The Inequality of “Human Rights”

What if the global struggle for human rights has accidentally helped make the world more unequal? What if, in seeking human rights, Samuel Moyn asks, we’ve ...

What if the global struggle for human rights has accidentally helped make the world more unequal? What if, in seeking human rights, Samuel Moyn asks, we’ve missed our real chance for justice? For almost a decade, Moyn has been trying to destroy the field of the history of human rights, but he has ended up defining it instead. Moyn’s 2010 book The Last Utopia is a 337-page grenade tossed at what he calls the “church history” approach, which presents the history of human rights as a long, slow progress toward the achievement of universal values. As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, I taught it twice in a course on the history and practice of human rights; both times it elicited a stronger response than any other text I’ve ever taught in any class.

The students were furious. For the first week of class, they read the polemical first chapter, which argues that human rights are not eternal universal truths, but rather a set of political claims that emerged in the 1970s amid a crisis of the moral authority of communism. They simply would not believe that their own highest ideals dated not to the Bible or “the golden rule” but to the age of disco. As it turned out, the students had a preconceived notion of what it meant to have their preconceived notions challenged, and it did not include historicizing their own moral commitments. This provoked reflection about what historicizing something means and how legitimacy for moral claims is constructed. The students argued about the book with each other; they exceeded assignment requirements to argue about it with me; I argued about it with my fellow graduate students. It was alive in ways that not many books are.

The students were assigned the remainder of the book for the end of the class, and by then most of them found that they agreed with it. Moyn’s book changed their minds about their own position in history. I now teach the history of inequality, struggling to persuade students that they can and should historicize the overwhelming salience of inequality to our contemporary moment, and here is Moyn again, redefining the history of human rights for the post-Piketty age. But before turning to that subject, it is worth briefly stating the argument of The Last Utopia, because Moyn himself refers to his new book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, as a kind of “rewrite” of his earlier intervention.

Moyn argues in The Last Utopia that “human rights” as we know them are a rhetorical device invented in the late 1970s as a depoliticized anticommunist language of global ethics. Far from realizing eternal moral truths, as my students might have thought, human rights were a way that the Carter administration could critique the Soviet Union without being bound to any tangible action at home or abroad. This moral language was embraced by a rapidly growing ecosystem of NGOs, media campaigns, and charities, whose stock-in-trade was moral denunciation rather than political organizing.


The Right to Have Rights

By Stephanie DeGooyer et al.

Key to Moyn’s argument is the point that human rights are not guaranteed by anybody in particular and impose no legal obligation on anyone, so they effectively do not exist. Instead, what Moyn, following Hannah Arendt, calls the “right to have rights” is a characteristic of citizenship, and governments have legal obligations relative to their citizens, but not to “humans.” (This maneuver requires some audacity, showing that the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights had little effect on the real world, and that anticolonial movements and the US civil rights movement were about citizenship rights, not human rights. Hence my students’ outrage.) So meaningful advocacy around protecting people’s rights has always had to do—and should continue to have to do—with citizenship rights.

In this light, “human rights” has replaced socialism as the language of international social justice, but without the politics attached. But without politics, Moyn would ask, how will this justice be secured?

Readers of The Last Utopia will find much that is familiar in Not Enough (the periodization, some key transitions, a few individuals), but this new book is a serious development for the history of human rights. Moyn has shifted the field again, from foreign policy to economics, and has broadened the conversation to address one of the defining features of our time, which is the return of inequality since the 1970s.

Moyn begins with a powerful observation: the age of the victory of human rights has also been an age of victory for the rich. How and why did this happen?

To answer his question, Moyn returns to the French Revolution and usefully develops a conceptual frame around the twin philosophical commitments of sufficiency (that is, how far people are from having nothing) and equality (how far people are from each other).

Policies aimed at sufficiency are familiar: any poverty alleviation effort, from food stamps to unemployment benefits to direct cash transfers to humanitarian aid. Policies aimed at equality are more difficult to find, which is exactly Moyn’s point. Equality implies some mechanism for redistribution, and a ceiling to ensure that the top end of the income distribution does not pull away from everyone else. The 90 percent top tax rates of the Eisenhower administration are a moderate example; outright expropriation is the radical version. Something like the social wealth fund recently proposed by the People’s Policy Project might plausibly be both, in that it would redistribute capital ownership and thus capital income from a small, tightly concentrated group to everyone equally.

In Moyn’s story, the Jacobin state was the first attempt to deliver both, with the radical Constitution of 1793, universal suffrage, and their attempts to regulate wages and prices. In response Thomas Paine articulated the first argument for sufficiency explicitly against equality, thereby setting the terms of the argument.

Throughout the 19th century, the two principles were usually rivals, with sufficiency more frequently advocated than equality. Even the socialist parties and labor unions who demanded equality tended to describe it as coterminous with sufficiency. The creation of the welfare state was the strongest push for substantive equality in addition to mere sufficiency, but welfare states were predicated on a nationalist political economy: they end at the borders and are not always accessible to immigrants, let alone serviceable as an international mechanism for equality. Postwar decolonization led to a push for a global equity rooted in fairer international economic policies and UN representation, but with no institutional structures to act on any of the sweeping rhetorical claims of (mostly socialist) independence leaders.

In Moyn’s view, the focus on a global subsistence minimum—that is, on human rights—is the thinking of diminished expectations.

This is the key moment in Moyn’s narrative, the point at which history could have turned toward a global welfare state but didn’t. National welfare states were based on a social compromise between capital and labor, mediated by governments. Capital accepted high taxes and relatively low profits in exchange for wage moderation and protection from communists, while labor accepted lower wages in exchange for continual reinvestment at home to keep unemployment low, and redistributive measures like free higher education and universal health care. Governments needed the tax revenue from capital and the votes from labor, so had an interest in compromise, and the limitations on the free flow of capital under the Bretton Woods system between 1945 and 1973 ensured that capital had to stay and compromise rather than decamp to places with cheaper labor and more compliant governments.

Instead of becoming a global version of this model, human rights in the 1970s followed a conceptual shift away from equality between states and toward the ethical imperative to help vulnerable individuals—to provide “sufficient” resources for living, and nothing more. As Moyn puts it, “Across time … the spirit of human rights and the political enterprise with which people associate them has shifted from nationally framed egalitarian citizenship to a globally scaled subsistence minimum.”

This new emphasis on bare-minimum antipoverty measures meant that human rights ignored the precipitous rise in inequality since the 1970s. Contrary to Naomi Klein and other further-left critics, Moyn does not think that human rights aided the rise of neoliberalism: his criticism is almost more cutting.1 In his view, the focus on a global subsistence minimum—that is, on human rights—is the thinking of diminished expectations, a failure of the radical imagination, and ensures that global solidarity remains, in his words, “weak and cheap.”

Moyn wants more ambitious thinking about the revolutionary origins of welfare states and the ways that a global welfare state could try to produce equity rather than sufficiency. He does not quite say that a global welfare state is the way to reduce contemporary inequality—national citizenship remains too strong—but he ends with a call to think with higher ambition about how redistribution might happen, because human rights law and practice as they currently exist are singularly unsuited to dealing with neoliberal inequality and unlikely to be the basis for new social movements. His concluding impulse is reminiscent of Wolfgang Streeck’s recent work: a justification for re-embedding markets in society, where they might be governed on the basis of equity and sufficiency together.2


Philanthropists Will Not Save Us

By Kim Phillips-Fein

This is a history of ideas and arguments, so nearly all the characters in it are philosophers and politicians. There is Thomas Paine, yes, and also Harold Laski, John Winant, Gunnar Myrdal, and John Rawls, as well as a lot of charters and declarations. The American political theorist Charles Beitz gets 13 pages. For historians of human rights, this is appropriate; scholars who work on inequality are likely to find it frustrating. The UN, after all, declares many things that have little practical impact on the world; likewise, if we agree that the demands of the Global South for a New International Economic Order failed in the 1970s, it is not easy to see why Rawls’s or Beitz’s conceptual revisions to the NIEO’s economic policies mattered.

But it is well worth getting beyond these methodological differences. With Not Enough Moyn has done something that more historians should do: he realized that his existing research agenda had immediate applicability to the broad interdisciplinary post-Piketty interest in inequality, and especially to the kind of inequality that most people care most about, which is the deranging rise in top incomes and wealth concentration since the 1970s. There are almost no historians who work specifically on the history of inequality; but from another standpoint, with their interests in power, hierarchy, ordering, and exclusion, most historians work only on inequality. In this book, Moyn is showing us one way of talking to each other.

Not Enough is alive in a different way from The Last Utopia: instead of coming to destroy a field from within, Moyn has critically rewritten his own work to open the field to scholars and readers with other interests but a shared alarm at contemporary inequality. And he does a great service by showing how the rhetorical power of “human rights” has not just concealed rising inequality but also deflected a chance to fight for substantive equality.

There is one striking absence in this book about human rights and neoliberalism, and that is the subject of property rights. To be sure, most advocates for human rights and global justice do not have property rights in mind, but the right to property is a rights claim that has had a very different fate from the other set of economic, social, and cultural rights that Moyn discusses. He comes very close to property rights several times, so this omission might be deliberate: a topic for further research, perhaps, deserving an extended treatment of its own, especially in a move from a history focused on philosophy to one focused on practices. As the book stands, this feels like a missed opportunity rather than a fault.

The need for secure property rights is a salient theme in the economic development literature that Moyn occasionally invokes: it is considered necessary to spur investment and subsequent economic growth, and to create political subjects with a stake in the survival of the state and a set of assets for the state to tax. The need for transparent land titles, for instance, has been advocated by people like Hernando de Soto (who likes neoliberalism) as well as James Putzel (whose work suggests that he does not) and, for that matter, the Communist Party of India when they conducted land reform in West Bengal after the 1970s.3 Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach,” which Moyn does not view very favorably, was developed exactly because Sen realized that a famine could happen without anyone’s formal property rights being violated. Property rights are the classic example of nominal formal equality that does not imply sufficiency. Anyone can own property, and the state will protect their property and enforce their contracts, but as we know, that kind of equality is perfectly reconcilable with a world of spectacular income and wealth inequality as well as the realities of social and political inequality that follow.

Unlike, say, the right to a minimum wage or to a safe workplace, the very specific Anglo-American form of private property rights has globalized rapidly and deeply since the 1970s. The liberalization of capital accounts after the end of Bretton Woods, the marketization of China, the “transition” in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the liberalization of the Indian economy have all been gigantic extensions of property rights—and mostly the property rights of Western owners of capital. As David Kennedy describes in his 2016 book A World of Struggle, in recent decades the transformation of the global political economy has mostly been accomplished by turning economic questions of distribution and inequality into legal questions of property rights, so that rights claims and legal procedures are the dominant language through which international economic struggle is conducted.

Moyn has critically rewritten his own work to open the field to scholars and readers with other interests but a shared alarm at contemporary inequality.

Moyn mentions these expansions of property rights without quite completing the point. The policies of the “Washington Consensus” were developed by the IMF, the World Bank, and the US Treasury as the policy conditions for bailing out indebted Latin American countries in the 1980s. They consist of privatization, liberalization (in the sense of lowering barriers to markets and reducing government intervention), and what is somewhat euphemistically called “macroeconomic stability,” meaning austerity and tight monetary policy. This bundle of policies, in practice, is what neoliberalism is, and it has spread around the world since the late 1970s not only through discursive or even political triumph but also through the exercise of power. These policies have functioned as the opposite of Moyn’s hypothetical global welfare state: destroying unions, cutting taxes, privatizing government assets, lowering trade barriers, liberalizing capital flows, gutting health and safety regulations, and cutting welfare spending. They have undermined citizenship rights and promoted in their place an abrupt and ruthless entry into global markets.

Neoliberalism was enforced on Latin America in the 1980s (resulting in a lost decade of economic growth), then on Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1990s (resulting in an economic collapse worse than the Great Depression), then on East Asian development states after the 1997 crisis; was modified in China and India (resulting in overall economic growth, but accompanied by wildly accelerating inequality); and is now being implemented by the ECB (European Central Bank) in the European periphery. To take another obvious example, the 1994 TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement among WTO members created an international legal basis for enforcing intellectual property rights, including over previously communal knowledge. The possession of excludable intellectual property rights rather than solely the right to participate in competitive global labor markets is one of the key ways that capital income has soared since the 1970s while labor incomes have stagnated. Considering that property rights are in effect a claim to legitimately deploy state violence in order to render part of the world excludable, the internationalization of property rights should be more surprising than it is.

The point here is that while Moyn is quite right, we did not get anything like a global welfare state that protected people’s economic and social rights, we did get a very strong commitment to a global expansion and enforcement of a very specific set of economic rights, which has underpinned the growth in inequality that motivates Moyn’s book. This is consistent with much of his argument, especially as he laments the unraveling of citizens’ rights to nationally provisioned welfare.

One of the most striking forms of inequality today is how the erosion of citizenship works differently across the income spectrum. For capital and owners of capital, accessing rights at a global rather than a national level is a great advantage: they can keep their money in the Cayman Islands, their businesses in a “Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich” tax haven, their lawyers in Panama, their homes in New York, and their passports in Singapore. For people who have only their own labor to sell, the erosion of citizenship rights and the declining ability of states to provision welfare have very different implications.

In these ways, property rights are a surprising space where neoliberalism and human rights intersect to increase inequality, and they deserve further examination, especially if we are going to heed Moyn’s call for more ambitious thinking.


Neoliberalism Misunderstood

By Johanna Bockman

In one sense, Moyn is grandly optimistic, suggesting that a new, better, less exclusionary, less violent international socialism is thinkable and necessary. But in another sense, Not Enough is deeply dispiriting. If bare sufficiency and neoliberalism triumphed because they were powerful ideas adopted and weaponized by a global hegemon like the United States and a brutally self-protective global one percent, then it is clear just how far substantive equality is from performing a similar coup. There is no analogous anti-neoliberal hegemon, no IMF and WTO for equality, no global tax authority to fund an international health service. National welfare states have experienced 40 years of sustained assault and repeated defeats. A return to the limited national welfare states of the postwar decades is difficult enough to imagine, let alone achieving the global welfare state that a world half full of victorious socialist independence leaders found impossible.

It is a mark of how vital and engaging Moyn’s work is that it provokes readers to attempt that feat of imagination. But it is also a mark of how thoroughly the human rights movement has failed to address inequality that all we can do is imagine.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

  1. See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador, 2008); Susan Marks, “Four Human Rights Myths,” in Human Rights: Old Problems, New Possibilities, edited by David Kinley, Wojciech Sadurski, and Kevin Walton (Edward Elgar, 2014).
  2. Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, 2nd ed. (Verso, 2014), pp. 79-93.
  3. See Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic, 2003); James Putzel, A Captive Land: The Politics of Land Reform in the Philippines (Monthly Review Press, 1992).
Featured image: Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2016). Photograph by Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr