Socio-Economic Rights and the Opportunity to Flourish

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/4243.htm)

The scope of socio-economic rights is suggested in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1): they can include social benefit payments, working conditions, health and education – as itemised in Articles 22-26.   Collectivists believe that society should grant these as entitlements to its citizens, and that they should be publically funded.  They might use several arguments:

·      A society cannot be considered to be fair unless everybody has a reasonable chance to achieve their potential.  Amartya Sen, in The Idea of Justice, argued that a society could not be considered just unless everybody has what he called “capability” ”, describing it as "the opportunity to fulfil ends and the substantive freedom to achieve those reasoned ends" – where the term "ends" means whatever is important to the person concerned.[1]

·      People need food, shelter and health care if they are unemployed or incapacitated, either temporarily or permanently, to protect them from hardship.  Some unemployment is both inevitable and necessary for the labour market to function properly (, so people cannot be presumed to be at fault because they have no job.

·      Public funding of a service can ensure complete and equal availability to everyone, irrespective of their wealth (or their parents’ wealth). 

·      It avoids the problem of people restricting the giving of charity to those whom they feel to be deserving, which might only cover those in the same ethnic group as themselves.[2]

·      Public funding gives people a meaningful mechanism to claim their rights.  It would be impractical and unfair for a needy person to randomly select a wealthy individual and try to make a claim.

·      Taxation provides a fair mechanism for sharing the cost of socio-economic rights, because the burden can be spread according to people's ability to pay and it allows for some measure of economic reciprocity (3.5.1).

·      Those who receive benefits can retain their dignity as members of a society which has conferred rights upon them, particularly when they and their families have paid tax (or National Insurance, in Britain).  This, it is argued, is preferable to the recipients being positioned as dependent on private charity – because to depend upon the arbitrary power of another person is a form of servitude;[3] this makes the recipients feel inferior and can even make them resentful.  Such feelings weaken social cohesion.

·      Private giving can lead to absurd disparities:[4]

“The British public gives more to a Devon-based donkey sanctuary than the most prominent charities trying to combat violence and abuse against women.”

·      Charities compete with each other, so some spend much of their revenue on marketing; some have high administration costs.[5]

·      Charity isn't just an economic transaction, and it involves more than two actors: it isn't only a relationship between an individual donor and a recipient.  With a publicly-funded service, everybody in that society can feel better knowing that there is a safety net to protect them from hardship.  And, if they are taxpayers, they know that they are contributing in due measure to protect other people.

Individualists don’t dispute what people need, but they argue against these needs being agreed as publically-funded socio-economic rights; they argue that individuals should be responsible for themselves where possible.  If necessary, private charity would step in.  This belief, which is widely held in America for example, can be supported by several arguments:

·      Civil society is likely to be more responsive to people’s needs than a comprehensive service provided by the State (

·      Benefit payments might lead to idleness and dependency. 

·      Public provision ‘lets people off the hook’:

      Mutual dependence strengthens families but reliance on the State weakens them.

      It can be argued that people who choose not to pay for health insurance don’t deserve to be helped.

·      Private charity is altruistic, whereas taxation is a coercive infringement of personal liberty.[6]

The choice between public funding and private charity is therefore contested: it is part of the fundamental conflict between individualists and collectivists, so negotiation is needed.  There is greater security in co-ordinated provision, and there are benefits in the wider choice and spontaneous giving which are associated with private action, so it is appropriate to have a combination of the two approaches.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

[1] Amartya Sen defined “capability” in chapter 11 of his book The Idea of Justice (the quotation is from p. 234).  In the footnotes to this chapter he refers to several other books on what he describes as “the capability approach”.

[2] In his book Fault Lines, Professor Rajan referred to the American preference for charitable giving, rather than paying tax towards a publically-funded service, as perhaps being “because they have more control over who the recipients are” (p. 95).  He cited Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference, by Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, which referred to the impact of ‘racial heterogeneity’ on charitable giving and which was available online in June 2012 at http://info.worldbank.org/etools/docs/library/139345/Fighting%20Poverty%20in%20the%20U.S.%20and%20Europe%20A%20World%20of%20Difference%20EdGlaeser.pdf.

[3] Professor Quentin Skinner expressed the view that dependence upon the arbitrary power of another person is a form of servitude, in a CSD interview in 2000 with John Keane entitled “Against Servitude”, which was published in the CSD Bulletin, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 10-13; it was available in May 2014 at http://johnkeane.net/wp-content/uploads/2000/06/jk_bullet_skinner.pdf.

[4] On 23 April 2008, The Guardian published an article entitled Britons give more to donkey sanctuary then abuse charities.  It included the following observation:

“New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) has calculated that more than 7 million women have been affected by domestic violence but found that Refuge, the Women's Aid Federation and Eaves Housing for Women have a combined annual income of just £17m. By contrast the Donkey Sanctuary, which has looked after 12,000 donkeys, received £20m in 2006.”

The article was available in May 2014 at http://www.theguardian.com/money/2008/apr/23/charitablegiving.childprotection.

[5] On 6 August 2013, The Telegraph published an article entitled How much charities spend on 'charitable activities' which listed, for some prominent British charities, how many highly paid people they employ and the proportion of their revenue which is actually spent on charitable activities; on the latter measure, they varied from 42% to 96%.  The article was available in March 2014 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/10225883/How-much-charities-spend-on-charitable-activities.html.

[6] Milton Friedman used the argument that taxation is a form of coercion, in an interview on WPIX, Channel 11, on 7 December 1975, entitled, Living Within Our Means; the transcript was available in February 2014 at http://www.thirteen.org/openmind/public-affairs/living-within-our-means/494/.