Poverty and Human Rights



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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17 Responses

  1. Avatar ChrisWWW says:

    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?Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to ChrisWWW says:

      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.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar ChrisWWW in reply to Jaybird says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to ChrisWWW says:

        “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?Report

        • Avatar ChrisWWW in reply to Jaybird says:

          Well, then what are the Universal Human Rights according to Jaybird?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to ChrisWWW says:

            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.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.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Will Wilkinson says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar Will Wilkinson in reply to Will says:

        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.Report

        • Avatar Will in reply to Will Wilkinson says:

          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?Report

          • Avatar Freddie in reply to Will says:

            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.Report

            • Avatar Will in reply to Freddie says:

              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.Report

  4. Avatar Kyle says:


    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?Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Kyle says:

      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?Report

  5. Avatar thalarctos says:

    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.Report