How important are economic resources to the value of civil and political rights?
For those that endorse them, inherent in the modern conception of human rights is the idea that no individual is born with any god-given or natural difference in status from anyone else. Almost as a logical extension of this, it is held that we all ought to have the ability of personal self-determination. It is with this as a starting point that liberal thinkers have promoted civil and political rights (or negative rights as they have been referred to here) as necessities. We are all born equal, as it says in the US Declaration of Independence, so things like discrimination on grounds of race or gender are unacceptable, and it would be unfair to stop a person from exercising their freedom of speech. However, what use is freedom of speech if you have no money to get your pamphlet printed? And what use is it to not be racially discriminated against in a job application if you have and can afford no education? Clearly, as an individual, some economic resources are needed, and no one, free market liberal, socialist or otherwise, could deny this. More under debate is whether economic resources such as education need to be guaranteed by the government as a right of its citizens in order for civil and political rights to have value, or whether those rights are enough on their own, and this is what we will discuss here. Perhaps with civil and political rights in place, we have all we justly need to pursue economic goods for ourselves? This would be the view of certain liberals, who feel that a pure free market, with a state that defended rights such as property rights but not economic ones, would be the best mechanism for allowing humans the self-determination that most of us favour. This is a flawed theory, and this essay will look at it alongside alternative arguments that include mainstream thinking from the UN as well as radical perspectives such as the Marxist one. These arguments illustrate that economic resources are essential - and need to be given as rights if the majority of civil and political rights are to be useful.
It is not that liberals and libertarians are not in favour of a world in which everyone has access to education and healthcare. It is these things, along with general material wealth and a reduction in poverty that they believe the policies they favour would promote. Gerald O'Driscoll, Kim Holmes and Melanie Kirkpatrick, three contemporary pro-free market thinkers, compile an index of economic freedom by country. Countries are assessed on a number of categories, and the ones that score highly are ones where government spending is low, ones that have low or non-existent minimum wage rates and ones that have strongly enforced property rights. We can see from this that it is civil and political ('negative') rights that the authors approve of, while they treat social and economic ('positive' or 'second generation') rights somewhat with disdain. The reason many liberals disapprove of those rights is that they do not see them as an extension of civil and political rights, but as a curtailment of them. An employer's 'right' to pay the going rate for labour he receives is damaged by a law that says he must pay a minimum wage, and when he is obliged to pay tax this is a limitation on his rights to property. So liberal thinkers, in cases like this, think that economic resources as guaranteed by the government do not add value to civil and political rights, but by limiting economic freedom actually take their value away. Oddly, O'Driscoll and the others believe that only if a government does not guarantee economic resources to its impoverished will economic resources come their way.
At the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, it's good news to learn that economic freedom is on the rise worldwide…
The problem with this view is that it is based on a largely discredited theory of "trickle-down" economics, which states that as long as businesses are given the right to make money unhindered, their wealth will spread downwards through their employees and into the rest of the economy, and improve the conditions of the poorest. In fact, the consequence of such a policy is that the rich siphon economic resources away from the poor, who, from a foundation of poverty, have no opportunity to take advantage of their civil rights.
…If this trend continues, the world-wide growth in economic freedom will be measured by the increase in prosperity of more and more of the world's people. In future centuries, people may come to marvel over the concept of "poverty" and how some governments relegated their citizens to that awful state when they might instead have lifted them into prosperity.
The liberal perspective is in many ways a direct opposite to the one held by Karl Marx, who believed political and civil rights existed largely to prevent the poor from getting hold of economic resources. Marx derided the initial liberal conception of human rights, feeling, as Geoffrey Robertson puts it, that they were founded "not on man as citizen, but man as bourgeois". He believed that the right to have one’s property protected by the law was simply a way of making sure bosses were free to economically exploit the workforce without feeling threatened.
The capitalists have always used the term "freedom" to mean freedom for the rich to get richer and the poor to starve to death
If a business owner has the right to accumulate wealth through capital then he has power over others, including power to limit their access to economic resources to which they should in justice be entitled. In the absence of specific economic rights that will benefit the poor, political and civil rights have much value to the rich but are not just valueless but unhelpful for the working class. To illustrate this point we can look to the example of the penniless homeless man who some liberals would argue is "free" to dine at the Ritz. In terms of human rights, it is the first generation rights liberals support that enforce the freedom of the Ritz's owners not to have the man steal their food. On the other hand, it is social and economic rights that say the man has a right to eat, and so, if realistically this would not oblige the Ritz to directly part with their food for his sake, it does mean that rich business owners would have their property rights curtailed by having to pay tax. Marx makes a convincing argument that property rights are unhelpful to much of the world, and there are other instances of civil and political rights that benefit the rich but as a consequence harm the poor. Freedom of speech is a right that no one would object to, but without economic rights in place it means that those who can afford it are free to spread their views through institutions like the mass media, whereas those with less money and alternative opinions have their voices drowned out. That is why Marx had a disliking for the first generation of rights as they were; he certainly saw things like racial equality as a prerequisite for a just society, but he felt that they were valueless and in some cases harmful in a system that did not make sure that everyone's needs for economic resources were met.
The theoretical importance of economic rights has been recognised by many more modern political campaigners, such as Martin Luther King. King is famous for championing civil rights in the 1960s, and what we hear most about are his campaigns for racial equality. He spent the few years prior to his assassination, however, fighting for economic rights for the less well off. Journalists Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon quote him as calling for a "multiracial army of the poor" to descend on Washington:
He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" – appropriating "military funds with alacricity and generosity," but providing "poverty funds with miserliness."
We can see from Cohen and Solomon's article that King certainly thought the government needed to provide economic assistance if civil rights were to be useful.
Also telling is the media responses to King's later campaign the writers point out. Nowadays those activities are hardly mentioned, while at the time, Time magazine called his 'Beyond Vietnam' speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script from Radio Hanoi", and the Washington Post wrote that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people". This brings us to another point about the usefulness of free speech to those who do not have the money to be heard. The large media corporations’ agendas favour civil and political rights but not economic rights – but the owners are those who do not need economic rights, because they have money anyway. So we can learn from what happened when King spoke out as well as from the things he had to say. His right to free speech was helpful when it was similar civil rights he was calling for, but it was less helpful when he was calling for more economic resources for the poor, as those with lots of money were against him.
It is not just radical campaigners who are in favour of economic rights to back up civil and political ones. In fact, the United Nations endorses them, and in the face of those who regard them as being more like aspirations than rights, it states that they are essential. It also makes the point that the two types of rights are indivisible and interdependent. When people put them into separate categories, there is a temptation to think of them as being more distinct from each other than they are. The aim of human rights is to allow people freedom and autonomy, and all kinds of rights are needed for that. However, even people who agree with this often use the fact of the separation in types to assert that first generation rights can and must be enforced while it is forgivable if economic rights are sometimes not. The reason often given is that we are always able not to actively interfere with people's freedoms (i.e. their civil rights) but governments may not always be able to guarantee economic resources. A problem with this is that it does in fact cost money, not just to make useful, but to enforce civil rights, for example in the form of policing and defence, and this highlights the interrelatedness of the two categories of rights. What the UN says is that the right to things like food and shelter are an intrinsic part of human rights, in the same way as civil and political rights are, and the fact that economic rights may be difficult to enforce does not mean it is acceptable not to.
First and second generation rights are two sides of the same coin. Both types of rights are necessary for achieving the aim of universal human freedom, and if any right is missing, then that freedom cannot be achieved. Indeed, we have seen from a number of examples that civil and political rights themselves have little value if we do not possess economic resources, and that they can even have a negative effect, exacerbating the economic divide between rich and poor. It is not enough for governments to ensure only the first set of rights and assume that economic resources will not be problematic to attain for some, or will not be needed. The only way we can ensure that everyone and not just a privileged few are free to exercise their civil and political rights in a useful way, is by guaranteeing access to certain economic resources as a right too.
David Beetham, Democracy and Human Rights, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999
David Beetham (ed.), Politics and Human Rights, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995
Gerald O'Driscoll, Kim Holmes and Melanie Kirkpatrick, "Unfree, Hence Poor" from "Economic Freedom Marches On", The Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, 30 December 1999, reprinted in Christina Sommers and Fred Sommers (eds.), Vice & Virtue in Everyday Life, Fifth Edition, Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2001
Geoffrey Robertson QC, Crimes Against Humanity, The Struggle for Global Justice, Second Edition, London: Penguin, 1999
Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996
United Nations, Fact Sheet No. 16 (Rev. 1), The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights