Positive Rights and Poverty: What They Suggest and Imply

Thanks to Nicole Hassoun for her reply to my post on global poverty. Two reactions:

I. My original claim was not that Hassoun explicitly said that “we currently respect everyone’s negative rights.” My precise statement, rather, was that she “seems to be saying” this. By emphasizing the positive rights of the global poor, Hassoun creates a strong impression that violations of the global poor’s negative rights by First World governments are, empirically, not worth talking about.

Notice that Hassoun’s entire post on global poverty never even uses the words “immigration,” “immigrant,” or “immigrate.” Given the magnitude of the wage gap between unskilled workers in the Third World and the First, this is a huge omission.

I am delighted to learn that Hassoun agrees that we should “significantly liberalize movement in labor.” At the same time, though, I’m puzzled why she says “significantly liberalize” rather than “fully liberalize.” Don’t both the positive and negative rights that she endorses require full liberalization?

II. Hassoun states:

I do not believe the best way of addressing the problem is through individual action. Again, my claim 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” does not “imply a political obligation to … unilaterally give away most of [my] wealth to the Third World.” I believe states and international organizations can play important roles in redefining legal property rights to better protect, promote, and fulfill individuals’ moral rights.

Hassoun misquotes me. I said that her principle “implies a personal [not “political”] obligation to unilaterally give away most of [her] wealth to the Third World.” More importantly, given realistic empirical assumptions, Hassoun does indeed imply precisely the conclusion I name. Let’s flesh it out.

1. Hassoun does not have property rights that extend so far that they allow her to withhold essential goods that she does not need from those who will suffer and die without them. [Hassoun’s original premise, with “Hassoun” instead of “I.”]

2. People in the Third World are now suffering and dying due to lack of essential goods. [Certainly a true empirical claim.]

3. Third World suffering and dying will persist even if Hassoun takes all actions in her power other than massive personal financial donation, such as voting, political activism, blogging, and teaching. [An extremely probable empirical claim, given that Hassoun is only one person in a world of seven billion.]

4. Hassoun has essential goods (namely money) that she does not need. [An extremely probable empirical claim, given that she works as a professor in the First World, and First World professors earn far more than subsistence.]

5. People in the Third World will suffer and die if Hassoun withholds these essential goods. [An extremely probable empirical claim, given the existence of dire poverty and effective international charities.]

6. Therefore, Hassoun does not have property rights that allow her to withhold essential goods she does not need. In plain English, she has a moral obligation to donate all her surplus wealth to people in dire poverty. [From #1-#5.]

Of course, dire poverty will persist even if Hassoun does donate all the wealth she does not need. But her principle does not require her to end world poverty. It merely requires her to give away everything she does not need until dire poverty no longer exists.

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.