Is Poverty a Violation of Human Rights?

I've been meaning to blog about William Easterly's exchange with Amnesty International about the notion that poverty is a rights violation. I've found my own view much harder to pin down than I thought I would, so it took me forever to actually write this post, which goes far afield, and amounts to a lot of thinking out loud. I remain unhappy with my thoughts (or this not-very-rigorous way of putting them), but I found writing it very useful, and maybe some of you will find it useful. So I'm throwing it out there. Dive under the jump at your own peril.
Easterly says poverty isn't a rights violation in his initial post, criticizing Amnesty for blurring the distinction between clear and questionable violations. Sameer Dossani's UN-centric reply here. Easterly's UN-skeptical response.
Here's the core of Easterly's argument:

The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. […] Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy — someone violates your rights or they do not. But the line between poor and not-poor is arbitrary — it is different in different countries, and on a global scale, many still argue what is the right dividing line that constitutes poverty. So calling poverty a “human rights violation” does not point to any concrete actions that the “violator” must stop in order to restore rights to the “violated.”

First, let's restate the question, as Easterly does: Is there a right to a certain level of material welfare? Easterly says no for two reasons. First, a rights violation implies a violator, but it's not clear who is to blame for widespread poverty. Second, the poverty line is not a bright line, and so it's not clear when the right to live above the line has been violated or denied.
I don't think I agree with Easterly's pragmatic rule for determining what is and isn't a human right.
There is a human right to property, I believe. But the definition of legitimate property rights and the criteria for identifying their violation are also vague. I don't think that means we should not recognize property rights.
In many cases, it is clear who has violated a property right. Maybe it was a thief. Maybe it was the state. But what do we say when, for example, an otherwise well-functioning democratic state fails to recognize a property right because almost all of its citizens do not recognize it? Almost everyone supports certain kinds of eminent domain without truly just compensation, say. And so a bit of my back 40 is confiscated to build a road.  Who has violated my property right by refusing to recognize and enforce it? You can say it's “the state,” but that's already a corporate body and not a natural person. Who is that really? And in this make-believe case “the state” really is just acting as an agent of “the people”–of most of them, at least. My guess is that Easterly is uncomfortable with the idea that a rights violation can be so diffuse, that responsibility can be so broadly distributed, and that there is no easily identifiable perpetrator. But I think that's the way it is. That's one of the dangers of democracy: it makes the diffusion of criminal responsibility easy.
All rights have correlative obligations. If a person has a bona fide moral right, simply in virtue of being a person, who is it a right against? Who has an obligation not to violate the right? The answer is: everybody else does. So a right to a minimum level of material welfare implies that everybody else has an obligation to make a positive contribution, to chip in, to bring those below the line up to par.
What is interesting is that almost nobody really believes this, as I've just stated it. Most of those who argue for a positive right to a material minimum don't think that everybody in the world already above the line is on the hook. They tend to say that fellow citizens of one's own country already above the line are on the hook. My right not to be stabbed is a right against everybody in the world. Doesn't matter who printed your passport. But a Freedonian's right to a material minimum is a right against other Freedonians. That's weird, and doesn't have the structure of a bona fide moral right. So I suspect it isn't one.
I've come to see most such “positive” rights as benefits of membership in one of the U.N.-recognized clubs. Positive rights so construed are then rights against the club and its dues-paying members. They are rights one has as a member of a state, not as a person. To say there is a right to healthcare is basically to say that this ought to be a benefit of membership in one's national club. So it is an embarrassment to many left-leaning Americans that it is not yet an explicitly recognized benefit of official membership in the United States of America. Thus, to say that there is a right to a certain level of material welfare is to say that this is something one ought to get from one's club, in virtue of being a member of it.
Now, if we accept the positive-rights-as-benefits-of-membership model, the identity of the violator of a right not to live in poverty is pretty clear. It is the club and its members. Who is violating certain Americans' rights to healthcare? Other Americans are! A poor, sick kid in Milwaukee has a claim against middle class folks in Baton Rouge, but not against anyone in Berlin.
OK. But what about a poor sick kid in Benin? But suppose there isn't enough money in the entire club to bring everyone up to par? What then?
This is where things get funny. The country-as-club model gets confusing here. There are a couple ways to go. One way to go is to say that benefits of membership are relative to what a club can afford. So Freedonians have a right to a material minimum only if Freedonia can afford it. But I think most Westerners want to say that Freedonians just do have this right in virtue of being persons. Yet they don't want to say that everybody's on the hook. I want to say that because Freedonia is on the hook, it ought to be able to afford it — it has some kind of obligation to be able to afford it. I think this helps us understand the implicit model behind talk of human rights in the context of “development.” The language of “development” implies that poor clubs need to grow up a bit, to the point where they can guarantee the full list of benefits to their members. That's why development assistance money tends to go to the clubs, not directly to their members, who have no claim on benefits from Club Sweden or Club Japan. All those poor people in poor countries should be getting benefits from their clubs, not ours, and so beneficient wealthy countries, as good and beneficient global citizens, wheedle and cajole and bribe shoddy poor clubs to get up to snuff, so they can do their jobs. Of course, this doesn't really seem to help.
Anyway, I take the larger implicit model of positive rights to look like this. There is a list of rights people have in virtue of being people. The livable surface of the globe is divided exhaustively into mutually exclusive territories governed by a single state. Each person is assigned (usually by birth) a membership in a state, which is a special kind of association or club. This task of these territorial clubs is to provide benefits to their members. Benefits implied by the list of rights are not optional. All states have a duty to protect the “negative” rights of everyone, regardless of their membership. And all states have a duty to secure the “positive” rights of their own members, but not of non-members elsewhere. So the idea is that, when it comes to positive rights, there is a kind of division of labor among states. But what happens when the some states don't do their job? There is a presumption of state sovereignty. But if a state/club fails to provide its members decent benefits, the presumption of sovereignty relaxes somewhat, and international bodies governed by the governors of effective clubs intervene to help out failing clubs.
My problem isn't at all with the idea that people have a right to a material minimum. My problem is with this way of thinking about it.
There are many ways to justify a scheme of rights. For contractualists like me, a scheme of rights is justified just in case it does better than the alternatives to enable people to live good lives, by their own lights. Those rights are human rights. One thing a justified scheme of human rights will do is to create the conditions under which everyone is very likely to achieve a material minimum, since that's instrumental to almost any kind of life. That's why property rights are rights: it's impossible to get and keep people over the minimum without them. If a whole population is persistently beneath the minimum, that's a clear sign that a number of their fundamental rights are systematically violated or denied them. But there's a difference between saying that people have a right to a material minimum and saying that they have a kind of higher-order right to a system of rights that tends to produce the conditions under which everyone meets or exceeds the material minimum. So (we're getting there) poverty is not itself a violation of human rights, but widespread and longstanding poverty is a pretty sure sign of the violation of human rights.
One way to reject the positive-rights-as-benefits-of-membership model is to reject as unjustified the status quo system of dividing the globe into states. The overall global scheme is itself subject to justification. Just as a system of property rights needs to more or less benefit everyone within it in order to be justified, the global system of states needs to more or less benefit everyone in order to be justified. But it doesn't come close. The globe may be a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking but non-overlapping sovereign territories. But it ought to be patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions, each jurisdiction standing before the tribunal of justice both for its treatment of those within its bounds and for the global effects of the rules that govern the movement of goods and people over those bounds.
Moreover, rights are rights are rights. If people are living in poverty in Benin, it seems that the proximate cause is the government of Benin. But many of the people of Benin would not be so poor if they had the option of traveling to jurisdictions where the conditions for general prosperity have been established. And badly governed jurisdictions would not be so badly governed if the targets of state predation could more easily move beyond the state's reach. Those of us in rich, well-functioning jurisdictions are on the hook. But we do not do our duty to the world's poor populations simply by offering a smidge of “devopment assistance” to the dysfunctional governments that persistently fail them (or by global redistribution based on a Tobin tax or taxes levied on wealth gained from exploiting natural resources on the seabed.) We do our duty, we act to protect the human rights of the world's poor, by establishing policies of maximum openness and inclusion. We would thereby bring multitudes of abused people under the protection of decent schemes of rights, create robust and enriching ties of trade, and create stronger incentives for poor jurisdictions to respect and maintain the conditions for prosperity and flourishing.
The idea that there is something natural and inevitable, and therefore nothing objectionable, about the status quo global system of exclusive states is I think one of the ultimate barriers to the spread of legitimate human rights and the prosperity that entails. I think current debates over economic development and global justice seem so fruitless because they take for granted a set of illegitimate assumptions of which we have attained only a flicker of awareness.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center