The Causes of Poverty (69): Self-Destructive Behavior

One important hallmark of right-wing thinking is the emphasis on the value of individual responsibility: people should take their lives into their own hands, try to be independent and self-sufficient and make it on their own. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I part ways with many on the right when they assume that the moral importance of responsibility and self-reliance implies that those who don’t make it on their own have somehow failed to be responsible.

Well, some of those probably have indeed failed to be responsible, but why would we think this is true in all or even most cases? Many people who really try hard to be responsible and to behave rationally still get their legs cut off from under them (there are many causes of poverty after all). Others are irresponsible and still make it (or get bailed out when things go wrong). The word “bank” comes to mind.

It’s not because responsibility is a generally important value and a “good thing” that a lack of it always leads to bad outcomes such as poverty (one bad outcome that does always follow from lack of responsibility is obviously irresponsibility, but that’s tautological).

However, let’s assume, arguendo, that many on the right are correct in their belief that bad things such as poverty are almost always the product of irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. The idea of desert is important here: if poverty is a form of self-destruction resulting from irresponsible actions, then poor people deserve their poverty and they should, somewhat confusingly, be called “the undeserving poor” (“deserving poor” would perhaps be a better name). The flip side is the idea that people with good lives have not failed to act responsibly. And because they have been responsible they deserve their wealth and wellbeing and should not be forced by way of taxation to help those who have not been responsible.

Some on the right do indeed believe that poor people should not be assisted, for 3 reasons: 

  • poverty is what they chose when they acted irresponsibly, and hence it is what they deserve
  • helping them would send the wrong signal and would undermine the value of individual responsibility
  • helping them would mean taking funds away from those who acted responsibly and who deserve the proceeds of their responsible actions.

Poor people should therefore try to make it back on their own. Assistance in the form of charity for example is allowed, of course, but it can’t be enforced without undermining responsibility, both among the beneficiaries of enforced assistance and among those who are forced to give (the latter may well conclude that self-reliance is futile if the proceeds are taxed away).

It’s true that this is not the standard right-wing view. Some conservatives or libertarians make room for enforced assistance, on the condition that this assistance promotes responsibility and that poor people genuinely try to be responsible while and after they are assisted. Assistance would then be withdrawn in case of continued irresponsibility, and also when it becomes clear that assistance produces dependence and a lack of self-reliance.

While I share the enthusiasm for values such as responsibility, desert, self-reliance, independence and conditional assistance, I also see some problems.

1.

Why would the arrow of causation only go from responsibility to success and from irresponsibility to failure? Might not the reverse also occur? I believe it’s at least possible that poverty and failure lead to irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, and that a life of riches, especially during childhood, fosters responsibility and other virtues. For example, it has been shown that the stress of poverty in early life as well as later in life can lead to misjudgments and irrational behavior. In addition, a life of poverty can destroy people’s aspirations, which in turn may make them decide that they “don’t give a fuck”. From a distance, this may look like irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, but it can be explained as the consequence of poverty rather than the cause. Similarly, the bee sting theory of poverty argues that people in poverty just give up after a series of calamities or misfortunes.

2.

Some apparently self-destructive, irrational and poverty-inducing or poverty-perpetuating behavior may be a price that poor people are willing to pay for other goods. For example, the widespread use of Qat in countries such as Yemen causes all sorts of problems for productive and rational behavior. And yet, people who refuse to take it risk social ostracism. The need for social inclusion and acceptance then outweighs the material cost for many users. Something similar can be said of those poor people who spend a lot of money on celebrations and festivals while their calorie intake is below standard.

What looks like self-destruction may in fact be an elaborate and tragic strategy for social survival. Does this mean that people who are willing to pay the price of poverty should not be assisted, given that they are willing? No. They are only willing because the better alternative – both social inclusion and lack of poverty – is not available to them.

3.

Until now, I’ve granted the right wing starting point that many poor people act irresponsibly – strategically or not – and that their behavior causes their poverty. But what if all this is just a visual illusion? Is it not possible that the poor are just as responsible or irresponsible as the rich, but that they have a much smaller margin of error? Some forms of behavior that have little or no consequences for wealthy people, may lead to worse outcomes for poor people or for people on the edge of poverty. Poor people perhaps only look more irresponsible.

4.

That last point is important. The only way of detecting responsible or irresponsible behavior is to look at the consequences of it – we can’t detect people’s motivations. But this means that we can be wrong: consequences that look like they are the product of lack of responsibility may be something else. We see behavior that has self-destructive consequences for the actor, but we may be dealing with a person who is not really irresponsible but simply out of luck, mistaken or misguided, or someone with a small margin of error.

So our assessment of responsibility is necessarily an approximation which can sometimes be totally wrong. Any being wrong in our assessment whether or not to help people may have terrible consequences. Furthermore, this assessment is not only difficult and often mistaken; it’s also invasive. Ideally, in order to detect irresponsible poor people – and treat them like this – we would have to monitor their lifestyles and long term attitudes over long periods of time. Only then can we minimize the risk of error. But the result would be dictatorship. I’m sure right-wing thinkers don’t really want to go there. Hence, they should think twice before making desert and responsibility the cornerstone of their worldview.

Other posts in this series are here.

Types of Human Rights Violations (9): Self-Inflicted Human Rights Violations

I want to return briefly to the topic of rights violations that are inflicted, not by others or by the state, but by people on themselves. (See here for a previous post). One example is self-inflicted poverty, or poverty that’s the result of people’s own misguided actions (although I hasten to add that I’m convinced that other causes of poverty are more important and more common; and yes, poverty is a human rights violation).

However, it’s interesting to note that when people inflict poverty on themselves, they don’t merely do so by way of misguided, irrational or self-destructive actions. Poor people may engage in preference adaptation, so as to cope better with their poverty. They may also stubbornly believe that their situation isn’t so bad after all, and that many others are even worse off, even if they are among the worst off. This belief helps them to feel better about their lives. (Read more about this here and here). Both preference adaptation and “counting your blessings” won’t do much to help you pull yourself out of poverty.

The problem is indeed that such coping mechanisms tend to perpetuate poverty, and hence they are part of a process of self-inflicted poverty. People who adapt their preferences and satisfaction levels become less prone to fight for their rights.

This problem isn’t limited to poverty. Oppressive circumstances usually stunt people’s ambitions. If the risks of engaging in protests against a powerful authoritarian government are high, then people may settle in their submission and thank the Lord that they at least have some freedom within their homes. Their lack of protest then helps to maintain their submission, and hence they are partially responsible for the violation of their rights.

By the way, the inherent malleability of preferences – which are elements of the examples given above – discredits all theories of justice that are based on equality of preference satisfaction. Given that circumstances may form preferences and that people may revise their preferences downwards in order to achieve at least some level of satisfaction, equality of preference satisfaction will result in lives of very unequal quality.

More posts in this series are here.

Types of Human Rights Violations (5): Human Rights Eating Themselves – The Case of Silencing

Some human rights make themselves impossible some of the time. Take the right to free speech: certain forms of the exercise of this right make it difficult if not impossible for others to exercise their version of the right. Free speech for some can silence others. That may sound strange because it’s usually the violation of the right to free speech that silences.

I’m not talking about obvious cases such as the heckler’s veto because those are not really interesting. Below are some more contentious examples.

Pornography

A lot of pornography depicts women as inferior and consequently contributes to the continued subordination of women. Both men and women can come to see women as subordinate objects of desire, unable or at least unlikely to speak, complain, withhold consent or resist. Pornography is then taken to provide factually accurate and morally correct information about women as silent and submissive objects of desire and sexual use. In the case of women, this process may silence them, and not only with regard to sexual consent. It’s not just that women’s speech fails to persuade or that men fail to listen (“when a woman says ‘no’ she doesn’t mean it”). It’s worse because women may even fail to attempt to persuade in the first place: they learn that their silence is the right attitude. Pornography deprives women of the capacity to speak.

Politically correct talk

Some of us use our right to free speech as a means to propagate the rule that certain words shouldn’t be said or certain topics shouldn’t be discussed because these words and topics tend to cement prejudice and to have self-fulfilling effects. Others may decide to remain silent as a reaction to this rule, because of shame, because they fear professional or reputational consequences, or because they genuinely believe that speaking in a certain manner or about a certain topic does have negative consequences for minority groups. Hence, political correctness silences certain perspectives, but probably not in the same deep manner as pornography.

Powerful voices

Powerful voices, by which I mean voices backed up by lots of money or influence, can monopolize discourse and drown out competing voices. When certain points of view are pushed by well-funded think tanks and lobbyists or by unbalanced media outlets, then less competitive or powerful perspectives are silenced.

Hate speech

When members of minority groups are consistently harassed by hateful voices, when crosses are burned in their front yards, when they’re told not to go to certain places or relate to certain persons, then they may decide that it isn’t wise to protest. They may even internalize the discourse about their inferiority, in which case they are similar to women who have internalized the pornographic female ideal.

These 4 examples of the right to free speech eating itself show that this right – and perhaps other rights as well – should include the right to conditions favorable or necessary to its exercise. When combating restrictions on free speech, we should not only include explicit restrictions but also restrictions of its preconditions. Free speech doesn’t only get hard when governments or fellow-citizens overtly interfere, censor or persecute you for speaking your mind. In free societies you can supposedly say what you want, but how can you say what you want when the “you” in question is shaped and deformed by forces operating under the surface and is turned into a subordinate object that doesn’t even think of speaking? Or, somewhat less extremely, when fear of consequences forces you to remain silent or when a lack of balance in public discourse makes it impossible for you to be heard?

This last point raises a potential confusion: the right to free speech doesn’t include a right to be heard or to be listened to; the duty to respect free speech doesn’t include the duty to listen. That would go too far, even if we admit that free speech is useless without anyone listening. There’s a difference between a duty to listen and a duty not to silence. The latter duty may imply that we need to impose some restrictions on some forms of speech. If pornography or hate speech silences women or minorities, then the right to free speech of women and minorities may require restrictions on the right to free speech of pornographers and haters. Paradoxically, restricting speech can enhance speech.

A related post about self-defeating human rights is here. More on pornography, political correctness and hate speech.

The Causes of Poverty (43): The Welfare State

Yes, that’s right: the welfare state… According to many conservatives, the welfare state is self-defeating and actually makes people poorer. Welfare and social security (and perhaps even private charity) unwittingly work to thwart their own goal – helping the poor – in two different ways. There’s supposed to be a supply side and a demand side to the so-called “perverse effects” of anti-poverty policies.

Take the supply side first. The delivery of welfare by the government and – indirectly – by the taxpayers is economically inefficient. It burdens the primary suppliers of the necessary funds, namely the individual and corporate taxpayers. Because of this burden, companies and individuals lose the incentive to be productive. If they have to pay large amounts in taxes in order to fund the welfare state, they can’t or won’t create the wealth that is the basis for redistribution. In other words, they can’t or won’t create a rising tide that will lift all boats. Ultimately, a tax-based welfare state will eat itself because it burdens the wealth creators whose wealth it wants to redistribute.

I’ve argued against this rejection of the welfare state before, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the risks to incentives are overstated, as well as the benefits of trickle down economics. (For instance, companies may decide to be more productive in order to compensate for the losses from taxation).

Let’s now turn to the demand side of the anti-welfare argument. Again, the reasoning is based on incentives that ultimately result in a self-defeating anti-poverty system, but this time it’s about the incentives of the recipients of welfare. The argument goes roughly like this. Take unemployment benefits for instance (one part of the welfare state). These benefits supposedly discourage people from working. And when people don’t work, they fail to gain experience and to nurture certain values – such as discipline – necessary in order to escape poverty. Hence, unemployment insurance makes the recipients worse off.

Or take another kind of benefit: financial support for children born out-of-wedlock. This kind of support also triggers the wrong incentives. It encourages teenagers to get pregnant and it discourages adults to marry. Teen-pregnancies and single parenthood both make it more difficult to escape poverty. Something similar happens with scholarships or affirmative action for poor students. These so-called anti-poverty policies actually incentivize students to enroll in education programs that are above their capabilities, forcing them to drop out of school at some point, and hence forcing them into poverty. And, finally, there’s the argument about welfare dependence: when people get money from the government they tend to settle in their role as receivers and fail to take their lives into their own hands. Again the wrong incentives.

This demand side of the anti-welfare argument suffers from two fatal shortcomings. First, the data don’t (always) support it. For example, it’s not true that generous unemployment insurance leads to higher unemployment. And secondly, it’s classist in the sense that it offers an essentialist depreciation of the poor as a class. The poor, according to the argument, suffer from a series of typical deficiencies:

  • shortsightedness (in the case of the person being tempted by child benefits and ignoring the long-term costs of teen pregnancy or single parenthood)
  • a lack of self-judgment (in the case of the student accepting a scholarship and enrolling in a program beyond her capabilities) and
  • a lack of self-control (in the case of the person settling in dependency).

This classism is not only generally incorrect and unfair, but it also obscures the many other causes of poverty. The poor aren’t always to blame for their own poverty, and the welfare state doesn’t force them to make themselves poor. Moreover, and even worse, this classism can be self-fulfilling.

Also, hasn’t the recent financial crisis shown that wealthy people, especially bankers, are equally short-sighted, self-deluded and lacking in self-control? And even if it’s true that those vices are more prominent among the poor (as is claimed here for example), wouldn’t that be a good argument for welfare rather than against it? If the poor can’t rationally take care of their own fate because they are self-deluded and unable to plan for the long term, shouldn’t the rest of us try to help them?

The Causes of Poverty (40): A Culture of Poverty

It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that the poor shouldn’t blame “the system” for their poverty, but should look instead at their own values and behavior. Poor people, or at least some of them, show behavior that can be called a “culture of poverty“. They are the “undeserving poor“, the “stupid poor” who are poor because of their self-destructive lifestyle choices, their own stupid decisions, their self-chosen family situation, their involvement in crime, their drug use, their welfare dependency, their lack of effort in school, their lack of general discipline and their inability to plan for the long term.

Of course, we can all imagine some people who are “undeserving” in this sense, and some of us may know (of) some of them, but the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that such undeserving behavior is quite common among the poor and is the reason why the levels of poverty remain quite constant over time, even in some of the most wealthy and generous welfare states.

There are actually two versions of the culture of poverty theory, one more common than the other.

Innate moral deficiencies

Usually, the culture of poverty is believed to be a symptom of innate moral deficiencies among the poor. Or, euphemistically, the poor have a “unique value system”. It’s the depraved morality of the poor, and the self-destructive attitudes and behaviors that result from it, that keep them poor, period. All other possible explanations of poverty – discrimination, the membership theory of poverty, the bee sting theory, economic structures and processes, the business cycle etc. – go on the dump of politically correct academic claptrap.

This version of the culture of poverty theory is in essence a form of classism, akin to racism. Like a racist who claims that the depravation and inferiority of people of another race is entirely the fault of those people and should not be blamed on racism, adherents of this version of the culture of poverty theory claim that the poor are a separate group of people that make their own lives miserable, quite independently of external causes. The theory is also classist in the sense that it assumes one coherent culture among the poor, a culture that they simply “have” and that doesn’t contain major internal differences.

Acquired moral deficiencies

A more moderate but less common form of the theory maintains the moral opprobrium directed at poor people, but also sees some external reasons for their self-destructive values and behavior. The poor are still a separate group of people with a distinct culture, but this culture doesn’t result from some form of innate or genetically determined moral depravation that’s typical of the poor. The moral depravation that the adherents of this second version of the theory witness among the poor isn’t innate but is produced by generations of poverty. The poor classes and their offspring have responded to the ongoing burden of poverty by developing values and attitudes that perpetuate their poverty, and they socialize the next generations into these values and attitudes.

For example, decades of generational or hereditary poverty instill in people feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, victimhood and marginality, and these feelings in turn produce self-destructive values and behavior. They work as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. So, according to this second version of the theory, the self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns that are the essence of the culture of poverty aren’t shaped by innate or genetic moral deficiencies. The observed moral deficiencies and the resulting self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns are produced by internalization and socialization following decades of generational poverty.

The opposition to welfare inherent in the culture of poverty theory

Whatever the causes of self-destructive behavior – innate or genetic moral depravation on the one hand, or internalized self-destructive values on the other – the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that it’s only better behavior and values that can help people escape from poverty. The adherents of the “innate depravity” version of the theory will just have some more difficulties explaining how we can change the behavior and values of the poor.

And because it’s only better behavior that can help them, we shouldn’t give poor people money, unemployment benefits, healthcare insurance, child benefits etc. We don’t need a welfare state. Instead, the poor should be more diligent in their pursuit of a good education and a good job, they should lead healthier lives and have less children, especially out of wedlock etc. Some claim that money doesn’t matter for poverty (really!). The poor will do well even without money, as long as they change their value system. So, money doesn’t matter for poverty, like ice doesn’t matter for ice-skating, or something.

The fatalism inherent in the culture of poverty theory

According to the adherents of the culture of poverty theory, the poor aren’t just like all the rest of us minus the money. No, they are completely different, and just throwing money at them won’t change one iota. On the contrary, welfare benefits will just confirm them in their sense of victimhood and inferiority and will therefore perpetuate their destructive value system. However, closing the welfare tap and forcing them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps isn’t likely to work either, since they don’t have the discipline and the other values needed for that, and neither do they have the values necessary to get the education necessary to acquire a superior value system (were such an education provided to them).

Hence, even those adherents of the culture of poverty theory who don’t believe in innate moral deficiencies tend to conclude that poverty is permanent and that nothing can be done. Only those among the middle classes who have internalized the right values but for some reason or other become destitute (a widow for example, or a wounded soldier) will have the resources to recover. They might therefore also benefit from some form of welfare support. The generational poor, however, will remain poor even with tons of cash. Maybe the shock of near-starvation will help them, but also that is unlikely given their lack of moral resources and the difficulty of helping them to acquire those resources.

This is why the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that this theory explains the persistence of poverty much better than racism, discrimination, the inadequacies of the welfare state, the “creative destruction” of the business cycle etc.

A self-interested theory?

The culture of poverty theory, because it places the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor themselves, logically entails the claim that if those who are poor had acted differently they would not now be poor. And this entails yet another claim, namely that those who are not poor are so because of the way they acted. Hence, the wealthy deserve their riches. I can agree that they do to the extent that they work hard to earn their wealth. But wealth creation isn’t a solipsistic effort, it depends on cooperation. And it also depends on endowments such as talents, good and wealthy parents etc. and no one deserves any of those endowments. Many people who come into life with few endowments also work hard, and yet don’t achieve wealth.

I have the impression that the culture of poverty theory is just a tool for the wealthy to justify their own wealth and discredit the efforts to redistribute a part of that wealth in order to help the poor. I don’t mean that there are no individuals who are themselves the primary or even sole cause of their poverty, or that there aren’t any “cultural” explanations for poverty (“acting white” comes to mind). Neither do I underestimate the pernicious effects of a negative self-image or of welfare dependency. And I certainly don’t want to dispossess the wealthy simply because they can’t be said to deserve their wealth in any coherent sense of the word “deserve”. What I want to point out here is the tunnel vision of the culture of poverty theory, blocking out all other causes of poverty (mostly of a more structural nature), as well as the classism inherent in the theory, a classism that I believe is motivated by economic self-interest. And, finally, the fatalism of the theory is likely to be self-fulfilling.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (9): Merit

In my ongoing exploration of the possible causes of high income inequality in rich countries, I stumbled across this politically incorrect quote:

A reason for the “wealth or income gap”: Smart people keep on doing things that are smart and make them money while stupid people keep on doing things that are stupid and keep them from achieving.

People who get an education, stay off of drugs, apply themselves, and save and wisely invest their earnings do a lot better than people who drop out of school, become substance abusers, and buy fancy cars and houses that they can’t afford, only to lose them.

We don’t have an income gap. We have a stupid gap. (source)

It’s not only politically incorrect, it’s just plainly no-qualifier-needed incorrect. Of course, people’s efforts and wise decisions do make a difference. As well as their different talents (or lack thereof). So there will always be inequality. But society rewards certain talents more than others – or, if you object to the description of society as a moral agent, “we all” reward the talents of our fellow humans differently. And we often do so in a morally arbitrary way: we reward some talents more whereas other talents would perhaps, from a moral point of view, deserve higher rewards. The same is true for efforts: we reward some types of efforts more than others, and this isn’t always just.

So some people, because of their talents and efforts, create better outcomes for themselves, reap more lucrative rewards, and thereby create an income gap. However, this fact doesn’t necessarily imply that the resulting gap is morally right: society – all of us – may have been morally mistaken about the kinds of talents and efforts that we reward. Hence the gap can be immoral. Even if income inequality could be explained entirely by differences in effort and talent – which is implied in the quote but which I think isn’t true – that would not necessarily have any moral significance. Income inequality could still be wrong.

And we could still go one step further: even if income inequality could be explained entirely by morally significant differences in effort and talent – in other words, even if only morally worthy efforts and talents were rewarded by society – that would not necessarily exhaust all moral considerations. The moral judgments regarding efforts and talents could be offset by superior moral considerations about inequality.

And anyway, how does the guy from the quote above explain the fact that different countries have different levels of income inequality? Do we really believe that the American population has a higher standard deviation around average intelligence, talent and effort? In other words, does the U.S. have more smart and more stupid people than Sweden? Are the bell curves for intelligence, talent and effort flatter in the U.S.? I don’t think so. And if I’m right, then you need other and more sophisticated answers to the question why inequality is relatively high in the U.S.

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (2): Child Soldiers

Human rights policies don’t always work out the way we want them to. Almost any significant action has unintended consequences, and in some cases these consequences can turn out to be the exact opposite of what we intended. As Kierkegaard said, life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards. Some of the best intentioned human rights activism just perpetuates the rights violations it wants to combat, and perhaps even makes things worse.

I now found another example in an interesting paper by Blattman and Beber. The paper is about child soldiering and looks at some of the things governments can do about it. Child soldiers are often recruited by insurgent groups. Governments can decide to increase counter-insurgency efforts in order to stop the insurgents from recruiting children. But this counter-insurgency increases the minimum force size requirement for the rebel group, hence also the rebel leaders’ incentives to abduct children.

Now suppose the government reaction is not to step up hostilities but to develop educational and economic opportunities for children so that children have larger outside choices which make it more likely that they escape from and less likely that they are lured by the rebels. However, according to Blattman and Beber, intermediate levels of development of such choices could push the optimal age of recruitment of child soldiers downwards. And if outside choices increase, the incentives for the rebel group to take over the country also increase. If rebel group incentives increase, the incentives to recruit children also increase.

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.

The Democratic Destruction of Democracy

We’re all familiar with the phrase. Democracies allow so much freedom that anti-democratic forces can develop inside of them and ultimately destroy them from within, using the very tools that make democracy what it is (freedom of speech and association, elections etc.). The archetypal case is, of course, the Weimar Republic of pre-WWII Germany (although one can claim that Weimar wasn’t really a democracy and Hitler’s rise to power didn’t occur through purely democratic means). The democratic destruction of democracy is also, misleadingly, called the self-destruction of democracy, as if it is the democracy as a whole rather than an abusive part of it that causes the destruction.

However, I also have a problem with the phrase “democratic destruction of democracy”. There is, after all, nothing democratic about the abuse of democracy by anti-democratic forces trying to get elected with the sole purpose of ending all future elections. Their actions may be democratic in the strictly legal sense, but not in the moral or philosophical sense.

I believe the “democratic destruction of democracy” means something else. Most people, and even those who care about democracy and are willing to die in its defense, view one of its basic characteristics – the plurality of opinion – as a suboptimal state of affairs, and something to be overcome. We all believe strongly in certain opinions, and we may even consider those opinions to be more than mere opinions. In other words, we make truth claims about our opinions. That means that we believe that other people, who have adopted other opinions, are wrong, mistaken. We want to convince them, but that means that we want to eliminate the plurality of opposing opinions. It also means that we want to abolish democracy, because it’s impossible to imagine a democracy in a world of unanimity.

Paradoxically, the most typical democratic activity – persuasion – has the objective of ending democracy. I wouldn’t call it a “destruction”, because the end of democracy is a byproduct, not a conscious goal. Of course, this democratic (let’s call it) termination of democracy is possible only through persuasion, and by the looks of it, that’s not a very sharp tool. Hence the termination is still a rather abstract and long-term possibility. The undemocratic termination of democracy does not suffer from tool-limitation, and is therefore a much less theoretical possibility.

This undemocratic termination can occur inside or outside of democracy, with the tools offered by democracy or with other tools. Anti-democrats can decide to try to get elected, or they can stage a coup. Or whatever. Common to many anti-democrats is impatience with persuasion. Some are motivated simply by power or money, but many believe that the “democratic masses” just can’t see the light and are immune to even the best arguments. Instead of persuasion, the impatient anti-democrats are led to believe that imposition of a worldview is the only remedy for error and mistake. Re-education camps are quick to follow, and extermination camps for those for whom even persuasion in the form of re-education is impossible.

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.