law.

Economic Human Rights (3): A Right to Have a Right – Economic Rights as Prerequisites for Other Rights

Economic rights are important prerequisites for public and political life and for the full use of freedom rights and political rights. They are seldom claimed for their own sake only. They are a means for something else. If they are respected, they take away an obstacle on the road to public and political life and to the full use of classical human rights. They are only the first step on a long journey. There are values other than a decent continuation of life and we need other types of human rights in order to protect these other values. Economic rights are important but insufficient. Economic rights guarantee the continuation of life in a decent way (not just the continuation of life tout court, because this is guaranteed by the “classical” right to life) and thereby guarantee the possibility, and only the possibility, of something more, for example a public and political life. They cannot turn this possibility into a reality. Only freedom rights and political rights can do so.Economic rights are seldom claimed for their own sake because

darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty … [T]he predicament of the poor … is that their lives are without consequence, and that they remain excluded from the light of the public realm. Hannah Arendt

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed … He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market … [H]e is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen … To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. John Adams

Man is unknown and unseen and, on top of that, he cannot see, he cannot learn from others, follow others, contradict others etc. Economic rights together with freedom rights and political rights take away this darkness and allow people to see and to be seen. When economic rights satisfy basic needs, they only create the possibility of and some of the prerequisites for public and political life. Contrary to classical rights, they do not create the reality of such a life. Economic rights give access to this life but they do not regulate and guarantee this life. Economic rights have a rather negative role: they taken away the obstacles on the road to public and political life, whereas the classical rights contribute in a positive way because they protect and promote public and political life.

Nevertheless, economic rights are very important, even though some people think of them as a joke (when will we have the right to sunshine, do they ask). Economic rights are necessary for the full use of classical rights. An economic right is therefore a right to a right. We have the right to be in a position in which we can fully enjoy our rights. Economic rights are required in order to establish the conditions necessary for the exercise of classical rights.

“[E]very human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized” (Declaration on the Right to Development).

However, the opposite is also true: you have to have classical rights in order to enjoy your economic rights.

Economic Human Rights (2): Hierarchy of Duty Bearers, Ctd.

There are no good reasons to discredit economic rights, such as the right to a decent standard of living or the right not to be poor. These rights must have the same standing as other types of rights, mainly because different types of rights are interdependent and economic rights are prerequisites for other types of rights. But, it is equally wrong to give priority to economic rights or to violate other types of rights in order to respect economic rights (for the same reason, that is, interdependence). The Chinese government often makes this mistake.

When people have a right not to be poor, who has a duty to help them? In western welfare states, one has the tendency to point to the state and to the so-called social safety net which these states have created (unemployment benefits, healthcare subsidies etc.). However, the state is not the only and not the first party responsible for the protection of economic rights. If we don’t accept this, and argue that the state is the first or perhaps even the only party responsible for the protection of the poor and their economic rights, then we are open to the criticism of the “big state”.

On the other hand, the opposite position is also wrong. The free market does not independently ensure respect for economic rights (although it helps). Active measures, based on duties imposed on specific duty bearers and emanating from economic rights, are also necessary.

The first and most important duty is one to yourself. People should be, when possible, self-supportive and able to help themselves. People don’t like to ask for help. We should try to create the circumstances in which people can satisfy their own basic needs and can be self-supportive and responsible for their own fate (or at least we should not destroy these circumstances). People value autonomy, control over their own lives and independence. They generally prefer not to depend on help.

As long as this is possible, economic rights are irrelevant and no specific duties come into play. Economic rights are necessary only when people fail to be self-supportive, either because of misfortune, genetic deficiencies, accidents, crime, institutional bias, racism, neo-colonialism etc.’a0In these cases, economic rights create different kind of duties for different persons and with different intensity (or priority or hierarchy):

  • personal assistance or charity
  • redistribution by the state
  • development aid
  • etc.

The hierarchy in this system of duties is the following. When economic rights become necessary, it is first in a face-to-face situation, for example within the family or between friends or members of a group (they are horizontal rights). This is based on the valid assumption that closeness means a greater ability to help. He or she who can do more, should do more. It would be wrong to ask a distant persons to invest a relatively greater effort to accomplish something, when a person closer by could accomplish the same with less effort. And closeness typically, but not always, means a greater ability to act. A mother can take better care of her children than someone else. A co-citizen of a state, because he or she pays taxes to the social safety net, is better placed to help the poor in his country, then an outsider would be.

And because these people can do more, they have a moral obligation to do more. Take the example of two people watching a third person drowning in a river. One of these witnesses is a good swimmer, the other less so. It is obvious who has the greater duty to assist. But both have.

But when this face-to-face assistance fails – and it regularly does, either because of a lack of morality, or because all the people in the face-to-face community suffer the same fate – then our duties arising from economic rights take on a larger geographical and ultimately also an international sphere, in which one person should help other and more distant persons (if one’s personal surplus is large enough to do so) (economic rights are still horizontal).

And when this fails as well, and only when this fails, can a state intervene (economic rights become vertical – although one could claim that they are still horizontal because the state, through its system of taxation, merely enforces philanthropy). When the state intervenes, it has to do so first and foremost for the benefit of its own citizens, again because it is closer and better able to help. It has a monopoly of power and force, and can collect taxes and redistribute wealth. But when a particular state isn’t self-supportive – as is the case for the majority of states – then international assistance is necessary.

Duty is a bottom-up affair. Accordingly, economic rights should not be viewed primarily as the business of a state; otherwise we will lose both the benefits of self-support (autonomy) and the community spirit which results from spontaneous mutual assistance. Allowing economic rights to be realized at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen the feeling of belonging. The fact that our economic rights are realized in part by our responsible fellow citizens, enhances community feelings and again supports the statement that human rights are not individualistic and do not only deal with the relationship between citizens and a state. Focusing too much on the duties of the state will create a mentality of passive reliance on government support and a mentality of dependence.

A word of caution: none of this implies chauvinism or nationalism. The nation, state or family in which one is born is arbitrary, and hence of no moral concern. All individuals everywhere have equal rights and equal moral claims to the goods necessary for subsistence. Thomas Pogge has insisted on this point. But people don’t have equal duties resulting from these rights. Our duties are stronger with regard to some people, namely those closer by and those we are better able to help. But ultimately, we have some duties to everyone.

Economic Human Rights (1): Hierarchy of Duty Bearers

It is probably correct to see in the policy to “outsource” social services to faith-based organizations an effort to undermine the division of church and state and to financially support radical christian organizations with taxpayers’ money. Very likely it is also an effort to promote christianity (by giving organizations money for social services they can more easily proselytize).

However, economic rights should not be viewed as primarily the business of the state, otherwise we will lose both the benefits of self-support (i.e. autonomy) and the community spirit which results from spontaneous mutual assistance. Allowing economic rights to be realised at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen the feeling of belonging. The fact that our economic rights are realised in part by our responsible fellow citizens, enhances community feelings and again supports the statement that human rights are not individualistic and do not only deal with the relationship between citizens and the state. Focusing too much on the duties of the state will create a mentality of passive reliance on government support (for yourself and for others) and a mentality of dependence (state help kills self-help). Egoism, isolation, irresponsibility and helplessness will become the main features of society. We will only have rights and no duties, rights moreover which only the government should respect and realise. In order to avoid this, people should be allowed to act responsibly. They should be responsible for themselves and for others, and the state should not take away this responsibility without good reasons (for example the responsibility of parents to care for their children or the responsibility of individuals to find a job).

The state is responsible for economic rights only if everything else fails. Only those who are helpless and who have been forgotten by private philanthropy can call on the state for assistance. In this case, the state does not abstain or does not make laws which forbid something; it executes policies that result in an equal supply of those goods and services necessary for the satisfaction of basic needs. These policies are mainly taxation, redistribution and development aid and can be seen as the enforcement of citizens’ duties. When the state forces you to pay taxes, it forces you to fulfil your duties arising from the economic rights of your fellow citizens (which is why tax fraud and tax evasion are particularly reprehensible crimes: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities). It is the duty of the state to force the people to fulfil their duties, their duty to be self-supporting if possible and their duties towards each other if necessary.