First, a brief reminder: economic human rights are a subset of human rights dealing with poverty, standard of living, food, shelter, work, education, social security and health. They are set out and guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but also in other treaties and declarations, notably in the Universal Declaration.
Now, compare Article 11 of the Covenant to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration:
Article 11: The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.
Article 25: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Notice the last 4 words: “circumstances beyond his control”. It looks like the drafters of the Universal Declaration intended to refuse aid to the starving if the latter are responsible for their own predicament. The same for the unemployed demanding unemployment benefits, the sick demanding healthcare and the homeless demanding shelter when unemployment, sickness and homelessness are not beyond people’s control. The drafters of the Covenant, on the other hand, seemed to offer unconditional aid, both to those who need aid because of bad luck and to those who need it because of stupid mistakes or risky gambles.
The position set out in the Universal Declaration is, I guess, the most common one. We often hear discussions of the undeserving poor wallowing in a “culture of poverty“. And while it’s unfair to categorize all the poor in this way, it is fair with regard to some of the poor.
There are two conflicting moral intuitions at work here. On the one hand, people should get what they deserve, even if it is misfortune. If misfortune is the consequence of risky gambles, laziness or avoidable stupidity, then people should shoulder the consequences of their choices. They alone are responsible for their misfortune and don’t have a strong claim to assistance. That’s the moral or moralistic argument against assisting the undeserving poor, but there’s also an argument based on prudence: if we were to assist those people anyway, then we would create moral hazard and disincentives: people would start to take all sorts of risks, make silly gambles and be excessively lazy because they know that they’ll get bailed out when things start to go wrong.
On the other hand, it’s cruel to let people starve even if their starvation is clearly their own fault, and our moral intuitions tell us we should help them anyway. Furthermore, the difference between bad luck that happens to people and misfortune that people bring on themselves is seldom clear in the first place: attitudes such as laziness and excessive risk taking can be genetically predetermined or can be nurtured in certain disadvantaged environments. This lack of clarity results in the practical problem of identifying real desert as opposed to apparent desert: you’ll have to screen individuals’ entire lives, their nurturing as well as their genetic profiles, and that would be a horrendous infringement of liberty and privacy.
So the question for those of us in favor of economic rights is this: do we view them as conditional or unconditional? If we choose the latter, we offend some strongly held moral intuitions about desert. As a result, we may create moral hazard and encourage existing opposition to economic rights. In addition, we may also find ourselves in the unpleasant universe of absolute determinism: if desert is ruled out, then we’ll tend to assume that people’s actions are determined by nature or nurture.
If we choose the former, we will be excessively cruel in some cases, and a threat to liberty and privacy in most cases. (I say most cases and not all cases because some people are clearly undeserving and there’s no need to infringe their privacy and liberty in order to find out. Still, even those people may one day lose their label and hence their privacy with the advances of the science of genetics). We’ll also have some trouble insisting that economic rights are rights: human rights are typically unconditional – people don’t lose their right to free speech because they did something to deserve this loss.
It’s not an easy choice, and whatever we choose we’ll offend some moral intuitions. Of course, there’s no rule against offending moral intuitions, and the correct morality may offend all moral intuitions. However, in the absence of a correct morality, it’s prudent not to offend too many intuitions. A possible solution could be offered by a system of guaranteed basic income: everyone gets assistance, both those in need of assistance and those who are well off, both those who deserve assistance and those who don’t. Since this basic income is not really assistance, the problem about who deserves assistance doesn’t really arise. Of course, we would be giving something to lots of people who probably don’t deserve or need it, but at least there would be no one disadvantaged by this giving and hence no one will be complaining.