We all know that economic inequality has reached grotesque, even obscene, levels around the world. And the gap between a tiny group at the top and everyone else continues to grow.
But is inequality a human rights concern?
As Ignacio Saiz and Gaby Oré Aguilar [ht: ms] explain, the ongoing debates about inequality
have rarely made reference to human rights. In turn, the human rights community has paid very little attention to economic inequality. While inequality on grounds such as gender, race and disability have long been core human rights concerns, gross inequalities in economic status remain largely unchallenged by human rights law and advocacy.
The question then is, is it possible or even desirable to make inequality a central concern of the global human-rights movement?
The problem is that human rights have mostly been articulated in terms of individual rights—such as in the “right to life, liberty, and security of person” (as in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And inequality raises a very different set of questions, not about individual rights but about economic and social relations, about the relationshop between smaller and larger groups of people within society. Ultimately, growing inequality challenges the idea of “just deserts” and raises the prospect that one small group on top is “ripping off” everyone else, who are forced to have the freedom to continue to work for their benefit.
That’s what Samuel Moyn is getting at when he argues that “even perfectly realized human rights are compatible with radical inequality.”
The assertion of human rights in the 1940s began as one version of the update to the entitlements of citizenship on whose desirability and necessity almost everyone agreed after depression and war. Franklin Roosevelt issued his famous call for a “second bill of rights” that included socioeconomic protections in his State of the Union address the year before his death. But in promising “freedom from want” and envisioning it “everywhere in the world,” Roosevelt in fact understated the actually egalitarian aspirations that every version of welfarism proclaimed. These went far beyond a low bar against indigence so as to guarantee a more equal society than before (or since). His highest promise, in his speech, was not a floor of protection for the masses but the end of “special privilege for the few”—a ceiling on inequality.
But 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. Whatever success occurred on both fronts thus came with sharp limitations—and especially the geographical modesty that the human rights idiom has since successfully transcended. It is, indeed, as if globalization of the norms of basic protection were a kind of reward for the relinquishment of the imperative of local equality.
Even the decolonization of the world, though unforeseen at the time of the Universal Declaration that accommodated itself to the empires of the day, hardly changed this relationship, since the new states themselves adopted the national welfarist resolve. The burning question was what would happen after, especially in the face of the inability of the global south to transplant national welfarism and the wealth gap that endures to this day between two sorts of countries: rich and poor.
The fact is, while the gap between countries has decreased somewhat (at least in terms of national income per capita), the gap within countries (especially within the North) has been growing—and the human-rights movement has mostly been “a helpless bystander of market fundamentalism.”
Philip Alston offers a very different view:
the human rights community needs to address directly the extent to which extreme inequality undermines human rights. One starting point is to clearly recognize that there are limits to the degree of inequality that can be reconciled with notions of equality, dignity and commitments to human rights for everyone. Governments should formally commit to policies explicitly designed to eliminate extreme inequality. Economic and social rights must become an integral part of human rights programs. A concerted campaign to ensure that every state has a social protection floor in place would signal a transformation in this regard. That concept—initially elaborated by the International Labour Organization, subsequently endorsed by the UN and now even by the World Bank—draws upon the experience of a range of countries around the world that have successfully tackled poverty in terms of programs with universal coverage, formulated in terms of human rights and of domestic legal entitlements.
But, in all honesty, the challenge facing the human-rights movement is to pick up where Alston stops. He leaves us with the idea of a “social protection floor,” which is pretty much where we were at when Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented his “second bill of rights” in 1944.
The real obstacle is to make sense of the conditions and consequences of the social “ripping-off” that serves as the basis of the extreme and growing levels of inequality we are witnessing today. The human-rights community has succeeded in making it obvious that we need to eradicate traditional forms of slavery as a violation of fundamental human rights.
As I see it, the human-rights movement now needs to take a step forward and confront the modern problem of class exploitation based on the continued existence of wage-slavery.