The Ethics of Human Rights (66): Human Rights and “Spontaneous Order”

Hayek has famously argued that market economies create a spontaneous order, a more efficient allocation of societal resources than any intentional design or planning could achieve. This spontaneous order is superior to any order the human mind can design due to the specifics of the information requirements. Planners will never have enough information to carry out the allocation of resources reliably. Only individual economic actors can create an efficient and productive economy by engaging in free exchanges and by using as their information source the spontaneously developing price system. They can do so because they act on the basis of information with greater detail and accuracy – namely the price system – than the information available to any centralized authority.

Whatever the general merits of such invisible hand theories for the whole of society (I think those merits are real but often vastly overstated), it’s useful to ask if they also apply in the field of human rights. To what extent and in which circumstances can there be an equivalent of “spontaneous order” for human rights? Can it happen that people’s unintended and selfish actions promote respect for human rights? Or do human rights always require intentional and (centrally) planned policy?

First, this question has to be distinguished from a similar one: it’s true that people do have selfish reasons to promote human rights and often act on those reasons, as I’ve argued here. But in that case their human rights efforts are quite intentional. What I’m asking here is whether there are equally selfish but unintentional processes that promote human rights. And I think there are. Before listing some of them, however, let me make clear that those processes, although they are obviously beneficial and to be encouraged, will not make a huge difference, and that they certainly won’t be sufficient to bring about human rights utopia.

After some superficial thinking about this, I came up with three examples:

  • Trickle down economics is by now thoroughly discredited, especially when it’s used to justify tax cuts for the wealthy. Not all boats have risen on the rising tide, and the tide itself has recently come crashing down on all of us, the rich included. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s never any trickling down in an economy. When the government’s tax system allows the wealthy to retain a reasonable part of their wealth (let’s assume we know what “reasonable” means here), then some of their wealth does indeed flow down to those with lower incomes. That’s because the rich are more likely to spend the additional income, through either consumption or investment, thereby creating more economic activity, which in turn generates jobs and higher income for the less well-off. If that’s the case, then the right to a certain standard of living is promoted through the selfish and unintentional actions of the wealthy. Of course, this will never be enough to secure that right for everyone all of the time.
  • As Becker has argued, free competition between firms reduces discrimination. A racially biased firm will want to hire whites, even if they are more expensive and less qualified than some non-whites. But a firm will only do so if it’s not under pressure from competitors. In a competitive market, other firms can and will produce the same goods at cheaper prices by hiring the cheaper/better black person. The biased firm will then be forced to do the same. It may remain biased – opinions on such matters are notoriously hard to change – but it no longer has the luxury of acting on its bias.
  • There’s a strong tendency towards urbanization in developing countries. Large cities offer more economic opportunities, and jobs in factories, shops or trade offer some advantages compared to agriculture (e.g. weather independence, stable income etc.). When women move to cities and work in factories, they usually have less children – they don’t need children to work the land – and they become more independent of traditional patriarchal structures that are more common in the countryside. This does not only improve the wellbeing of women. Having less children means that the remaining children are more likely to attend school, because school is expensive. Female children in particular benefit from this education. Hence, rights such as education and non-discrimination are automatically advanced by urbanization.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (17): Private Interests and the General Interest

What kind of state do we desire? What kind of education for our children and for the children of the future? What kind of health care, not just for ourselves but for all citizens? How will we leave the environment for future generations? These questions and many others concern us all, no matter which private interests we have and which interest groups we belong to.

Unfortunately, it looks like the first objective of politics today is not to serve the general interest but to serve a variety of private interests expressed by pressure groups whose support the government must buy by way of special benefits, simply because it cannot retain its supporters when it refuses to give them something it has the power to give, in the words of Friedrich A. Hayek.

But not only governments and legislators are forced into this. Groups in society quickly understand that the best they can do is to play the game and try to win as many benefits as possible, otherwise they end up paying for the benefits of the rest of the population. We find ourselves in a vicious circle in which

  • politicians are forced to grant interest groups special benefits, simply because they can and because they would lose voters if they refused
  • interest groups are forced to ask for special benefits if they don’t want to end up as the only suckers paying for the benefits of others
  • different interest groups are out-asking each other because otherwise they end up paying more than they get
  • politicians are forced to give more because people ask more, but also have to tax more because the money has to come from somewhere
  • interest groups are forced to ask more to compensate for the heavier taxes
  • etc.

Of course, this is a libertarian dystopia which fortunately doesn’t quite work out the same way in reality. But it serves the purpose of highlighting the risks of interest group politics.

Given these risks, it’s unfortunate that politics in most democratic countries is so much focused on private interests. The majorities that do exist are not inspired by a general interest or by a common will to achieve something that will benefit society as a whole. They are no more than collections of different pressure groups which have all been promised benefits in exchange for their votes. These pressure groups can be certain states or provinces, whose representative will only vote for a proposal when he or she gets something in return which benefits the locals. Or they can be a certain profession, a religious group or whatever.

As a result, people do not see themselves as a community that can identify with the state and with politics. They only identify themselves with a particular interest group (or with several different interest groups, depending on the types of private interests that they want to see protected), and they see politics as an instrument to fulfill their interests or as a warehouse of advantages ready to be looted by whoever comes first.

This makes effective common actions and actions that serve the general interest very difficult if not impossible. Any vote on something that is of general interest – e.g. healthcare reform – can only pass if a series of private interests are satisfied at the same time. And again we have a vicious circle here. If the state cannot prove itself as a vehicle for common action and for the general interest, then people will not be encouraged to fall back on their private interests. Only successful common action can enable people to transcend fragmentation, to escape decomposition, to identify with the political community and to think of the state as something else than a loot. On the other hand, if the meaning of this political community is diluted, then it is very difficult to mobilize people for a common action, in the words of Charles Taylor.

This focus on private interests and sub-communities is completely different from the way in which the Ancient Greeks for example reflected on politics. In the Greek city states, the inhabitants of border regions were not allowed to participate in a vote concerning a declaration of war with neighboring countries. It was assumed that these inhabitants were unable to vote in accordance with the general interest. Their immediate private interest would inhibit a reasonable reflection on the general interest. In this case, some legitimate private interest where neglected. But today we seem to have gone from one extreme to the other.

Of course, there ‘s nothing wrong with self-interest as such. A conception of the general interest that is established without the cooperation of everybody or that is incompatible with the interests of a majority is likely to cause resistance. And also the interests of the minority are important. The basic interests of the minority are expressed in human rights which can’t be overridden by a democratic majority. We have to start from self-interest, but we do not have to end there. A general interest is always a reformulation of self-interest. And it’s this reformulation through political debate that is often missing, and politics tends to be  a mere sum of or a compromise between private interests.

However, the other extreme is also a risk. Exaggerating the importance of the general interest can be very dangerous as well. Those who have witnessed nazism or communism—or both—can testify to this. The general interest — whatever it is — can justify oppression because it can require the sacrifice of “small” private interests which hinder the development of the community, of the race etc.