On May 12, 1937, more than 25,000 workers went out on strike at the Jones and Laughlin Corporation steel plant in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. The next day a photographer caught this scene of striking steelworkers preventing Reverend H.L. Queen, a storekeeper at the plant, from crossing the picket lines. In the scuffle Queen suffered a black eye and bit a picket’s hand. The strike ended the next day, after J and L management agreed to negotiate with the union if a majority of its employees voted to join the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. (source)
You can often hear the claim that economic rights such as the right to healthcare, food and work are not really rights but merely desirable goals. A first reply would be that all types of rights, not just economic rights, are also goals. Free speech is just as much a goal as healthcare, food and work. But not all goals are rights, so it’s reasonable to ask if economic rights are really rights. What is a right? It can be different things, but it should, minimally, impose a duty. A duty implies feasibility. Ought implies can. There’s no point imposing duties on people which they are unable to respect.
A typical objection against economic rights is that they impose precisely such duties, duties which are not and will not be feasible in many countries in the world. Imposing a right to healthcare, food and work in Somalia, for instance, is imposing an illusion. It’s just too expensive. Hence, because they impose impossible duties, economic rights can’t really be rights. They are merely goals.
Now, I did argue before that the relative expensiveness of economic rights compared to “freedom” rights is often very much exaggerated. Which is why Somalia and other countries have also failed to secure freedom rights successfully. Part of their lack of success is due to their unwillingness to leave people be – which they could at no expense – but another part is due to their unwillingness and inability to fund the institutions necessary to enforce people’s freedom. Yet, no one claims that these failures turn free speech into a mere goal or aspiration rather than a right.
Furthermore, the international treaties that impose respect for economic rights have taken the cost criticism into account. They often frame economic rights in terms of “progressive realization”. Countries don’t violate the treaties if they can show that they have taken all possible measures to ensure the progressive – as opposed to immediate – realization of economic rights.
If we turn rights into goals, we lose a lot. Goals are a lot weaker in terms of moral force than rights. Those who are without food can no longer demand that something is done, that they are the victims of an injustice, and that they have a right to food. All they can do is ask or beg that a certain social goal, one among probably thousands, is taken a bit more seriously.
Finally, is it really so farcical to impose duties that exceed people’s abilities to comply? Aren’t we doing that all the time? It’s common to view “telling the truth” as a moral duty, a very strong one even. And yet, we all know that this exceeds our abilities to comply. We lie all the time, and if you deny this, you’re lying. The best we can do, morally, is precisely “progressive realization”: trying to lie as little as we can, and less than we’re used to. The same progressive realization rescues economic rights as rights: rather than imposing a duty to realize the goal inherent in the rights, they impose a duty to try to realize that goal.
What Work Is, by Philip Levine
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
A lot of gender discrimination is informal and cultural, but some of it is still entrenched in legal norms. Often those norms are justified on the basis of a vague narrative about the need to protect women. That’s the case of many laws prohibiting the employment of women in certain sectors of the economy. Such limitations exist in 48 countries. The human rights consequences are numerous:
- These limitations violate the right to work.
- They also make women dependent on the income of their husbands, and this dependence can be used by husbands to entrench other forms of gender discrimination.
- Labor market restrictions force women into marriages they would otherwise not choose, and they probably encourage child marriage.
- Because women live longer, tend to have smaller saving rates and are not allowed to inherit in certain countries, labor market restrictions can result in poverty in old age.
Some of the consequences of hate speech are human rights violations; others are not. Only the former are good reasons to criminalize hate speech and carve out an exception to the right to free speech. Rights can only be limited for the sake of other rights or the rights of others (more here). Let’s go over the different possible consequences of hate speech and see whether or not they imply rights violations.
Hate speech lowers self-esteem in the targets. People who are repeatedly subjected to hateful remarks or jokes about their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. tend to develop feelings of inferiority, stress, fear and depression. Of course, there’s no right not to be depressed, fearful, stressed etc. Therefore, we can say that hate speech should be protected speech when its consequences are limited to these. These are harmful and brutal consequences, but not harmful or brutal enough to be rights violations. We should be concerned about them and try to do something, but this “something” doesn’t include limiting free speech rights. However, people who are extremely intimidated and stressed and who have a deeply negative view of themselves tend to isolate themselves. Isolation isn’t a human rights violation, but couldn’t we argue that willfully isolating people means violating some of their rights? Isolated people don’t speak, assemble, associate etc. In that case, we could argue for limits on the rights of hate mongers.
Hate speech often has even more extreme consequences. Targets of hate speech may feel compelled to leave their homes and move elsewhere, to quit their jobs, and to avoid certain parts of town and public areas. This is a direct violation of their freedom of movement, freedom of residence, right to work and possibly even their right to a certain standard of living. It’s obvious that the free speech rights of the haters should in such cases be deemed less important than the many rights of their victims.
Hate speech can also means invasion of privacy, for example in the case of repeated phone calls, hate mail, or stalking.
Violations of property rights are another possible consequence of hate speech. Hate speech sometimes means vandalism, graffiti (sometimes even inside the homes of the targets), cross burning in someone’s front lawn etc. These cases of hate speech already start to resemble hate crime.
The line between hate speech and hate crime is even thinner when speech is not just hateful but an incitement to violence. For example, hate speech can provoke race riots; it can help hate groups with an existing tendency toward violence to attract new recruits etc. (a larger group will feel more confident to engage in hate violence). And what if hate speech allows hate groups to gain control of (local) government? That would probably lead to discriminating policies and laws.
This overview of possible and actual consequences of hate speech should concern those of us who care about more human rights than just freedom of speech, and who know that different human rights aren’t always in harmony with each other. In some circumstances, some rights need to give way in order to protect other rights. That’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the value pluralism inherent in the system of human rights.
Read more posts in this series here.
- Rashad Robinson: ‘Dr. Laura’ Is No Free Speech Victim (huffingtonpost.com)
- Media Watchdogs Ask FCC to Track Internet Hate Speech (reason.com)
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a right to work, as well as a right to “free choice of employment and to just and favorable conditions of work”. That right protects us against slavery, forced labor, unfair wages, and unsafe working conditions. The same article offers a right “to protection against unemployment”. That clause can be interpreted in two ways:
- it can mean that if we’re out of work through no choice of our own, we should get help to find work (either from the state or from our fellow citizens)
- or it can mean that if we’re involuntarily unemployed, we should get some monetary compensation for the loss of salary or income and the financial stress that we suffer as a result.
It’s the latter interpretation that is made more explicit in another article, number 25, of the Declaration which mentions “the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.
So it seems we have a right to unemployment insurance or unemployment benefits. The obvious justification for this right is material wellbeing: the absence of poverty is also a right. For a link between unemployment insurance and poverty reduction, take the case of the U.S.:
However, there are some other types of justification of unemployment insurance. Some call UI an “automatic stabilizer” in times of economic hardship: Keynes taught us that both unemployment and falling wages lower consumer demand and can lead to even greater unemployment. Stingy or absent unemployment benefits lower demand even more. In that view, which does sound plausible, unemployment insurance isn’t just a good in itself and for the individuals concerned (as well as for those who may someday suffer unemployment and who can suffer some amount of stress because of the risk), but is necessary for the periodic regeneration of capitalism and for the smoothing of the business cycle. Benefits are also efficiency enhancing because of another reason:
One of the possible advantages that is touted for more generous UI (including by Mike Konczal) is the idea that it allows for better job matching—people can wait to find the right long-term job opportunity instead of taking the first job that becomes available. (source)
It’s better to have people perform the jobs they prefer because they’re likely to be most efficient there. Hence, it’s better to give them more time to find the right job, and to give them unemployment benefits so that they have the time.
Others, however, call this right a foolish invention because it destroys incentives to work at the level of individuals, and reduces incentives to create wealth at the level of companies (because of the relatively high tax rates that come with the welfare state, that in turn comes with benefits such as unemployment insurance). It doesn’t enhance efficiency at all, on the contrary. But the evidence for this view is not so strong:
Evidence suggests that individuals do prolong their job search when they receive unemployment benefits, partly because they are looking for the best possible job. But the magnitude of this effect is likely to be small.
A recent study … compared lengths of unemployment among those eligible for unemployment insurance with those who were not eligible. Their statistical analysis suggests that extended benefits accounted for only four-tenths of 1 percentage point of the nearly 6 percentage point increase in the national unemployment rate over the last few years. (source)
Still others call the right to unemployment benefits a foolish invention, not because of reasons that have to do with overall economic efficiency, but because they believe that the unemployed have no one else to blame but themselves for their misfortune, and therefore can’t demand help from others. Those others can voluntarily decide to help the unemployed, in a spirit of charity that extends even to self-inflicted misfortune, but the unemployed don’t have a right based on moral concerns to demand such help. And indeed, there may be some logic to such a view: if we all believe strongly that we deserve what happens to us, we are likely to work hard, show discipline and self-control and hence achieve success. Conversely, those who think that the causes of their misfortune are always outside of their control, are not likely to invest much effort in their lives. However, morality and life are much more complicated than that. The best efforts can lead to disaster, and apathy can lead to success. People who are not the sole authors of their success can be required to help those who are not the sole authors of their misfortune.
More on unemployment.
Statistics can be dangerous, as is evident from the previous posts in this series. People making them can make mistakes, or can use them to deceive. And people reading them can misinterpret them. Our treatment of human rights on this blog depends heavily on the use of statistics, and so the quality of those statistics is important. This blog series mentions some of the things that can go wrong.
Statistical mistakes or statistical lies occur in all kinds of fields, not only the field of human rights. Here’s one that is often made in discussions on climate change. It has to do with measuring growth rates (which we also do for human rights).
Kevin Drum has a quote from George Will, and replies with a graph:
George Will [claimed] that “If you’re 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life”. … If you’re 29, you became an adult in 1998, and average global temperatures last year were lower than they were in 1998. So: no global warming in your adult lifetime.
The earth is actually cooling! But as about a thousand serious climate researchers have pointed out, it’s not true. Global temps have been trending up for over a century, but in any particular year they can spike up and down quite a bit. In 1998 they spiked up far above the trend line and last year they spiked below the trend line. So 2008 was cooler than 1998.
Of course, you can prove anything you want if you cherry pick your starting and ending points carefully enough. For example: The year 2000 was below the trend line and 2005 was above it. Temps were up 0.4°C in only five years! The seas will be boiling by 2050!
Here’s another example of cherry picking start or ending dates in a time series so as to highlight or drown a growth rate (positive or negative), this time more closely related to the issue of human rights (more specifically the right to work).* Compare these two graphs (in the first graph, just look at the red line for “unemployment rate”, the rest isn’t important, for now – I’ll come back to it in a future post because there are other problems with this first graph):
The first graph makes the – honest? – mistake of starting in 2003, giving the impression that Bush’s economic policies brought down unemployment. The second graph, however, gives some more historical perspective because it starts earlier, and shows that unemployment was much lower before Bush (Bush took office in 2000) and that the decrease during his presidency wasn’t so spectacular as the first graph suggests.
Of course, you can’t hold a president responsible for unemployment, at least not exclusively. But then neither should you tweak graphs so as to give the impression that the president’s policies have a beneficial impact (read the title of the first graph).
* Technically, this isn’t a growth rate, just a time series, but the same logic holds.