Leiden Law Blog

The conflict between economic policy and human rights

The conflict between economic policy and human rights

Ruben Zandvliet in his blog on the efficiency gains of human rights, of November 20, argues that the economic narrative has become too dominant in the discourse on human rights. It obfuscates the independent value of human rights. He favours a confrontation between social values and economic arguments to provide moral justification for human rights and social policy. I was surprised by his observation on the dominance of the economic narrative as to me the discourse on human rights is dominated by the legal narrative, actually ignoring economic arguments. I was also surprised by his (implicit) assertion that economic arguments do not involve social values.

On the first point, the dominance of law in the discourse of human rights, ignoring economic arguments, I point to the indivisibility of all human rights. Elsewhere I have argued  that if resources are limited, improving, for instance access to education, this may involve sacrificing the availability of affordable housing to name two of the (indivisible) human rights that are mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the second point, the economic narrative focuses on growth and welfare, rather than on human rights, but there is a social value involved. By increasing income, it becomes possible to attain more social goals, be that free access to primary education or affordable housing. Higher incomes empower people to realize their individual and social goals. Even if the focus is not on realizing human rights, economic development contributes to the possible realization of these.

This does not preclude discussion on social values, nor on human rights. Amartya Sen, the 1998 recipient of the Nobel prize in economics (for his work on welfare economics), argues that human rights are best seen as articulations of social ethics. Their functional usefulness lies in practical reason. They can be disputed, but the claim of generality of human rights is that they will survive open and informed scrutiny. They may be legalized or inspire legislation, but that is a further fact, rather than a defining characteristic of the rights themselves.

Sen also argues that the inclusion of social and economic rights in the discussion on human rights reflects the changes in the global politics of justice in which global poverty and economic and social deprivation came to centre stage in the engagement with human rights, pulling the discussion on human rights into the field of development economics as well. But this very much concerns the confrontation between social values and economic arguments that Ruben wants.

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