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.”