economics, ethics of human rights, philosophy, trade

The Ethics of Human Rights (66): Human Rights and “Spontaneous Order”

Friedrich von Hayek

Friedrich von Hayek

Hayek has famously argued that market economies create a spontaneous order, a more efficient allocation of societal resources than any intentional design or planning could achieve. This spontaneous order is superior to any order the human mind can design due to the specifics of the information requirements. Planners will never have enough information to carry out the allocation of resources reliably. Only individual economic actors can create an efficient and productive economy by engaging in free exchanges and by using as their information source the spontaneously developing price system. They can do so because they act on the basis of information with greater detail and accuracy – namely the price system – than the information available to any centralized authority.

Whatever the general merits of such invisible hand theories for the whole of society (I think those merits are real but often vastly overstated), it’s useful to ask if they also apply in the field of human rights. To what extent and in which circumstances can there be an equivalent of “spontaneous order” for human rights? Can it happen that people’s unintended and selfish actions promote respect for human rights? Or do human rights always require intentional and (centrally) planned policy?

First, this question has to be distinguished from a similar one: it’s true that people do have selfish reasons to promote human rights and often act on those reasons, as I’ve argued here. But in that case their human rights efforts are quite intentional. What I’m asking here is whether there are equally selfish but unintentional processes that promote human rights. And I think there are. Before listing some of them, however, let me make clear that those processes, although they are obviously beneficial and to be encouraged, will not make a huge difference, and that they certainly won’t be sufficient to bring about human rights utopia.

After some superficial thinking about this, I came up with three examples:

  • Trickle down economics is by now thoroughly discredited, especially when it’s used to justify tax cuts for the wealthy. Not all boats have risen on the rising tide, and the tide itself has recently come crashing down on all of us, the rich included. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s never any trickling down in an economy. When the government’s tax system allows the wealthy to retain a reasonable part of their wealth (let’s assume we know what “reasonable” means here), then some of their wealth does indeed flow down to those with lower incomes. That’s because the rich are more likely to spend the additional income, through either consumption or investment, thereby creating more economic activity, which in turn generates jobs and higher income for the less well-off. If that’s the case, then the right to a certain standard of living is promoted through the selfish and unintentional actions of the wealthy. Of course, this will never be enough to secure that right for everyone all of the time.
  • As Becker has argued, free competition between firms reduces discrimination. A racially biased firm will want to hire whites, even if they are more expensive and less qualified than some non-whites. But a firm will only do so if it’s not under pressure from competitors. In a competitive market, other firms can and will produce the same goods at cheaper prices by hiring the cheaper/better black person. The biased firm will then be forced to do the same. It may remain biased – opinions on such matters are notoriously hard to change – but it no longer has the luxury of acting on its bias.
  • There’s a strong tendency towards urbanization in developing countries. Large cities offer more economic opportunities, and jobs in factories, shops or trade offer some advantages compared to agriculture (e.g. weather independence, stable income etc.). When women move to cities and work in factories, they usually have less children – they don’t need children to work the land – and they become more independent of traditional patriarchal structures that are more common in the countryside. This does not only improve the wellbeing of women. Having less children means that the remaining children are more likely to attend school, because school is expensive. Female children in particular benefit from this education. Hence, rights such as education and non-discrimination are automatically advanced by urbanization. More here.

More posts in this series are here.

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One thought on “The Ethics of Human Rights (66): Human Rights and “Spontaneous Order”

  1. Pingback: The Ethics of Human Rights (75): Should We Economize on Virtue? | P.a.p.-Blog // Human Rights Etc.

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