Sunday, May 31, 2015

Liberation from Economic Oppression: A Human Right or a Moral Obligation of Faith?

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr. 

            A comment to last week’s blog on De oppresso liber prompted this question:  Can the poor and needy be liberated from economic oppression with social and economic human rights, much like those suffering political oppression can be liberated by civil and political rights?

            First, a distinction should be made between human rights and the moral obligations of faith.  All the ancient scriptures make it a moral obligation of faith to care for the poor and needy (e.g. widows and orphans), but there is no mention of human rights.  But can the moral obligation of faith to care for the poor and needy be made into a legal right?  Yes.  Many nations have created welfare programs that do just that; but there is a real problem making public welfare laws into universal human rights.

            The problem is that universal human rights must be based on a clear and unambiguous standard to be enforceable, and social and economic (public welfare) rights do not meet that criteria since they depend upon a nation’s economic capability to provide them.  Even so, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966) purports to define universal economic and social human rights for the poor and needy.  It complements The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) which defines civil and political (or libertarian) human rights that prevent political oppression.  The difference is that the rights of the ICCPR are universally enforceable, while those of the ICESCR are not.

            Craig A. Stern has described the economic and social rights of ICESCR as positive human rights and the civil and political rights of the ICCPR as negative human rights.  In the context of East Africa, Stern points out that the entitlements of ICESCR cannot be enforced, thus undermining respect for the rule of law and degrading the concept of human rights (see Notes).

            Economic and social benefits for the poor and needy are more like aspirational political objectives than legal rights, and most nations have laws and policies that provide economic and social benefits.  The U.S. Social Security program is in that category, as are Medicare, Medicaid and the new Affordable Care Act; but they are clearly beyond the capability of most nations and therefore could not be enforced as universal human rights.

            Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains why nations with a high poverty rate, like those in Africa, favor positive economic and social rights over negative civil and political rights.  The emphasis of Western libertarian democracies on libertarian human rights reflects their relative prosperity and ability to provide adequate welfare programs for their poor and needy.

            Political sentiment in the U.S. does not favor extensive public welfare benefits, since any government program represents an encroachment of individual rights, and there has always been an extensive network of charities providing assistance for the poor and needy.  But changes in the economy and demographics since 2008 are forcing the U.S. and other libertarian democracies to balance individual rights with providing for the common good, including public welfare benefits for those who have fallen out of a shrinking middle class.

              The real test of a nation’s faith is whether its people choose to live by the voluntary moral obligations of their faith rather than by the coercive standards of the law.  The law necessarily restricts freedom, but it is also necessary to protect our freedoms, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech.  In Islamic democracies such as Egypt, those freedoms are denied by apostasy and blasphemy laws that are part of Islamic law (Shari’a), which also denies women and religious minorities the equal protection of the law.  Those fundamental freedoms are in the ICCPR, and where they are denied by religious laws, as in Egypt, religion exacerbates poverty.

            The comment to last week’s blog raised the question whether U.S. foreign policy liberates people from economic oppression or contributes to it.  That depends upon one’s perspective.  Capitalism and free enterprise are an essential outgrowth of economic freedom, but they can be as oppressive as they are liberating.  The unrestrained greed and competition that fuels capitalism can be oppressive, but free enterprise is essential to economic opportunity and prosperity.  The challenge for libertarian democracy is to balance political and economic freedom with government regulations that prevent economic oppression and the exploitation of the poor.  That is a delicate balancing act that will be different for different nations.

            The opposing philosophies of Ayn Rand’s self-centered objectivism and the altruistic and communal principles of Judaism, Christianity and Islam illustrate the challenge for libertarian democracies in an age when individual rights are undermining traditional communal values.    Wall Street capitalists are more objectivist and individualistic than altruistic or communal, with the average CEO now earning almost 300 times the salary of the average worker.  If that trend is not corrected the declining middle class could be the death-knell of libertarian democracy.

            The solution is not religious or secular law to mandate equality, but people of faith who voluntarily exercise their political and economic freedom with compassion for the poor and needy.  The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor as oneself puts love over law.  If people of faith could live by that principle they may not completely eliminate poverty but they could liberate many of the poor and needy from economic oppression.                       

Notes and References to Resources:
Related blogs at Blog/Archives are Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; Love over law: a principle at the heart of legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice, posted March 8, 2015; and Faith as a source of morality and law: the heart of legitimacy, posted April 12, 2015. 

See Craig A. Stern, Human Rights or the Rule of Law—the Choice for East Africa, SSRNMarch 6, 2015, at  Accord, see Mark R. Amstutz, International Ethics: Concepts, Theories and Cases in Global Politics, Third Edition, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008, pp 95-102, cited in Barnes, Religion,Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at  page 10 and note 26 (and other cites therein).   

Harkristi Harkrisnowo is a Muslim lawyer, professor and Director General for Human Rights in the Indonesian Ministry of Justice, who emphasized the need to distinguish between legal rights and political aspirations.  See Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at page 16 and note 61.

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