(Summary) Beetham- Economic and Social Rights (1995)

A chapter from Beetham’s book Politics and Human Rights

  • Traditionally, Social and Economic rights have been considered less important, for lacking universality and being less fundamental. 
  • They have been politically unwelcome for states, for it requires redistribution to the poor. Things have only worsened since 1980’s for two reasons:a) Growth of Intl Economy, with deregulation and cutting welfare spendingb) The collapse of USSR weakened its own social security systems, as well depriving the poor an ideology to mobilise for change
  • But the question still looms today: should SE be rights? Author thinks yes.

Definition and Justification

  • The criteria for human rights
    a) Fundamental- for the minimally decent life.
    b) Universal- applicable to all.
    c)Specific- so we can determine whether a right has be violated
  • The UN declaration was a bit messy. Tried to address core rights, but then to explicate other goals as “rights” too.
  • The core of rights is a respect for reflexive moral agency, and the safeguarding of the realisation of such capacities.
  • Arising out of a historic experience- modernity. The changing system to recognise the equality of humans. Protections from things such as arbitrary and uncontrolled use of force arising out of experience
  • Most would agree that the meeting of basic needs would fit this criteria.
  • In theory, the UN and political theorists are neutral on political and economic arrangements. In reality, socio-economic rights cannot be that divided from arrangements from institutions, for the latter can certainly violate the former and there is no guarantee absent democracy
  • When we consider this indivisibility of social and economic rights from political rights, it becomes evident that it should not be considered as “welfare rights”- not we do and should advocate people working for themselves, self-provision- but when one can’t, there needs to be a minimum provided
  • Not only are rights incompatible with the one end- the communist/command economy- likewise they are incompatible with extreme neoliberalism absent restrictions upon property rights if they are to massively restrain basic rights.

Corresponding duties

  • The charge against social and economic rights is that there are no identifiable correlative duties. Who bears them? Can they be fulfilled?
  • Usually we think rights only have a negative duty. But in the case of SE we have positive duties to provide- duties we usually think of having to reserve for special circumstances.
  • First response- the distinction between negative and positive rights don’t hold up that much. See the duty to protect right to freedom as well as state not infringing it.
  • See Shue’s “avoid, protect and aid” for (at least) security, subsistence and liberty
  • But two (diverging) conclusions can be drawn by Shue’s argument. That SE rights are just as important as HR, or that they are just as precarious.
  • The latter is problematic for concerns about SE rights.That is to say, that given the scarcity of state resources and limitations upon its capacity, it’s plausible that the only thing one could do is to restrain/avoid direct violations. Since that’s insufficient, HR violated. Shue also has to show which rights one can reasonably fulfil.
  • Thus we need deeper explanation:namely- do we have a general duty to aid others?
  • The idea of non interference as basis of rights rooted within liberalism, but intuitively plausible becausea) delimited responsibility (it’s clear what to do to avoid harm and it seems straightforward).b) assignable/attributable to our actions. A general duty to protect/aid, however is potentially limitless and non-assignable (why me not anyone else?)

    Thus the difficulty of accept inaction is the same as action.

  • But it’s not limitless and non-assignable. That is, for a  duty to exist corresponding to a right, there has to be some agent. Consider a child with no parents. Who takes care of them? The community. Within the social framework that exists, there are duty-bearers to the child’s right (thus not non-assignable) nor is the duty to help all children (thus not limitless)
  • Thus the state. If not the state, other states with capacities, coordinated internationally.


  • Technical concerns
    1) It hinders econ growth. Probs not- just a) alters distribution, b) if anything helps (by, e.g. a healthy labour force could help so much)2) That securing SE rights couldn’t keep up with pop growth. But evidence shows this to be a self correcting problem.
  • Political Situation1) The Global Economic Order operates with an emphasis for pushing for cuts, making support for the global poor difficult2) Internal political orders make things difficult. That is, the inequality of wealth and land makes policies skewed in favour of the rich in the global south.

    Net result? Slow progress, not helped when the North blames the South for not doing enough, and the South blames the former for hindering them.

The Political Theorist’s role

  • To convince decision makers of the need/right to basic SE rights.
  • Or persuade by explaining “boomerang effects”, where the systemic neglect of the least well off would bite them back.



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