The Rights of the World’s Poor: A Reply to Hassoun

Most Haitians live in dire poverty. Are Americans morally responsible for their plight?

In our political climate, this is an ideologically polarized issue. Liberals and progressives tend to say, “Yes, we’re morally responsible.” Moderates, conservatives, and libertarians tend to say, “No, we’re not.”

Interestingly, however, there are hypotheticals under which this polarization would vanish. Consider the following policies:

1. The U.S. government physically confiscates half the Haitian food supply.
2. The U.S. government levies a 50% tax on Haiti’s inhabitants, giving them nothing in return.
3. The U.S. government imposes an unprovoked naval blockade on Haiti.

In these cases, liberals, progressives, moderates, conservatives, and libertarians would agree that Americans—or at least Americans who support their government’s policies—are morally responsible for Haitian poverty. Why? Because the U.S. government would clearly be aggressing against innocent human beings. In philosophical jargon, we would be violating Haitians’ negative rights—their right to keep their own stuff, and their right to trade their stuff with willing partners around the world.

Now consider a slightly different policy:

4. The U.S. government forbids trade between Americans and Haitians.

Such a policy would elicit less moral condemnation than #3. But how different are #3 and #4, really? In both cases, the U.S. government violates Haitians’ (and Americans’) right to trade their stuff with willing partners. American X wants to buy a painting from Haitian Y, yet the U.S. government brands them as criminals. If, as a result, Y dies of hunger, there is every reason to say that the U.S. government killed Y by violating his negative rights.[1]

You might object that, in the post-colonial era, these hypotheticals are irrelevant for global poverty. Isn’t the entire problem that the world’s poor have little of value to sell on the world market? The answer, surprisingly, is no. The world’s poor have a very valuable good to sell: their labor. Though Third World workers often earn a dollar or two a day, even unskilled labor is worth $10-$15,000 per year on the world market.[2]

There’s just one problem: First World governments’ immigration policies effectively forbid international trade in labor.[3] The world’s poor cannot legally work in a First World country without that government’s permission. For most current residents of the Third World, this permission is almost impossible to obtain. If you’re an unskilled worker with no relatives in the First World, you have to endure Third World poverty, win the immigration lottery, or break the law. Contrary to popular opinion, moreover, illegal immigration is far from easy. The U.S.–Mexico border is almost two thousand miles long, but Mexicans still pay years of salary to coyotes to get across. Smugglers’ fees for more remote nations are higher still.

If First World governments simply respected everyone’s right to accept job offers from willing employers, most of the world’s poor wouldn’t need charity. They could take care of themselves. Any able-bodied person living in poverty would be free to sell his labor to the highest bidder in the world. Instead of paying years of income to coyotes, the global poor could migrate for the cost of a bus or boat ticket. Instead of crossing the border in fear to compete for illegal jobs, the global poor could cross the border openly to compete for any job they’re qualified to do.

Wouldn’t this simply drive First World wages down to Third World levels? No. Basic economics tells us that trade barriers don’t just redistribute wealth; they destroy wealth. Confining able-bodied workers to the Third World is like confining agriculture to Antarctica. Standard economic estimates say that open borders would roughly double world output.[4] While trade liberalization never benefits absolutely everyone, free migration would be great for the world and great for the world’s poor.

If my analysis is correct, Nicole Hassoun seriously understates the moral claims of the world’s poor. Consider this passage:

Obviously, many people do not have enough to meet their needs in a world where billions are in desperate poverty and millions die every year from easily preventable poverty-related illnesses. The current distribution of property rights is not justified.

Hassoun’s seems to be saying that (a) we currently respect everyone’s negative rights, but (b) the world is still full of horrific poverty. She depicts the world’s poor as charity cases, instead of what they really are: victims of mandatory government discrimination.

If you’re concerned about the plight of the world’s poor, this is a serious rhetorical error. Why? Because negative rights have broader appeal than positive rights—especially on an international level. Hassoun’s argument only works if people accept a moral obligation to support total strangers in other countries. The libertarian argument, in contrast, works as long as people accept a moral obligation to leave total strangers in other countries alone.

Rhetorical effectiveness aside, though, arguments from positive rights are inherently weak. Hassoun tells us that:

I do not have property rights that extend so far that they allow me to withhold essential goods that I do not need from those who will suffer and die without them.

This doesn’t just imply a political obligation to vote to give away most of your wealth to the Third World. It also implies a personal obligation to unilaterally give away most of your wealth to the Third World. Perhaps Hassoun lives up to this obligation, but the vast majority of people who share her position do not. Perhaps this means that believers in positive rights are hypocrites. But the simpler explanation is that even people who say they believe in positive rights aren’t truly convinced. Though the world is full of suffering, you don’t become a criminal by minding your own business—or by keeping your own money. The Good Samaritan is not a story about a man who did his duty. It is a story about a man who went beyond the call of duty.

Fortunately, the people of the Third World don’t need Good Samaritans to escape poverty. They don’t need total strangers to voluntarily send them massive donations. The people of the Third World only need us to abolish the immigration laws that prevent them from saving themselves.

[1]On the moral status of immigration restrictions, see Michael Huemer. 2010. “Is There A Right to Immigrate?Social Theory and Practice 36 (2010): 429-61.

[2] See especially Michael Clemens, Claudio Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett. “The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Works Across the U.S. Border.” Center for Global Development Working Paper 148.

[3] For a general discussion, see Bryan Caplan. 2012. “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?Cato Journal 32(1), pp.5-24.

[4] See Michael Clemens. 2011. “Economics and Immigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(3): 83-106.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Huemer advances two broad theses: First, we should judge government actions using precisely the same standards that we commonly employ in judging individuals’ actions; governments and their agents get no special moral status. Second, he suggests that a society without a monopoly government might not be as different different as is sometimes imagined. Those who fear corporate power should question whether government, which bears a striking resemblance to an especially large, ill-behaved, and overbearing corporation, can ever be a vehicle for social justice.

Response Essays

  • Bryan Caplan praises Michael Huemer’s work on the problem of political authority because it avoids the extremes of both rights-based and consequentialist reasoning. Each has notoriously foundered on difficult problems in the past, as is well-known to students of political philosophy. Huemer instead resorts to commonly shared moral intuitions, thus establishing a strong foundation for his still quite radical libertarian politics.

  • Tom G. Palmer suggests two areas where Huemer’s argument may need elaboration. First, he suggests that a monopolistic government authority may indeed be necessary at times in order to solve coordination problems. Rules can help coordinate behavior, but they can only do so if nearly everyone knows about them and follows them. Second, Palmer suggests that the intuitionist method may only be of limited use, as people in other times and places will not share the common intuitions of present-day westerners. If we are to make the case for human liberty, we need to make the case to them as well.

  • Nicole Hassoun makes the case for positive rights. Without adequate water, food, and health care, questions of consent cannot be reached in the first place. A government that does not help all its citizens to secure these things is not one we could ever reasonably consent to. Somalia suggests that in the real world, anarchy can be horrible. Pre-tax income is not a thing we own as a property right; it is simply an accounting figure. These conclusions, she argues, follow from common sense.