The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. …
Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income?
I don’t agree with Easterly’s definition of a right, but I do agree with him that rights are not enough to spur action. Few would disagree that, if there are rights, there is a right to life. Who violates that right when people die of starvation and malnutrition? It is hard to point to a person or institution responsible, but that doesn’t mean that the right doesn’t exist.
Wherever there is scarcity of resources there will be a problem upholding people’s rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The problem is that the existence of a right doesn’t guarantee the means or resources to exercise the right. That’s what Easterly is driving at here: if we focus on whether people are accorded rights, we lose sight of how to provide the means to allow people to exercise them.
A rights-based dialogue may give us aspirational goals for what be should be able to enjoy, but they don’t tell us how to achieve those goals. Poor people may well have the right to freedom of movement and travel, but not the means to achieve it. That they have the right helps little when they are struggling just to survive. Rights are important, but they are not enough.
That is where economists come in. Our methods allow us to weigh the best approach to allocation of resources to maximise welfare. If we apply weightings to the importance of the various rights and consider the means at our disposal then we can figure out the best way to mitigate suffering. Then we have clear goals. Then we can say ‘if you want to help uphold right x then you should put your money here and you can help y people’.
Rights aren’t irrelevant, they’re just one part of the path to helping people. They’re the ultimate goal. But like I always say in class at uni, economics is the science of saving the world and that’s what Easterly is telling us: you need to put weights on things and figure out what actions need to be taken to achieve anything.