Human Rights, Liberty & Socio-Economic Justice: Economic Theory and the Ascent of Private Property Values

1. Introduction
In the Introduction to the first issue of CADMUS, Ivo Šlaus and Garry Jacobs essentially provide us with a reminder that the founders of modern economics were also important moral philosophers. In particular, Adam Smith would appear to be influenced by the idea that economics has a great deal to do with human well-being. His theory was meant to be a tool to better understand economics for the improvement of the human condition. Certainly in the case of Smith, the idea of supply and demand represented an allocation of competence in society over economic activity that was designed to empower both suppliers and demanders of economic goods and services. As a thought construct there is a great deal that is appealing in the idea that the supplier is serving the demander and that the demander may rely on the supplier to supply. However, if the supplier is a laborer and the demander is an employer and there is a surplus of labor, the employer may drive the price of labor down dramatically with severe impacts on the status of labor in society. If the demander of labor is a technologically modernizing enterprise he may create a glut in the labor market by replacing labor with machines. Thus, important as the allocation of competence is to economic participants, it cannot cure the imperfections in the distribution of the benefits of the market. Significant injustices obscure if inquiry is abstracted from social reality and focused exclusively on idealized economic constructions such as the perfections and equilibrium of an idealized market. Smith emerged from the intellectual and moral revolution identified with the Scottish Enlightenment.* The leading figures in the Scottish Enlightenment were influenced by its important moral philosophers.**,1 One of the current concerns is how professionally economics has developed in the context of Smith and the other classicists, and somehow appeared to sideline the moral sensibility and motivation that drove them. Part of the answer is that Smith may have been too successful and economics became a very discrete discipline under the influence of 19th Century positivism. And positivism sought to preclude the contamination of the new science from moral sensitivity.

To provide a contemporary example of the problem we may look at the conceptual foundations of Posner’s economic analysis of law.2,3,4 Posner posits wealth maximization as a defensible value foundation of his approach. If we put his approach into the reality of social process, it could be described as human beings pursuing wealth through institutions based on resources. In this view wealth has a preferred value and is probably supported by moral analyses and justifications. However, the scope of law and economics may be limited by the focus on wealth to the exclusion of other indicators of human well-being that realism requires we acknowledge. In short, social process may be described as human beings pursuing all the values relevant to a culture of human rights and dignity. Posner’s model would, of course, preclude this from the enquirer’s legitimate concern. In short, the narrow focus short changes a proper consideration of important moral and value factors. For example, the social process model may see the individual as pursuing more than wealth. An individual may be pursuing power, respect, skill, well-being, enlightenment, affection, rectitude. Posner’s model will not account for these other values and in this sense morality is depreciated. We should note a person may pursue wealth to get more wealth. The person could also use every other value listed above to achieve more wealth outcomes. And what may be obscured is that wealth may be used to acquire a share of all the other values. In short, wealth may be used to leverage power, respect, skill and the other values. Understanding the moral and value implications of political economy requires that we go back to reinvent the moral motivations of the classical economists. In this approach the entire culture of modern human rights is obscured or ignored. The idea of political economy as a measure of social justice and social justice deficits does not quite grab the attention of high powered figures in the field.

The great depression provided a serious challenge to the failures of Free Market Capitalism. There was a widespread recognition, politically, that choices had a great deal to do with getting the world into a depression. Therefore, a remedy to depression choices would be better choices that explicitly accounted for the public interest. This suggested a broader role for public sector decision-making and regulation to moderate the worst aspects of the depression and to generate policies and initiatives to stimulate an economic recovery. This approach to economics came under the label “The New Deal”. Powerful forces resisted the New Deal. The rhetoric remains curiously static. In the 1930s the right wing railed against public expenditure and investments on the basis that public borrowing increases the public debt and mortgages the prosperity of future generations. This is the rhetoric still expressed today in the current recession in the US. During the New Deal the practical governing side of political economy found itself stumbling into the moral perspectives of classic economists. These moral ideas stressed the importance of political economy for the common good and well-being of all the stakeholders in the political process.

In grappling with these issues the New Deal practitioners generated a powerful insight of great ideological importance about the nature and the scope of human liberty. Their insight was that human liberty was not only a liberty for the economic elite but rather a liberty for all social participants. The concentration of wealth in the few enormously maximizes the liberty of the few. On the other hand the majority, including the poor, the unemployed and the disadvantaged and who otherwise suffer the deprivation of human necessity would really seriously be deprived of liberty: necessitous human beings are un-free. The critical challenge of new deal economic choices was in reality the challenge of expansion and fair distribution of human freedom. Therefore theory and method in economics had to confront the choice between liberty for the few and liberty for the many. The economic crisis of the 1930s was also therefore a crisis of human freedom that had directly impacted on human welfare and human dignity. In this essay we provide a short overview to the economic crisis of the 1930s including an indication of what Roosevelt and his advisers learned from that experience. Crucial to Roosevelt’s education was the brilliant formulation of the war time goals for the United States and the world community. Characteristically it was expressed in terms of broadening the foundations of freedom. The four freedoms which included freedom from fear, want, as well as freedom of conscience and belief and freedom of speech and association, were values that Roosevelt said were not for a distant millennium, but were definitely achievable in our lifetime. These freedoms became the cornerstone of the UN Charter, the International Bill of Rights and a foundation for the UN’s economic justice initiatives expressed in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
2. New Deal Influence on Freedom and liberty
The depression meant oppression for the poor. The concern for the oppression of the poor has its roots in a multitude of religious traditions, and finds expression in philosophical and political theory, such as the works as Marx and Engels, Kant and Rawls, Sen and Dworkin, as well as McDougal and Lasswell. The enhancement of socio-economic rights into the discourse of liberty and world order owes a great deal to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.

The currency of contemporary human rights finds its boundaries in the Four Freedoms proclaimed by President Roosevelt to the Congress of the United States and later included into the text of the Atlantic Charter agreed to by Churchill and Roosevelt. The Atlantic Charter reflected the war aims of the allies. It expressed in simple but telling terms the idea “of why we fight.” The Four Freedoms could be generalized in terms of the critical importance to human survival and human welfare and the idea of security. Thus, the Four Freedoms spell out four different dimensions of the critical importance of security to human values. The Four Freedoms include the freedom from fear which is the freedom from aggression and the protection of the right to peace; the freedom of speech and expression which is the freedom of political security; the freedom of conscience and belief which is the freedom to be secure in one’s fundamental perspectives of belief. Finally, there is the freedom from want, which is the security for material survival and well-being of the person. The central importance of the Four Freedoms is that they served as an inspiration for the goals and purposes of the UN Charter. They also inspired the development of an international bill of human rights. Thus the boundaries of the security interests would evolve in widespread ways and impact global values in important future directions. The freedom that this chapter focuses on is the freedom from want. This freedom encapsulates the importance of socio-economic values to human welfare and therefore reflects a concern for the salience of social justice as a global human rights imperative.

President Roosevelt was elected at a time when the United States was facing the worst economic crisis in its history. The economic system was on the verge of collapse and he considered the widespread effects on employment and poverty to be a national crisis. The administration of Roosevelt experimented with governmental initiatives to revive the American economy and to explore policies that would alleviate the economic suffering experienced by millions of Americans who were victims of the depression. In this sense, the administration determined that there was a crucial role for the government in developing and implementing policies to alleviate the material suffering of millions of Americans who suffered economic deprivation. Economic deprivation meant that millions of people were deprived of essential wants necessary for material survival. According to Roosevelt economic laws which dictated poverty were not “sacred, inviolable, unchangeable.” He stressed that “economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” Roosevelt explained the problem that inspired his freedom from want— war aim. “In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of the whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life… I see millions denied education, recreation and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. I see millions lacking the means to buy products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished.” Roosevelt saw such extreme material deprivation as also a deprivation on that most cherished of American values, the concept of liberty. In short, material deprivation made American citizens un-free. According to Roosevelt, “necessitous men are not free.” Roosevelt genuinely believed that there would be a need for constitutional change for the purpose of creating a bill of socio-economic rights which would have constitutional stature and would be an essential safeguard to the freedom of the American citizen. In 1943 the Public Resources Board began working on a draft of a Bill of Socio-Economic Rights which Roosevelt approved. The preliminary draft was submitted to Congress. The rights enumerated in the draft took the following form:

  • The right to work, usefully and creatively through the productive years;
  • The right to fair play, adequate to command the necessities and amenities of life in exchange for work, ideas, thrift and other socially valuable services;
  • The right to adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care;
  • The right to security, with freedom from fear of old age, want, dependency, sickness, unemployment and accident;
  • The right to live in a system of free enterprise, free from compulsory labor, irresponsible state power, arbitrary public authority and unregulated monopolies;
  • The right to come and go, to speak or to be silent, free from the spying of secret political police;
  • The right to equality before the law, with equal access to justice in fact;
  • The right to education, for work, for citizenship and for personal growth and happiness; and
  • The right to rest, recreation and adventure, the opportunity to enjoy life and take part in advancing civilization.

Roosevelt’s belief in freedom and the importance of socio-economic rights in strengthening human freedom he believed was more than a matter of national American politics. The Four Freedoms thus were not “a vision for a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for the kind of world attainable in our time and generation.” He compared this to “the new so-called order of tyranny which dictators seek to create with a crash of a bomb.” He seemed to appreciate that there was something revolutionary in the Four Freedoms. He justified it as follows: “Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change—in a perpetual peaceful revolution—a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions—without the concentration camp or the quicklime ditch.” In substantial measure, the goal of the Four Freedoms was to defeat “Hitlerism in the world forever.” Clearly, the New Deal experience of President Roosevelt reflected the values that explained to the American people why they were engaged in the wars against Hitlerism. The idea that the deprivations of poverty were antithetical to both religious experience as well as major commentators on social thought and social justice clearly would have had some influence on Roosevelt and certainly influenced the development of human rights in the post war period.

The boundaries of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms included a wide vista of human rights interests. One of the critical questions now is—what exactly is the status of the human rights in implicating socio-economic justice? Some views have sought to distinguish them by suggesting that human rights represent discrete clusters of interests that are dependent on each other for efficacy. Thus, it is urged that the first generation of human rights are essentially civil and political rights. That a society must establish the culture of these rights before it can aspire to the rights of the next generation which are socio-economic and the aspiration to realize collective rights to peace and environmental integrity cannot be realized until first and second generation rights are realized. An innovative conceptualization of the International Bill of Rights suggests that all the rights are interdependent and underdetermining in the realization of the entire human rights agenda.

In his 1941 Atlantic Charter iteration, Roosevelt specifically included the freedom from want in the four freedoms that were the basis and justification for the war. In his 1944 State of the Union Address, he challenged the notion that true individual freedom could exist without economic security and independence: “Necessitous men are not free men.” He went on to suggest that unemployment often became a strut for the creation of dictatorships. He spoke specifically about the practical acceptance of a “second Bill of Rights” under which a new base of security and prosperity could be established for all. Among the specific rights mentioned in that speech were the right to employment, adequate food, clothing, recreation, the right of every family to a decent home, adequate medical care, the right to social security, employment and a good education. According to Roosevelt, all these rights “spell security.” Roosevelt saw the post war period as an opportunity to move toward the implementation of these rights and establish “new goals for human happiness and well-being” along the way. Eleanor Roosevelt was given the task of organizing a draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, as a result of her involvement, the U.S. Delegation offered strong support for the inclusion of economic and social rights. Later presidential administrations, however, would reverse the official policy of the U.S. toward the concept of economic and social rights, despite a concurrent acknowledgment of “the urgency and moral seriousness of the need to eliminate starvation and poverty from the world.” The justification centered around the fear that repressive governments too easily abused the idea of economic and social rights, at once claiming to promote human rights while simultaneously “deny[ing] their citizens the basic civil and political rights.”

Since 1948, when the Universal Declaration was adopted as a General Assembly Resolution of the UN, the UDHR came to constitute a major part of international relations and international law. This resolution was originally adopted as an instrument of political obligation; and its ongoing development as a legal instrument reveals the somewhat limited nature of its legal character. At its creation, the UDHR was not considered to be a legal instrument imposing binding obligations on states. (In this sense, the UDHR hardly reflected the commonly accepted notion of a ‘law’— a rule-based prescription and prohibition of behaviors, with its adherents and enforcers.) The subsequent development of the culture of human rights into the realm of law mirrored the development of human rights instruments as international treaties imposing binding obligations on states. Clearly, the UDHR’s political message and the political morality implicit in the articulation of the “rights” in this instrument, had a sturdy shelf life, reflected in the considerable global consensus that those rights should be transformed into instruments of juridical importance. The political moral status of the Universal Declaration was converted into a regime of complex treaty obligations incorporating concerns for socio-economic justice.

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