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.