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.

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65 thoughts on “Is Poverty a Violation of Human Rights?

  1. Will, nice post. Three thoughts:(1) Perhaps the next question to ask in the Amnesty-Easterly debate is who the rights violator is. I will be shocked if Amnesty says anything other than, “Fat, rich Americans and their fat, rich corporations.” But that's not at all obvious. A whole can of worms gets opened when this question is asked. In my view, the first thing to do is to make sure all the negative rights that we all already recognize are fulfilled. Once that happens, then we can start thinking about redistribution (so long as protecting the negative rights doesn't already require positive rights of an extensive sort, which might be false). Amnesty-types don't seem to take seriously the fact that protecting negative rights leads to a significant reduction in poverty (in fact, moreso than any positive right, in my opinion).(b) And then once we turn to positive rights, things are even more complicated. Suppose that poor countries with all of their negative rights protected have rights against us to reduce their poverty. Most on the left will assume that this means to take from the rich and give to the poor. But the poor have a right to whatever will actually eliminate their poverty, and redistribution isn't a good way to bring this off. It seems to me that if there are such positive rights, they might have a right against the United States Government not engaging in anti-competitive practices against these poor countries, like subsidization, tariffs, etc. Or perhaps not invading them. (Although these are all probably better thought of as negative rights).(c) Of course, that's never how these things go. The debate over whether there is a human right to sustenance is really just a debate over whether we should take from rich westerns and give to poor global southerners. But in fact, these debates are very, very different.

  2. 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.Will, I don't find this objection compelling at all. If a government employee drives a bulldozer through my house, then I can say that in the first instance, that particular government employee violated my rights. The same is true of the police officer who escorts me off the premises. And assuming those two are acting pursuant to lawful orders from their duly elected superiors, then it's perfectly coherent and reasonable to say that “the state” violated my rights by ordering its agents to do so.Also, you're way too familiar with the public choice literature to write that the state is “just acting as an agent of the people.” I don't think I've ever met a voter who was actively rooting against Suzette Kelo–and I suspect I'd find that was true even if I visited New London. I don't think we want to heap too much blame on the driver of the bulldozer, who really was just following orders, but I do think it's a mistake to extend blame from “the state” to “the people.” And this is especially true in the kind of third-world dictatorships that are Amnesty International's focus.

  3. Disappointing, mainly because the question is so simple and the answer so obvious.Poverty is the natural state of man. No man, no state inflicts poverty upon us, only nature. Living in a state of poverty can only be considered a violation of human rights if getting struck by lightning or eaten by a bear is also such a violation.Now, you can reject that view, I suppose. But I would have liked to see it considered.

  4. The only reason there is poverty in the world (true poverty, not American faux poverty) is because thugs with guns keep poor people poor. In that sense, poverty is definitely a symptom of the disease of “human rights violations.” But it is not the disease itself.And while it is not the duty of free peoples to export democracy or capitalism by force, it would surely be helpful if the naive, self-congratulatory do-gooders at the UN stopped propping up the thugs with guns in the first place.

  5. Kevin, Thanks.(1) Yeah. A lot of what I was trying to say is that negative rights are the means to poverty alleviation, and that if you're looking to human rights violations related to poverty, look to see if negative rights are secure.(b) An excellent point! (c) Indeed. I'm groping for ways to reframe a not-very-useful debate.

  6. Tim, I guess my question for you is whether you think the government of a democratically elected state can ever act as a legitimate agent of the state's citizens. If you don't, then that's the issue. I tried to make this a case where it wasn't a thin majority in favor of this kind of taking, but in which almost everyone thought that this was perfectly legitimate. (I was talking about “the back 40” and not driving a bulldozer through anyone's house, if you recall) Maybe eminent domain gets you fired up. But we can change the example to income taxes. Suppose the state, in fact, needs no more than a 10% flat tax to conduct it's legitimate activities. But it turns out that nobody but one person knows this, and the citizenry votes overwhelmingly in favor of representatives promising to raise the flat tax from 10 to 11%, and the representative body does so. Would you still deny that “the people” bear responsibility for violation of property rights entailed by the overtaxation?

  7. I think you're conflating actions with justifications. I'll cheerfully grant the premise that public support justifies what the state does in this case, but I don't think this means that “the people” violated your rights. There was a specific set of people who did the actual work of turning the back 40 into a road, and those people were all acting under the authority of specific politicians who made the decision to widen the road. It's probably true that most people would support the decision if they were asked about it, but it's also a safe bet that hardly any of them were asked, but most of them almost certainly weren't asked, and certainly didn't take an active part in the process. If we want to answer the question “who violated Will's rights?” I think it's completely unproblematic to say “the state”–because we can identify specific actions taken by specific people working for the state who actually took your land.The poverty case is very different. We're not (necessarily) talking about a peasant who had a comfortable middle-class life until the state came along and burned down his house and confiscated his life savings. In many cases we're talking about a guy whose family has been poor for as long as they can remember. So if we're going to consider poverty a rights-violation, there's no action we can point to that's analogous to the guy showing up behind your house with a bulldozer.

  8. I'm not sure about this, Tim. You're saying that the people authorized the state's violation of my rights, but does not thereby bear any responsibility for the subsequent rights violation — despite the fact that it would not have occurred without the peoples' assent. I find this confusing. It seems to imply that Hitler, say (because that's always good for a discussion thread!), never violated anyone's rights. All the specific rights-violating actions were undertaken by others following orders. Can this be right? This seems to be the opposite of the common-sense assignment of responsibilty. A General might be found guilty of a war crime, despite doing nothing but giving orders, while we tend to let the soldiers acting as his instruments off the hook. You seem to be saying something much too strong to be plausible: that principals are never culpable for the actions of their agents, because, after all, the agent did it. I'm not sure you answered by last question. Do you think the government of a democratically elected state can ever act as a legitimate agent of the state's citizens? The normative part is the question of legitimacy. But put that aside. Can someone ever act as an agent of a collective body — as the agent of a corporation say? And if so, can the collective body — the principal — ever be responsible for the actions of its agents? Whether the poverty case is analogous is whether you think all rights violations are sins of commission and never sins of omission. Suppose thieves keep invading my house and the state keeps refusing to do anything about it. How many kinds of rights violations are there? You seem to be saying, just one: the theft of my property. I have no complaint against the state (unless they try to stop me from buying protection elsewhere?) I want to say that, in most case, to have a property right without a right to the protection of property is empty.

  9. This all strikes me as pretty obviously false. The natural state of man is small-scale tribal warfare. So killing another, as long as they are in another tribe, is not wrongful. You wouldn't accept that, would you?As it happens, states do spend a good deal of energy inflicting poverty upon their people. Which is to say, poverty would not persist without the interference of the state. Also, I think many people are now poorer in many ways than people have ever been, thanks to the combination of technology that loosens Malthusian constraints and incompetent and/or predatory states. I wouldn't count most mass poverty as “natural” poverty. One way to see the point is to ask whether modern nation states are natural.

  10. The fact that you have access to an Internet connection and a computer functioning well enough to use it suggests (though doesn't prove) that, in a global-relative sense, you are not in poverty. You are, therefore, not acting in concert with the “natural state of man”. My question for you is whether you think that you have any particular right to remain in that state, and if not, if you don't think there is something wrong with someone taking it away from you. Because the minute you assert that you have the right to not have that state changed, you are undermining the suggestion that there's nothing particularly improper about poverty.

  11. So many things wrong with the view, where to start?1. It is not obvious that the state of nature is actually one of poverty. While the state of nature is often conceived as some technology free, rustic eden, this is simply a failure of the imagination. There is no reason why the state of nature cannot be conceived with all current technological innovations. (it is probably harder due to the higher complexity technology introduces into our lives, but not necessarily impossible)2. People, at the very instant they appear in a state of nature, do not necessarily own nothing. It could be that they own everything jointly with everyone else, or already own by themselves some their own equal share of everything in the world3. Even if they do own nothing when they enter the world, this is transient. All that original acquisition that they are doing is bound to get them above the poverty line soon. It is cyclic endemic poverty that people are concerned about, and as many have said, it has ofteen been brought about at gunpoint. A large part of poverty is about corruption and artificial barriers to entry etc. (which is why free trade is a good thing: it alleviates poverty) This however ignores cases where families stay in cycles of poverty because of poor choices made. Making poor choices in a system of voluntary exchange can keep generations in poverty. Poor people, even in non-libertopian situations, often lack the skill sets required to acquire resources. As a result, they lack the the resources to acquire skill sets for themselves and their children, who grow up lacking resources and skill sets. Not to mention that often, the endemic urban poor lack the will to channel what resources they do have in acquiring more or better skills.As an aside, autonomy is all very well when we say that we have to respect people's rational natures. i.e. who are we to say to make decisions for other people. Yet it is patently disingenuous to maintain that people are the best judges od what is for their own benefit when so many make patently bad decisions. It takes a profound lack of empathy to maintain that the bulk of the poor really prefer to be poor and on welfare eking out their existence, rather than middle class. Revealed preference theory is all very well for economics, but it is a monumental failure in the field of ethics. People can be akratic (in fact, they often are). The actions people do not necessarily reflect their strongest preferences.4. Even if poverty is the natural state of man, this is meaningless. It does not mean that endemic poverty is a desired state of affairs, nor even that it is neutral. It doesnt even mean that it some base-line against which we can judge all other states of affairs (as thats merely rank question begging) Poverty is bad enough according to many different measure of value that it should be important to us to alleviate. While there are many metaethical problems in dealing with value, it is prima facie acceptable that a world with less poverty is preferrable to one with more. Similarly, we should prefer a world where fewer people are eaten by bears (btw I dont think bears really eat people) or struck by lightning, or die in car accidents.This is not to reject notions of rights, but a moral theory which only talks about rights is half true. Just because someone has a moral right to do something does not mean that it is morally good to do it. It would be good if people remembered that even if people are within their rights, they can still be inveterate arseholes.5. And it still does not really address the notion of positive rights. We often do have mutual defence obligations (which is why we set up a state to fulfill these obligations). And to claim that we have mutual aid obligations (to prevent you from starving to death etc) is on reflection not that radical either. Yet this has nothing to do with whether or not poverty is a natural state of man.

  12. I agree with you, almost without exception, and I agree with your last paragraph entirely. I guess my first instinct is to say that this is really a question of enforceability– Benin doesn't have the ability to enforce the rights of its people on the United States, in the redistributional sense. Though the United States certainly has the ability to enforce such rights against the wealthy of Benin…. And, internationalist that I am, I doubt if there will be a time when military inequality ever fades enough to make such enforcement possible. So I imagine the goal can only be consensus.On health care, specifically, but in general as well, for now, I have this thing called the state; and I see a situation that I find morally untenable, and the only instrument I see to fix that currently is the state.It's interesting, and depressing, the way that the discussion goes. I try to be upfront with the fact that, while I have ideas about what will work best and what won't, what remains is my moral intuition that the lack of health care for everyone is an obscenity, particularly in a society with such opulence. That moral obligation that I believe in (and I recognize that many don't) doesn't go away, even if I can't articulate a particularly effective plan to solve the problem. Just as my belief in the moral obligation to put out my neighbor's house when it's on fire doesn't disappear because I lack in-depth knowledge of fire-fighting.But people are very, very resistant to morality talk that isn't an addendum to a policy position, for reasons I don't entirely understand. It helps, though, to remember the ultimate goal– coverage for everyone. Any plan that satisfies that, that brings a minimum level of care to everyone, is a plan that I'll endorse. Which is why it was heartening to hear you say on bloggingheads that you'd just like the government to cut checks for people who need health care and can't afford it. If it gets people access to the health care they need, that satisfies me.

  13. “Because the minute you assert that you have the right to not have that state changed, you are undermining the suggestion that there's nothing particularly improper about poverty.”I'd more wonder at the change of state… are you saying that you have the right to take a percentage of his stuff away, presumably to give it to someone much more in need than he is?I'd not say that he has a right to stay in his state as much as question your right to change it… and if you don't have the right to change his state, who would? A bunch of people who got together, voted, and said “okay, we now can change his state”?If I say something like “I have X” and you say “but you don't have the *RIGHT* to X”… then what? Do you have the right to X? Do you have the right to make sure that I don't have X? Do you have the right to make sure that no one has X?Does this thought process work when you apply it to, say, abortion rights? Gay marriage?

  14. You're overdoing it. He's saying poverty is a natural state, which is germane only if he believes that the fact that it is a natural state suggests that there is no duty to change it, or no reason to prefer not-poverty to poverty. But my suggestion is that, commenting on a blog post as he is, he is unlikely to be in poverty, in the global sense. And so I am asking, if poverty is a natural state, and that fact means something for whether or not we should attempt to change it, does that then suggest that he has no particular right to remain outside of poverty? Or, that he has no right to not be put into poverty by outside action.

  15. Rights talk, unless strictly positive/descriptive, is all nonsense. Otherwise it just mostly is. I recommend reading (surprise, surprise) The Myth of Natural Rights.States are organizations and may, like corporations (which in a certain sense, they are) be considered by way of “legal fictions” to be persons. Piercing the veil of corporate personhood we may single out the actual agents of the state as violators of rights (assuming for the sake of discussion the existence of said rights). Corey Maye shot a gang-member who was breaking into his home. That gang went by the name “police” and so it was Corey who wound up behind bars. If we consider the gang-members individuals like anyone else and do not evaluate them differently based on the status of their gang, we might deem the officer just another home-invader who got what was coming to him.Kip Esquire, are you familiar with Greg Clark's argument against the importance of institutions (like governments) in long-term economic growth?

  16. “Or, that he has no right to not be put into poverty by outside action.”Perhaps he does, perhaps he does not.When you say “outside action”, I presume that you mean an action taken by someone else. Does this other person have the Right to take this action? Where does this Right come from?Much of this seems to come from a deep intuition that “this is not the way the world ought to be” (an intuition I share, by the way) but that intuition seems to quite regularly lead to “Something Ought To Be Done!”… and that leads to “Therefore I Have (or someone like me has) The Right To Change It!” I don't know that you can get there (outside action) from here… though I'd love to see how one does.

  17. It seems that the only interesting question here is whether or not to consider prosperity a natural right. All of the reasons why the social contract argument won't get very much purchase concerning international claims have already been stated. The thing that keeps swimming around in my head is how trivial the concept of natural rights becomes once we allow positive liberties into the category. It seems there is an infinite number of positive liberties with low probabilities of access and no responsible party that could fit the profile, prosperity being only one. For instance, why not let in access to immortality? Sounds good to me. Anyway, I am not saying that access to prosperity shouldn't be considered a natural right, I just feel that allowing for it makes the concept marginally more meaningless.

  18. “But people are very, very resistant to morality talk that isn't an addendum to a policy position, for reasons I don't entirely understand.” It's pretty simple, actually. Morality talk, unmoored to a policy position, is often used as a form of dishonest rhetoric aimed at exploiting cognitive dissonance. The strategy works like this: make an abstract moral claim untied to any particular example, and then get the guy you're arguing with to agree that good people agree with that claim. Then, once they've agreed with your principle, you spring a specific policy on them, which a) they disagree with, and b) follows from your moral principle. At this point they have to either agree with you or admit they're bad people. Unsurprisingly, this makes people very angry. (Really, the surprise is that the other Greeks took as long to poison Socrates as they did.) So of course when you just engage in moral talk, even the possibility that you're engaging in Socratic jackassery can lead people to tune you out right from the beginning. Laying down your policy cards up front means that you can't pull this style of gotcha on them, and so they are more likely to take your moral claims as good-faith arguments.”It helps, though, to remember the ultimate goal– coverage for everyone.”As an aside, no, this isn't the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is good health for as many people as possible. Medicine and health care is a tool for maintaining good health; it's not an ultimate goal in and of itself. Concretely, suppose you have the choice between two scenarios: in the first, most people biked to work and ate a healthy diet, but we had the same care than we do now. In the second, we leave car culture and diet unchanged, but transplanted the French health care system here (which is probably the world's best). We'd have better health outcomes than in the first, than the second, so we'd be morally obliged to pick the first. This means that morally speaking, full coverage can't be an end.

  19. Pingback: Poverty and Human Rights | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

  20. I don't disagree with your reasoning about human psychology. My worry is that this kind of thinking can excuse a refusal to discuss moral ends that don't have specific policy proposals attached to them. I think most everyone thinks that, for example, we have a moral duty to prevent rape; the fact that I can't articulate a policy proposal that could better achieve that end can't mean that I have to give up saying that I have such a duty. Can it?

  21. You don't have to give it up — you've got freedom of speech! But as a practical matter, it's up to us, not our audience, to craft effective, honest and persuasive messages.This means it's up to us to take our speech communities into account. E.g., if we're among moral philosophers, they probably won't mind abstract moral reasoning — they won't come in with the expectation that we're advancing a stalking-horse. OTOH, if we're starting a critical discussion with someone who disagrees with us but is reasonable, then ostentatiously engaging in practices that indicate good faith is sensible. Establishing a history of not being a jerk is what lets us deploy rhetorical moves that look similar to tricks jerks often use. Of course, I'm not getting at your real point, which is to figure out the obligations that ideal listeners have towards a speaker. Partly, this is because I don't know what properties an ideal listener has! Do they have finite time and attention? If so, how much? Are they obliged to be rational? How hard do they have to work to understand our message? How much interpretive charity should they exercise? Even, are they obliged to listen at all? It seems like there are lots of sensible answers to all of these questions, with each combination of answers entailing different norms of discourse. So it seems like even in the ideal (as opposed to the practical), we have to pay attention to the norms of the particular community we're in, and adapt to that.

  22. I'm down with KipEsquire. The problem of poverty is only occasionally a problem of scarcity. The problem of poverty is a problem of thugs with guns. Often those thugs wear government uniforms. Sometimes they wear suits.

  23. Pingback: Human Rights And Poverty: A Question Pondered « Around The Sphere

  24. “Also, I think many people are now poorer in many ways than people have ever been…”…in modern times. If you look at the entire history of homo sapiens, nearly everyone today is rich compared to most of human history.

  25. How can “got what was coming to him” be interpreted in a strictly positive/descriptive sense? It is either nonsense or your first sentence is wrong.

  26. If the community regard the government taking as non-compensable, how can you have a property right in your back 40 against the government? Didn't the government always have an easement/option to take?

  27. Instead of “chipping in” materially, can one's obligation to those below the line be fulfilled merely by advocating for policies that would put them even further past the line than a minimum income generated through transfer payments? Imagine a healthy majority of the citizdenry chips in some amount that would make everyone achieve a minimum standard of living, but advocates policies (e.g., immigration restrictions, protectionism) that would prevent the worst off from moving beyond that point. At the same time, the rest of us refuse to chip in, but simultaneously advocate policies that would make everyone even better off.Who is the better steward of the positive right against poverty? Who is acting more morally vis-a-vis that right?

  28. I think we're talking past each other a bit. I was reacting to your statement that the state is “just acting as an agent of the people,” which I took to mean that the state was absolved of responsibility for its own actions by virtue of citizens' responsibility. To answer your question: Yes, I think there are circumstances in which the state can act as the legitimate agent of its citizens. And in those circumstances citizens share responsibility for any rights violations that might occur. However, I think the state-citizen relationship is such that the state almost always retains some independent responsibility for its actions. It's almost never analogous to the Hitler situation, where the Fuhrer gives his inferiors direct and specific instructions and they'll be shot if they don't carry them out.On the home-invasion hypothetical, I think it matters why the police aren't coming to your home. If they're specifically and deliberately not protecting your home (perhaps because you recently wrote an article critical of the police chief) then I think you could say the state is violating your rights by choosing a policy specifically designed to cause you harm. On the other hand, if the police is simply underfunded or incompetent, and you're getting the same shitty police protection as everyone else, then I want to say that there's not an independent rights violation going on. The thieves are violating your rights, but the state is not. I think Easterly's point is that it's much easier for a group like Amnesty International to find solutions to problems in the first category. If a state has a deliberate policy of harming its citizens (via acts of commission or omission), we can identify the specific government official responsible for the policy and pressure him to change it. In contrast, if the state is simply incapable of preventing third parties (or acts of God) from harming its citizens, it's not clear who's responsible for this incapacity or what policy changes could remedy it. The rhetoric of rights is far more useful in the former case than the latter.

  29. Morality talk, unmoored to a policy position, is often used as a form of dishonest rhetoric aimed at exploiting cognitive dissonance. The strategy works like this: make an abstract moral claim untied to any particular example, and then get the guy you're arguing with to agree that good people agree with that claim. Then, once they've agreed with your principle, you spring a specific policy on them, which a) they disagree with, and b) follows from your moral principle. At this point they have to either agree with you or admit they're bad people.Neel, you seem to be saying that socrates was wrong in doing this. However, as you admitted, there is cognitive dissonance going on, and pointing this is not wrong. If people are committed to a policy that conflicts with the moral principles that they purport to hold, they must either reject the policy or the principles.

  30. “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.”I disagree here. I think this confuses who the right is against and the (allegedly) best way to go about securing the right. I would argue this positive right to a material minimum (as well as other rights both negative and positive) is a universal right against everyone in the world, but the only reasonable way to go about securing those rights (because of geography, cultural differences, simple disagreement, human emotion, and technological limits) is to separate everyone into clubs and have those clubs do their best to provide these rights for its members. This does not lessen the burden on those above the “line” to provide a minimum for those below the “line”, when successful clubs see that one of it's fellow clubs is failing, they collectively have to do their best to supply that club with what it needs to fulfill the minimum rights. All this country-as-club model does is just that, provide a model for which you aim to make perfect and deviate from when necessary and return to when appropriate. Perhaps I'm wrong here as I haven't even fleshed the following thought out entirely in my own head….but as those reasons for clubs being the most reasonable way of securing those rights, that I mentioned in parenthetical earlier, become less and less of a limit then the country and club model becomes less and less necessary. Certainly over time geography has become less of a hurdle and has led to globalization which in and of itself could be seen as a move away from the country-as-club model. Now as for the others I mentioned, those are not likely to be decreases as barriers (and I doubt I'd want them to be).

  31. I am somewhat unsatisfied with the definition of rights presented here. I think more attention needs to be paid to discovering the origin of rights. I think once such an origin has been identified, then the derivative questions become easier to answer.The best I've been able to come up with in respect to the origin of rights is to extrapolate from a point made by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics; to wit, that the goodness or well-formedness of a living entity is to be judged based on how well that entity grows into its full potential. While admittedly somewhat circuitous, it stikes me as intrinsically true that what makes an oak tree a good oak tree is best judged by determining whether the oak tree fulfills its potential as an oak. It's the kind of judgment that gets made at dog shows when dogs are judged by how well they typify their breed, etc.Under this view, then rights are those conditions that best permit such unfolding, such growth into one's potential as a particular kind of living thing. For humans, the particular kind of living thing seems to be a cognizing kind of living thing; i.e., the cognizing is what makes us essentially human. So, rights then become a function buttressing and supporting form. So then, for example, freedom of speech is simply a form allowing for the beneficial exchange of information. Access to information is a cognizer's stock in trade, etc.I realize this formulation of rights is problematic and would appreciate criticisms. Am I even right to think that understanding where rights come from would help in understanding what they are and what their proper application might be?

  32. This post and comments thread seems to be well-intentioned, but all over the map. “We have a moral duty to prevent rape” is a perfect example. If you said, “I think most everyone thinks that we have a moral duty to strongly condemn rape” or even “to strongly condemn rape and work to educate the men most prone to it” that would be one thing. That's a moral position. But if I'm failing morally whenever someone is raped, it seems like we're adopting a pretty idealistic (dare I say adolescent?) vision of morality. How could we possibly fulfill that moral duty? We couldn't. A duty that is impossible to fulfill sounds less like a duty and more like a piety to me.

  33. Positive Rights are simply Orwellian Speak and the most tortured logic for saying that other people have the rights to the fruit of my labor.In you're essay you avoide some of the simplest, most obvious points. First off, the only way a society can “earn” wealth is by serving others. If I am a breadmaker, I serve society by increasing the supply of bread for all to eat. If I am a car maker, I serve society by increasing the supply of transportation for a society to use. Societies grow by serving others! If you do not add to the overall wealth of a society you will remain in poverty.Societies that remain in poverty do so, because they bring no value to their fellow man. The reason they bring no value is because they do not have the full protection of their natural rights. If you do not have your own property rights protected, what incentive is their to produce value for others? “Positive Rights” are simply theft dressed up by the State. No society that steals from its productive members and gives the fruits of labor to the unproductive will survive for long. The productive members of society are wealthy because they serve others and make others lives better! Ayn Rand has written numerous short essays that deal with your “reframing” of the argument. No matter how much tortuous logic you want to use, Positive Rights are still theft by the state.

  34. My two biggest problems with this post and some of the comments are: 1) A blurry idea of what positive and negative rights are. Most things that the state provides in a positive sense would be better termed services, not rights. And most of them come about because the vast majority of people have chipped in to the system, however willingly, and are essentially withdrawing some of that to have these services provided. Having highways built is a lot of things, but it's not a right. Now, even though some who didn't chip in that much take advantage of those highways, some people get really worked up about the idea that someone might get health care even if they didn't chip in as much. I don't know why this is. But even then, we're talking about something that has significant cost — when someone uses health care, someone is paying for it, somewhere. Likewise, it's hard to see how poverty can be easily alleviated other than redistribution, unless you're working under the assumption that a world is possible in which no one will be poor, an assumption I don't share. Which leads me to: 2) “The only reason there is poverty in the world (true poverty, not American faux poverty) is because thugs with guns keep poor people poor.” I wonder how certain Americans, poor Americans, would feel about “faux poverty.” This discussion needs parameters. If you're saying, “how do we help people who are poor because of thugs with guns,” that's one conversation. But I don't feel like it's the one being had here. Because in that case, there would be no need to talk about positive rights, since the negative right of “not having a thug with a gun keep you poor” clearly supersedes it.

  35. But what alternative? People need little excuse to abdicate any moral obligation at all. What if the choice is piety or apathy? I'll take piety, thanks. And I don't think that the fact that something is impossible means we have no obligation to pursue it. In fact, I think impossible pursuits are some of our most important.

  36. I could see this particular speech prefacing a whole mess of initiatives.Holding signs in front of Planned Parenthood…Explaining how marriage is between a man and a woman…Explaining how obscene music and art needs to be banned…Hey. You want to be amoral and apathetic and say that gays should be allowed to be married, that's fine. Those of us who are pious and understand Man's relationship with God's Creation can do the heavy lifting of keeping society intact against the seemingly inevitable tide of “progressivism”. With the help of our lord and savior Jesus Christ, we will overcome.Or would you say “that's different”?

  37. It's not different; it's a complete non sequitur. You're talking about disputes regarding what is and isn't moral, which, while interesting, and a big part of our political dialogue, has nothing to do with what we're talking about here. So why do you bring it up? Because you have this never-ceasing tendency to want to drop some irrelevant gotcha on me. I'm not interested in disputing whether gay marriage or whatever else is moral, and you know very well my opinion on that question. We're talking about the consequences of moral talk and positive rights. If you want to talk like a grownup, I'm all for it, but when you constantly leap back and forth between your serious foot and your troll foot, it's tiring, and I'm not inclined to participate.

  38. As much as I appreciate the free psychoanalysis, I'd more like to get back to the topic at hand… which is the whole is this paragraph something that ought to be used before we have the government do something or not?Here, I'll post the paragraph again:”But what alternative? People need little excuse to abdicate any moral obligation at all. What if the choice is piety or apathy? I'll take piety, thanks. And I don't think that the fact that something is impossible means we have no obligation to pursue it. In fact, I think impossible pursuits are some of our most important.”Now, when I read that paragraph, my eyes widen and I think about the huge number of things that it can, and has, been used to justify.I'll ask you directly:What makes your use of this particular paragraph different?The follow-up question would be this: how in the hell can you *NOT* talk about what is moral when you (You, Freddie, not me… you.) bring up the importance of, let me quote this word to you, “piety” when it comes to social action?

  39. Actually, I do think many cases of pointing out cognitive dissonance are dishonest and wrong.This is because the relationship between speech and knowledge is very complex. When someone says a sentence S, it's almost never the case that they mean the propositional content of S! This is because S is nearly always false as stated — there will be a host of unspoken qualifications necessary to make it true. For example, if someone asks you how to turn on the light, and you say “flipping that light switch will turn on the light”, this sentence is wrong. For it to be actually true, you need to add a host of qualifications to it: the wiring needs to still be intact, the power must currently be on, the bulb needs to be un-burnt-out, and so on, ad infinitum. (This is called “the qualification problem” in AI research, and it's a very serious technical obstacle!) Of course, because it's practically impossible to state all the qualifications, we never do. This makes “Socratic muggings” possible: in a dialogue, we have to assent to technically false propositions, because otherwise we can't get started. So someone arguing in bad faith can start taking your statements literally in order to derive an absurd conclusion, in order to force the psychological process of cognitive dissonance to kick in. So, as a matter of practical rhetoric, you can get people to give up beliefs for bad or insufficient reasons. Of course, it's also the case that we all do believe many things for insufficient reasons, or which are false. So some uses of dialectic leading to contradiction are justified.

  40. I didn't posit a choice between apathy and piety. I posited a choice between reality and not-reality. I'm not defending apathy, though that's also a right, I suppose.

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  42. Again, you're simply not engaging the question at hand. Whether or not gay marriage is immoral is irrelevant to the question at hand, which is the proper situating of morality talk and rights talk in this context. As usual, you're far better at criticizing than you are at offering anything resembling a workable argument. Even if I felt that gay marriage was even remotely analogous to rape in any logical way, your post would be flatly unworkable as a statement of practical politics. The clear suggestion from what you've said, after all, is that if you don't believe in a moral duty to prevent gay marriage, there isn't a moral obligation to prevent rape. Which is nonsense, as well you know. But you rest assured in the idea that you can say it's about me– not you, me!– and not bother to generate internally consistent arguments. Which is consistent with your general behavior, which is to try and snipe and snark, but prove utterly unable to present a coherent argument of your own when called to the canvas.And listen, slick, it doesn't take psychoanalyzing to call bullshit on bullshit.

  43. The rights argument sets the bar too high. There are plenty of projects that aren't rights-based that are still worthwhile.

  44. What a briliant essay! Really. I wrote something similar about the African poverty probem. It is in Portuguese, so it would be useless to send you. Anyway, congrats! This is exactly what I think about this issue.(sorry about the rough English)Tiago M. Ramalho

  45. You misunderstand my question.I am not asking if gay marriage is moral. I don't care.I am asking what makes your use of the paragraph, and here I will quote you again, different from other folks using the paragraph.Here's what you said:”But what alternative? People need little excuse to abdicate any moral obligation at all. What if the choice is piety or apathy? I'll take piety, thanks. And I don't think that the fact that something is impossible means we have no obligation to pursue it. In fact, I think impossible pursuits are some of our most important.”I am saying that I can see this paragraph prefacing some awful, *AWFUL* policies (among them: gay marriage).I am saying that I cannot see the difference between your use of this paragraph (to serve moral precepts X) and the use of those other, wickeder, folks use of it (to serve immoral precepts Y).When you say “your post would be flatly unworkable as a statement of practical politics.”I am saying this: It does not seem to be particularly unworkable. The people in the examples I provided give examples of exactly how “workable” it is.Again: What makes your use of the paragraph of yours that I quoted and their use of it?(For the record, I see “troll behavior” as “talking about the person making the post” rather than “talking about the arguments the people are making”. I am asking you about stuff that you posted. I am not talking about you. Please answer the questions I am asking or, at least, say “you know what, I'm not going to answer that”. Thank you.)

  46. We don't think a society is completely unjust when rights are violated every once in a while, as long as the institutions are designed to protect rights, and respect for rights is the norm, we tend to think that – at least with respect to rights claims – society is doing its job. We expect everyone to “chip in” to pay for the institutions that protect rights and keep us out of Hobbesian anarchy, and, at least in theory, we do our best to minimize rights violations with due process, etc. When rights violations become routine, or when the institutions are perverted and no longer respect rights, then we say the society is unjust and call for a change. But the point is we judge a society by its institutions and its approach to rights, including whether that society has set up the right institutions and pursues the right policies that will most likely result in the respect for rights, not whether every person's rights are respected 100% of the time (I think this was Jefferson's point with the “long train of abuses” line).Perhaps wealth can be thought of the same way. Instead of arguing that every person has a right to a particular amount of money, perhaps we can say that every person has a right to the set of institutions that will most likely create the conditions under which wealth can be created, and wherein any given person will likely find herself above the poverty line at any given time.Negative rights aren't protected in a Hobbesian anarchy. They require a particular set of institutions for their meaningful realization, and most libertarians are ok with small rights “violations” (e.g., taxation) to create the set of institutions most likely to protect their liberty generally. In other words, even libertarians don't think of rights in absolute terms. We think of them as a useful term for the condition under which government doesn't meaningfully interfere with an individual's pursuit of the good, or substitute its own ends for the individual's.So, if we think of rights not as this thing and that thing in need of protection like the Magna Carta at the Archives, but rather a general condition of liberty, then there's no reason NOT to include wealth, because all that means is that people have a right to institutions that create the conditions under which the opportunities to create wealth are maximized (e.g., free trade), in the same way that they have a right to the set of conditions that maximizes their ability to pursue their own ends (e.g., due process).That probably made no sense whatsoever.

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  48. If the law of the land is to provide a minimum wage for any labor, not paying that would be a human rights violation, I think.Would not having a minimum living wage law be a human rights violation?Would coercing peasants in various ways to produce cash crops instead of food crops (and leaving peasants to starve when cash crop prices crash) not constitute a human rights violation?Would rich farmers' building of a dam in an arid region to impound water to irrigate rice crops, thereby making water unavailable for peasants' subsistence crops constitute a human rights violation?Would a multinational company's building of a power plant but thereby polluting the main source of drinking water for the local population (and not doing anything to replace the common good so denied) constitute a human rights violation?Fishermen communities in India have lived on the coast for centuries, feeding themselves by catch from the coastal area. Would the government allowing vacuum-cleaner mechanized fishing methods that clear the area within the fishermen's reach of catch constitute a human rights violation?If you say poverty in general – its causes are manifold, just like war. Is war a human rights violation? But there are innumerable instances where a traditional way of life – precarious but not poverty-stricken – is thrown into disarray in the name of progress, free-market, etc. There is the taking of goods that were common by tradition and privatizing them. Is this a violation of human rights?

  49. Not paying that wage would be a violation of the law.Not necessarily a violation of Human Rights.Human Rights and the law have a relationship, sure… but it isn't close to a 1:1 kinda thing.

  50. “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.”That's pretty much what I was getting at. I really need to read the whole post before I comment.

  51. I'm an enthusiast for apathy, I think we rarely get to hear its case made.When I hear people talk about reaching for impossible dreams, I reach for my gun. But I reach for my gun for any damn reason.

  52. If I may butt in? I think that Jay is looking for the distinction between duties od right and duties of virtue. Duties of right are formal and can be enforced by law while duties of virtue are more substantive claims which cannot be enforced by law.Of course, not all formal obligations are enforced. Use of force often is, but fraud isnt. No-one is arrested for telling his wife that the dress does not make her look fat (when in fact it does), or for having an affair, or for lying about a number of other issues (though adultery can result in a civil case, it is not criminally prosecutable). The only times lying is criminalised is in cases of fraud, or perjuryThis of course calls up the standard libertarian force/fraud duet into question. It sems like only some kinds fraud are criminal, the legal fraud is ostensibly private. Which brings us to the conclusion that while the bedroom is private, the board room is not necessarily so. Or if the board room is private, it is private in ways that do not prevent us from regulating it.I'm relying on the assumption here that no libertarian is going to criminalise adultery or decriminalise fraud. (So any libertarian who will, please sound off and we can have a rousing argument)There is also the issue that there isnt probably any government which has not tries its hand (and to this day still does) try to enforce duties of virtue. Of course, the fact that no libertarian government exists is not a reason to not pursue libertarian policies.Of course, that said, there is obviously some class of violations like murder and rape which we have duties to prevent as well as punish. The social contract is one of the ways in which we execute these moral duties. Or in a state of nature, or anarchic society, you are morally required to protect your neighbour from rape, murder, assault or fraud/ or even make retribution on the perpetrators of these wrongs.The question that is raised in will's post is whether we have a formal moral duty to prevent our neighbour from starving to death (it if it is the case that he does not want to starve to death) The matter of distant people is taken care of at thr instance of state formation. Ubiquitous state formation, in theory, will take care of the problem of protection. If at least everybody is subject to some state or another, everybody's rights are being protected (at least in theory) What to do about states which fail to do the job is tangential to this issue, and not necessarily reliant on whether or not we have a formal duty to support starving neighbours

  53. But we don't know what are the institutions that create the conditions under which opportunities to create wealth are maximised. It strikes me as entirely possible that even the richest country in the world has not achieved institutions that can maximise wealth. Furthermore, the institutions that appear to create wealth quite plausibly vary from culture to culture, eg history in some countries might mean that a political settlement can only be stable under institutions that are just not needed in countries with a different history. For example, Northern Ireland apparently has undergone streneous efforts to keep the police force balanced between Protestants and Catholics, a matter which the rest of the Anglo-speaking world doesn't appear to worry about. But how do we know? Balancing the police force may impose costs relative to those in societies that don't have to worry about it, but still be necessary to avoid another round of wealth-destroying terrorism in Northern Ireland – in other words the benefits might outweigh the costs in the case of Northern Ireland. So we can't look to cross-country comparisons to tell us what institutions generate wealth in any particular case. So reasonable people could easily disagree about what institutions are required in a culture to generate wealth, let alone what insitutions are required to maximise it.And if we can't agree on how to implement a right, what's the point of declaring it a right? What's the point in declaring that I, or a government, has a moral obligation to do something if there's no broad social consensus on what that something is, and no remotely objective way to say whether or not someone is actually meeting their moral obligation to provide such a right? Negative rights do generate hard cases where it's not clear where the obligations lie (eg people who want to exercise their freedom of speech to disrupt funerals), but positive rights seem to me to be all hard cases.

  54. What is your definition of human rights?To quote Wikipedia: the “basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled”. Do we have a right to a traditional way of life? When has a way of life gone on long enough to become traditional? Are efforts to stop the Norwegians and Japanese from whaling a violation of their human rights because they have a traditional right to a way of life? Do people have a right to vaccum-cleaner mechanised fishing methods, even if they destroy the fishing stocks?The NZ government introduced individual transferrable fishing quotas to manage the rights to fish that were common by tradition. Was that a violation of human rights? Water rights often cause conflict. Say that upstream communities in a river have always had a right to 10,000 cubic metres of water for their farming, but climate change means that river levels are running low and they are taking too much water. Is changing their rights to water a violation of human rights? Let's say an organisation wants to build a power station to supply a hospital with electricity, thus increasing access to healthcare in the local community. The options boil down to a hydro-run system, affecting water use, or a thermal station removing a main source of drinking water, or no power station (it's not windy enough for wind power). Is making those tough decisions a violation of human rights? In that situation, how do you avoid not violating someone's rights? How about the world gets serious about climate change, and massively cuts back on coal use, thus throwing coal miners' traditional way of life into disarray in the name of the environment? Is that a violation of human rights?Is there some special reason to favour a minimum living wage legislation, when many people earning the minimum wage are teenagers or otherwise not dependent on it, and many poor people can't work at all, as opposed to a minimum income subsidy paid to keep people above a poverty level? Is someone who advocates a universal basic income rather than a minimum wage really advocating a policy of violating human rights, or are they just disagreeing about how to do things? Human rights are great if they can be applied to everyone, but it doesn't strike me that they're great ways to manage problems of resource allocation (property rights have far more advantages).

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