All Too Humanitarian

‘Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World’
Eleanor Roosevelt holding the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 (Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo)

If you ever feel alienated by an academic discipline, it’s often a relief to visit that subject’s space in a used bookstore. In philosophy, for example, paperbacks from the 1950s and ’60s on existentialism tend to dot the shelves. There are urgent debates among phenomenologists and behaviorists. These are now fringe topics, as one might hope today’s fads in philosophy will someday become. Sometimes the experience is one of tragic loss: I, for one, am very sad to see interpretive social science (focused on the meaning of events for persons) fall so far from the center of social inquiry. But the overall impression these walls of texts give is, “this too shall pass.” The obsessions of one age will become the remote, even quaint topics of historical inquiry for another.

Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough historicizes a priority that has persisted in law and philosophy for decades: human rights as a foundational commitment among all decent people and governments. Human-rights talk focuses on negative liberties: the right not to be censored, tortured, or discriminated against. It attempts to identify the worst that human beings can do to one another, to codify protections, and to establish lasting national and supranational legal structures to vindicate the rights of citizens.

So far, so unobjectionable. Some critics of rights talk have complained that negative rights are of little use to starving, sick, or homeless persons. So human rights have grown, in many jurisdictions, to include positive rights to health care, food, and housing. The record of governments in providing for such rights is mixed. Legislatures may put only minimal effort into funding access to the basics, and courts may not have the power to force them to do so. When judges do get involved (as in the New Jersey Supreme Court’s famed efforts to force the legislature to adequately fund schools in disadvantaged communities), legal battles can last for decades.

Moyn goes beyond the “positive rights” critique of human rights to argue that even the most substantive version of this critique diverts energy and distracts attention from something more fundamental than liberties: more equality among citizens in terms of income, wealth, and life chances. Moyn complains that even “perfectly realized human rights” are compatible with “radical inequality.” To those primarily concerned about absolute (as opposed to relative) deprivation, this may seem like a strange complaint. Who cares if David Koch has $50 billion if there is a chicken in every pot? If Silicon Valley can eventually automate the production of food, energy, and more, why not give them every incentive to do so?

As Moyn shows, the problem here is one of power. States may guarantee a right to education, but who shapes how we define that right? In the United States, billionaires are trying to corner that market. The Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations have captured much of the Democratic establishment, and have promoted charter schools to improve “outcomes”—meaning test scores and the types of “key performance indicators” familiar to CEOs. But many parents and teachers want public schools to pursue a broader set of purposes. Within the Trump administration, billionaire Betsy DeVos wants to radicalize the technological investments of the “billionaire boys’ club” of education “reformers.” In DeVos’s ideal world, virtual cyber-schools accelerate homeschooling, and new Trump Universities will flourish online without having to worry about pesky regulators.

Given billionaires’ domination of education policy in the United States, the transition at the Department of Education from the Democrats Arne Duncan and John King to the Republican DeVos was unsurprisingly smooth. Both sides tend to see unionized public-school teachers less as partners than as peons, to be replaced by cheaper, shorter-term, younger cadres whenever possible. When it comes to higher education, each tends to devalue humanities research, tenure, and academic freedom as relics, to be marginalized or rejected whenever they might conflict with the overriding goal of “workforce preparation.”

Housing, health care, and criminal-justice policy are all similarly distorted by the wealth divide that Moyn focuses on. Without more substantive equality, a “right to housing” could end up as little more than unstable tenancies in slums. America’s closest attempt to establishing a right to health care for citizens, the Affordable Care Act, has multiple tiers (employer-sponsored insurance, exchanges, and Medicaid), and even tiers within tiers (for example, gold versus bronze plans in the exchanges, or state-level variations in Medicaid that make the value of the program radically different depending on where one lives). As economist Gabriel Zucman has argued, wealth is “the power to control the state for your own benefit. You see this very clearly in the United States, where inequality has increased enormously. And at the very same time as inequality arose, tax progressivity declined. Basically, the rich cut their tax rate.”


Neoliberal trade rules may benefit millions of consumers by a small amount and make corporate CEOs and shareholders immensely wealthy, while devastating tens of thousands of workers.

Moyn’s arguments in Not Enough are a direct challenge to the influence of John Rawls’s liberal political philosophy. While Rawls’s Theory of Justice is an enormously rich work, its basic message has filtered down to generations of students as a series of relatively simple ideas. Liberty and equality are paramount, but a certain level of liberty should be achieved before society aims for equality. The prime goal of egalitarianism is to lift up the prospects of the worst-off. If we can change the basic structure of society to improve the situation of the worst-off, while still maintaining liberty, Rawlsians generally believe we should do so. Maximizing some combination of welfare and opportunity for the minimally provisioned (the “maximin” principle) was their sine qua non of social justice.

The problem with such a maximin principle is that it can easily promote massively disruptive or unstable social structures. Neoliberal trade rules may benefit millions of consumers by a small amount and make corporate CEOs and shareholders immensely wealthy, while devastating tens of thousands of workers. (I focus on domestic effects here, since Rawls’s theory tends to be applied more to nations than to international relations.) Rawlsians would likely embrace such rules, so long as the displaced workers do not fall to levels of destitution now suffered by the worst-off. But as the Trump and Brexit disruptions have shown, such a hollowing out of the middle may be a dangerous game. Moreover, if there is a small, “worst-off” class subsisting on, say, $10,000 a year, which neoliberal policies gradually enrich by a few dollars a year while vastly enriching the 1 percent, and while reducing everyone else to an income of $20,000 a year, that is a very strange form of egalitarianism. By focusing only on the worst-off, Rawls was distracted from larger dynamics of inequality that could make “maximin” both undesirable and politically vulnerable.

In Moyn’s telling, the same problem has afflicted humanitarians who focus on rights violations instead of the type of economic fairness that leads to a balanced distribution of political power. “Human rights must be kept in proper perspective, neither idolized nor smashed, to recognize the full scope of our crisis today,” Moyn insists. Much of Not Enough is an engaging and illuminating intellectual history of the rivalry between those focused on rights and those who have insisted on a more substantively egalitarian approach to emancipation. Moyn painstakingly traces the varying routes policymakers and public intellectuals took toward dropping “equality in the name of sufficiency,” as they developed aspirational goals for national governments and supranational governance. Moyn expertly shows the professional and intellectual influences that consistently lured key thinkers into accepting deep and persistent inequalities.

A book like Not Enough is intended to help everyone, from policymakers to political theorists, avoid the mistakes of the past in order to shape the future more fairly. Whatever successes have been achieved in the field of human rights, we live in a world of hyper-inequality—where eight men own more than the poorest half of the world, and the richest 1 percent of the population are on track to own 67 percent of all wealth by 2030. Given the well-documented ability of wealth to shape politics, culture, employment, and so much else in its own image, this is an offense to any practical sense of universal human dignity. Moyn insists that equality be just as much a goal of politics as a bare sufficiency of social provision.


Can his vision succeed? Within the domestic politics of rich and poor countries alike, the egalitarian appeal should have resonance. Even in the United States, a notoriously unequal country, polls show that majorities do not believe the rich pay enough in taxes. By contrast, it is difficult to see how a politics of global egalitarianism will have much resonance in rich or even middle-income countries. There may be a few radicals willing to call the United States and Europe the “overdeveloped world” and to advocate for some middle way between wealthy countries’ standards of living and those of less developed countries. But, as Andrew Bacevich has observed, such self-examination is anathema in American political culture: Jimmy Carter was roundly mocked merely for suggesting that people wear a sweater around the house in winter rather than jack up the heat. Perhaps an environmentalism of natural limits will emerge in the wake of accelerating climate catastrophes. But such crises could just as easily cause the developed world to turn inward, wounded and frightened by the prospect of further disasters.

In his thought-provoking book Obliquity, John Kay argues that sometimes the best way to solve a problem is not to pursue its solution directly. For example, Kay tells the story of profitable pharmaceutical firms that did not make pecuniary gain their chief interest. Instead, they developed corporate cultures that valued cures and innovative research. If our goal is a more egalitarian society, the direct provision of money, via a universal basic income, may be less effective than a jobs guarantee. While interposing an expectation of labor between the state and the needy may seem gratuitous in an era of abundance, it is also a way of justifying income and assuring that society has the resources it needs to continue paying it.

Modern monetary theory (MMT) and more open immigration policies are other oblique ways to address global inequality. Both treat the economy as a positive-sum game. If there truly were a fixed sum of money and jobs available, the economy would be zero-sum: the economic success of the poor or migrants would have to come at the expense of someone else. But there is a better way to frame the issue: What are the productive capacities of an economy, and how might unemployed persons or resources be made productive? If governments print money to pay the unemployed to do productive work, their new spending power will benefit other businesses and workers, and the resulting innovation and investment will more efficiently provide goods and services. If inflation spikes, then the government must pull back—but until then, investment in productive capacity can advance apace.

To be sure, there are real limits to growth set by resource availability. But MMT, matched with wise industrial policy, can accelerate innovation in renewable energy, artificial intelligence in medicine, and faster and more durable home construction and infrastructure renewal. For modern monetary theorists, money is a utility, capable of expanding to both catalyze and reflect the real productive capacity of an economy. Such investment can create an inclusive economic momentum, like that experienced by the United States during some periods of the New Deal, and then in earnest in the war economy of the 1940s.

Given the risk of arms races and the immense destructive capacity of today’s technology, military Keynesianism is obsolete. But there are common enemies of mankind (such as climate change and illness) that we can take metaphorical arms against. As William James suggested in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” mass mobilizations need a common enemy to unify majorities behind difficult actions. If we were to take equality itself as our goal, the rich would need to serve as such an enemy. The resulting political dynamic could become all too Schmittian, as battle lines are drawn among friends and enemies.

The better path is to nurture narratives of an emerging global society with common goals, and then to mobilize the resources necessary to achieve such goals in a progressive way. The end result—a narrower range of income and wealth—will be exactly what Moyn intends, but the motive force will be a spirit of unity rather than one of division. Such unity was key to the broad appeal of human rights. Social harmony may require that egalitarianism is the byproduct—not the stated aim—of a new universalism.


Not Enough
Human Rights in an Unequal World

Samuel Moyn
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 296 pp.

Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: 

Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society (Harvard University Press), is presently editing a book on the policy implications of Laudato si'.

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