Saturday, November 18, 2023

Review: Not Enough by Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough identifies a very interesting phenomenon: that discourse around human rights kicked off only as the USSR disintegrated and neoliberalism kicked off. Such an interesting coincidence deserves an explanation.

Over the last few decades, human rights have fit quite comfortably within neoliberalism. But should they? Neoliberalism takes little issue with the first twenty-one articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): these have to do with political freedoms and property rights, and have close kin in the UDHR’s predecessors, the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). 

The next seven articles are harder to square within neoliberalism since they demand, among other social and economic rights, the right to shelter and food, to education, and even to paid holidays. These were sharply censured by one of neoliberalism’s leading thinkers, Hayek:

The conception of a ‘universal right’ which assures to the peasant, to the Eskimo, and presumably to the Abominable Snowman, ‘periodic holidays with pay’ shows the absurdity of the whole thing. (Law, Legislation and Liberty, 1979)

Moyn argues that human rights set merely a floor for basic needs, allowing limitless wealth accumulation for the few provided some allowances are made for bare subsistence living for the many. To address inequality — both between nations and within a nation — a new framework is needed. In this conception, indeed, human rights are exactly the fig leaf necessary for a return to the horrors of 19th century capitalism after the cannibalization of the welfare state. I agree with him that human rights organizations have largely prioritized political rights, and that the neoliberal era has made embarrassingly poor progress in the provision of shelter and food, education and paid holidays, globally. 

I am less convinced that it is so much an inherent failing of the tool of human rights than simply the doing of those wielding it. Article 27 demands “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Article 28 declares “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Together, I think these rights demand that the technological progress of the Global North (high speed rail, internet, the most cutting edge cancer drugs, for example) be made available to all the people of the world regardless of their place of residence. The human rights movement under neoliberalism has not chosen to work towards these ends (and indeed this human right is also violated for many people residing in the wealthiest countries). 

Moyn argues throughout his book for the need of a distributive concept of equality versus ideals that aim only for a subsistence existence. However, he never dares to venture a positive vision of what that could look like — a privilege of the ivory tower, and not one a burgeoning state attempting to bring equality to its people can afford. Presumably, his conception of the rights due to all people would have to encompass a “share” of all wealth? It is interesting, therefore, that Article 27 (quote above) indeed provisions to all humans a share of science and technology. Simply declaring a right to a share evidently hasn’t been enough. So what sort of government permits that?

One of the neoliberal critiques of human rights is whether it is possible to satisfy them within a worldview founded on individual responsibility. Here’s Hayek again:

It is evident that all these ‘rights’ are based on the interpretation of society as a deliberately made organization by which everybody is employed. They could not be made universal within a system of rules of just conduct based on the conception of individual responsibility, and so require that the whole of society be converted into a single organization, that is, made totalitarian in the fullest sense of the word.

Moyn, likewise, is terrified of the “totalitarian” systems that chose an alternative to the welfare state in their efforts to eliminate inequality (i.e., socialism). It is not clear what system he calls for, nor how this system would avoid such “totalitarian” tendencies.

Moyn’s argument largely traces the intellectual history of the concepts of distributive equality versus subsistence allowances — particularly from an American perspective. He does not investigate the source of wealth inequality (although he nods briefly towards the devastation wrought by colonialism), nor does he ground his analysis in what sorts of interventions effectively reduced inequality (though there is a brief foray in how investment in education both satisfies a human right and reduces inequality). This is a blind spot: it is very difficult to tackle a problem without knowing what causes it and what has fixed it in the past. 

His treatment of intra-nation versus inter-nation inequality is simplistic. Political projects are largely judged by their intent to lift the very neediest in the globe out of poverty. In this way, the USSR’s accomplishments in dramatically raising literacy and life expectancy within its borders are dismissed because they aimed for “socialism in one country” (rather than addressing global inequality). (Nor is there curiosity regarding why the Soviets pivoted from their original goal of socialism across the world to just socialism in one country.) Similarly, heightened intra-nation inequality during the marketization of China is lambasted, although the wealth gap between China and the wealthier countries narrowed during this time for both its poorest and its better off citizens. Is it possible to reduce intra-nation inequality without, at least for some period, heightening inter-nation inequality? Because Moyn examines neither the source of inequality nor practical examples of addressing it (beyond the former colonial empires’ welfare states), he cannot answer this question.

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