Poverty and Human Rights

Will Wilkinson has a fascinating post on whether some basic level of material well-being should be considered a human right. My gut response is that while we have some  moral obligation to alleviate poverty, this obligation is too conditional (welfare programs are dependent on outside factors like cumulative wealth) to be considered on with par protecting freedom of speech or freedom of assembly.

Having said that, I find it surprisingly easy to imagine a world where freedom from poverty becomes a human right, at least in some countries. Wilkinson isn’t a big fan of nation states, and I’m not sure his universalist framework allows for codifying an individual right to basic material well-being. But if you think of rights as derived from the traditions of discrete political communities (nation states, for example), it becomes easier to imagine how freedom from poverty could gradually become something akin to freedom of speech.

The European Union, for example, recognizes the right to an education, the right of the elderly to age with dignity, and the right to healthcare. These things aren’t traditionally thought of as inviolable rights, but they seem to reflect some fairly widespread assumptions about what European citizens are entitled to, and one can easily identify formal and informal antecedents to these rights in individual states’ constitutions and norms of governance.

Our right to free speech wasn’t formally codified until we wrote it down, but its political history predates the Constitution by centuries. European ‘welfare’ rights developed under similar circumstances – gradually acquiring legitimacy as countries’ political and social institutions evolved after World War II. Is their right to healthcare or education any less real than our right to free speech? Maybe the European Constitution needs a few more decades (centuries?) of political seasoning before it can lay claim to a similar reservoir of cultural legitimacy, but I find it surprisingly easy to accept the idea of education, healthcare, and yes, freedom from poverty as “rights” in a European context.

UPDATE: I should add that Wilkinson’s post was inspired by this entry from William Easterly, whose excellent book should be required reading for anyone interested in Third World poverty. Other authors are busy popularizing his thesis – I imagine NRO is willing to interview this woman because, unlike Easterly, she doesn’t raise uncomfortable questions about Western imperialism – but his book is the best of the lot.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

17 thoughts on “Poverty and Human Rights

  1. The trouble with not guaranteeing a basic level of material welfare in a society like ours, is that there aren’t really ways to “live off the land” or in isolation without violating some kind of law.

    Put more simply, say I lose my job, and can’t get a new one, I can’t just go out into the forest, build a house and start growing my own food. Right?

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Well, I think I disagree with you, but if most Americans come to see things your way, and our approach to governance begins to reflect this viewpoint, I think a right to material well-being will eventually emerge.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  2. It strikes me that, if a Right exists, it must be timeless (in some sense)… that is to say, if I have the Right as a dude in 2009, it’s a right that I would have had as a dude in 2009 BC on the other side of the world.

    Now, of course, this right may not have been recognized by those around me (for example, the right to speech held by a woman in China in 2009 BC… or in 1800 in Masssachusetts).

    But if there exist Human Rights, these rights spring from our Humanness… which, as far as I can tell, hasn’t changed overly in the past few thousand years.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I’d like to say you’re right, but I think you have to take the historical context into consideration.

      Back before the industrial revolution, it was acceptable/normal to live without some material wealth. But now, having no money or property comes into conflict with Articles 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 13, 22 and more of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • “But now, having no money or property comes into conflict with Articles 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 13, 22 and more of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

        I never signed it.

        I’m reminded of the scene in Hitchhikers Guide where the UFOs show up and start talking about the plans for the intergalactic highway.

        “Look, these things have been around for hundreds of years, if you haven’t bothered to look at them, that’s not our fault.”

        What other agreements made by others do you suppose I am obligated to follow?

          Quote  Link

        Report

          • Without getting too much into the essay that a real answer would require, I’d be down with the whole “right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of religion (or lack thereof), freedom to keep and bear arms” and on down through the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. It’s not exhaustive, of course… and not all the rights are negative, necessarily (the right to a speedy trial, for example, is a positive right, I’d say).

            But, for the sake of a quick, loosey-goosey, answer, the Bill of Rights will do in a pinch.

              Quote  Link

            Report

  3. Will: “But if you think of rights as derived from the traditions of discrete political communities (nation states, for example), it becomes easier to imagine how freedom from poverty could gradually become something akin to freedom of speech.”

    I agree. It is easy to imagine how this is a right if you accept what I call the “rights-as-benefits-of-club-membership” model. If the members of the club decide, according to the rules of the club for determining benefits or membership, that a minimum income is one the club’s benefits, then it is one! Easy breezy!

    But if you start to think of rights relativistically and nationalistically in this way, as benefits of national club membership, it becomes difficult to see questions about club entry and club membership as questions of human rights. And this is precisely what I’m bothered by, since I think restrictions on mobility, due to the exclusive club structure of the surface of the globe, is one of the main causes of mass poverty.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Private, well-to-do clubs host charity events for unfortunate outsiders all the time. And they do good work, so as a rule, I’d rather leave poverty alleviation to the private clubs (however informal and ad-hoc their efforts may be) than impose some universal obligation that requires me to give money to unfortunate foreigners.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • I don’t think there is a universal obligation to give money to “unfortunate foreigners.” You don’t much need it if other rights are respected. I think there is a universal obligation to respect the right to freely travel and freely associate with others. But the current international system of border control, visas, citizenship, etc. pretty systematically denies these rights.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I guess I don’t get where these universal obligations come from. If they’re derived from the idea that we’d all be better off if we could speak, transact and associate freely with others, I’d say that’s qualified by all sorts of pragmatic considerations about international stability, democratic transitions and so on and so forth. So can universal rights really be meaningful if their recognition is dependent on so many intervening factors?

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • And they do good work, so as a rule, I’d rather leave poverty alleviation to the private clubs

            Do you think their good work is good enough?

            I am not naive about the limits of government intervention. But it’s the government, and as far as I can see, only the government, that can go about creating a guarantee of help. Whether that help is effective or not is a matter of the efficiency of the government; whether government can ever be efficient is a question of ideology and a matter of controversy. But it’s the government, and it seems to me only the government, that at present can say “There is a minimum standard in health care/housing/food/clothing/etc. that we, as a society, insist that all people deserve, and so we will provide it to those who can’t provide it for themselves.” Charity can never and does never provide any guarantee.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • Freddie –

              Following Wilkinson’s terminology, I was using private clubs as a synonym for nation states. So in terms of global poverty alleviation, I think nation-states are better actors than some ill-defined transnational body.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  4. http://www.info.gov.za/documents/constitution/1996/96cons2.htm

    If I were in South Africa, I’d have the right to a clean, protected environment, health care, social security, and housing…among other things.

    If anything, I think the South African example makes an interesting point. Bills of Rights aren’t just “derived from the traditions of discrete political communities,” in some cases – I’d say this one – they’re aspirational as well.

    Of course that begets the question what’s better a flexible, if easily enforceable constitution or an aspirational yet difficult to enforce constitution?

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Kyle –

      Fair point, but I think a society’s aspirations are closely connected to its political traditions. Is it possible to extricate the South African Constitution from that country’s turbulent political and cultural history?

        Quote  Link

      Report

  5. As for the right to an education, while the US Federal Constitution is silent on that issue, several of the state constitutions explicitly proclaim a right to a state-financed education; in some states (Vermont, Massachusetts) this has been the case for more than 200 years.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *