Economic Human Rights (40): How Do Poor People Live?

The poor tend to become a number, a statistic, an undifferentiated mass, especially here on this blog. Talk of the “bottom billion” and the one-dollar-a-day people only makes things worse. Of course, it’s important to know the numbers, if only to see how well we are doing in the struggle against poverty. But to actually know what we have to do, we need to know what poverty actually means to poor people. How do these people live? Which problems do they face? Who are they? None of this can be captured in numbers or statistics. Pure quantitative analysis doesn’t help. We need qualitative stories here, and these stories will necessarily differentiate between groups of people because poverty means different things to different people.

Keeping in mind the caveat that poverty is “multidimensional” and that it varies with the circumstances, is it possible to give a more or less general impression of the “lives of the poor”? There’s an interesting attempt here. Banerjee and Duflo analyzed survey data from 13 countries in order to distill a picture of the way people live on less than one dollar a day, of the choices they have and the limits and challenges they face.

The countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and Timor Leste. Obviously, the lives of the poor are very different in these different countries, and vary even for different groups within each country. Still, some general information can be extracted:

  • The number of adults (i.e. those over 18) living in a family ranges from about 2.5 to about 5, with a median of about 3, which suggests a family structure where it is common for adults to live with people they are not conjugally related to (parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, etc.). When every penny counts, it helps to spread the fixed costs of living (like housing) over a larger number of people. Poverty has consequences for family structure, and vice versa.
  • Poor families have more children living with them. The fact that there are a large number of children in these families does not necessarily imply high levels of fertility, as families often have multiple adult women.
  • The poor of the world are very young on average. Older people tend to be richer simply because they have had more time to accumulate resources.
  • Food typically represents from 56 to 78 percent of consumption expenses among rural households, and 56 to 74 percent in urban areas.
  • The poor consume on average slightly less than 1400 calories a day. This is about half of what the Indian government recommends for a man with moderate activity, or a woman with heavy physical activity. As a result, health is definitely a reason for concern. Among the poor adults in Udaipur, the average “body mass index” (that is, weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) is 17.8. Sixty-five percent of poor adult men and 40 percent of adult women have a body mass index below 18.5, the standard cutoff for being underweight. Eating more would improve their BMI and their health, and yet they choose to spend relatively large amounts on entertainment. Which just shows that the poor have the same desires as anyone else and choose their priorities accordingly.
  • The poor see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to exercise it in the direction of spending more on food. The typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30 percent more on food than it actually does, just based on what it spends on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Indeed, in most of the surveys the share spent on food is about the same for the poor and the extremely poor, suggesting that the extremely poor do not feel the need to purchase more calories. This conclusion echoes an old finding in the literature on nutrition: Even the extremely poor do not seem to be as hungry for additional calories as one might expect.
  • Tap water and electricity are extremely rare among the poor.
  • Many poor households have multiple occupations. They may operate their own one-man business, sometimes more than one, but do so with almost no productive assets. They also have jobs as laborers, often in agriculture. And they cultivate a piece of land they own. Yet, agriculture is not the mainstay of most of these households. Where do they find non-agricultural work? They migrate. The businesses they operate are very small, lacking economies of scale and without employment opportunities for people outside the family. That’s a vicious circle because it means that few people can find a job and are forced to start petty businesses themselves. This circle makes economies of scale very difficult.
  • The poor tend not to become too specialized, which has its costs. As short-term migrants, they have little chance of learning their jobs better, ending up in a job that suits their specific talents or being promoted. Even the non-agricultural businesses that the poor operate typically require relatively little specific skills. The reason for this lack of specialization is probably risk spreading. If the weather is bad and crop yields are low, people can move to another occupation.
  • The poor don’t save a lot, unsurprisingly. Some of it has to do with inadequate access to credit and insurance markets. Banks and insurers are unwilling to give access to the poor and saving at home is hard to do; it’s unsafe and the presence of money at home increases the temptation to spend (that’s true for all of us by the way).
  • In 12 of the 13 countries in the sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. Schooling doesn’t take a large bite from the family budget of the poor because children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee.

Economic Human Rights (37): Basic Income as an Alternative to the Welfare State

The welfare state is the name for a collection of different government policies and programs designed to help the poor. Those policies and programs may include healthcare benefits, unemployment benefits, old age pensions, child benefits, some types of education subsidies, aid to the disabled, food stamps, housing subsidies, minimum wage rules, collective bargaining rights etc.

The welfare state is criticized in a number of ways. I’ll just mention a few arguments against it, without going into much detail and without replying to them:

  • it creates dependency and destroys self-reliance, responsibility, effort and other virtues
  • it rewards the undeserving and promotes subsidized idleness
  • it violates property rights because the taxes necessary for funding welfare are a form of theft
  • it imposes slavery on the productive and the responsible because it forces them to work for the benefit of the lazy and the irresponsible
  • it destroys incentives for taxpayers to become productive
  • it’s self-destructive because it destroys the prosperity that it wants to redistribute (the destruction of incentives results in the destruction of prosperity), or because it renders poverty more attractive
  • it’s not sufficiently targeted to the most needy: wealthy families may get child benefits, and wealthy pensioners may get healthcare subsidies
  • it requires a heavy state bureaucracy that usurps the right to invade the privacy of potential welfare beneficiaries (in order to ascertain whether people deserve benefits: are people really unemployed or unemployable? does their health status merit health benefits? etc.)
  • it can be gamed and people may engage in welfare fraud.

Some of these criticisms are evidently more pertinent than others, but let’s not evaluate them one by one. If we assume that there’s some truth in some of them, then it may be worthwhile to look at some possible alternatives. People often propose non-state solutions such as private charity (enhanced and encouraged by way of tax policy, education etc.). An advantage of private charity is that it fosters solidarity, virtue and a sense of belonging. However, it’s also counter-cyclical in the sense that it’s least available when most necessary (e.g. during economic recessions). Moreover, it tends to be unreliable and unequal (it may not cover all the needs of all poor people all of the time).

Another possible alternative is to keep a system of state provision of welfare, but to radically alter the specifics of the system. For example, one could give people a guaranteed and unconditional basic income at a level high enough to cover basic needs. Every individual would receive the basic income whatever his or her predicament, current or future. It would be funded with tax revenues, and therefore wouldn’t be a reply to the theft and slavery criticisms of welfare, but those criticisms are weak anyway (because they imply that all state activity, including policing and infrastructure, are illegitimate). It would, however, be a strong reply to the privacy infringing aspects of the current welfare system. A basic income, since it’s unconditional, would not require intrusions into the private lives of citizens in order to ascertain whether they deserve a benefit or not. It would undo the complexity of many current programs and hence also remove the need for a large bureaucracy. And it would counter the charge of assisting the undeserving: although many undeserving would receive a basic income, few would complain about it since everyone would receive it. Welfare fraud also would obviously become impossible.

An added advantage of a basic income system of welfare would be that it allows people to take more risks. They know that they won’t be destitute if things don’t work out. More risk taking can be socially advantageous because it can result in more innovation, more productivity etc.

However, notwithstanding the set of advantages, a basic income system will probably not be a perfect substitute for existing programs. It’s questionable, for example, whether a basic income, even one that is set at the highest sustainable level, will be enough to cover certain catastrophic healthcare costs. In general, a basic income theory doesn’t take into consideration the fact that different people have different needs and abilities and therefore require different amounts of resources.

What Are Human Rights? (30): Three Views on Human Rights

1.

The standard view of human rights is that they are intended as regulators of conflicting norms and practices. And, indeed, they seem quite useless and out of place in settings in which people agree, hold the same religious convictions and aren’t intent on attacking each others’ lives and possessions.

“Regulators” in this sense doesn’t mean that rights solve conflicts between norms and practices. They can’t do that because then they would have to change those norms and practices, and they don’t. What they do is pacify and civilize conflicts: they force conflicting parties to extend some measure of respect to the opposing norm or practice, and to refrain from physical or legal attacks, violence and suppression. For example, when different forms of speech come into conflict with each other, neither side in the conflict has a right to suppress the speech of the other side or to violently attack the other speakers.

2.

A somewhat less simplistic view of human rights, but also a less common one, is that these rights don’t just regulate conflict but actively promote it. By taking the sting out of conflict, one obviously encourages conflict. Usually, when an activity becomes less risky, it becomes more common.

Why would there be a need to encourage conflict? One reason has to do with the notion of the marketplace of ideas: only an idea that has survived the onslaught of a large number of opposing arguments can be a good idea.

3.

And then there’s another, even more sophisticated – some say perverted – view of human rights, one that sees beyond the conflicts that these rights are supposed to regulate and/or promote, and that focuses on the role of rights in providing the prerequisites for the appearance and development of conflicting norms and practices. Without this understanding of rights it’s difficult to make sense of rights such as the right to healthcare, the right to a certain standard of living and the right to education. Those are all rights that don’t regulate conflict but instead allow people to acquire and develop norms and practices.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (26): Are False Beliefs Useful For Human Rights?

I would say yes, but only some. For example, if we go around and successfully propagate the theory that wrongdoers will burn in hell, then this may have a beneficial effect because fear may inculcate morality (as all deterrence theories about crime have to assume). Similarly, false beliefs about the efficacy of law enforcement and the honesty of law enforcement officials also help.

Many false beliefs about high levels of risk can produce risk-averse behavior which in fact lowers the risk and makes it more likely that human rights are protected. For example, if people wrongly believe that their privacy is threatened in certain circumstances, they will take action to secure their privacy and make their privacy more secure than it already was. (More about human rights and risk here).

Human equality – “all men are created equal” – is obviously a false belief when taken as a fact, and in the quote it is taken as such. People are born with different abilities, talents, endowments, advantages etc. And yet we act as if the phrase is more than just a moral imperative. It seems like it’s easier to convince people to treat each other as equals when we say that they are equals.

Certain forms of self-deception also seem to be beneficial from the point of view of human rights:

Self-deception … may be psychologically or biologically programmed. The psychological evidence indicates that self-deceived individuals are happier than individuals who are not self-deceived. … Lack of self-deception, in fact, is a strong sign of depression. (The depressed are typically not self-deceived, except about their likelihood of escaping depression, which they underestimate.) Individuals who feel good about themselves, whether or not the facts merit this feeling, also tend to achieve more. They have more self-confidence, are more willing to take risks, and have an easier time commanding the loyalty of others. Self-deception also may protect against a tendency towards distraction. If individuals are geared towards a few major goals (such as food, status, and sex), self-deception may be an evolved defense mechanism against worries and distractions that might cause a loss of focus. Tyler Cowen (source)

We can claim that, to some extent, happiness, self-confidence, achievement and risk taking are indicators of and/or conditions for the use of human rights. Happy and confident people who are willing to take risks are more likely to engage in public discourse, to vote, to associate and to exercise their human rights in other ways. If that’s true, and if there’s a link between happiness, confidence and self-deception, then self-deception is another example of a falsehood that is beneficial to human rights.

I could go on, and I also could, very easily, list several counter-examples of falsehoods that are detrimental to human rights (take the 72 virgins for instance, or communism). The point I want to make is another one: should we actively promote certain false beliefs because of their beneficial outcomes?

Most of us believe that there is something like a benevolent lie and that lying is the right thing to do in certain circumstances. A strict rule-based morality is hard to find these days. Few would go along with Kant who said that we shouldn’t lie when a murderer asks us about the whereabouts of his intended victim (“fiat justitia et pereat mundus“). People tend to think that the expected consequences of actions should to some extent influence actions and determine, again to some extent, the morality of actions (“to some extent” because another common moral intuition tells us that good consequences don’t excuse all types of actions; most of us wouldn’t accept the horrible torture of a terrorist’s baby in order to find the location of his bomb).

On the other hand, we should ask ourselves if such an enterprise, even if we deem it morally sound, is practically stable. Some false beliefs have proven to be vulnerable to scientific inquiry and public reasoning (hell could be one example). It’s not a good idea to build the system of human rights on such a weak and uncertain basis. But perhaps we should do whatever we can to promote respect for human rights, even if it’s not certain that our tactic is sustainable.

And yet, actively promoting falsehoods is in direct opposition to one of the main justifications of human rights, namely epistemological advances (I stated here what I mean by that). We would therefore be introducing a dangerous inconsistency in the system of human rights. We can’t at the same time promote the use of falsehoods and argue that we need human rights to improve thinking and knowledge. So we are then forced to promote the use of falsehoods in secret – which is necessary anyway because people will not believe falsehoods if we tell them that they are falsehoods – but thereby we introduce another inconsistency: human rights are, after all, about publicity and openness.

The Ethics of Human Rights (40): Human Rights of Future Generations, Ctd.

Do future generations of people have human rights claims against those of us who are currently alive? Can we who are currently alive violate the human rights of future generations? And if so, what should we do to avoid it?

Future generations – as opposed to past generations – can incur harm following our actions, and can therefore, prima facie, invoke rights claims against us (namely for those types of harm that are rights violations).

One thing to keep in mind when discussing the rights of future generations is the following assumption: future people have the same values and preferences, and the same impediments to these values and preferences. Human rights are in essence tools to realize values and preference, and often take away impediments to values and preferences. Following this assumption, future generations can be said to require human rights to the extent that those currently alive impede their values and preferences. However, that need not be the case. Maybe future generations will have other values or preferences, or maybe they will face different impediments that can’t be removed by human rights, or maybe they’ll have found other ways to remove certain impediments. Maybe in the future there won’t be religion, scarcity, states or animosity, but different values and impediments. Still, I’ll keep the assumption in place, both because I think it’s likely that future generations will be much like ourselves, and because the concept of “human rights of future generations” wouldn’t make any sense if that is not the case (and I really want to write this post).

Actions which affect the human rights of future generations

The easy thing to understand about the harm we, the present generations, can do to future generations is the consequentialist part: it’s fairly obvious that, given the stated assumption, some of our – potential and real – current actions can or will have negative consequences for future generations, and that some of these consequences can become worse as time goes on (see this post on the effect of time on rights violations).

Take resource depletion for example. If we now squander all or a substantial part of the earth’s oil reserves, it’s likely that future generations, and particularly those generations somewhat further in the future, will have a standard of living far below the minimum required by human rights (again, given the assumption that they need fossil energy because their preferences haven’t changed or because they haven’t found an alternative).

Present generations therefore exercise power over future generations, much like a state exercises power over its citizens. And much like a state, the present generation can be said to be bound by the human rights of those who are subjected to its power. With the exercise of power comes the duty to respect the rights of those who are subjected to power.

Risk

There may be a problem with all this, however. Contrary to the harm that is inflicted on currently living people, by their state or their powerful fellow citizens, the harm inflicted on future generations is rarely if ever a certainty, and never verifiable.

If we again take the example of resource depletion (but many other examples would do just as well), it may be the case that future generations will have invented the technology necessary to adapt to a world without oil. The chances of this happening may be small or may be large – we just don’t know and so we can’t take it into account in our considerations as to whether to adapt our behavior as a way to respect the rights of future generations.

We may assume that our actions (or inactions) can lead to rights violations in the future, but we’re never certain. So should we adapt our current behavior or not? We can verify if certain types of behavior lead to rights violations in the present, and – if they do – consequently adapt our behavior. (If lowering taxes increases poverty then we should avoid that policy). We can never verify if certain types of behavior lead to rights violations in the (distant) future. We can only guess that there’s a risk, perhaps based on similar past or present experiences. But the quality of those guesses remains uncertain.

Hence, it would seem that future rights violations can’t have the same moral standing as present and real rights violations. Or maybe they’re not even rights violations at all. Indeed, we normally don’t view the risk of a rights violation as equivalent to or as equally damaging as a real violation. Or maybe a very, very high risk of a future rights violation – assuming a good guess – equates an actually occurring rights violations?

I think all this is to some extent moot. When faced with a risk of a rights violation – or better the perception of a risk – the moral thing to do is to try to avoid the rights violation from occurring in the future, and adapt one’s behavior, in the same way as one would do when faced with a risk of causing a violation of the rights of people currently living. So the uncertainty of violations of the rights of future generations makes them no different, in some respects, from violations of the rights of current generations. Also the latter are – ex ante – uncertain, and the moral thing to do is always to adapt one’s behavior in order to minimize the risk of immoral behavior.

Some would claim that comparing future violations of the rights of living people to future violations of the rights of future generations is a mistake. Living people have rights which can – given a certain risk – be violated in the near or distant future (depending on the lifespan of those people) by our current behavior. Future generations on the other hand don’t exist, yet (and may never exist, see below), and hence can’t have anything, including rights. However, they will have rights in the future, when (and if) they live. To claim, as I do here, that we can violate future rights now doesn’t mean that we have to claim that these future rights have to exist now.

Tradeoffs between the present and the future

What to do when faced with a tradeoff between violating the rights of future generations and violating the rights of present generations? It depends on the best risk estimate of either, as well as the gravity and the number of people involved in either case, keeping in mind the fact that risk, gravity and number estimates of violations of the rights of present generations are probably better (because we can test them). Given this relative ease, we should give additional weight to the simple fact that we are dealing with really existing people as opposed to potential future people.

For example, we know that closing down an opposition newspaper is very likely to stifle free speech for a significant number of currently living people. We’re not absolutely sure of this consequence, but the risk is very, very high. We know this risk because we or others have tested it in the past. Now, suppose that we should choose between this policy and another one, for example allowing a substantial increase in green house gasses. Suppose also – I know, it’s weird but bear with me – that these two policies are, for some unspecified reason, mutually exclusive. The policy of increasing green house gasses risks putting future generations in danger of survival. When comparing the costs of both policies, we conclude that the level of risk is roughly similar (say 90% probability that the expected consequences – respectively stifling free speech and increased global warming – will indeed occur), but the gravity of the consequences is obviously much greater in the case of the second policy, as are the number of people concerned. Yet, we may still reasonably choose to implement the second policy and avoid the first because we’re more certain of our risk estimate for the first.

Actions which affect the existence or composition of future generations

Let’s take another example of current actions that have an impact on future generations: in this example, our actions do not deplete resources but have an influence on the very existence of future generations. We may destroy the earth for instance, making the very existence of future people impossible. Or we may intervene in procreation in such a way that future people will be completely different people than those who would have lived had we not intervened (that’s Derek Parfit’s so-called non-identity problem).

In both cases, our actions affect the very existence of future people, rather than their rights. And an effect on the very existence of people can’t, in itself, be considered a rights violation since there’s no right to exist. I’ve argued elsewhere why this is the case. (Of course, actions which affect the existence or composition of future generations can have, additionally, other consequence beside the existence or composition of future generations, and some of those other consequences can imply rights violations).

In other words, only the rights of actually existing persons – whether they exist now or in the future – are important. Potentially existing persons who will never exist because of our actions, do not count. Or, putting it in yet another way: the non-identity problem is not a problem in this context. The fact that the very existence or composition of future generations depends on our actions doesn’t have, in itself, any consequences for the human rights of future generations. The impact of our current actions can result in rights violations of future generations, but not if this impact is limited to the existence or composition of future generations. And the reason for this is the absence of a right to existence.

Duties instead of rights?

In order to avoid the problems created by talk of rights of future generations – namely the problems of uncertainty and of tradeoffs – it would perhaps be better to abandon all talk of rights of future generations, and focus on the duties of present generations towards future generations. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect the promises I make to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

The Ethics of Human Rights (37): Luck Egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that focuses on the injustice of bad luck, and one type of bad luck in particular: it wants to eliminate as far as possible the impact on people’s lives of bad luck that falls on them through no fault or choice of their own. One type of luck that we don’t bring on ourselves is the luck – or lack of it – associated with the circumstances into which we are born. We don’t deserve the circumstances, family, class or country of our birth. We don’t even deserve our talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort.

There’s a natural lottery (the lottery that decides which talents and other biological potentials or inabilities we are born with) and a social lottery – as Rawls called it – (the lottery that decides which political, social and economic circumstances we are born into, including our family and country of birth). Bad luck in either of these lotteries can lead to vastly unequal opportunities and outcomes, none of which we deserve.

Luck egalitarianism states that only those inequalities that are wholly attributable to the responsible choices we make, and not to differences in our unchosen circumstances or abilities, are morally acceptable. The focus on responsible choices means that, once you’re an adult and capable of responsible choices, luck egalitarianism considers that its work is done. Its focus is on birth and early life, because that’s when misfortune of circumstances and nature take effect, and that’s when their unequal consequences have to be corrected. Opportunities have to be equalized. What people do in adult life with their equalized opportunities is their responsibility and of no concern to society or justice.

There are two moral intuitions at play here:

  • It’s a bad thing for people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own. People shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they don’t deserve it.
  • It’s a good thing for people to be better off than others if that advantage is the result of their efforts. People should be rewarded when that’s what they deserve.

In other words, we should avoid unjust punishment and promote just reward. Inequalities and different opportunities that are the result of luck rather than choices are unjust. Inequalities produced by merit are just.

In the ideal luck egalitarian society, there are no inequalities in people’s life prospects except those that arise through processes of voluntary choice or faulty conduct, for which the agents involved can reasonably be held responsible. Richard Arneson (source)

That means, positively stated, that disadvantages for which a person is not responsible and which result merely from bad luck, establish a claim to correction or, if correction is impossible (e.g. blindness), compensation (e.g. provision of guide dogs).

[I]t is the responsibility of society – all of us regarded collectively – to alter the distribution of goods and evils that arises from the jumble of lotteries that constitutes human life as we know it … Distributive justice stipulates that the lucky should transfer some or all of their gains due to luck to the unlucky. Richard Arneson (source)

Some such disadvantages are physical disabilities, lack of talent, inadequate parents, being born in a poor African country etc. All other disadvantages, inequalities or differences are the outcome of choice and are therefore the individual’s responsibility. She should bear the costs of her own choices and can’t demand compensation. And when compensation is required, it should come only from that part of others’ good fortune that is undeserved.

If we manage to redress or compensate inequalities resulting from luck, the luck egalitarianism perspective can accept all remaining inequalities, because those remaining are deemed to be the result of people’s own choices and relative merit. Only equality of opportunity counts. Once people are adults, and all opportunities have been equalized, no further intervention is needed.

Some problems

Luck egalitarianism is appealing because of its focus on undeserved misfortune. We are appalled by people suffering from circumstances or endowments which they don’t deserve because they didn’t choose them and were simply born with them. It’s also appealing because, contrary to many other egalitarian theories, it provides room for merit, personal responsibility and choice.

However, luck egalitarianism is also problematic. First of all, it doesn’t seem right to abandon people who suffer deeply because of their own choices. Even if suffering is people’s own fault there are times when it is morally required to help them. Not always of course, because we don’t want to give people incentives to act irresponsibly (moral hazard etc.), but sometimes. So luck egalitarianism seems incomplete, to say the least, because it offers no aid to those it labels as irresponsible, whatever misery they happen to find themselves in.

Does it offer aid to those who act responsibly but have bad luck anyway? For example, those who chose to take a risk in a very prudent fashion, but ended up miserably because they misunderstood the risks, because the risks were unknowable, or because a risk is a risk after all? Some versions of luck egalitarianism do, fortunately, but that means they have to complicate the theory: luck has to become a much broader concept than simply the lottery of birth or nature.

And it’s a serious complication: if more kinds of bad luck than simply bad luck at birth or bad luck because of nature are unjust, then we can only abandon people who have acted very carelessly. People who, after prudent assessment of risk, engaged in an activity but suffered a bad outcome notwithstanding an initial positive assessment of risk, can demand compensation of their bad luck, like people having the misfortune of being born blind or in a poor family or without talent. None of them deserve their bad luck or are responsible for it. The imprudent, however, still deserve what they get. They can’t be said to have bad luck since they engaged in an activity knowing full well the risks. But how can we possibly assess the level of prudence? Doesn’t it mean that we have to take people at their word? That doesn’t sound very practical. And how is this extended version of luck egalitarianism different from normal egalitarianism? It seems to encompass almost as much equality.

Luck egalitarianism is not only unnecessarily cruel in some cases – unnecessarily because we often can do something to help the undeserving sufferers – but also dangerous. It’s not always so clear whether people act responsibly or not. That means that luck egalitarians risk abandoning a miserable person deemed to have acted irresponsibly, when in reality – who knows? – her misery was perhaps not (entirely) her own responsibility. For example, a person can have an unknown genetic predisposition to risk taking. So she will only appear to act irresponsibly.

Because of the very common difficulty to separate responsible actions from irresponsible ones, luck egalitarianism provides an incentive to deny responsibility and to hide it. If you can convince people that you weren’t responsible, then you can claim compensation. This incentive in turn provides an incentive to the state – which is supposedly the agent who should correct for bad luck – to snoop and invade people’s privacy (even their genes) in order to separate the really responsible from the merely apparently responsible, or the prudent from the imprudent.

And also those who really have bad luck aren’t treated very fairly by luck egalitarianism. In the words of Elisabeth Anderson: it offers humiliating aid to those it labels innately inferior. People who have had bad luck in the natural or social lottery of birth have to reveal to the whole of society that they have no talent, for example.

Another problem with luck egalitarianism is the exclusive preoccupation with inequalities resulting from luck. What about inequalities resulting from government policy, capitalism, discrimination etc. Oppression and discrimination are replaced by bad luck as the main egalitarian concern. The natural inequality in the distribution of luck overshadows the artificial inequalities resulting from social interaction. This is quite a loss, indicating again that luck egalitarianism is at best an incomplete theory.

This problem with luck egalitarianism has to do with vagueness of “choice” in the theory. Elisabeth Anderson again: if a robber offers someone a choice between her money and her life, is the outcome just? According to luck egalitarianism the answer is “yes” because the outcome is not the result of the lottery of birth or bad luck, but the result of choice. The fact that inequalities are the product of choices hardly justifies them: a choice within a set of options does not justify the set of options itself. More relevantly for equality: the choices can be limited, not by a robber, but by racism for example.

So we need more than equality of opportunity at the start of life; equality also means focusing on institutional arrangements that protect, widen and equalize people’s choices over the entire course of their lives (with the exception of those people who voluntarily, through their own choices or excessive risk taking, have reduced their choices; the exception to this exception being people who landed themselves in a situation in which “diminished choices” equals utter suffering, see above).

Also, what does “being born with” mean? Can you be born with a disagreeable character? And if it’s so disagreeable that nobody wants to give you a job or buy your goods or services, should you be compensated for this “bad luck”?

Discrimination (5): Statistical Discrimination

Definition

Here’s the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics definition of statistical discrimination:

Statistical discrimination is a theory of inequality between demographic groups based on stereotypes that do not arise from prejudice or racial and gender bias. When rational, information-seeking decision makers use aggregate group characteristics, such as group averages, to evaluate individual personal characteristics, individuals belonging to different groups may be treated differently even if they share identical observable characteristics in every other aspect. … group-level statistics, such as group averages, are used as a proxy for the individual variables. (source)

Statistical discrimination, also called rational prejudice (or rational racism), occurs when some stereotypes are considered to be statistically “accurate”. Accurate here in the sense of statistical generalization or average behavior (or characteristics).

Some examples

Young drivers are on average more likely to be involved in traffic accidents. Hence, auto insurers impose higher auto insurance premiums on young people. This insurance discrimination is called statistical discrimination because it’s based on some level of accuracy regarding the stereotype, and not on plain prejudice of or disgust for young people.

Regarding life insurance premiums, the customer’s likelihood of dying is one of the most relevant variables affecting the insurers profitability. Since gender is highly correlated with life expectancy, it is therefore optimal for the company to adopt a policy setting higher premiums for men, even for those men who may be healthier and less risk prone than the average woman. (source)

Employers often use the average performance of an applicant’s group to determine whether to hire him or her.

You don’t hire a guy with a Mohawk as a receptionist at a law firm – even if he promises to get a hair cut. Why not? Because on average, … guys with Mohawks have trouble with authority. (source)

Similarly, people with facial tattoos are unlikely to be hired as CEO’s, perhaps because they signal an anarchic, counter-cultural, contrarian, nonconformist, bohemian and “wandering” attitude.

Why?

The reason people engage in statistical discrimination is the high cost of making case-by-case judgments and the relative accuracy of group averages. Given that it’s not a product of bigotry, irrational prejudice, hatred and dislike, is it correct to call it discrimination? It is in the sense that people judge other people simply on the basis of group membership, not individual merit, as in “regular”, “irrational” discrimination or prejudice. Yet it’s not discrimination because people engaging in statistical discrimination often don’t do so because of their dislike or hatred of the discriminated group but because of economic self-interest and risk avoidance, as is shown by the examples above. The stereotypes are not baseless as most stereotypes are (“Blacks are lazy”, “Jews are money hungry”, “women are only productive at home” etc.).

This discrimination is “statistical” because contrary to normal prejudice it acknowledges that a relatively large number of members of a group do not conform to the stereotype. Just as it isn’t irrational to claim that it’s statistically accurate that republicans in general are pro-life while at the same time knowing that many aren’t. “Irrational” prejudice doesn’t have so much tolerance for exceptions. “People see others as average members of their groups until proven otherwise”. (source)

Is it acceptable?

So we know what it is and why people do it, but is it morally and legally acceptable? I think it depends on the type.

While such discrimination is legal in some cases (e.g., insurance markets), it is illegal and/or controversial in others (e.g., racial profiling). (source)

The difference between acceptable and unacceptable statistical discrimination hinges on several facts, I think:

1. How accurate are the group generalizations? You can forgive profit-seeking insurers for imposing higher auto insurance premiums on young people. However, wage gaps between genders resulting from theories about lower productivity of women (said to result from higher female investment in child rearing and a focus on “caring jobs” as opposed to jobs that tend to pay well) are less acceptable because the generalization is more dubious and the category of “women” too broad. Generalizations may be more accurate when they are not about behavior but about more “technical” and less controversial things such as life expectancy.

2. What is the “weight of history”? Statistical discrimination of blacks or women is by definition less acceptable than statistical discrimination of young people, given the history (maybe that’s a stereotype about discrimination…). Differentiated treatment, even if it isn’t really discrimination, can still cause harm given a certain history. The harm can be feelings of insecurity regarding a possible repetition of the past, feelings of continued attacks on self-esteem etc.

3. What are the consequences of statistical discrimination? Paying a slightly higher insurance premium is a lesser harm than being pulled over by the police a few times a week because of your skin color, even if your skin color is a statistically “accurate” prediction of the probability that you engage in crime in your neighborhood.

4. To what extent is statistical discrimination self-fulfilling? To some extent it clearly is.

People think teen-age males are criminally inclined (and they are), this angers the teen-age males, leading them to commit more crimes. (source).

If everyone assumes that boys are not good at domestic work, the benefit of learning domestic work is zero because no one will hire you as a domestic worker. In some areas, this self-fulfilling process is obviously harmful, and hence statistical discrimination is harmful as well.

It is possible that, because employers are less likely to hire women in jobs that require labour market attachment, then women are more likely to be involved in child-rearing than men, and are less prone to acquire the skills that are necessary to seek and perform well in those jobs, confirming the asymmetric belief that employers hold regarding labour market attachment. (source)

This phenomenon is called the stereotype threat. On the other hand, there can be self-reversing prophesies at work as well. A-typical members of a group, who of course suffer from the prejudice in the same way as typical members, may incite the latter to change their behavior. E.g. responsible young drivers who pay too much insurance because of the typical behavior of their fellow group members, may pressure the latter to change their ways. In this way, statistical discrimination may work to undermine itself. The same result will occur because a non-typical member of a group may get relatively more exposure. A woman who’s relatively good at soccer – compared to other women – but just as good as an average male soccer player, may get more attention than the latter. This excess of attention may undermine the stereotype on female soccer players.

What is Poverty? (3): Vulnerability

Definitional discussions about poverty have convinced me that there are actually different types of poverty. I don’t think that all types are equally urgent policy problems, although they’re all worthy of attention (personally, I think poverty as absolute material deprivation is the one to focus most attention on, rather than relative poverty, poverty as a mental harm etc.).

One type I haven’t discussed a lot is poverty as vulnerability. This isn’t actual poverty in the sense of existing destitution; it’s rather the presence of a high level of risk of poverty, a high level of insecurity or a high probability of becoming poor. Indeed, it’s fair to say that poverty isn’t merely current insufficiency of income or consumption, but also the absence of stable and predictable income or consumption.If you can eat today you’re not poor according to some measures (other measures would correctly include more than just food). But what if there’s a good chance you can’t eat tomorrow? Wouldn’t it be correct to call someone living with such a high risk a person suffering from poverty? People who have enough to eat and who have shelter, but who would starve if they faced unexpected costs or events, such as a health crisis, a flood, a drought, unemployment etc. should be considered poor.

Of course, you might think we’re all living under such risks. Even the wealthiest among us can’t be sure not be become poor tomorrow. Hence we’re all vulnerable, but some are more vulnerable than others. The issue is then how to measure vulnerability and risk. The risk is higher for some than for others, and the consequences when the risk events occur are tougher for some than for others, but how can we know and measure this? We can look at resources and savings for instance. Some people, and some people in some countries, are better armed to deal with risks. They can insure themselves, or their government insures them (unemployment insurance for instance). They may be able to smooth over these events: sell some assets, take a loan… Other people can’t insure themselves, or they live in a country that doesn’t provide public insurance, or they can’t smooth without jeopardizing their future wealth.

This vulnerability is not just a risk for the future; it creates problems here and now. When the risk is perceived – correctly or not – as being very high, then it produces fear, stress and feelings of insecurity. That’s not deprivation or poverty but it sure isn’t pleasant. Those feelings can also be self-fulfilling: people may take irrational precaution measures, counterproductive family planning decisions etc. So poverty as vulnerability is a real problem. Perhaps not as urgent as absolute destitution, but not without importance.

The Causes of Poverty (34): Desert

Those who agree that the government should help the poor usually don’t make qualitative distinctions between different kinds of poor people. They only separate the mildly poor from the horribly poor and modify the assistance policies accordingly.

My personal views are similar to these, albeit that I want to promote private charity before and above government assistance. The recent debates about healthcare reform in the U.S. were in essence about one type of assistance to the “poor”, namely those not poor enough to be eligible to existing government programs yet not wealthy enough to be able to buy adequate private insurance. During these debates, Bryan Caplan – a libertarian – proposed to make a distinction between deserving poor and non-deserving poor:

All [the government] needs to do is provide a means-tested subsidy to make private health insurance more affordable for those who need it most. The subsidy should be based on income, wealth, chronic health status … on past and current behavior. People who engage in voluntary risky behaviors – smoking, drinking, over-eating, mountain-climbing, violence, etc. – should receive a smaller subsidy, or no subsidy at all. The same goes for people who failed to buy long-term insurance when they were healthy and employed, then ran into health or financial troubles. (source)

We can broaden this to poverty assistance generally. And we can also expand the argument to a moral one rather than one that is simply about the need, appropriateness or scope of government intervention in poverty reduction, since I believe government intervention in poverty reduction is simply a fallback option in the case of deficient private charity (see here for my argument). The government should step in when individuals and groups fail to honor their private duties towards fellow human beings. The proper question is then: do we, as individuals, have a moral duty to help the poor, directly and through the taxes we pay to the government? I think that’s the case, and if I’m right we should ask if this duty is limited to the deserving poor. In other words, can we ignore the predicament of those who are themselves the cause of this predicament through overly risky behavior, self-destructive behavior, or stupid and irrational behavior?

The affirmative answer to that question has some intuitive appeal. And it’s also coherent with a long tradition in moral philosophy that argues against paternalism as an attitude that protects people against their freedom to damn themselves. However, things aren’t quite as intuitive as this. A duty to assist only the deserving poor requires a clear and unambiguous distinction between desert and lack of desert. I don’t think it’s really possible to decide in all cases, or even most cases, that someone has or hasn’t been deserving. Take the case of a person engaging in systematic over-eating and thereby destroying his or her health and ending up in poverty. At first sight, that person deserves poverty. People are agents with a free will and have a choice to engage in self-destructive behavior. However, we know that education and culture influence eating habits, so the causes of this person’s poverty are far more diverse than simply his or her lifestyle decisions. Even if there is an element of voluntariness in this person’s decisions, at what level of voluntariness do we put the threshold and say that this person does indeed deserve his or her predicament, notwithstanding the effect of outside causes?

There is also a problem of information deficit. People can act in a bona fide way, believing that they don’t act in a self-destructive way, based on the information that they have gathered using the skills that they have been taught. How on earth can you go and judge whether people were sufficiently bona fide? You’d need the KGB to do that, and still…

In addition, there may be a chain of desert: if, through some miracle of understanding and close monitoring, you can determine that a person isn’t to blame for his or her own predicament, maybe you can decide to assist that person but reclaim the money from his or her parents because those parents were undeserving while educating the person. In that case, the least of your problems would be an infinite regress.

Also, given the fact that poverty reduction, because of the regular failure of private charity, isn’t simply an interpersonal matter and that therefore the government will have to step in at some point, do we really want the government to start separating the deserving from the undeserving? Look at the answer of another libertarian, Tyler Cowen:

First, I am worried about a governmental process which first judges the “deservingness” of each poor person before setting the proper subsidy. Do they videotape your life as you go along, or do they convene a Job-like trial when you submit receipts for reimbursement? (source)

So we have a fundamental tension between on the one hand the value of individual responsibility and the need to have people make their own choices and suffer the consequences (if no one has to suffer the consequences of choices it’s hard to call them real choices), and, on the other hand, the need to help the wretched of the earth, even those who may be (partly) responsible for their own wretchedness (I say “may be” because I don’t believe there’s a way to know, not even with a KGB).

The useful thing about this dilemma is that it makes clear that people are indeed in some cases the cause of their own poverty, at least in part. It’s very important to determine the real causes of poverty if you want to do something about it. Helping poor people after they have become poor is just part of the solution. It’s better to prevent poverty altogether, and this dilemma helps doing that because it forces people to see that behavior is a cause. Hence they should be able to adapt their behavior.

Measuring Poverty (7): Different Types of Poverty

I already mentioned the obvious but consequential fact that poverty measurement depends on the choice of the type of poverty you want to measure. Definitional issues are always important, but when it comes to poverty the choice of a definition of poverty determines who will benefit from government benefits and who won’t. For example, in the U.S. you’re poor when you’re income is below a certain poverty line. If that’s the case, you’re eligible for certain benefits. So poverty is a function of income.

1. Insufficient income

Usually, and not only in the U.S., poverty is indeed understood as insufficient income (preferably post-tax and post-benefits). Measuring poverty in this case means

  1. determining a sufficient level of income (sufficient for a decent human life); this is usually called a “poverty line” or “poverty rate”
  2. measuring actual income
  3. counting the number of people who have less income than the sufficient level.

There are some problems with this measurement system or this choice of type of poverty. Actual income levels are notoriously difficult to measure. People have a lot of informal income which they will not disclose to people doing a survey. Likewise, there is tax evasion and income in kind (market based or from government benefits, e.g. social housing), and material or immaterial support by local social networks. None of this is included correctly if at all in income measurement, leading to an overestimate of poverty. Another disadvantage of income based measurements: they neglect people’s ability to borrow or to draw from savings in periods of lower income. Again, this overestimates poverty (although one could say that it just estimates it a bit too early, since borrowing and eating up savings can lead to future poverty).

2. Insufficient consumption

Because of these problems, some countries define poverty, not by income levels, but by consumption levels. Measuring poverty in this case means

  1. determining a sufficient level of consumption (sufficient for a decent human life)
  2. measuring actual consumption
  3. counting the number of people who consume less than the sufficient level.

However, this measurement isn’t without problems either. As is the case for income levels, actual consumption levels are difficult to measure. How much do people actually consume? And what does it mean “to consume”? Is it calorie intake? Is it financial expenses? Or something else perhaps? Consumption levels are also deceiving: people tend to smooth their consumption over time, even more so than their income. If they face a financial crisis because of unemployment, bad health, drought etc. they will sell some of their assets (their house for instance) or take a loan. If you determine whether someone is poor on the basis of consumption levels, you won’t consider people dealing with a crisis as being poor because they continue to consume at the same levels. However, because of loans or the sale of assets, they are likely to face poverty in the future. They may also shift their diet away to low quality food, taking in the same amount of calories but risking their health and hence their future income. Similarly, they may be forced by their crisis situation to delay health expenditures in order to smooth consumption, with the same long term results.

And even if you manage somehow to measure consumption, you’re still faced with the problem of the threshold of sufficient consumption: that’s hard to determine as well. Consumption needs differ from person to person, depending on age, gender, occupation, climate etc.

3. Direct physical measures of real consumption

Rather than trying to measure total income or consumption, you can choose to measure consumption of certain specific physical items, and combine that with some easy to measure elements of standard of living, such as child mortality or education levels. It’s possible to argue that poverty isn’t an insufficient level of overall income or consumption, but instead the absence of certain specific consumption articles. People are poor if they don’t have a bicycle or a car, a solid floor, a phone etc. Or when their children die, can’t go to school or are undernourished. These items or indicators are relatively easy to measure (for example, there’s the Demographic and Health Survey). While they may not tell us a lot about relative living standards in developed countries (where few children die from preventable diseases for instance), they do provide poverty indicators in developing countries.

The OECD has done a lot of good work on this. They call it “measuring material deprivation“. It’s the same assumption: there are certain consumer goods and certain elements of living standard that are universally considered important elements of a decent life. The OECD tries to measure ownership of these goods or occurrence of these elements, and when people report several types of deprivation at the same time, they are considered to be poor.

Take note that we’re not talking about monetary measures here, contrary to income and overall levels of consumption. Sometimes, all that has to be measured is a “yes” or a “no”. Which of course makes it easier.

Unfortunately, not easy enough. This type of poverty measurement has its own drawbacks. Measures of material deprivation often fail to distinguish between real deprivation and the results of personal choices and lifestyles. Some people can’t have a decent life without a car or a solid floor; others voluntarily choose not to have those goods. It’s likely that only the former are “poor”. Furthermore, since these measurements are often based on surveys, there are some survey related problems. The really poor may be systematically excluded from the survey because we can’t find them (e.g. the homeless). These surveys measure self-reported poverty, and self-reported poverty can be affected by low aspirations or habit. People may also be ashamed about their poverty and hence not report it correctly.

Conclusion

There isn’t a perfect system for poverty measurement. And that has a lot to do with the fact that poverty is an inherently vague concept. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that people choose different definitions and types, and hence different measurement methods that all provide different data. There’s no “correct” definition of poverty, and hence no correct poverty measure.

More posts in this series on the difficulties of poverty measurement.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (16)

We usually distinguish between three different origins of human rights violations:

  • The state. States commit rights violations for different reasons. Rulers may believe that such violations are necessary in order to maintain power, undermine or destroy the opposition, and impose some world view or economic organization of society. Or they may think that some types of violations are necessary evils when faced with certain risks. For example, torture or indefinite detention can appear to be a reasonable price to pay in order to reduce the risk of terrorism. States can also violate human rights unintentionally: lawmakers can draft a legal system that unnecessarily encroaches on private freedom (e.g. the “nanny state”). And, finally, a state can violate rights, not – as in the previous cases – by doing something it shouldn’t do, but by failing to do what it should do: a state that doesn’t provide an efficient judiciary or police force will be unable to protect the rights of its citizens and will be an accessory to rights violations.
  • Selfishness. In the case of economic human rights – such as the right not to suffer poverty – it’s often greed, lack of compassion or generosity, or the absence of sufficient and adequate aid and intervention that causes rights violations. Selfishness can cause both individuals and states to violate rights. States, for example, can uphold international trade structure or protectionist legal systems that favor the local economy at the expense of relatively poor exporters elsewhere.
  • Culture. Some say that certain elements of cultures and religions lead to practices that violate human rights. And then usually we get a mention of Islam, Shari’a, muslim misogyny etc. Here as well, we see that both states and individuals can use culture as a reason to violate rights.

Regarding the last point, there’s an interesting paper here (or here) claiming that it’s not Islam but oil that causes gender discrimination in Muslim countries.

Oil production reduces the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence. As a result, oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions. I support this argument with global data on oil production, female work patterns, and female political representation, and by comparing oil-rich Algeria to oil-poor Morocco and Tunisia. Michael Ross

Oil production and export crowd out other exports, and hence artificially restrict the manufacturing sector. Compared to oil production, manufacturing uses relatively large numbers of low wage workers, which is why manufacturing has always and everywhere been a booster for female labor participation. Female labor participation in turn has always and everywhere promoted female political representation and women’s rights. The paper shows that, in the Middle East, countries without much oil (like Morocco and Tunisia) do relatively well on gender equality, compared to oil-rich countries. The same is true when comparing oil-poor and oil-rich countries outside the Middle East.

If that’s correct, then it’s still cultural and religious practices and beliefs that cause gender discrimination, but these beliefs are themselves caused by or at least promoted by economic fundamentals. Sounds quite Marxian to me (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong!).

Papers looking into the cultural and religion causes of gender discrimination can be found here and here (thanks to the Monkey Cage for the pointer).

Types of Human Rights Violations (4): Boomerang Human Rights Violations

We usually see human rights violations are zero-sum: a rights violation is a harm inflicted by one person on another, for the benefit of the former. I mentioned before that this isn’t always the correct way of viewing rights violations, but it’s adequate in most cases. One case in which it’s only superficially adequate is what I would call the boomerang human rights violation: you think that violating someone’s rights may produce some benefit for you, and it does so initially, but the actual and final results mean that you become worse off. There’s the obvious and uninteresting example of the dictator using extreme oppression and causing revolt, but here are some other, more intriguing examples. The first one has to do with the right to work.

Gene Marks is … a small business owner (he sells customer relationship management tools), who is attempting to speak to other small business owners, all of whom, presumably, are also delighted that the potential hiring pool is so chock full of talent desperate to be exploited right now. But one wonders who exactly is supposed to purchase all those products and services from the small businesses of the world, if unemployment creeps up to the 10 percent mark or higher? High unemployment means low consumer demand. Which usually means small businesses end up going out of business, or at the very least, laying off more employees, who push the unemployment rate even higher. And so on. (source)

If, as a “capitalist” (i.e. employer), you want to take advantage of unemployment – or the risk of unemployment – to put downward pressure on wages and workers benefits – and thereby violate workers’ rights (a fair wage is a human right, as are favorable working conditions) – you’ll end up shooting yourself in the foot because neither hard working laborers who don’t earn a lot nor the unemployed will consume many of your products or services. I can see the appeal of the statement that generous unemployment benefits discourage people from finding a job, but such benefits do have advantages that go beyond the mere self-interest of the direct beneficiaries.

An ideal policy … would allow people to collect unemployment insurance indefinitely, and let the unemployed borrow or save money. This way, unemployment insurance would not merely be a financial band-aid letting people take risks on the job market and endure some jobless spells, but a critical source of “liquidity,” allowing the unemployed to keep spending reasonable amounts of money — which in turn helps create demand, something sorely lacking from the economy at the moment. (source)

And here’s another example, related to gender discrimination. In many countries, there’s a son preference: male offspring is considered more valuable than female offspring, for reasons to do with gender discrimination and social, cultural or religious views regarding the proper role of women in society. One of the consequences is the “missing girls” phenomenon. The sex ratios in many countries – India and China stand out – are out of balance. Some estimates say that 90 million women are “missing” worldwide. In somewhat overwrought rhetoric this is called gendercide. Girls are often aborted in selective abortions (a one child policy can make this even more widespread), and young girls are often prejudiced against when it comes to nutrition and health care resulting in higher mortality rates. The son preference and the missing girls phenomenon have their roots mainly in cultural beliefs, but economic considerations also play a role. Some professions are open only to men; girls marry “into” other families and hence can’t continue the family business; there’s the dowry problem etc. However, these economic considerations don’t stand on their own and are often the result of discriminatory cultural beliefs. When we accept that gender discrimination and the will to sustain patriarchy is the cause of the son preference and the missing girls phenomenon, then we are dealing with a human rights violation. And also this rights violation can come back to haunt those responsible for it.

A societal preference for boys here has become an unlikely source of power for Indian women. The abortion of female fetuses in favor of sons — an illegal but widespread practice — means there are more eligible bachelors than potential brides, allowing women and their parents to be more selective when arranging a match. (source)

Rather than cementing patriarchy, the son preference and the resulting unbalanced sex ratios give women more bargaining power. These and other boomerang rights violations are variants of what I’ve called self-inflicted rights violations: people violate other people’s rights, and in so doing they ultimately violate their own rights.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (26): Objects in Statistics May Appear Bigger Than They Are, Ctd.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post how some numbers or stats can make a problem appear much bigger than it really is (the case in the previous post was about the numbers of suicides in a particular company). The error – or fraud, depending on the motivation – lies in the absence of a comparison with a “normal” number (in the previous post, people failed to compare the number of suicides in the company with the total number of suicides in the country, which made them leap to conclusions about “company stress”, “hyper-capitalism”, “worker exploitation” etc.).

The error is, in other words, absence of context and of distance from the “fait divers”. I’ve now come across a similar example, cited by Aleks Jakulin here. As you know, one of the favorite controversies (some would say nontroversies) of the American right wing is the fate of the prisoners at Guantanamo. President Obama has vowed to close the prison, and either release those who cannot be charged or tranfer them to prisons on the mainland. Many conservatives fear that releasing them would endanger America (some even believe that locking them away in supermax prisons on the mainland is a risk not worth taking). Even those who can’t be charged with a crime, they say, may be a threat in the future. I won’t deal with the perverse nature of this kind of reasoning, except to say that it would justify arbitrary and indefinite detention of large groups of “risky” people.

What I want to deal with here is one of the “facts” that conservatives cite in order to substantiate their fears: recidivism by former Guantanamo detainees.

Pentagon officials have not released updated statistics on recidivism, but the unclassified report from April says 74 individuals, or 14 percent of former detainees, have turned to or are suspected of having turned to terrorism activity since their release.

Of the more than 530 detainees released from the prison between 2002 and last spring, 27 were confirmed to have engaged in terrorist activities and 47 were suspected of participating in a terrorist act, according to Pentagon statistics cited in the spring report. (source)

Such and other stats are ostentatiously displayed and repeated by partisan mouthpieces as a means to scare the s*** out of us, and keep possibly innocent people in jail. The problem is that the levels of recidivism cited above, are way below normal levels of recidivism:

[In the] general population, … about 65% of prisoners are expected to be rearrested within 3 years. The numbers seem lower in recent years, about 58%. More at Wikipedia. (source)

Terrorism and Human Rights (25): A Theory of No Resort

In just war theory, the concept of “last resort” means that force, violence and other violations of human rights are allowed only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical, and when force etc. is clearly the only option. In the current “war on terror”, the use or torture is often justified as a last resort, as the only option available, in certain circumstances such as the “ticking bomb”, to avoid an outcome that is worse than the use of the last resort.

There are many possible and convincing arguments against the use of torture, but one which isn’t mentioned a lot is the fact that justifications for torture emanate from a philosophy that sees risk as something to be completely overcome. Torture is justified as an extreme measure to overcome a last remaining and very small risk. That is evident from the ticking bomb case: the case itself is by definition rare, so the risk that it occurs is very small. Even smaller is the risk that we have to resort to the use of torture as a means to avoid the risk of the bomb going off (if, exceptionally, we find ourselves in a ticking bomb situation, other means short of torture may well allow us to avoid the risk).

This philosophy of using extreme measures to avoid or eliminate as much risk as possible is, I think, mistaken. If I’m right, the justification of torture as one of such extreme measures is void. And don’t say I’m fighting windmills here: this philosophy is omnipresent. Look at the swine flu hysteria for example, or the recent and silly airport and air travel security measures after the “Christmas Day Attack” (e.g. forcing passengers to sit down during the last hour of flight). Maybe we need a theory of no resort rather than a theory of last resort. Maybe we should learn to live with the fact that bad things happen and that often we can’t do a thing about them.

Types of Human Rights Violations (2): Self-Inflicted Human Rights Violations

We usually think of human rights violations as a harm inflicted by one person on another, by the state on some of its citizens, by companies on citizens etc. And that’s indeed the natural way to think of them. But there is also something we can call self-inflicted human rights violations.

Self-inflicted human rights violations can be classified into different subgroups: involuntary self-inflicted human rights violations, voluntary ones, mixed cases or unclear cases, cases similar to risk taking, cases involving individual and their rights, and cases involving groups and the rights of their members.

Involuntary self-inflicted human rights violations

Some people make mistakes, or act in a self-destructive way or in a way that causes involuntary harm to themselves. For example, while poverty has many causes, some people are poor because of their own actions or omissions. Hence they violate their own right to a certain living standard (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration). Other people act in such a way that they make it very hard on themselves to find a job, violating their own right to work.

Voluntary self-inflicted human rights violations

Some people just decide to give up some of their rights voluntarily. They may decide that these rights are not important, or less important than something else, e.g. their religion or culture. Some examples: the participants in certain reality TV shows such as Big Brother, forfeiting their right to privacy; people choosing euthanasia or (assisted) suicide; people choosing to be unemployed etc. As long as these people don’t cause harm to anyone else, it’s difficult to see how one can disapprove of them. After all, it’s their life and their rights, so they alone can decide what to do with them.

Between voluntary and involuntary

It starts to become difficult when the involuntary masquerades as the voluntary. And there are indeed many cases that are mixed or where it’s not clear if we’re dealing with voluntary or involuntary self-inflicted rights violations. Take the school drop-out for example. At first sight, one can say that someone who decides not to finish school takes a voluntary decision to do so, and that we can’t label this an involuntary self-inflicted violation of the right to education. However, is such a choice really voluntary? Remember we’re often dealing with children in these cases. Voluntary means that there is a choice. And a choice implies knowledge of alternatives, as well as knowledge of the different consequences of different choices. Without these two types of knowledge, we can hardly say that there is a choice. This knowledge assumes that there has been education, and hence that we are dealing with an educated grown-up, not a teenage drop-out.

Another example: Muslim girls or women who voluntarily accept the restrictions imposed on their gender by their religion, hence violating their own right to equal treatment and non-discrimination. Again, no problem if it’s really voluntary. But is it? Didn’t their education and social environment condition them in believing that a certain interpretation of their religion is more important than their human rights? Possibly so.

Risk

I talked about risk and human rights before, albeit in another context. Risk is relevant here because it can lead to self-inflicted human rights violations. People who do not voluntarily violate their own rights, or who don’t make mistakes that cause violations of their own rights, may nevertheless act in such a way that they take a conscious risk that their actions will lead to violations of their own rights. Take the criminal for instance. He takes the risk that his actions will cause him to end up in prison, in which case he has violated his own right to free movement, and possibly other rights as well.

Such a risk is also on the borderline between voluntary and involuntary. If you take a risk, it has to do with risking certain consequences you want to avoid. You don’t want these consequences, so if they occur the situation can be said to be involuntary. On the other hand, the fact that you take the risk of these consequences occurring, indicates some level of acceptance of these consequences, but not full acceptance (otherwise it would be silly to speak about a “risk”). And acceptance equals voluntary. To take the same example: the convicted criminal did not enter prison voluntarily, but the fact that he took the risk of ending up in prison indicates that his predicament is to some extent voluntary. He could also not have taken the risk.

The rights of group members rather than individuals

There’s a difference between individuals giving up or violating their own rights, and groups doing the same for their members. Take the example of the Roma minorities in parts of Europe. Many of the Roma parents don’t register their children at birth. Without a birth certificate, it’s hard to receive benefits or access to schools. When girls reach the age of 14 or 15, they are taken out of school and they enter into arranged marriages. Such actions cause serious harm to children’s education, and are a major cause of the continuing poverty of many Roma communities.

Human Rights and Risk

Obviously, we all run the risk of having our rights violated. Depending on where you live in the world, this risk may be big or small. For some, the risk always remains a risk, and their rights are always respected. But that’s the exception. Many people live with a more or less permanent fear that their rights will be violated. This fear is based on their previous experiences with rights violations, and/or on what they see happening around them.

I see at least two interesting questions regarding this kind of risk:

  • Is, as Nozick argued, the risk or probability of a rights violation a rights violation in itself? Do people have a right not to fear possible rights violations?
  • And, to what extent does this risk of rights violations lead to rights violations?

The first question is the hardest one, I think. It seems that the risk of suffering rights violations is there all of the time, although it may be very small for some of us. If there is a right not to live with this risk, then this right would be violated all of the time. What good is a right that is perpetually violated?

However, it would seem that in some circumstances, where the probability that rights are violated is very high, people do indeed suffer. Imagine that you live in a society in which there is a high probability that you are arbitrarily arrested by the police. Even if you are not actually arrested – and your rights are therefore not violated – you are living in fear. It would seem that a right not to live in fear of rights violations does have some use in these high-risk environments.

But if we limit the right not to risk rights violations to situations in which there is a high probability of rights violations, we will have to decide on a threshold: when, at what level of high probability of rights violations, does the right not to risk rights violations become effective? This means introducing arbitrariness.

And another problem: what if you don’t know about the risk? There may be at certain moments a high probability that your rights will be violated, but you don’t have to be aware of this. In that case, you don’t fear the rights violations, and hence there is no harm done to you. It’s difficult to conceive of a right when its violation doesn’t (always) cause harm of some kind, and hence the right not to risk rights violations seems impossible in this case.

The second question is more straightforward. Everyday we see how the risk of rights violations leads to actual rights violations. The perception of risk, and people’s counter-strategies designed to limit the risk of rights violations, makes them violate other rights. The war on terror is a classic example. Ticking bomb torture is another.

The objective of avoiding risk creates risks, namely the risks that our actions designed to avoid risk cause harm. We may have to learn (again) how to live with risk.