Do human rights increase inequality?

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Imagine that one man owned everything. Call him Croesus, after the king of ancient lore who, Herodotus says, was so \”wonderfully rich\” that he \”thought himself the happiest of mortals.\” Impossibly elevated above his fellow men and women, this modern Croesus is also magnanimous. He does not want people to starve, and not only because he needs some of them for the upkeep of his global estate. Croesus insists on a floor of protection, so that everyone living under his benevolent but total ascendancy can escape destitution. Health, food, water, even paid vacations, Croesus funds them all.

In comparison with the world in which we live today, where few enjoy these benefits, Croesus offers a kind of utopia. It is the one foreseen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), a utopia that, though little known in its own time, has become our own, with the rise in the past half-century of the international human rights movement — especially now that this movement has belatedly turned its attention to the economic and social rights that the declaration promised.

We increasingly live in Croesus’ world. It now goes without saying that any enlightened regime respects basic civil liberties, though the struggle to provide them is unending. Croesus hates repression, not merely indigence. He would never consent to a police state; he views the atrocities of war and occupation with horror; he glows with outrage when the word \”torture\” is mentioned. And he also considers it outrageous, even as the sole inhabitant of the top, to have to live in a world of destitution at the bottom. Croesus’ generosity, then, is as unprecedented as his wealth. How could anyone trivialize what Croesus has to offer?

Let me try. For socioeconomic equality — a ceiling on the wealth gap between rich and poor — is as absent from the Universal Declaration, as well as from the legal regimes and social movements that take it as their polestar, as it is from Croesus’ mind. True, the founding document of human rights announced status equality: According to its first article, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. In a world devastated by the evils of racism and genocide, this assertion was itself a revolutionary act. Yet status equality implies nothing more. Nothing in the scheme of human rights rules out Croesus’ world, with its absolute overlordship, so long as it features a floor of protection.

In itself, Croesus’ provision of a floor seems deeply flawed — immoral even — if it coincides with some of the widest inequality ever seen. This is the point of the thought experiment: Human rights, even perfectly realized human rights, are compatible with inequality, even radical inequality. Our question is whether we should continue to idealize Croesus’ world as we make our own more like his every day.

Writing the history of human rights in relation to that of political economy would involve two big stages, with a missed opportunity in between. The first stage, clearly, was the heroic age of the national welfare states after World War II. At that time, human rights reflected a small part of a larger consensus that united the otherwise bitter enemies in the new Cold War.

It was in part out of the experience of socioeconomic misery during the Great Depression, and not only the threatening Communist insistence on an absolute ceiling on inequality, that capitalist nations signed on so enthusiastically to welfarism. The ideal of welfarism never implied only social protection for the weak. It condemned the libertarian premises of 19th-century liberalism, championing the state’s role to intervene for the sake of the common good. Today philosophers use the term \”welfarism\” to refer to how to achieve that good, but in historical perspective we can define welfarism as the project to reinvent the terms of social interdependence under the auspices of a new kind of activist state, whether capitalist or communist, Christian or secular. Indeed, the reigning consensus across the Atlantic went far beyond a basic floor of protection to include its own exacting ideal of a ceiling on inequality, which to a remarkable extent was successfully built. It is perhaps because human rights offered a modest first step rather than a grand final hope that those rights were broadly ignored or rejected in the 1940s as the ultimate formulation of the good life.

The assertion of human rights in the 1940s, in other words, is best understood as one version of an update to the entitlements of citizenship on whose desirability and necessity almost everyone agreed after depression and war. Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a \”Second Bill of Rights\” included socioeconomic protections, but recent observers have missed the three most important facts about that call. One is that it marked America’s late and gingerly entry into a foreordained North Atlantic consensus, since welfarist politics came earlier to Europe and went further there after World War II. The second is that in promising \”freedom from want\” and envisioning it \”everywhere in the world,\” Roosevelt understated the egalitarian aspirations that every version of welfarism proclaimed, which went far beyond a low bar of indigence to guarantee a more equal society than before (or since). His highest promise was not a floor of protection for the masses but the end of \”special privilege for the few\” — a ceiling on inequality. Finally, although Roosevelt certainly hoped that those ideals would span the globe, welfarism was to be nationally rather than internationally organized — in stark contrast to the assumptions of both political economy and human rights as they prevail in our time.

Everywhere in the world, and not least in Roosevelt’s America, welfarism was both announced and achieved on a national basis. Leaving aside the minor exception of the International Labor Organization (founded after World War I to standardize workplace protections), neither socioeconomic rights nor a more ambitious welfarism was an international project, except insofar as individual nation-states experimenting with their own arrangements were supposed to answer to higher values of morality. Of course, the Universal Declaration is international in source and form, but essentially as a template for nations — \”a high standard of achievement for all peoples and nations,\” as its own preamble tells us.

This ought to be unsurprising. Welfarism had been national ever since it emerged during the crisis between the world wars. If \”national socialism\” did not triumph as either a slogan or a program, that was not only because the name was taken but mainly because a more ecumenical national welfarism — my label — structured a debate about how far (not whether) the state would intervene into economic affairs, with a range of options from tweaked capitalism to full-blown Communism.

Political economy ascended beyond the nation in the 1940s only for the sake of avoiding catastrophe if individual states failed in their obligation to manage their own economies, never for the sake of a global floor of protection, let alone a global ceiling on inequality. The original relationship between the Universal Declaration and the political economy was thus a low set of guarantees for which the national welfarist experiment should strive.

The harmony of ideals between the campaign against abjection and the demand for equality succeeded only nationally, and in mostly North Atlantic states, and then only partially.

There was, some hoped, the possibility of globalizing welfarism, so as to seek the floor of protection and ceiling on inequality that some nations had achieved internally. The Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, for example, held out this possibility. But his aspirations are now a distant memory. Similarly, the developing nations proposed a \”New International Economic Order\” that explicitly aimed at global equity, and its set of proposals had a moment of fame when the oil shock of 1973 stoked fears that the developed nations might face extractive prices for all commodities. Instead what the historian Mark Mazower has mordantly dubbed \”the real new international economic order\” of market fundamentalism triumphed. In the ultimate compromise vote, the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science was shared by Myrdal and Friedrich Hayek. One of them was forgotten; the other saw his fondest wishes come true. In the 1970s, starting in Britain, the United States, and the southern cone of Latin America, states retrenched from social provision, and politicians were elected (or, in Latin America, took power) who set out to destroy the national-welfarist consensus.

Why the practical victory of neoliberalism occurred when and how it did is a topic of heated debate. After the 1970s, Croesus’ world came closer and closer to being a reality, for his dreams became our dreams. To the extent that a utopia of justice survived, it was global but minimal, allowing for the worst state abuses to be decried, while in the socioeconomic domain it pictured a floor of protection without a ceiling on inequality.

Whatever its potential in theory, the human rights movement adapted in practice to the new ambiance. For one thing, the idea of human rights followed the transformation of political economy to a global outlook. Further, activists no longer gave priority to the agency of states to launch and manage national welfare but rather to the rights of individuals to be free from harm and to enjoy a rudimentary government that averts disaster and abjection. In the economic realm, social equality was forsaken as an ideal. In exchange for its cosmopolitanism, the human rights movement abandoned postwar egalitarianism in both theory and practice.

Consider the parallels between market fundamentalism and international human rights. Both have some relationship to an earlier liberalism that they intentionally revived in the face of 20th-century threats, whether totalitarian or merely social democratic. Both contemplated an individualistic and globalizing remedy to a national welfarism they regarded as too committed to the values of collectivity and sovereignty. Both were ignored in the 1940s — with the refugees of economic liberalism seeking asylum in the altitudes of Mont Pèlerin, where Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and others gathered in 1947 to ride out the storm, and a tiny band of human rights lawyers postponing their plans to a later era. Then both, in an unexpected reversal of fortune, experienced a breakthrough in the mid-1970s: Friedman was given the Nobel economics prize in 1976, and Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. Both, finally, have defined the decades since in their respective realms of international economics and international ethics.

In spite of the obvious objection that the Universal Declaration — like our generous Croesus — offers a floor of protection against the worst miseries of free markets, the apparently tight chronological relationship between human rights and neoliberalism is tantalizing. Could the rise of human rights really have nothing to do with the rise of market fundamentalism, or at least the decline of national welfarism?

The answer I would give — others are available — takes a middle way between those who claim that human rights escape scot-free from the charge that they abet market fundamentalism and those Marxists who reply that human rights is nothing but an apology for market fundamentalism. The journalist Naomi Klein’s folkloristic history of the \”shock doctrine\” rightly dates the possible connection to the 1970s but wrongly focuses on authoritarian violence as the most important thing to consider. She insightfully suggests that when the \”Chicago boys\” of neoliberalism were invited by Pinochet to strip down the state (except the military), the earliest human rights movements turned a blind eye to the economic reasons the violence was occurring. But the years since have shown that there is no enduring or necessary correlation between neoliberal policy and authoritarian violence. Inequality has exploded under capitalism and communism as well as under authoritarianism and democracy. And the problem is less the failure of rights movements to offer a better economic theory of the roots of violence — which is someone else’s job — than that they have had no significant effect in identifying, let alone confronting, inequality.

Against conspiratorial accounts that view human rights as a dastardly accomplice of shifts in the global political economy, I would emphasize the simple failures of human rights in the socioeconomic domain. For there is this extraordinary difference between market fundamentalism and human rights: The former has transformed the world, while the latter has been condemned merely to watch. Put another way, neoliberalism, not human rights, is to blame for neoliberalism. The tragedy of human rights is that they have occupied the global imagination but have so far contributed little of note, merely nipping at the heels of the neoliberal giant whose path goes unaltered and unresisted.

The biggest reason that human rights have been a powerless companion of market fundamentalism is that they simply have nothing to say about inequality. The chief worry about human rights is not that they destroy the very socioeconomic floors they are intended to build, let alone that they abet \”disaster capitalism\” (Klein’s phrase). In too many places, those floors never existed. And global capitalism is hardly the only or even the main source of state abuses. Indeed, there is no denying that after the 1970s, mainly thanks to Chinese marketization, more humans were brought out of poverty — and thus above a basic threshold of socioeconomic protection — than by any prior force in history. Rather, the problem is the one that Croesus’ example is supposed to illustrate: Low ambitions as much as the failure to realize them are what have made human rights the companion of market fundamentalism.

In short, the chief connection between human rights and market fundamentalism is a missed connection: Precisely because the human rights revolution has focused so intently on state abuses and has, at its most ambitious, dedicated itself to establishing a floor for protection, it has failed to respond to — or even much recognize — neoliberalism’s obliteration of the ceiling on inequality.

Could a different form of human rights correct this mistake? I doubt it. This is not to contradict the moral significance and possibly even historical success of human rights when it comes to combating political repression and restraining excessive violence. But whenever inequality has been limited, it was never on the sort of individualistic, and often antistatist, basis that human rights share with their market-fundamentalist doppelgänger.

And when it comes to mobilizing support, the chief tools of the human rights movement — the critique of state repression and the melioration of disasters of war — are simply not fit for use in the socioeconomic domain. It is in part because the human rights movement is not up to the challenge that it has been condemned to offer no meaningful alternative, and certainly no serious threat, to market fundamentalism.

In Herodotus’ Histories, Solon’s shaming of Croesus merely took the king down a peg. It was Persian armies that toppled him. The truth is that global socioeconomic justice, like local socioeconomic justice, would require redistribution from the rich to the poor, something that naming and shaming are never likely to achieve, even when supplemented by novel forms of legal activism.

Thinking historically, it can be no accident that the era of relative equality in the mid-20th century was also the age of totalitarian regimes and of the Cold War, which exacted an appalling toll on the world. At the zenith of national welfare, a floor of protection came linked to a ceiling on inequality, and they were built together only in the presence of frightening internal and external threats — a labor movement and a Communist menace. In response to those dangers, change came thanks to what the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon has dubbed a \”reformism of fear\” — the working class was placated while untold violence was brought against enemies, often at home and always abroad.

Yet if the human rights movement at its most inspiring has stigmatized such repression and violence, it has never offered a functional replacement for the sense of fear that led to both protection and redistribution for those left alive by the horrors of the 20th century. If a global welfarism is ever to be brought from the realm of the ideal, where it is currently exiled, it will need to be championed not only as a program but also by a movement. But it will not look like our human rights movement, which has become prominent as our world has become more like Croesus’ each day.

Author Bio: Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Harvard Law School. He is the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010). His new book, Christian Human Rights, is to be published next year by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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