Sunday, May 31, 2015

Liberation from Economic Oppression: A Human Right or a Moral Obligation of Faith?

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr. 

            A comment to last week’s blog on De oppresso liber prompted this question:  Can the poor and needy be liberated from economic oppression with social and economic human rights, much like those suffering political oppression can be liberated by civil and political rights?

            First, a distinction should be made between human rights and the moral obligations of faith.  All the ancient scriptures make it a moral obligation of faith to care for the poor and needy (e.g. widows and orphans), but there is no mention of human rights.  But can the moral obligation of faith to care for the poor and needy be made into a legal right?  Yes.  Many nations have created welfare programs that do just that; but there is a real problem making public welfare laws into universal human rights.

            The problem is that universal human rights must be based on a clear and unambiguous standard to be enforceable, and social and economic (public welfare) rights do not meet that criteria since they depend upon a nation’s economic capability to provide them.  Even so, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966) purports to define universal economic and social human rights for the poor and needy.  It complements The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) which defines civil and political (or libertarian) human rights that prevent political oppression.  The difference is that the rights of the ICCPR are universally enforceable, while those of the ICESCR are not.

            Craig A. Stern has described the economic and social rights of ICESCR as positive human rights and the civil and political rights of the ICCPR as negative human rights.  In the context of East Africa, Stern points out that the entitlements of ICESCR cannot be enforced, thus undermining respect for the rule of law and degrading the concept of human rights (see Notes).

            Economic and social benefits for the poor and needy are more like aspirational political objectives than legal rights, and most nations have laws and policies that provide economic and social benefits.  The U.S. Social Security program is in that category, as are Medicare, Medicaid and the new Affordable Care Act; but they are clearly beyond the capability of most nations and therefore could not be enforced as universal human rights.

            Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains why nations with a high poverty rate, like those in Africa, favor positive economic and social rights over negative civil and political rights.  The emphasis of Western libertarian democracies on libertarian human rights reflects their relative prosperity and ability to provide adequate welfare programs for their poor and needy.

            Political sentiment in the U.S. does not favor extensive public welfare benefits, since any government program represents an encroachment of individual rights, and there has always been an extensive network of charities providing assistance for the poor and needy.  But changes in the economy and demographics since 2008 are forcing the U.S. and other libertarian democracies to balance individual rights with providing for the common good, including public welfare benefits for those who have fallen out of a shrinking middle class.

              The real test of a nation’s faith is whether its people choose to live by the voluntary moral obligations of their faith rather than by the coercive standards of the law.  The law necessarily restricts freedom, but it is also necessary to protect our freedoms, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech.  In Islamic democracies such as Egypt, those freedoms are denied by apostasy and blasphemy laws that are part of Islamic law (Shari’a), which also denies women and religious minorities the equal protection of the law.  Those fundamental freedoms are in the ICCPR, and where they are denied by religious laws, as in Egypt, religion exacerbates poverty.

            The comment to last week’s blog raised the question whether U.S. foreign policy liberates people from economic oppression or contributes to it.  That depends upon one’s perspective.  Capitalism and free enterprise are an essential outgrowth of economic freedom, but they can be as oppressive as they are liberating.  The unrestrained greed and competition that fuels capitalism can be oppressive, but free enterprise is essential to economic opportunity and prosperity.  The challenge for libertarian democracy is to balance political and economic freedom with government regulations that prevent economic oppression and the exploitation of the poor.  That is a delicate balancing act that will be different for different nations.

            The opposing philosophies of Ayn Rand’s self-centered objectivism and the altruistic and communal principles of Judaism, Christianity and Islam illustrate the challenge for libertarian democracies in an age when individual rights are undermining traditional communal values.    Wall Street capitalists are more objectivist and individualistic than altruistic or communal, with the average CEO now earning almost 300 times the salary of the average worker.  If that trend is not corrected the declining middle class could be the death-knell of libertarian democracy.

            The solution is not religious or secular law to mandate equality, but people of faith who voluntarily exercise their political and economic freedom with compassion for the poor and needy.  The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor as oneself puts love over law.  If people of faith could live by that principle they may not completely eliminate poverty but they could liberate many of the poor and needy from economic oppression.                       

Notes and References to Resources:
Related blogs at Blog/Archives are Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; Love over law: a principle at the heart of legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice, posted March 8, 2015; and Faith as a source of morality and law: the heart of legitimacy, posted April 12, 2015. 

See Craig A. Stern, Human Rights or the Rule of Law—the Choice for East Africa, SSRNMarch 6, 2015, at  Accord, see Mark R. Amstutz, International Ethics: Concepts, Theories and Cases in Global Politics, Third Edition, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008, pp 95-102, cited in Barnes, Religion,Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at  page 10 and note 26 (and other cites therein).   

Harkristi Harkrisnowo is a Muslim lawyer, professor and Director General for Human Rights in the Indonesian Ministry of Justice, who emphasized the need to distinguish between legal rights and political aspirations.  See Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at page 16 and note 61.


  1. I see what you mean by distinguishing economic welfare rights as "positive" (as in, the gov't owes me X) and civil liberties rights as "negative" (as in, the gov't needs to keep its hands off my X). But it seems to me that we ought to question that way of divvying things up and concluding that one side can be enforced by law, the other side can't. Because that division makes it hard to see how the two depend on each other.
    Partly I just mean the obvious way that economic power can buy political power, since people with money get to influence elections and policy decisions that will keep their businesses under-regulated, making it easier for them to pass on the cost of their business (which might be, say, draining the water table and polluting the soil) to, say, poor people (whose children will get respiratory disease and miss lots of school, and who may have to leave their homes, which maybe were their only or best financial asset, if their wells run dry) who don't vote much.
    I'm also thinking of the recent decision in Texas to ban cities from banning fracking in their limits. I remember hearing on NPR (of course that's where I'd hear it!) a member of the Texas State Legislature saying something to the effect that "we have to protect Vantage Energy from the regulatory grasping of small cities." Usually the people who have cried out that federal regulation is killing jobs or infringing on states' or school districts' rights are happy to allow for local oversight; this struck me as someone finally saying what was really the case, namely, any regulation that stops an enterprise from doing whatever long-term damage it wants in order to reap some short-term profit for itself is against free enterprise and bad.
    I realize my first hypothetical example, which is roughly based on big agriculture vs. small homeowners, is not the same as the second specific example, but in both cases it seems to me the same thing is going on--that industry is able to keep laws in place that favor it, laws that look like negative rights (hey, we just want less regulation here, and more freedom to do our business!). But really those laws are positive rights, insofar as such laws ensure that money goes to these people over here and not to those people over there. Because Vantage Energy's profits are not self-evidently the fruits of the labor of some hardworking entrepreneur; it's money that comes from depleting what is arguably a common resource in the ground.
    In this way the law, abiding by the common sense division between "freedom from" and "freedom to," masks the way that industry isn't just asking for freedom from regulation; it's asking for freedom to appropriate some good that only appears to be out there up for grabs, but which really, by some other equally rational measure, belongs to the public.
    This was meant to be a quick comment, and I think I've just spent 20 minutes reinventing the most elementary version of a Marxist wheel! But I stand by my initial unease with the premise that "positive economic rights can't be enforced and are inherently different from negative political rights that can be enforced." Though, again, you've laid out that division above in a way that makes lots of sense.

  2. Your comments go to the heart of economic justice, a topic touched on in the blog on Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice (March 8, 2015).
    The issues you raise involve the exploitation of people and resources by private businesses and are best dealt with by domestic law and regulation, while universal human rights (my topic) are a matter of international law and govern only what each and every nation must do, or refrain from doing. My last 2 blogs illustrate a dichotomy that is unique to international law and human rights (positive versus negative rights), but it doesn’t apply to domestic laws.
    I would go further than you and argue that more regulation is needed to prevent the big banks and corporations of Wall Street from exploiting the tattered remains of the middle class. Of course, consumers bear significant responsibility for foolish choices in buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have (on credit), but big banks and big business are clearly in league with the government in their unrestrained exploitation of the public. When CEOs are paid salaries almost 300 times that of their average employees, something is wrong, and we shouldn’t have to embrace communism to prevent it.
    Plato was right. Democracy is flawed since the mindless masses don’t know what’s in their own best interests, but communism is worse since its leaders have proven to be authoritarian tyrants. We need a benevolent dictator, but none exists. That makes democracy the least undesirable of the alternatives available, and I still don’t understand why our elected leaders can’t do a better job of balancing our individual freedom with providing for the common good.
    Neo-libertarians claim government programs encroach on our freedoms—and they do—but they support more government spending on social programs like Social Security, Medicare and now the Affordable Care Act than do most socialist countries. It’s because they benefit from the social programs they support; they just don’t like public welfare programs for the poor, like Medicare and Food Stamps.
    I’m not a populist ready to support either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders for President, but I am disgusted with most of the others. There seems to be no one who values individual rights (other than Rand Paul who’s over the edge) and is willing to balance them with providing for the common good.
    Keep the distinction between domestic law and international law in mind when you consider issues of economic justice. There is little we can do about economic justice through universal (social and economic) human rights, but we can do a lot to improve economic justice through domestic law and regulation; and we’re in agreement that we need to do more of the latter.

  3. There is a new management paradigm that promotes the idea of knowledgeable consumers in developed nations leveraging their buying power to influence and promote fair trade practices that support economic and social justice throughout the globe. It is my view that the informed consumer, who patronizes an establishment that is part of John Mackey's Whole Foods chain of grocery stores, will exert a more significant positive economic, environmental and humane impact than a consumer shopping in the grocery section of Wal-Mart. The link below connects to a Forbes blog authored by Steve Denning. I believe this new paradigm is a viable alternative to traditional forms of managing a for-profit company with benefits that impact the entire global system of interdependent suppliers and buyers: