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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (22): Part of the Rule of Law

The claim here is not the trivial one that human rights depend on the rule of law because they can’t be enforced without it. The more interesting question is the opposite one: whether there can be a rule of law without human rights. Or, in other words, is the rule of law a necessary but not a sufficient condition for human rights?

At first sight, the answer to both questions would be “yes”. Indeed, the law can be anything, and as long as it “rules” in some way – i.e. as long as the laws are consistently enforced and not superseded by frivolous and arbitrary commands of men – one could claim that there is some sort of “rule of law”, even if the laws in question violate human rights. Civilizations had the rule of law long before the concept of human rights even existed (the Roman Empire may be an example).

Joseph Raz has famously claimed that

the law may, for example, institute slavery without violating the rule of law. (source)

Nazi Germany was also very much a law based society. (See here for example). Indeed, it can be plausibly claimed that strong and authoritarian states are better able to impose rules. That would lead to an incompatibility between human rights and the rule of law.

The fact that many if not most dictatorships make a mockery of the rule of law and of the law itself, and govern in a totally arbitrary way based on the whims of a few men rather than laws and rules, doesn’t exclude the possibility that some dictatorships respect the rule of law, and that the rule of law can indeed be the rule of very bad law, viewed from the perspective of human rights. A prima facie conclusion has to be that dictatorships can respect the rule of law and that regimes based on human rights can inhibit the rule of law: privacy protection, rules on the determination of criminal guilt etc. can make the rule of law more difficult. Authoritarian regimes can easily lift the veil of privacy in order to check for violations of the law, and are not at risk of freeing guilty people because of the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof.

The rule of law, viewed in this manner, is a purely formal concept devoid of substance: as long as the laws “rule”, we have a rule of law, no matter what the substance of those laws may be. Laws are then viewed solely as rules that guide conduct, but the direction in which they guide is immaterial. The rule of law, according to this view, should not be confused with the rule of the right law. The rule of law as a concept deals not with the content of the laws but with the way in which they are enforced and formulated.

That last word is important: the rule of law should logically be more than a system of governance in which rules are imposed by force. Imposing rules by way of force can in itself not be viewed as a system of the rule of law. It would be far-fetched to claim, for example, that a government using force to impose completely arbitrary rules that change every day respects the rule of law. The rules in question have to be formulated in a certain way; there have to be rules of legislation in order to have a rule of law.

These rules usually include the following:

  • Laws should not be imposed retroactively: the rule of law implies respect for the laws, and citizens can’t be expected to respect laws if they are imposed retroactively.
  • Laws should be made public, for the same reason.
  • Laws should be relatively permanent, clear and intelligible, again for the same reason.
  • Laws should strive to be general rules applicable to everyone, rather than commands directed at certain persons or groups; the reason for this rule of legislation is the differentiation between rule of law and rule of man.
  • Laws should not contradict each other, again for reasons of respect.

These rules of legislation differentiate laws and the rule of law from an arbitrary set of rules imposed by force. The rules of legislation are formal and don’t, at first, impose content on the specific laws generated by these rules. However, once you take a closer look at these rules of legislation, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that the rule of law is a contentless concept that allows the law to be virtually anything, even abject oppression. Some of the values inherent in the rules of legislation are also inherent in human rights: publicity and equality for example.

The rules of legislation also create another link to human rights: they assume free will. If rules can’t be secret or can’t be applied retroactively it’s because we want to give people the choice to change their behavior so that it complies with the law. Secret and retroactive laws are impossible according to the rules of legislation, and hence also according to the rule of law, because they are an affront to freedom. (See the work of Lon L. Fuller for a more detailed version of this argument).

Hence, freedom is an important part of the rule of law, just like publicity and equality. So it would be strange to claim that a regime respects the rule of law if its laws violate people’s freedom, equality and public activity (such as speech). That would have to be a diminished kind of rule of law. Maybe the regime in question does respect the rules of legislation and does more than impose any arbitrary set of rules by way of force. But if it does so, it sets in motion a dynamic that will ultimately lead to freedom, equality and publicity because it uses these values in its legislation (although not in its laws). Violations of human rights are initially consistent with the rule of law – correctly understood as more than any arbitrary set of rules imposed by force – but not over time, since the dynamic of the rules of legislation uses values that are likely to infuse the laws themselves rather than merely the rules of legislation. And these values will direct the laws towards human rights since they are the same as the values inherent in human rights.

For example, if you have a law that imposes slavery, this law may initially have been created with respect for the rules of legislation (for instance, it may be a public law that doesn’t criminalize behavior that took place before the publication of the law). But since these rules imply the equality and freedom of all citizens, the law in question will ultimately come to be seen as inconsistent with the system of legislation. Over time, the rule of law will become the rule of the right law.

Income Inequality (22): Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon Economies, Ctd.

After completing my older post on the subject – in which I argued that Anglo-Saxon economies don’t do a very good job promoting social mobility despite the focus on individual responsibility and policies that (should) reward merit (e.g. relatively low tax rates) – I found this graph which I thought would illustrate my point.

Although the US and other Anglo-Saxon countries aren’t in the graph, the UK is. And the effect of parental education on child earnings in the UK is particularly large. The children of the well-off and well-educated earn more and learn more than their less fortunate peers in all countries in the world, and that’s hardly surprising given the importance of a head start, both financially and intellectually. What is surprising is that this is less the case in countries which pride themselves on their systems that offer people incentives to do well (low taxes, minimal safety nets etc.).

So one wonders which fact-free parallel universe David Cameron, the new UK Prime Minister, inhabits:

The differences in child outcomes between a child born in poverty and a child born in wealth are no longer statistically significant when both have been raised by “confident and able” parents… What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting. (source, my emphasis)

Extolling the virtues of good parenting can never hurt, except if you have a low boredom threshold because it’s so goddamn obvious. But making it sound like parents’ wealth or education are “insignificant” is truly grotesque and an insult to those poor parents who have children that aren’t doing very well. And even for those living in the alternative reality where only bad parents keep children back, the Conservative leader’s position in fact, and unwittingly, should lead to left-wing policies, as Chris Dillow points out:

Because of bad parenting – which begins in the womb – some people do badly in school and therefore in later life; they are less likely to be in work, and earn less even if they are. However, we can’t choose our parents; they are a matter of luck. It’s quite reasonable to compensate people for bad luck, so there’s a case for redistributing income to the relatively poor, as this is a roundabout way of compensating them for the bad luck of having a bad upbringing.

High levels of social mobility can compensate for high levels of income inequality: if people can be socially mobile, and if their earnings and education levels don’t depend on who their parents are but on their own efforts and talents, one can plausibly claim that the existing inequalities are caused by some people’s lack of effort and merit. However, the UK and the US combine two evils: low mobility and high inequality, making it seem that whatever effort you invest in your life, you’ll never get ahead of those rich lazy dumb asses. So why would you even try? Low mobility solidifies high inequality.

Just to show that the U.S. isn’t better than the U.K.:

Parental income is a better predictor of a child’s future in America than in much of Europe, implying that social mobility is less powerful. Different groups of Americans have different levels of opportunity. Those born to the middle class have about an equal chance of moving up or down the income ladder, according to the Economic Mobility Project. But those born to black middle-class families are much more likely than their white counterparts to fall in rank. The children of the rich and poor, meanwhile, are less mobile than the middle class’s. More than 40% of those Americans born in the bottom quintile remain stuck there as adults. (source)

Income Inequality (20): Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon Economies

I know that talking about national or international economic models should be avoided because it’s highly simplistic, but I’ll do it anyway because I want to show that people who do sincerely talk about such models make some assumptions about them that are, in my view, incorrect. The Anglo-Saxon economic model, when compared to the mainland European model, is believed to focus more on individual responsibility than on social support. It imposes lower taxes and delivers a less developed social safety net. It’s more “liberal” (in the European sense of the word, meaning less social) and free market oriented. (Anglo-Saxon means English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States etc. but there are large differences between the UK and the US, the UK being less “Anglo-Saxon” than the US; and some mainland countries – like some Eastern European countries – are more “Anglo-Saxon” than they are “mainland”. This goes to show that we’re being simplistic; see also here).

The mainland model is often believed to be better at poverty reduction, job security, social services, and income equality. The Anglo-Saxon model on the other hand is said to be more flexible, less state dependent and more competitive (because of lower taxes and less labor regulation) and suffers less unemployment (because of the less generous social safety net; see also here).

For the same reasons, the Anglo-Saxon model is also believed to be less equal and more open to social mobility – social mobility being defined as the difference between the socioeconomic status of parents and the status their children will attain as adults. When the focus is on individual responsibility and when people can keep a larger share of their income after taxes, they are incited to do well, to work hard, to develop their talents, and to innovate. This not only creates a more competitive economy, but also one in which people can be socially mobile and rise in status and wealth. Countries that impose high taxes and offer generous safety nets don’t give the same incentives.

However, we see that the UK and the US aren’t characterized by relatively high levels of social mobility:

A father’s income determines his son’s to a greater extent in Britain than in any other wealthy nation, with half of a high earner’s “economic advantage” being transmitted to their children, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found. … In Britain … background determines a person’s success to a far higher degree than in almost any other rich country. “Education is not as important for social mobility in Britain as for other countries. Class, to be honest, is the most likely explanation,” said Romain Duval, head of division in the Paris-based OECD’s economics department. (source)

Something similar is the case for the US.

It appears that the United States has less intergenerational social mobility than many other industrialized countries. (source)

It’s true that the UK and the US (especially the US) are highly inegalitarian, and increasingly so, but high levels of income inequality do not necessarily go hand in hand with high levels of social mobility. In fact,

social mobility between generations tends to be lower in more unequal societies. (source)

So if you care about social mobility – and I think you should because high levels of social mobility indicate equality of opportunity, something no one objects to – then you should care about reducing inequality rather than promoting it through “Anglo-Saxon” tax and welfare systems (to the extent that there is something like it in the real world).

Income Inequality (16b): Its Moral Significance

Will Wilkinson’s recent paper on income inequality argues that it’s an overrated problem (see also here). Before I deal with his arguments in detail, a quick reminder of my personal views on income inequality. From the point of view of human rights (which is my default starting point), the most urgent problem is not necessarily the unequal distribution of wealth or income, but the insufficient wealth and income of the poor in a given population. The urgent problem is absolute poverty, rather than relative poverty. Or, in other words, what we have to tackle first is some people’s inability to gather sufficient resources necessary to survive in a decent way, not the fact that some people have more resources than others. The human rights of people in a very poor but highly egalitarian society can be violated more extensively than the human rights of the relatively poor in a society that is very rich on average but highly inegalitarian. Eliminating or reducing income inequality – or “killing the rich” (metaphorically) as in the image above – doesn’t necessarily help the poor.

However, inequality can be a problem. The absence of poverty or the availability of sufficient resources for a decent human life is a human right, but it isn’t the only human right (some would even say that it isn’t a right at all, but I disagree, together with the drafters of the Universal Declaration). Human rights also include political human rights, and these political human rights usually mean the right to democratic participation in government and legislation. Income inequality makes these political rights highly problematic. Democracy is based on the equal influence of every citizen, but income inequality, by definition, gives the wealthier citizens more influence in politics.

In addition, income inequality may also lead to social fragmentation, with negative consequences for the cohesiveness of a society. We see that highly inegalitarian societies, such as the U.S., are also societies with relatively low levels of social mobility. One could argue that income inequality isn’t much of a problem when everyone has the same chance to be on the good side of the inequality. But when it is combined with social rigidity and stratification, it undermines meritocracy and equality of opportunity, which in turn enhances social fragmentation.

Finally, people in more egalitarian societies tend to be healthier, to live longer and to be happier (as Wilkinson should know).

These are serious issues from the point of view of human rights. If reducing income inequality (for example through progressive taxation, public spending – on welfare, education, healthcare etc. –  and regulation of political funding and lobbying) can go some way towards a solution, we should consider it.

One last point: all these issues are based on the assumption that income inequality is the outcome of just processes. In other words, we assume that people’s incomes are the result of their own desert and effort. If, on the other hand, we assume – more correctly in my view – that income and wealth distributions are affected by unjust processes (such as colonialism, slavery, discrimination, inheritance and a lack of social mobility etc.) than we have additional reasons to do something about income inequality. And these reasons have nothing to do with the negative consequences of inequality. They are, instead, related to its origins.

(If you want to know more about my views on income inequality, before I tackle Wilkinson’s views, you can read this old post).

Wilkinson claims that

income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.

Those are real problems indeed, and even more urgent problems, as I’ve stated above. But income inequality is also a real problem, and I fail to see how one problem is necessarily a distraction from another problem. Human beings are perfectly capable of tackling several problems at the same time.

He also states that

there is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich.

That’s not true, as you can read here and here. Income inequality obviously doesn’t necessarily “destroy” democracy or replace it with “plutocracy”, but it significantly reduces its meaning, on both sides of the income gap: wealthy people use their wealth, their higher education, their networks etc. to gain influence, and poor people tend to participate less and thereby lose influence. While it’s true that wealthy people can use their political influence for the benefit of their poor fellow-citizens, it’s still a fact that many don’t. If we cherish democracy, we should implement policies that limit the risk of selfish interventions by disproportionately influential individuals or groups, as well as policies that encourage participation of relatively less influential individuals and groups. It’s not sufficient, as Wilkinson does, to point to the fact that many wealthy people voted for Obama, knowing that he would raise their taxes.

Wilkinson also believes that the level of American income inequality was not caused by exploitative, institutional mechanisms. Given the historical inheritance of slavery and discrimination, I think this opinion is false. This inheritance, combined with astonishingly high levels of correlation between parental income and the income of children, does suggest that there are institutional mechanisms which perpetuate income inequality. While it’s wrong to claim that the inheritance of racism and slavery is to blame for the poverty of African-Americans living today, it’s very likely that it has some effect.

Few people argue for a completely egalitarian society. I certainly don’t. Some inequalities are perfectly just, and probably necessary from the point of view of economic efficiency. But there are many who argue for the opposite: don’t do anything about inequality. While I don’t believe Wilkinson is one of them, his statement that “income inequality is a dangerous distraction” encourages those who believe that we shouldn’t care about inequality.

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.

What Are Human Rights? (19): Universal Rights

What is meant by the expression “universality of human rights“? Just simply that these rights belong to all members of humanity, all members of the human family, without any distinctions. They are equal rights, not just the rights of a particular class, race, gender, nation or religion. Human beings have these rights, not because they belong to a certain group, or because they have certain beliefs of convictions, or because they fulfil certain conditions or whatever. They have them for no other reason than because they are human. This is, of course, obvious from the word “human” in “human rights”.

Why is it important to mention this? Because it’s contested. Some say that gays shouldn’t have the right to marry, even though this right is included in the Universal Declaration, a Declaration which explicitly states that

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind.

People of color, members of other ethnic groups or members of other religions are regularly treated as inferiors (or worse). Women often have less legal rights than men. And the list can go on and on.

If you oppose this, and believe that all people should be treated equally and should be able to enjoy the same rights as everyone else, then you in fact espouse the ideal of the universality of human rights. (Equality, in the sense of equal rights, is a concept that is closely related if not identical to the concept of universality of rights).

However, how would you defend this position against those who want to discriminate and treat certain people unequally? There are many possible defenses. For example, you could say that all human beings are created in God’s image, and are therefore equal. Treating them unequally would then be an offense against God. Or you could invoke a concept such as human dignity. My preferred defense is based on certain very specific human values, values which are shared by all human beings and which require human rights in order to be protected. Physical security, bodily integrity, self-government, peace, prosperity, belonging, property, identity etc. are some of these values. The problem here is not to convince opponents of human rights – or better of the universality of human rights – of the importance of these values. It will be very difficult to find anyone who needs to be persuaded of this and who is not self-destructive. The problem is how to give an adequate and convincing explanation of the way in which these values require human rights.

These values are shared by human beings in the same way as they share some biological features, like their organs, limbs, and skin. This analogy with biology can be taken quite literally, in the sense that human life can cease when these values are negated. Hearts may not stop beating and brains may not stop working (although they can in extreme cases) but people at the very least will stop living like human beings when they are unable to realize these values. Human rights are therefore indispensible for humanity: all human beings needs them, and we all need them for our humanity. I said a moment ago that all human beings have human rights because they are human beings and for no other reason than their humanity. If asked what is humanity, I would say that it is respect for these universally shared human values.

Limiting Free Speech (24): Political Correctness

Political correctness (or PC) is a form of speech that is characterized by the willingness to avoid offense to certain groups in society, often groups which have a history of suffering and rights violations.

It is a form of speech that excludes certain concepts and phrases that are thought to be expressions of hatred, discrimination and rights violations. Such expressions, it is believed, serve to keep these violations alive and well, and protecting human rights therefore requires the exclusion of these expressions. Examples of these expressions and concepts or phrases are “nigger”, “women should play the main role in the household”, “black people are genetically less intelligent than white people”, “affirmative action is discrimination of whites”, the systematic use of “he” to describe a person, or of “man” to describe a member of the human race etc.

Hence, political correctness is a limitation of free speech that is believed to be necessary in order to protect other rights. Politically incorrect speech is a strategy in the continuation or reinstatement of rights violations, for example discrimination of women, racism, or unequal opportunities. Language determines the thoughts, mentalities and actions of both the speakers and listeners. For example, convictions regarding negative stereotypes are facilitated by the availability and widespread use of pejorative and stereotypical labels. A user of these labels will be confirmed in his or her believes, and a target of these labels will suffer a loss of self-esteem and will, as a result, find it difficult to escape from his or her unequal position in society. Hence, using politically incorrect stereotypes contributes to the continuation of inequality. On the other hand, “outlawing” such stereotypes forces people to think about how they describe other people and forces them to focus on individual characteristics rather than stereotypes.

Proponents of PC believe that language should be used for good purposes rather than bad ones. They don’t want language to be a tool to oppress. They seek cultural change through linguistic change, but this has an impact on the freedom of speech: certain types of expressions, phrases or concepts are off limits according to the proponents of politically correct speech, and other types are mandatory. Speech should be as inclusive and neutral (gender neutral, race neutral etc.) as possible. Hence constructions such as “s/he”, “African-American”, “holiday season” instead of Christmas etc.

PC can be criticized in several ways. I just pick two types of criticism that seem most convincing to me. Politically correct speech is a kind of orthodoxy or an example of dogmatic thinking or group thinking, which is why the concept of PC is mostly pejorative. Politically incorrect speech on the other hand can be seen as rebellious, original and individualistic. It can be very useful in identifying hidden assumptions, prejudices etc. Of course, political incorrectness can become a prejudice in itself, obscuring the need for real debate on some human rights issues.

Whether or not PC is justified depends on the effects of language on rights violations. There is certainly some effect. Especially in the early, formative years, people can be influenced by speech, and can grow up to become persons with mentalities that are inimical to human rights. And they will certainly act on these mentalities. But I believe that the proponents of PC overstate the importance of the causal link. It’s not true that sexist or racist language always and necessarily produces sexism and racism. These rights violations have a myriad of causes. Hence it is dangerous to identify certain forms of speech as the main causes, and consequently “outlaw” them, perhaps not legally but morally. This can result in cultural communism, a totalitarian and intolerant “regime” censoring and punishing dissent and “heresy”. It is not unheard of that people lose their jobs and/or reputation because of a sin against PC.

By the way, one particularly funny instance of political correctness are the annual arguments about Christmas. Christian traditionalists and PC people who think that a Christian holiday may be an insult to other religions, outdo each other in silly talk.

What is Democracy? (38): Equal Representation and the Share of Women in Parliament

In a representative democracy, one can reasonably expect to have a parliament that is roughly representative of the population in general: poor people should have their representatives or delegates just like rich people, women just like men, minorities just like majorities. This representativity or representativeness isn’t an absolute requirement. One can have a democracy without it. The people, after all, may decide that their views are best represented by an all-male, all-white body of parliamentarians for example.

However, it seems statistically unlikely that this would be their decision in each consecutive election in each democratic country. Imbalances in the demographics of parliament that persist over time and space are probably not the result of the choices of voters but of other factors, such as discrimination, unequal opportunities etc. If that’s the case, we are dealing with an imperfect democracy because democracy means equal influence and an equal chance to get elected (art. 21 of the Universal Declaration and art. 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

And that is the case. Take the share of women in parliament for instance. In almost every major democracy of the world, election after election, women are a (tiny) minority in parliament. It’s very unlikely if not impossible that women are systematically less competent than men to serve in parliament, or that the voters sincerely, rationally and objectively believe this to be the case. There must be other, more deeply embedded psychological motives for such a choice, related to the generally inferior position of women in patriarchal societies.

The Causes of Poverty (18): Amartya Sen, Famines, and Democracy

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence … they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press. … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threaten by famines can have. Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen argues that democracy (which is a subset of human rights) is the best way to avoid famines. Of course, a well-functioning democracy is not a sufficient condition for the absence of famines. Other mechanisms also contribute to famine prevention, so it’s not impossible to see famines in democracies.

What is a famine?

G. B. Masefield states:

On balance it seems clear that any satisfactory definition of famine must provide that the food shortage is either widespread or extreme, if not both, and that the degree of extremity is best measured by human mortality from starvation. (source)

A famine occurs when there is a sudden collapse of the level of food availability and consumption (measured in terms of calorie intake). Sen’s argument is that a focus on lack of availability isn’t enough. Actual consumption is what counts. And consumption can drop when availability doesn’t (this was the case in the Bengal famine of 1943 for instance). Famines occur not only from a lack of food, caused by drought, crop failures or floods, but also from a lack of information. Rumors of a famine, even false rumors, are often enough for people to start hoarding and panic buying, which pushes up the price of goods, and which makes it impossible for poor people to get enough food. As a result, they may starve in the midst of abundance. A war may have the same effect or make it worse. And so can ineffective food distribution mechanisms.

Inequality

An important point about famines is therefore inequality:

While Famines involve fairly widespread acute starvation, there is no reason to think that it will affect all groups in the famine-affected nation. Indeed, it is by no means clear that there has ever occurred a famine in which all groups in a country have suffered from starvation, since different groups typically do have very different commanding powers over food, and an over-all shortage brings out the contrasting powers in stark clarity. Amartya Sen (source)

Information

Free information can counter these risks. It can debunk myths and rumors about food availability. It can inform accountable governments of certain risks and force them to act in order to remedy the food distribution, to impose price controls etc.

Price controls, however, are a risky business. Higher food prices may lead to a larger volume of food production because food producers will be encouraged to produce. Hence, higher prices may increase the overall availability of food and reduce the risk of famine. However, as we have seen, availability is not enough to stop famines. Distribution and equality of availability is just as important, and higher prices may result in very unequal availability and may put poor people at risk. But then, again, these poor people may find a better paying job in food production if food prices are higher… This is all very complicated indeed.

What is Democracy? (37): One Man, One Vote

Or better, one person, one vote. It’s not until relatively recently that women and minorities have been given the vote, even in the most advanced democracies in the world.

In most modern democracies, most adults have a vote. Few large groups (felons, children and immigrants excepted) are excluded from voting, and no one has more votes than anyone else. (In the early days of many democracies, some people had a larger number of votes; this was called plural voting).

However, it’s not because all people have one vote, that all votes have the same weight and that all people have an equal weight in the aggregate outcome of the vote. They only have in democracies that use proportional representation. PR results in a political spectrum in parliament that roughly coincides with the spectrum of the voters. No part of the electorate is over- or under-represented.

Democracies which do not use PR often use district systems (e.g. the U.S. and the U.K.). This is also called the “first-past-the-post” system – whoever has most votes in a district (not necessarily the majority of votes) gets the seat in parliament reserved for this district and becomes the only representative for the district (“winner takes all”). In some cases, this electoral system gives power to a relative majority and therefore, not necessarily an absolute majority. A party that has a few more votes than all other parties in a majority of districts, will have a majority of seats in parliament, but perhaps a minority of the votes. As this example indicates, a district system can result in the rule of a minority. An important minority or maybe, even a majority may not be represented at all. Political equality and majority rule, the basic values of a democracy, are affected. There is no longer a perfect match between the views of the people and the views present in parliament.

In such a system, the one-man-one-vote principle can be further harmed If the districts are not equal in proportion in terms of population. If both a small group of people and a large group of people have one representative, then we can hardly claim to have political equality, regardless of the possible problems created by the winner-takes-all rule. In some countries, rich minorities have often been given small districts, which favored them politically and offered them a very large and disproportional share of the seats in parliament. This is called gerrymandering.

For these and other reasons, the type of democracy instituted in the U.S. deviates, in part, from the principle of one-man-one-vote (a reason for some to call it a republic rather than a democracy, although the difference between these two concepts is spurious, see here). Whereas each member of the House of Representatives represents more or less the same number of voters (even though the system is based on voting districts), the Senate seats are not allocated according to population. Each state, large and small, gets two seats. Wyoming, with barely half a million citizens, has exactly the same political influence in the Senate as California (37m citizens). If you view U.S. states as large districts, you could say that the U.S. Senate has institutionalized the bias that gerrymandering can create in district systems.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the U.S. Senate, the Second Chamber in the U.S. parliament, didn’t have so much political power. Its powers, defined in the Constitution, include

  • consenting to treaties as a precondition to their ratification
  • approval of both chambers is necessary for the passage of legislation.

Even a minority of Senators can block legislation. The filibuster is a tactic used to defeat bills and motions by prolonging debate indefinitely. As it takes 60 votes out of a total of 100 Senators to stop a filibuster, a minority can block everything if it wants. So again, a further restriction of the democratic principle of one-man-one-vote. The Economist has calculated that if the least populous states ganged together, senators representing 11% of the population could thwart the will of the remaining 89%. Speaking of tyranny of the majority … The filibuster has often been used for very conservative and ill-intended purposes such as the preservation of Jim Crow laws and wasteful farm subsidies.

It can of course be used for more positive purposes as well. It can slow down over-anxious House representatives and hence improve the quality of legislation. The division of the legislative power into two parts, an Upper House and a Lower House or a House of Representatives and a Senate, is typical of a democracy and makes it possible to correct mistakes made in one House. One House can slow down or stop another House when some decisions are too risky or are taken without the necessary reflection or discussions. This system

doubles the security to the people by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy, where the ambition or corruption of one would otherwise be sufficient. James Madison in the Federalist Papers.

If we expect two houses or chambers to control and correct each other, then the participants of both must be selected in different ways. But it seems that this can still be done with a higher degree of respect for the principle of one-man-one-vote.

The reasoning behind this deviation from the one-man-one-vote system in the U.S. was to ensure equal representation of each state in the Senate, so that populous states can’t take measures that harm the fundamental interests of small states and therefore can’t violate the federalist philosophy of the U.S. It was supposed to be a counterweight against the “people’s house” (the House of Representatives) that would be sensitive to public opinion. Trust in public opinion has never been very high (which I argue is a self-fulfilling prophecy). But rather than protect the U.S. from the tyranny of public opinion, one has delivered it to the tyranny of the minority. Hardly democratic at all.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (5): Free Will

The concept of free will is usually viewed in a theological light. It’s the classical explanation for evil in the world. God has created the world. God is not evil (no one would want to live under the rule of an evil God). There is evil in the world. Why is it there, when a non-evil God has created the world? Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world, given that he is almighty? Isn’t the logical conclusion of the combination of omnipotence and evil that God must be evil?

Theologians traditionally use the “free will escape”: God has created man (and woman) with the capacity of free will. We have the power to do good and evil. When there is evil in the world, it’s our free choice, not the choice of God. Divine intervention in the affairs of the world and stopping evil things from happening, is undoubtedly what God, being good, would prefer to do, but doing so would mean taking away our free choice between good and evil and taking away our free will. The world would be a deterministic place where God drives everything. Human beings would be pawns in a chess play. It appears to most religious people (in the West at least), that this isn’t what God wants.

There has always been a tradition of determinism, but rather than God determining everything determinists nowadays believe it’s genetics, psychology, physics or whatever. People are said to be determined by their genes, evolutionary forces etc.

A strict determinism – all human actions, as everything else in nature, are determined by outside causes – is by definition religious, even if at first sight it seems incompatible with religious tradition (western religious tradition that is). If everything is determined by a pre-existing cause, then one has to go back to the beginning of the universe, to the first cause. Since determinism cannot go back indefinitely, to the infinity of the past, there must be a first cause. And this first cause, being the first, doesn’t have anything pre-existing causing it. Hence it is the causeless causer, the unmoved mover, the uncreated creator, the demiurge according to Plato. And this has to be some kind of God.

Strict determinism is a terrifyingly improbable idea. Imagine that the past rules the future, that we don’t have any choice in any matter. People would be mere billiard balls. It’s improbable because we all have the experience of making choices, of having had the possibility to do otherwise (there would be no regret without it). However, lack of probability doesn’t make strict determinism impossible. Maybe our experience and our regret are illusions.

A better argument against strict determinism is that accepting it would mean abandoning morality and criminal law. It is incompatible with responsibility – moral, legal and criminal. If you don’t control your actions and you cannot make a choice to do or not to do something – if, in other words, you couldn’t have done otherwise – then obviously you cannot be punished for having done something. It wasn’t you who did it. There was some pre-existing cause making you do it.

The fact that there is morality and criminal law indicates that people generally believe that we have at least some measure of free will. And the concept of extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility in criminal law, points to the fact that there is also a consensus that some level of determinism is present in our lives and that individuals do not in all circumstances have a free choice (they may be forced into to doing something by reasons grounded in genetics, sociology, psychology etc.). We probably shouldn’t be absolutists on either side. In the words of Sartre, we are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse.

However, it’s not because something is abused that it doesn’t exist.

Strict freedom is as unlikely as strict determinism, so freedom and determinism seem to coexist. This is the theory called “compatibilism“, of which Thomas Hobbes is a known representative.

now, you may ask – if you remember the title of this post: what is the link with equality? Strict determinism is an extremely egalitarian theory. It makes it impossible to distinguish between people. Everyone is equally praiseworthy or blameworthy. In fact, we all have a praise and blame counter stuck at 0. There can be no praise or blame, no reward, desert, punishment or retribution, since nothing we do can be attributed to us. We are indeed all as similar as the next billiard ball. If we accept free will, then we accept inequality and the existence of people with different qualities and different levels of value and merit.

This, however, doesn’t mean that we can discriminate – discriminate in the legal and human rights sense of the word, not in the sense of “to distinguish” and “to make distinctions”. Or that we can treat certain people as without any value (that we can use them, abuse them, torture them, sell them as slaves etc.). There is a baseline, under which we shouldn’t go, and this line is defined by human rights. But above this line, the more distinctions, the better.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (4): Freedom as Autonomy

Limits on freedom can equalize freedom. If my freedom is limited by yours, then our freedom is roughly the same. If I’m stronger than you, then a limit on my freedom makes it impossible for me to use my freedom to the detriment of yours. However, the problem of freedom and equality isn’t solved by limiting freedom. Notably the freedom of the poor and the freedom of those who, for one reason or another, don’t have a reasonable set of resources and alternative options to choose from, are still very unequal kinds of freedom. Limiting the freedom of others doesn’t help these people.

The ability to do as you want, limited by those restrictions imposed by the state necessary to ensure that the freedom of one doesn’t harm the freedom of another, does to some extent equalize freedom, but not the freedom of the poor and the freedom of those with a limited set of choices. Another problem is that it is essentially an anti-political freedom. The state is not a place of freedom; the state is a set of institutions which limit freedom.

However, it is my view that the state can be a place of freedom if we understand freedom in another way. Democratic political participation in the decisions of the state (especially on a local level) can be a source of freedom; freedom not necessarily in the sense of the ability to do as you want, but freedom in the sense of autonomy.

Autonomy in this context must be understood as the ability of a group of people, living together, to participate equally in deliberations, and to come to an agreement (by majority vote for instance) on certain matters that shape their living together. It is a more communal and less individualistic notion than the ability to do as you like, since it requires political self-government through democratic participation. It is also closely related to equality since the right to participation is an equal right and the adequate functioning of the decision-taking process requires equal attention to all arguments and alternatives.

Autonomy does not result from the isolated exercise of an individual will outside of state control.  Similar to freedom as self-development – see the previous post in this series – autonomy is mediated through life in a communityFreedom as self-development means that you can only do as you like when you know about the options and when the options appear in public debates, in education and in other circumstance that require a community. Freedom as autonomy profits from the same kind of debate. The advantage of debate in this case is not the clarification and expansion of choice as a precondition of real freedom of choice, but a better decision on things that are common to a group of people.

Autonomy is not a freedom outside of the state. It is necessarily a part of it and cannot survive without it. Autonomy is a kind of self-government. It’s a community that determines the social conditions in which it lives. People usually engage in self-government within some form of state institutions, local or even national. By determining the structures, laws and rules which govern their lives, people govern themselves. So we see that freedom and the state are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (3): Freedom, Poverty and Public Life

Freedom and poverty

Is the problem of the contradiction between freedom and equality solved by limiting freedom – limiting the freedom of the strong, thereby providing security against the freedom of the strong, and this equalizing freedom? Not quite. I can see at least three problems remaining. The first one is poverty. Poor people can’t do what they want and the laws which protect their physical security against the free actions of others will not help them. Their situation is not primarily caused by the limitations imposed on them by the free actions of others. And the provision of social security is much more controversial than the provision of physical security, which is bizarre given that both kinds of security have the same purpose, namely the equalization of freedom in the sense of the ability to do as you want.

We see here that the state, by intervening and reducing poverty, can promote freedom. People whose basic needs are met have a whole new world of choices and opportunities opened up to them and can move on to more complicated needs. “Freedom from” (in this case freedom from want) creates “freedom to”.

Freedom and public life

A second problem with limited freedom is revealed by the bigot. Take the example of the bigot who isn’t poor but doesn’t want anything else in life than watching sport, drinking beer and shouting to his wife. He can do as he wants, but is he free? Here we see that it may be necessary to redefine freedom and not only to limit it. Freedom means not only the ability to do what you choose, but also, and in the first place, the fact of having significant choices, the ability to expand the options you can choose from, the ability to make an educated choice between examined options and to choose the options which are best for yourself and for the people around you. In other words, freedom is the ability to choose the options which make ourselves better persons and allow us and our fellow-humans to develop.

Now, how do you widen the available choices, and check if what you want is really what you want? Only if all possible options and choices are flooded with the light of publicity and education. When you see which options are available, when you hear people discussing the merits of different options and objects of volition, only then can you make an educated choice.

Freedom and human rights

This publicity, and hence freedom as the possibility to develop your self, requires a legal system. Legally protected human rights for example open up the world of culture, art, science, history, education, etc. They open up the options, show the merits of all options and hence can improve your volition. Constraining rules are also enabling rules. By limiting certain kinds of behavior they make other behavior possible, for example public discussion of objects of volition. Only in a public space protected by legal rights, where everybody is equal and where everybody can speak and listen in an equal way, can we examine our opinions and options and can we self develop. So we see that freedom needs equality in the sense of the equal participation in public life.

The law is necessary for freedom because if there is no external control, then rights will be violated, security rights but also rights which protect the public space in which choices can appear. Some people will be victims of others and will not be free, not in any sense of the word. They cannot do as they like and they have no public life in which to determine what they like. And we can all be victims in certain circumstances. Laws and obedience are not just obstacles or impediments, limits on our freedom or elements of oppression. They are prerequisites for public life and therefore prerequisites for freedom as well because freedom needs public life.

Laws do not only limit the actions of people; they also link the actions of people because they create a public space. And these links make freedom possible. Laws are rules for public life and should not disappear. The state is a mechanism to coerce people, but this is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, coercion creates possibilities. The state creates, by way of coercion, the prerequisites for public life — such as security and human rights — and therefore creates the possibility of freedom.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (2): Limited Freedom

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like

In the previous post in this series, I described the ways in which freedom and equality can be incompatible. I also mentioned that the reason for this opposition has something to do with the way in which we normally define freedom. In the current post, I want juxtapose this standard definition with another one.

Traditionally, freedom is believed to be the absence of coercion and the ability to do as you want. Hobbes gave one of the canonical descriptions:

By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft take away part of a mans power to do what hee would.

This is a negative definition of freedom because it focuses on the absence of impediments, constraints or limits on actions (limits imposed by other human beings, by the state, by nature or perhaps even by our own passions).

Is this kind of freedom possible? And is it acceptable? It will definitely be a very unequal freedom. If everybody can do as he or she likes, then we create offenders and victims rather than free citizens. Victims obviously cannot do as they like. And we can all become victims. Not even the strongest among us can do as he likes, because he has to sleep now and again and we are weak when we sleep. Unlimited and lawless freedom as in the definition of Hobbes therefore cannot exist, or only in a very precarious fashion. And it should not exist because if it did, most people’s freedom, human rights and other important values such as security would suffer. Hobbes clearly understood this.

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like, within limits

That is why this absolute negative freedom has to be limited. Freedom is always freedom in the state and freedom within the limits of the rule of law. Freedom can only exist together with obedience because only a state with its rules and laws can create equal and durable freedom for all. Obedience to rules opens up a space in which people can be free without fear of insecurity, coercion, domination, intolerance etc. Freedom is, therefore, not incompatible with rules, obedience and coercion.

Strictly speaking, none of this invalidates the definition of freedom as the ability to do as you like without impediments. One can say that the state merely limits our freedom defined in this way, in order to make it safer, more secure and more lasting. So we are still speaking about the same kind of freedom, but now it’s limited.

Much of social contract theory – of which Hobbes is an example – posits a kind of natural, unlimited freedom, a part of which people give up when entering into a contract with a state. And instead of saying that they give up a part of their freedom or their ability to do as they like in order to gain security, one could say that they give up a part of their freedom to make the remainder of their freedom more secure. That’s the same thing. They choose not to do certain things – e.g. break the law – in order to have more freedom to do the other things they want.

According to this definition of freedom, all coercion is bad but some kind of coercion is necessary. If people were always friendly to each other, the state would not be necessary and people would not have to accept a limitation of their freedom. State coercion in the form of laws limits freedom because it forces people to act in a way that is contrary to their wishes. Yet coercion can actually promote freedom. Coercing one person and thus limiting his or her freedom can promote the freedom of other persons. And since we can all be these “other persons”, coercion promotes the freedom of all. Coercion in fact equalizes freedom. It makes it impossible that the freedom of one harms the freedom of another. So it already becomes apparent how freedom and equality are intertwined.

Limiting the limits

However, because of the importance of freedom as the ability to do as you like, the proponents of limited negative freedom want to keep the area of the law and the state as small as possible. Libertarians and conservatives generally believe that the only way in which the state can promote freedom is by guaranteeing the physical security of the weak. The state should only protect the weak against the strong. In this way, it makes it possible for the weak to do as they want. It puts the freedom of the weak on the same and equal level as the freedom of the strong who can do what they want even without protection.

For the rest, they say, the state should not do anything and should keep itself as inconspicuous as possible. It should create an area which is free from state coercion and in which people can do as they like. In a certain sense, this freedom is a stateless freedom even though the state must act to protect it. The area of non-interference must be as large as possible in order to allow freedom to become as comprehensive as possible. Freedom and politics can only go together because and insofar as politics guarantees freedom from politics.

Contrary to anarchists, libertarians and conservatives believe — correctly I think — that the area of freedom or non-interference cannot be unlimited because this would result in insecurity, chaos and war. But in a sense they all believe in unlimited freedom. For anarchists it’s an ideal for the future, for libertarians and conservatives it’s something which belongs to a perhaps mythical past (before the time of the “contract”) and which can only be desirable in the unlikely event that human beings learn to behave and to respect each others security.

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.

Cultural Rights (12): Collective Rights

Groups, and in particular, minority groups are often attacked, oppressed and persecuted. They are considered to be groups that are separated from the rest of society and that are legitimate objects of targeted attacks such as racism, xenophobia, discrimination, exploitation or even genocide. These attacks are often collective attacks. Persons are discriminated against or killed, for no other reason than their membership of a particular group. Colored people are oppressed because they are colored people.

Some people believe that a collective problem requires a collective solution. A minority that is collectively oppressed claims a collective right to protection, a collective right not to be oppressed. Acts that are expressed in collectivist terms have to be countered by rights using the same terms.

The question is whether it is really necessary or even opportune to solve the collective problems of some groups by way of collective rights or group rights. I believe that the often genuine problems of different groups and minorities (but also majorities) can be solved by applying a number of individual rights, such as the right to equality before the law (a law has to be general and equal for everybody and cannot be directed against or cannot discriminate against certain persons or groups), the right to equal treatment and to equal rights, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to life (in the case of genocide) and religious liberty.

The problem of gender discrimination in a number of Islamic countries is an example of a collective problem that can be solved by applying individual rights. There is no reason to solve this collective problem by adding so-called women’eds rights or collective rights of women to the existing individual rights. Gender discrimination is not a violation of women’s rights. It is a violation of the human rights of women. The principles of equality and non-discrimination are sufficient to solve this problem.

Individual rights are sufficient in all cases, although I have to admit that protecting groups by way of individual rights ignores or neglects the nature of the problem. Only the right of a group (for example, a group of indigenous people) to equal treatment recognizes the existence of a certain kind of discrimination. The individual right to equality, even though it can stop group discrimination, ignores the nature of or the motivation behind the attack on the group, and does not distinguish between individual and group discrimination.

However, the advantage of countering a collective attack by way of an individual right is that the existence of individuals in the collectivity is thereby accentuated. The cause of a collective attack is precisely the belief that a group is a collectivity and a unity, in which the individuals do not count. By using his individual rights to protect a colored person against discrimination, racism or genocide, we accentuate his individuality. He is no longer “just another nigger”, someone belonging to a collectivity, which is a legitimate object of discrimination. Individual rights accentuate the individuality of the person claiming the right, and already hint that there is no reason for discrimination. Discrimination requires collectives and the absence of individuals.

Collective rights do the opposite. Recognizing collective rights can sanction the existence of collectives. It makes thinking in terms of collectives legitimate, it puts the different individualities in the background and it strengthens the opinions of those who oppose and persecute certain collectives.

What is Democracy? (26): Democracy or Experts?

The proper judge of the expert is not another expert, but the user: The warrior and not the blacksmith for the sword, the horseman and not the saddler for the saddle. And evidently, for all public (common) affairs, the user, and thus the best judge, is the polis. Cornelius Castoriadis

The best method of choice is to choose experts by their success. The best experts to choose are the ones whose bridges have not fallen down. In this the more views about what is actually happening, or has happened, the better. Dictators or oligarchies are more insulated from what is going on than the people at large. To find out whether the people have actually been fed, the best people to consult are the people themselves. Ross Harrison

A frequently heard argument against democracy is that the job of governing requires expert knowledge. The government is better left in the hands of experts. The “populace” has other things to do than investing in the knowledge necessary for governing. I’ve mentioned this argument in my post on Plato.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious objection against this argument – that many acts of government have nothing to do with knowledge but are rather a matter of judgment, values, personality, character, conviction, courage etc. All things in which no one is an “expert”.

Let us grant that certain parts of the act of governing are better left to experts with the appropriate knowledge, for example the management of the road and bridge infrastructure as in the quote above. But even though the people sometimes need individuals with expert knowledge in places of government, it is up to the people to choose and judge the experts and the result of the experts’ work, because this kind of judgment requires as much information on what is happening as possible.

It is wrong to say that you always need an expert to judge an expert. The role of experts must always be integrated in and subject to a democratic system. Experts should only play a supporting role. They use their knowledge and truth to assist the people, often at the level of means and not at the level of goals.

First, there has to be a decision on whether or not to build a bridge and only then can the experts come into play. The decision to build a bridge is not only based on facts, mathematics, if-then calculations etc. Values and interest play an important part (for example, ecological values). It is up to the people to decide on their goals, and when values come into play there often is no knowledge available to do this. They decide if they need a bridge and they determine which values will be served by having a bridge and which other values can possibly be harmed by the bridge. These value-questions will rarely be the consequence of knowledge and truth. They cannot, therefore, be left to experts.

In politics, values are more important than truth or knowledge. I do not think that there can ever be a certain answer to the question whether a particular bridge ought to be built or not, whether dishonest asylum seekers ought to be expelled or not, whether education has to continue until the age of 18 or not, etc. This kind of decision will be based on discussion, debate and arguments, not on truth. Once there is a decision on these questions, we can leave the technical aspects to the experts: how do we expel dishonest asylum seekers, which techniques do we use, what is the planning etc. It may be possible to find elements of truth and knowledge at this level, in which case we may need experts. But it can happen that these techniques again give rise to value questions (for example, the use of stock cars for the expulsion of dishonest asylum seekers).

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.

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.

Gender Discrimination (2): Types and Causes

The issue of women’s rights, not in the sense of special kinds of human rights reserved for women, but in the sense of the equal enjoyment by women of their general human rights, remains an important one. The Universal Declaration and the human rights treaties forbid discrimination on the grounds of gender. Article 2 states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind”. Article 7 states that

“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination”.

This means that the anti-discrimination rule goes beyond discrimination in the application of human rights. If everyone is entitled to equal protection by the law, then it means that there can be no law which discriminates. Every law which offers unequal protection to men and women is a violation of the Universal Declaration, whether or not this law seeks to protect human rights.

In real life, women and girls continue to suffer from gender discrimination in all parts of the world. Here are some types of gender discrimination:

1. Discrimination in family law

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration is about the equality in marriage:

“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.

In many cultures, arranged or forced marriages are still very common, often resulting in sexual abuse. Women often do not have the same rights regarding divorce or inheritance. Polygamy is also a cause of discrimination.

2. Discrimination at work

Article 23 gives everyone, without any discrimination, the right to equal pay for equal work, but even in industrialized countries there is salary discrimination and there are promotion obstacles for women. In developing countries, this discrimination is even worse.

 

In some countries, the choice of work is restricted for women, de iure, but also de facto because of cultural mentalities or educational discrimination. Often women are not allowed to work at all and are confined to house keeping, which obviously limits their development opportunities.

3. Discrimination in education

The literacy rates and school enrollment rates for girls and women is often much lower than for boys and men. Girls are often forced to stay home and do the housekeeping, which in many countries is hard labor. In later life, when a girl is allowed to take a job, it will be a substandard one because of her low level of education. She will also be expected to continue to do the housekeeping.

4. Physical abuse

Because of the anatomy of their bodies and their relative physical weakness compared to men, women are often the victim of rape, female genital mutilation or other kinds of sexual abuses (such as the sex industry).

Some causes of gender discrimination

The causes vary widely and include:

  • Religious traditions and sacred texts. It seems that especially the Muslim religion contains many discriminatory injunctions, which moreover are often interpreted very literally.
  • Custom and culture. Culture shapes the way “things are done” and the thinking of people who believe that things should be done in a certain way. In many cultures we still witness male misogyny and machismo.

  • Education and upbringing. Mothers (but also fathers) often perpetuate involuntarily the inferior social position of their daughters by raising them according to traditional gender roles.
  • Law. The law often reinforces other causes of discrimination.

Different kinds of discrimination promote each other

In many countries, the birth of a boy is a reason to celebrate, whereas the birth of a girl is a disaster. Selective abortions of female fetuses and female infanticide are no exception, resulting in unnatural gender ratios. In some countries, such as China, the situation is made worse by government policy. In 1997, the World Health Organization declared, “more than 50 million women were estimated to be ‘missing’ in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing’s population control program.”

This negative attitude towards girls is not the simple result of male misogyny. The local law often stipulates that a son inherits his father’s property. Social and legal conditions may also make it easier for a man to get a job to help support the family. One kind of discrimination may therefore promote another.

The misgivings that are created by the birth of a girl are often caused by the dowry system. Dowry is goods and money a bride’s family has to pay to the husband’s family. Not only is it more difficult for a girl to bring in money into the family; when she marries she will become a financial burden. Sometimes, dowries represent years’ worth of wages.

Labeling girls as second rate from the moment they are born obviously creates feelings of low self-esteem, which will make it harder to break out of the vicious circle. When these girls grow up, they will inevitably transpose these feelings to their daughters and so on.

Another case in which one type of discrimination promotes another: women fall more frequently victim to sexual abuse than men. In some societies, the stigma attached to this kind of abuse often forces women to continue to endure their suffering. Moreover, family law can make it difficult for them to divorce their abusing husband. Even the mere fact of allowing the sexual abuse to be exposed can have harmful consequences for the woman in question. Exposure means dishonor for the family, which will then punish the victim. Some families even commit “honor killings” to salvage their reputation. In certain societies, all responsibility for sexual misconduct rests by definition with women.

A last example. A lower level of education results in a substandard job, which in turn results in poverty and dependence on men. This dependence will convince men of the inferiority of women. Women who lack education also lack the tools to improve their situation and combat discrimination.

A few facts

From the Canadian International Development Agency:

  • More than 80 percent of the world’s 35 million refugees are women and children;
  • More than 110 million of the world’s children, two-thirds of them girls, are not in school;
  • At least one in every three women is a survivor of some form of gender-based violence, frequently inflicted by a family member;
  • Women represent, on average, less than 10 percent of the seats in national parliaments; and
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 58 percent of persons infected with HIV/AIDS are women.

What Are Human Rights? (11): Equal Rights

The idea of equal rights resulted from the emergence and the ascent of the bourgeoisie in 17th and 18th century Europe, and was in the first instance, a tool for the protection of their interests. The bourgeoisie was, compared to the aristocracy, a relatively open class. One could enter and leave this class in a relatively free and sudden way and the moment of entering or leaving was sometimes hard to predict. For this reason, it was undesirable to create a new set of privileges in the style of those of the older classes. If the bourgeoisie was to have rights to protect its interests, they had no choice but to instate rights for everybody.

Historically, the transformation of privileges (or freedoms and rights limited to certain groups, such as guilds, corporations, the nobility etc.) into general or human rights was the invention of the revolutions of the 18th century. From this moment on, human rights were considered to be rights of individuals as entities detached from concrete relationships and groups.

Of course, in the beginning this was to a large extent rhetoric. Women and the working class didn’t have the same rights as white affluent men. There was also slavery, colonialism etc. It took centuries of struggle to make people aware of the contradictions between human rights philosophy and social reality. We have made enormous progress (slavery is abolished in many countries, the civil rights movement in the US has ended many types of discrimination like the Jim Crow laws etc) but still the struggle isn’t finished.

What is Democracy? (17): Equality

A democracy regards and must regard all people as equally valuable (the equal worth or the equal dignity of the human being, see art. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). A citizen of a non-democratic society can be considered as more or less valuable than other citizens because of his or her family, class, status, sex, race etc. In a democracy, however, nobody is a lesser human being because he or she is poor, black, stupid, non-Muslim, female or whatever. Nobody is inferior or superior; nobody’s life is worthless, expendable, disposable or in any way less valuable; and nobody’s interests are less worthy of protection. Democracy tries to give equal protection to everybody’s interests. Every human being has a certain value, simply because of his or her humanity, not because of the person he or she is, the things he or she has done or the group he or she belongs to. Being human automatically means having a certain value and this value is by definition equal for all human beings.

This is a principle of democracy because you cannot at the same time give everybody equal influence – as is the purpose of democracy – and believe that some people are inferior. If some people are inferior, then it is natural to think that they have interests that should not be taken into consideration in an equal way. However, if everybody’s interests must have an equal weight, then everybody must have equal influence and vice versa. It is impossible to consider everybody’s interests in an equal way if everybody cannot participate equally in politics and if everybody’s voice does not have an equal weight in decisions. Democracy promotes the equal value of each because

  • It protects everybody’s equal human rights
  • It is a system, which gives everybody’s interests an equal chance of being protected (even on the assumption that not all interests are morally entitled to satisfaction)
  • It gives everybody equal influence and an equal right to participate and to pursue interests.

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.

What is Democracy? (4): Conflict

Election rules institute conflict and struggle. The place of power is an empty place (says Claude Lefort). The law forbids that persons occupy or appropriate this place in a permanent way. Power is the result of a regulated struggle for this place, a struggle that is periodically restarted because power itself is periodically called into question. However, conflict is not just institutionalized, it is also channeled: potentially dangerous conflicts between groups or parties competing for power can be battled out or decided in a peaceful , formalized and reasonable way. Since there will always be a next chance for the losers – who, by the way, do not risk loosing anything more than power – there is no need to resort to more forceful means in order to win the battle. In this way, democracy supports the right to security . This is one of the many examples of the link between democracy and human rights.

It is very important to notice the connection between the two different kinds of institutionalization of conflict, namely the conflict of opinions institutionalized by freedom rights, and the power struggle institutionalized by the democratic election procedures. These two ways of institutionalizing conflict reinforce each other in a fruitful interaction or reciprocity. The legitimate existence of a continuous, open and public power struggle in which the entire people can participate, justifies and creates public conflict in general, in the society at large and in every domain of life. If conflicts of opinion are allowed in the political domain, then why should they be forbidden in other domains of life? There is no democratic power struggle without freedom of expression because this struggle requires criticism, argumentation and persuasion (in order to form majorities). In this way, democracy protects human rights.

The opposite is also true. Human rights protect democracy because they are necessary prerequisites for a real power struggle. The participants in the power struggle have to be able to express themselves, to present themselves to the electorate, to create a distinct profile for themselves, and to make the electorate familiar with their political program (that is why they need the freedom of expression); they have to be able to organize and associate in a group that is free from government control, because this allows them to gather strength and have a more influential voice (so they need the freedom of association, the rule of law and the separation of state and society); and for the same reasons they have to be able to meet and demonstrate (so they also need the freedom of assembly).

Human rights need democracy. They are safer in a democracy because a democracy needs human rights. But a democracy also needs equal human rights. If everybody does not have equal rights, there can be no equal influence, and if there is no equal influence, there can be no democracy. The creation of public opinion or of the will of the people depends on the equal influence of everybody or, in other words, on the equal ability to convince, and this equal ability requires equal human rights. Equal influence also requires respect for economic rights – because these rights limit the unequal influence of money on politics – and for the right to education for everybody – a right that limits the unequal influence of intellect or talent on politics.

What is Democracy? (2): More Than Majority Rule

If Rosa Parks had taken a poll before she sat down in the bus in Montgomery, she’d still be standing. Mary Frances Berry

Democracy isn’t perfect. The majority can very well be harmful to the human rights of some. That is why human rights can trump the right of the majority to have its will respected. Democracy is more than just a system of majority rule. After all, a tyranny can also have the support of a majority, but that’s not enough to call it a democracy. Human rights are an integral part of an ideal democracy, not only because of the rights of the minorities, but also because without human rights, a majority cannot establish its will (speech, assembly, association etc.) and cannot check if its representatives respectfully implement its will.

More on the tyranny of the majority.

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.