When Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen released his book Development as Freedom in 1999, his argument that democratic freedoms had an economic component in the developing world was greeted with acclaim. Now a World Bank employee building upon Sen’s conception of positive and negative freedoms is arguing that the twin discourses of human rights and development need to reach an accord.
“In many instances when policy makers are producing policies in these countries, they pay only lip service to the role of economic freedom in their own development strategy,” said Jean-Pierre Chauffour, author of The Power of Freedom: Uniting Human Rights and Development, at the CATO Institute on April 23.
Chauffour argues that while many developing countries focus on “positive” human rights as embodied by social welfare programs such as housing, education, and health care, “negative” freedoms such as individual liberties and rule of law are a natural prerequisite to such programs.
“Negative rights …are the freedom from” repression and execution, namely, “the freedom that emerged from the philosophers of the Enlightenment,” he argued. (Some authors and historians dispute this, notably M. Stanton Evans in The Theme is Freedom: The Religious Roots of American Liberty). In contrast, positive rights are “not freedom from but right to, which are claims and an entitlement of society: the right to education, the right to health, to housing, to appearance in public without shame.”
“And the point is that these negative and positive rights at some level are quite inconsistent,” he argued. Chauffour asserted that, since the social programs associated with positive are all dependent on a “common underlying factor” of “income” the resulting discussion revolves around to how generate money.
Nonetheless, Chauffour finds a human rights approach to development essential. Referring to his professional experience, Chauffour said, “What I was struck is that there was an element of truth in terms of the paradigm shift that constitutes a rights-based approach as opposed to the usual development programs. Shifting the attention from what is a policy maker’s [paradigm] to the importance of rights I think is an innovative view, is a productive way of thinking about development because my own experience too that also government are involved in many programs that probably they should not be involved with…[such as]…Russian-Ukranian credit, controlling prices, being engaged in commercial activities and so on and so forth.”
George Washington University Professor Susan Aaronson characterized Chauffour’s book as “brave” and a “terrific” contribution to the debate, but “as an economic historian who has studied how ideas and institutions evolve over time I must stress that I disagree with his assertion of what human rights are human rights and the role that government should play in respecting human rights.”
“I guess I am a person of the left here, although a market-oriented person of the left, and I am really grateful to…Chauffour for reminding us that some form of capitalism, free markets for ideas, are enabling processes for human rights—and here’s where the research agenda comes in—but that relationship is not one-sided,” she later said.
“For citizens to realize these rights governments have a responsibility to put these rights into law as well as into effect and that means we at the national level, which is where elections are held, must make some difficult choices,” Prof. Aaronson argued. “It’s true that economic freedom is reduced when government puts in place taxes or regulations [that] are substituted for personal choice and voluntary exchange but human rights legislation can be one way to stimulate investment and economic growth and this is what I find in my own research.”
But need all human rights be enshrined in law? Recent hate crimes legislation passed by the House of Representatives adds weight to this question. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which is similar in provisions to the 2008 bill, allows federal authorities to prosecute violent interstate crimes as long as written certification is provided by “the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Associate Attorney General, or any Assistant Attorney General specially designated by the Attorney General” and the “certifying individual has reasonable cause to believe that the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person was a motivating factor underlying the alleged conduct of the defendant” in coordination with state interests.
According to the Catholic League, the House Judiciary Committee refused to permit an amendment to the bill that would have “excluded pedophilia from the definition of sexual orientation.”
Sen presciently outlined the dangers of legislating human rights too extensively in Development as Freedom. He wrote, “In fact, human rights may also exceed the domain of potential, as opposed to actual legal rights. A human right can be effectively invoked in most contexts even where its legal enforcement would appear to be most inappropriate” (emphasis original).
For example, “The moral right of a wife to participate fully, as an equal, in serious family decisions…may be acknowledged by many who would nevertheless not want this requirement to be legalized and enforced by the police. The ‘right to respect’ is another example in which legalization and attempted enforcement would be problematic, even bewildering.”
Thus, Sen argued, “it is best to see human rights as a set of ethical claims, which must not be identified with legislated legal rights.” The Harvard economist is due to publish his latest book The Idea of Justice this November, which “argues for a comparative perspective on justice,” according to the Harvard website.
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.