A recent conference on “The Future of Human Rights” raises the question of whether human rights advocacy masks a dual agenda of economic distribution and entitlement expansion. Hosted by Georgetown Law and the progressive Center for American Progress, the panelists offered clear evidence why human rights expansions demand matching government enforcement in order to ensure “inclusive,” egalitarian markets.
Raymond Offenheiser, a speaker at the conference, explained why human rights demand government intervention. “I think the important thing to me….however, is the issue of shrinking the state in the era of globalization, and particularly when you think about the fact that a human rights agenda, whether it’s a civil/political right or economic/political right, that there’s a guarantor of rights and certainly that’s been the state,” he said. The President of Oxfam America, Offenheiser also criticized the International Monetary Fund for promoting privatization, market reforms, and a shrinking state apparatus.
Such efforts have led to a neoliberal backlash, he argues. “And in many parts of the world, also in Latin America, we’re seeing major shifts in the way voting populations are voting for heads of state, and a lot of that is about dissatisfaction with the neoliberal model and about [marks] of the development, and so forth,” he said. Offenheiser added, “And people are looking, and they don’t have a new model in mind, this is not about a radical return about socialism or communism, but it’s the search for a new way forward.”
Friedrich A. Hayek might have choice words for Offenheiser’s “third way” argument. In fact, he wrote an entire book in the 1940’s to debunk this theory.
Offenheiser’s third way argument has become a popular interpretation of Latin America’s current penchant for populist leaders such as Hugo Chavez. However, a closer examination of Latin American economies does not always indicate the “failure” of neoliberalism, but may reflect ongoing inequities within Latin American markets. Ruling landowners and traditional elites restrict access to domestic markets and resources, thereby perpetuating social inequity. The “trickle down” effect may not occur in those societies where corrupt practices and bureaucratic barriers prevent market access.
Similarly, Ana Eiras, a former Heritage economic policy expert, writes, “So, the answer to our original question—why liberalism did not deliver prosperity in Latin America—is that liberalism did not deliver prosperity because it never existed.”
More funding, less discrimination
Leonard Rubenstein’s expansive suggestions for healthcare reform could be particularly damaging to the economy.
For Rubenstein, the President of Physicians for Human Rights, elevating healthcare to the level of a human right would give it an abnormal level of precedence in U.S. foreign policy. It would also supply citizens with the “belief that what happens to them and their own ill health isn’t just bad luck, isn’t tragedy, isn’t circumstance, but is a violation of their human rights and they can act together, they can act in solidarity in the developing world [and] in the developed world to address those violations that have cheated them,” he argues.
One might ask Rubenstein how illness is a “violation” by those who “have cheated” citizens. Exactly who is the perpetrator for all sickness worldwide? If so, who can the victims sue for justice?
By transforming healthcare into a right, it also gains precedence over extraneous issues such as property, argues Rubenstein. “And are we to say that intellectual property protection trumps these rights laws? Well no!” Rubenstein said, referring to the controversy over drug companies’ international patent protections.
Arguing that PEPFAR’s aid for AIDS victims had kicked other patients off the rolls, Rubenstein said that a “a human rights approach simply disallows that because a human rights approach says you must be comprehensive and you must meet standards to make sure healthcare is available to all…,workers are available to all, and that you don’t prioritize one disease over another. (emphasis added).
Bioethics students, doctors, and healthcare providers alike usually understand that such an approach simply cannot work in the real world. Utilitarian ethics dictate that healthcare professionals ration medical resources in a way that serves the largest group possible, thereby providing the greatest benefit possible using our inevitably finite resources.
Rubenstein, on the other hand, seems to have inculcated a Kantian ethic, denying that “moral imperatives” can ever conflict. Either that or he denies that resources are too finite to overcome disease worldwide.
It is interesting to consider what underserved populations Rubenstein would like to make sure get comprehensive health services. “We also have to make sure that [PEPFAR aid] reaches populations that are traditionally despised and marginalized, people like injecting drug users,” he said.
Social Justice Redefined
Offenheiser called the rhetoric of human rights the “lingua franca” of “social justice” worldwide and condemned the U.S. for dragging its feet on such issues.
Not that this agenda, which will inevitably demand more money from taxpayers, will be openly admitted to anytime soon.
Eric Schwartz of US Connect suggests that human rights activists simply bill their projects as “justice” issues when faced with American resistance. “Now I think there are a number of issues where if you frame it in a justice frame, you at least help the process of continuing the notion of rights without actually putting their face in it, if you know what I mean,” said Schwartz. He later added, “So my point is that all these various—when you’re trying to do well in the world, you can insinuate a rights-based approach into it over time, and I think that’s another strategy worth thinking about.”
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.