When Rights Become Wrongs

exploitation

Some presumptive rights are in fact making things worse for people. A “right not to be exploited” can condemn the potential victims of exploitation to other kinds of victimhood that are even harder to bear than exploitation. Take for example some kinds of sweatshop laborers and child laborers. Mutually beneficial exploitation is real, and, while it’s definitely immoral it may still be better than the status quo ante. If children aren’t allowed to work or sweatshops are closed under pressure then people’s lives may well turn for the worse. More poverty or worse labor conditions – e.g. prostitution or slavery – can be their lot.

Something similar is the case for the so-called right to cultural identity. This right may very well force some members of cultural communities to endure cultural practices that are harmful to their individual rights, all in the name of preserving the cultural identity of the group. Another example: the “right to land” is often invoked in certain developing countries and is supposed to be a means to undo the unjust distribution of land ownings following a history of white colonialism. Here as well we see that a right may become a wrong: while it may undo one injustice of distribution it creates other injustices (e.g. poverty resulting from ineffective production due to losses of economies of scale and of knowhow).

One last example: immigration restrictions are sometimes justified by the claim that would-be immigrants have a right to flourish in their countries of origin. People don’t want to migrate unless they’re forced by circumstances, it is said. Relaxation of immigration laws is then supposedly a second best option compared to solving the problems in origin countries that create the push for immigration in the first place. So instead of allowing people to migrate we should try to protect their rights where they now live. Needless to say that this approach makes those would-be migrants worse off, and probably not only in the short run. Looser immigration laws have immediate benefits for the migrants, but they can also improve the rights situation in their home countries, for example through remittances and cultural exchange.

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (5): Land Reform

Intuitively, if poor people don’t have land of their own and are forced to work for a few major landowners who have monopolized all the fertile land in the country, there’s a bargaining problem: poor people have no other options and because they are so numerous they can be played out against each other by the landowners. Wages tend to remain low in such a scenario (supply and demand, remember). That’s a recipe for a very unequal society. So the intuitive case for land reform is strong, especially when you consider that equality in land ownership isn’t just a matter of fairness but is also good for economic growth.

On the other hand, some notable attempts have gone horribly awry. Land reform policies in Zimbabwe – supposedly implemented for the benefit of the poor but probably for other reasons – have made things even worse for the poor. Why? Cutting up large chunks of land and giving a lot of poor people a very small piece can undo economies of scale. Furthermore, expropriating large landowners forces them out of business, and a lot of know-how will be lost.

So, what’s the deal? I guess it all depends on how land reform is done. Things don’t have to turn ugly. Land reform doesn’t have to be counter-productive. Property rights in general, and more specifically property of land in poor agrarian countries, are very important for the poor.

It is sometimes implied that improving property rights primarily favors the rich, conjuring up the image of rich owners of capital securing greater rents. However, there is increasing evidence that secure land rights, in particular, are an important vehicle for the poor that may promote both equity and efficiency. Lin…, for example, showed that the move from collective to household farming in China starting in 1978 led to large productivity increases in agriculture. …

Obtaining property rights over land in urban areas can also help poor households to gain access to credit. (source)