The tension between Human Rights and the Market: A brief exploration


Guest post by Gilbert Muyumbu, who teaches Human Rights-based approaches and Political Economy at MS Training Centre for Development Cooperation in Arusha Tanzania.

Historically, markets and human rights have had a tense relationship. For instance, classical economist Thomas Malthus’s thesis was wars; famines and disasters are necessary evils for population control. This is in direct contrast to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where all human beings have a right to life.

Malthus’ central thesis was survival for the fittest. Right to life was only guaranteed for those who could win wars, and had the means to survive disasters. Extrapolated further, in the global realm, it would mean countries with limited ability for war and disaster management would have little claim to the right to life.

Does Malthusian economics work? Can we today comfortably claim that there is no trace of Malthusian thinking in some of the economic theories directing economic policies of countries?

The US public intellectual Naom Chomsky thinks not. In fact, to him, Malthusian economics are still very much alive, permeating through the neo-liberal economics of today. He contends that the neo-liberal economics, much like the Malthusian economics essentially declare that rights are only those one is able to get from the market. That the only rights one gets are those provided in the market, and if  one doesn’t have means of getting them from the market, then  – in Malthus’ crude language, they die to let the strong survive.

While by Chomsky’s reckoning of the neo-liberal paradigm, they ‘go elsewhere.’ This ‘elsewhere’ in olden days was the newly conquered lands- Australia, the Americas and Africa, with the populations of these lands exterminated or systematically weakened for the survival of the strong. In today’s world this ‘elsewhere’ could be to newly conquered markets.

However, there has been quite some backlash to this notion of confining rights to one’s participation in the market. For instance, the Socialist/communist School radically countered the fundamentalism of the market. It dismissed and dismantled the market as guarantor of rights and dismissed Malthus’ dichotomy of the weak and strong. It even went as far as attempt to equalize all human beings. The socialist/communist praxis however was in itself a contradiction as far as rights (considering their inherent categorization in the Universal Declaration) were concerned. As a legacy, nevertheless, the socialist/communist thought instigated the formation of the welfare state in which those unable to find rights in the market get some reprieve of sorts from the State.

The welfare state therefore is compromise, or synthesis, if one wanted to paint this in some Hegelian language, in a long-standing tension between the thesis of the market and the anti-thesis of socialism/communism. We shall explore this further down in our argument.

But what is the other side of the argument – the idea of the market, and its claim to the efficient promotion of rights?

Beyond the pro-market orthodoxy of allocating resources efficiently (for instance the-all-too-familiar finding that Third World elite corruption is a major factor of inefficient production in the Third World), I am more interested in a fact that the market seems to have sufficiently exploited – the existence of the individual.

Although the anti-market school of thought could dismiss the existence of individuals and emphasize society, this cannot take away the fact that individuals exist (and even the Universal Declaration is premised on the notion of individuals) and that the way these individuals behave has a bearing on the production of goods necessary for the enjoyment of rights, and also that the way power (whether in the hands of the strong or weak) treats these individuals has a bearing on the enjoyment of rights.

On the question of production, societies and communities may produce, but as a sum total of individual production. In the economics of production, it all boils down to the individual and the way he/she behaves.

 Indeed, experiments to have societies produce as collective units have been attempted, but they all come to what scholar Ali Mazrui, in describing Nyerere’s socialist experiments, called ‘heroic failure.’ Those Africans who for instance have sat through experiments with equalization by the independent states of Africa would attest to contradictions inherent in the experiments – shortage of goods necessary for enjoyment of the basic of rights – a shortage brought by the behaviour of the individual in the activity of production of goods necessary for enjoyment of rights; Deng Xiaoping’s mea culpa and China’s rise on the back of market reforms is another indicator that the idea of the market in the economics of production is not idle.

As for the question of power, obviously the behaviour of power is the whole essence of re-emphasizing human rights. The affirmation of human rights in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and the current re-ignition of interest in human rights is to rehabilitate power, whether held by the pro-market or anti-market elite in whatever crude forms they have appeared and reappeared throughout history, from behavior that is injurious to rights.

The constitutional Bill of Rights sits at the centre of this affirmation, that is, that individual human beings have certain inherent rights that no amount of power – whatever its background, social goal or ideological motivation – can confer nor defer. Yet, equalization of all individuals, a necessity under the anti-market logic may have power deployed in ways that bruise the promise inherent in the Bill of Rights to the individual.

This then leads to a puzzle: if the individual is an indispensable agent in the production of goods necessary for enjoyment of rights, and if the individual has certain rights that power, in whatever guise – ideological or otherwise – it comes, cannot take away, which arrangement then seems best suited to encourage the individual to produce goods necessary for enjoyment of rights and to enjoy rights without fear of intrusive power?

Could the market have exploited this indispensability of the individual and provided the best arrangement, especially in response to the question of production? Indeed, the strong thrive in the arrangement provided by the market. Inequality grows in a market arrangement because the strong individual has found his niche, where he can produce and enjoy his rights. This in fact leads to the suspicion that the market is an idea invented by the strong to dominate the weak, because it seems to work wonders for the strong, while weakening further the vulnerable. Could we, in turn, conclude that the anti-market idea is an invention of the weak to put breaks on the creativity and enjoyment of the strong?

Yet where does all this lead in the struggle for rights? Obviously, both arguments are valid. If we bring them down to what they are crudely positing, one would be tempted to say the market is an invention of the strong to promote their dominance, while the counter-market argument would be said to be an invention of the weak and their allies to hold back the strong from thriving.

This could be the ultimate contradiction, which needs to be resolved eventually. In the meantime, we can settle for a long-standing compromise, the idea of letting the strong thrives, but having the weak survive – the idea of the welfare state. How long this synthesis/compromise holds before it dissolves into a new set of thesis and anti-thesis is anybody’s guess. And whether it resolves the tension in a ‘sustainable’ (I am deeply suspicious of the way advisors of African despots are using this term. for instance the other day I read some article in which Rwanda’s Paul Kagame was quoted doubting aloud whether physically caning his juniors was, in his own words, a ‘sustainable’ style of management) manner is also less clear. So far, all attempts at resolving the tension has led us to either one (market) or the other (anti-market), and these have obviously had implications on the enjoyment of rights. When the market thrives, the strong thrive and the weak squeak. When the anti-market holds forte, it is the turn of the strong to squeak.

To conclude, therefore, rights and markets sit in a long-standing tension. The market could be seen as a tool, whose use or non-use has implications on rights. We therefore either need to invent a new tool, better than the market in enhancing the individual agency in production of goods necessary for enjoyment of rights. Or we could resolve to use the market in ways that reduce the losses to the two groups in antagonistic relationship within human society – the strong and the weak. In the meantime, the welfare state seems a compromise we shall have to employ for a long time to come.

[1] Mr. Muyumbu teaches Human Rights-based approaches and Political Economy at MS Training Centre for Development Cooperation in Arusha Tanzania.


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