What good is a right to life?

William Easterly has a strong series of posts on his blog arguing that a dialogue in terms of rights doesn’t help the poor:

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.

  • StephenR

    Timely post, and I broadly agree. I’ve just gone from financially contributing to Amnesty International (‘boo torture!’ etc) to a little more than that. They (we?) have an upcoming ‘Dignity’ campaign which as part of it seems to focus on poverty being a violation of human rights, which I am a little uneasy about for the reason that Easterly outlines in your quote. However there is plenty to mitigate this so i’m unlikely to run away screaming.

    So, I’d be interested to know what you don’t agree with in:

    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. …

    ?

  • @StephenR
    I don’t think you need someone who is a violator to have a right. Many rights require significant resources to provide. Consider the right to a fair trial. It’s not possible with current resources to provide a jury trial every time someone is accused of an offence. The resources available limit the extent to which the right can be exercised, but I don’t think it makes the concept of the right useless.

    I see unfettered human and civil rights as more of an aspirational ideal than a realistic goal 🙂

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  • John

    “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.”

    As far as I can see the West is blamed, especially big multinational corporations, for manipulating economic conditions and hogging resources.Colonialism also gets the blame.