Human Rights Promotion (13): Human Rights, Pareto Improvements, and a Difference Principle

Human rights activism is rarely zero-sum, in the sense that we can only improve the rights protection of some through the imposition of an equal loss on others. More commonly we selectively improve protection for some without reducing protection for others. For example, if a judge protects a journalist’s free speech rights against government censorship, no one else’s rights protection is proportionally reduced. (This is zero-sum in the sense that more free speech means less censorship, but it’s not zero-sum on the level of different rights).

Zero-sum rights activism does occur, but only in the case of conflicting rights. For example, the journalist’s free speech rights may require restrictions on the right to privacy of public figures (or vice versa). However, most violations or restrictions of rights are not the result of conflicts between rights but rather the result of the non-rights motivated actions of governments or private agents.

We can rephrase this in economic terms. Given an initial allocation of goods among a set of individuals, a change to a different allocation that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off is called a Pareto improvement. An allocation is defined as Pareto efficient or Pareto optimal when no further Pareto improvements can be made (source).

This is common in human rights activism. We regularly intervene very selectively to improve the rights of some while leaving others unaffected. This is because there’s always a lack of resources and a lack of power to intervene non-selectively.

However, even if Pareto improvements can be a way forward for rights protection, they are not the ultimate goal of human rights activism. This ultimate goal is equal rights, and that’s not something you can reach with Pareto improvements. Inherent in Pareto is that you don’t leave anyone worse off, but equal rights may require that some people give up something: an equal right to private property may imply redistribution for example.

Another reason why Pareto improvements aren’t really compatible with human rights is the lack of urgency, priority or fairness in Pareto terms. Pareto improvements can make those who are already better off even better off. If you make the richest person in society better off or improve the rights protection of the best protected person in society, this can be a Pareto improvement, but that’s hardly the best way forward for human rights. Human rights would require making first the worst placed person better off, even if this means making the best placed person a bit worse off (which, however, is often not even necessary).

Pareto efficient is therefore not the best way to achieve a society with full respect for human rights, although a society that is not Pareto efficient – in the sense that some Pareto improvements with respect to rights protection are still possible and some people may be made better off without anyone else being made worse off – obviously does not fully respect human rights.

If we first need to make the worst off better off, then a better principle for human rights may be a variation of Rawls’ difference principle:

enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is already better is only justifiable if it also leads to enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is relatively worse.

For example, one could argue that a very bright person has a right to more education if it turns out that her enhanced education ultimately benefits others who are less educated (perhaps because this person will become a rights activist or because she will transmit her knowledge). Or one can argue that a higher standard of living for someone already well off will increase economic productivity which in turn benefits the poorer members of society. However, this difference principle will not, by definition, make everyone equally well off or guarantee everyone’s equal rights. But perhaps it will do a better job than Pareto efficiency.

More about human rights and zero-sum games here. More about the original difference principle here.

Migration and Human Rights (41): What Will Happen When We Open Our Borders?

Regular readers know that I often advocate an open border policy on this blog. I do so because most of the arguments in favor of immigration restrictions don’t survive a confrontation with the data, but also, more positively, because I think there are four important reasons to favor open borders:

  1. Allowing immigration means respecting certain human rights, such as the right to free movement and the right of free association (most people migrate because they want to associate with employers elsewhere). Closed borders on the other hand result in various rights violations: illegal immigrants incur physical risks while traveling, and exploitation upon arrival (because they have diminished bargaining power and because they live with the constant fear of apprehension). Furthermore, they are almost permanently separated from their families and friends back home etc. That’s a heavy burden of rights violations.
  2. Immigration reduces poverty. Strictly speaking this is not conceptually different from the previous reason, since poverty is a human rights violation, but it’s worth mentioning separately because many fail to see this point.
  3. Third, allowing immigration is a matter of justice because monopolizing a piece of the earth goes against the principle of the common ownership of the earth, and because nobody deserves to be born in a certain place.
  4. Fourth, immigration restrictions are inefficient because they require resources that can better be spent elsewhere, and because efficient economic activity requires a high degree of freedom of movement for workers as well as goods. Moreover, aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going.

I agree that these arguments don’t necessarily establish the soundness of an open border policy. They do, however, make it harder to argue in favor of restrictions and they put the burden of proof on those arguing in favor of restrictions.

I can imagine that many of those people aren’t convinced by the rather abstract arguments given above. Hence it may be useful to try to estimate the consequences of a significantly higher number of immigrants in wealthy countries. I’ll assume that this increase won’t be sudden, because restrictions can be removed gradually. Hence we can discount the “shock” of increased migration as a possible negative consequence.

Wouldn’t massive immigration strain the domestic economy and possibly destroy it? I never quite understood that argument. For one thing, if that would happen, I guess the immigrants would decide to just go back home; immigrants are drawn to economic opportunity and typically return when opportunities become rare. But it won’t happen, because immigrants produce and consume. The “destruction argument” sounds ridiculously zero-sum, as if the presence of immigrants in a country is similar to leeches draining the blood from a healthy body. Immigrants generally come to work, to produce and to consume. Some of them may be a net loss for the native economy, but it’s silly to claim that most of them are or will be. In fact, in the U.S. most immigrants currently use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. Even if massive immigration brings in a lot more slackers their numbers will be swamped by the even larger number of productive immigrants.

So I don’t think we should compensate an open borders policy with a denial of welfare for immigrants. Most immigrant won’t come for welfare, and if you allow a whole lot of new immigrants, most of those will work and pay taxes (also because they won’t be illegal) and will thereby contribute to the funding of the welfare system rather than be a drain on it.

Perhaps the arrival of a lot of immigrants won’t destroy the destination economy or the welfare state, but maybe it will hurt certain groups of people, for example low-skilled native workers with whom the immigrants will compete for jobs. Again, that’s too much of a zero-sum focus. Immigrants are usually complementary to native workers and don’t necessarily have to replace native workers. And when they are not complementary, they can allow the latter to move to different and often better paying occupations.

To the extent that massive immigration will drive down wages in some sectors and skill levels, I would ask the following: if an immigrant is willing to work for a lower wage, why should the rights of relatively more wealthy native workers (“relatively more wealthy” because they earn a higher wage) trump the rights of the immigrant? If rights have any meaning it is that they protect the weaker against the stronger, not vice versa. From a cosmopolitan point of view it’s more important to help poorest people find a better job than to protect the jobs of the relatively less poor.

What about higher rents and house prices? Surely massive immigration would price almost everyone out of the housing market. And then what? I would guess that this will be self-correcting: huge housing prices will reduce the inflow of immigrants or increase the supply of houses. In the latter case, demand for labor – including native labor – would increase. Again, let’s drop the zero-sum thinking: why should we assume a constant supply of housing with an increasing demand for it?

What about security issues? Will open borders policies flood us with criminal immigrants? Immigrants with contagious diseases? What about the smuggling of drugs? Or terrorists moving freely into the country? Well, open borders as it’s understood here means free immigration, not the absence of borders or border controls. Allowing massive immigration doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep track of who or what is coming in and is going out. And we have domestic criminals, whom we don’t systematically banish. Let us also not forget that immigrants are on average less likely to be involved in crime (see here and here).

The fact that open borders doesn’t equal “no borders” should also calm certain fears about sovereignty, “nationhood”, national culture, community and national solidarity.

The same is true for the fact that an open borders policy doesn’t equal “free citizenship“. Obviously access to citizenship would not be possible for all immigrants at the moment of arrival, otherwise an open border policy would undermine the very notion of citizenship. That restriction includes voting rights.

What about the consequences for the origin countries which will lose a lot of highly skilled professionals? That’s difficult to tell but if we extrapolate from the current state of affairs, this might not be a problem. There’s already a huge brain drain going on from developing countries to developed ones, but the pernicious effects of this brain drain are heavily overstated, and compensated by the gains from remittances. Of course, this compensation effect depends on the number of people involved. Drastically higher numbers of migrants may provide a different outcome, or maybe not. And there’s also some evidence of other beneficial effects of the brain drain, unrelated to remittances.

More posts in this series are here.

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.

Types of Human Rights Violations (1): Fake Zero-Sum Human Rights Violations

We usually, and correctly, think of human rights violations as a zero-sum game (although the word “game” is hardly appropriate here). A rights violation is a harm inflicted by one person on another, for the benefit of the former. And although the benefits for the violator do not always equal the harm for the victim in a quantitative sense, we can safely call it zero-sum. In fact, neither the harm nor the benefits that result from rights violations can always be quantified.

I have represented these harms and benefits in the table below (just look at row number 1 for the moment): a plus sign for “violator value” means that he or she receives some benefits from the violations (otherwise there probably wouldn’t be a violation); a minus for “victim value” means a harm done to him or her. And indeed this is the usual case. But you can see in the table that other combinations of values and signs are possible. But more on that in a moment.

The usual case – number 1 – is what we could call the typical human right violation. It’s zero-sum: the thief who steals from me gains what I lose; the oppressive government that limits my right to free speech or movement or assembly or organization, gains stability and regime security while I lose freedom. In case number 1, the violator always wins, and the person(s) whose rights are violated always lose(s), in roughly the same proportion (if proportions are at all relevant here).

The second, more exceptional case, occurs when not only the victim of the violations loses out, but also the perpetrator. Examples: the suicide bomber (except when he or she is right about Paradise, which I doubt); the use of torture, invasion, drone attacks etc. by the U.S. in its “war on terror” (tactics which may create more terrorists than they eliminate).

The third case is still more exceptional, unfortunately, because it is really a win-win situation, disguised as zero-sum. Two examples. Take the development of the economies of India and China. It can be argued that these economies “take jobs away” from the developed countries, and that in a sense the right to work of many people in the West are violated because of it (the fact that none of this is intentional isn’t sufficient to claim that no rights are violated). However, as these developing countries increase the size of their economies, they will provide valuable and relatively cheap goods and services to businesses and households in developed countries, stimulating the economies there, and boosting disposable income, which reduces poverty in developed countries. As developing countries develop, they will also start to consume more western goods and services, with the same result. Again, no guarantee of course that the gains of one will equal the gains of the other, but at least it’s win-win and not zero-sum.

A second example, also to do with work: when a government withholds or stops unemployment benefits, it violates the rights of the unemployed. But when done under certain circumstances, this will encourage people to find work, and hence will make them better off in the end.

At first sight, these two examples look like typical zero-sum human rights violations, but not when look a bit closer.

The fourth case, where the victim of rights violations benefits from them, and the perpetrators lose out, is extremely exceptional, I guess. I could only come up with one example: the dictator becoming so oppressive that he creates revolt and ushers in his own downfall and the liberation of his people.