Basic Rights, by Henry Shue, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980, 226 pp., $17.50/$4.95.
This is a dreadful little book that marvelously represents a large segment of the philosophical Zeitgeist. It even more marvelously illustrates the intellectual corruption present in many philosophically oriented and university-centered public policy institutes and in the foundations that fund them. Henry Shue is one of the permanent staff at the University of Maryland's Center for Philosophy and Public Policy. The foreword informs us that this center is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and that this particular monograph was partially supported by the Ford Foundation and "grew out of the Center's work on human rights and foreign policy." Some work!
Shue is disturbed by the State Department's insistence that so-called political and civil rights, such as voting rights, are more basic than so-called economic rights, such as a right to a minimum income. In particular, Shue sets out to show that the right to subsistence—the right to "unpolluted air, unpolluted water, adequate food, adequate clothing, adequate shelter, and minimal preventive public health care"—is a basic right. The other central basic right, according to Shue, is the right to security, that is, the right not to be subject to murder, torture, mayhem, rape, or assault.
The argument that Shue presents for the existence of these and other basic rights would earn him not much more than a C in any duly taught political philosophy course. We are simply told that if people have rights to anything, they have rights to security because security is an essential ingredient in the enjoyment of any condition. Shue's attitude seems to be that the fact that people have deep interests in certain conditions proves that others must provide them with those conditions. He builds into the very definition of a right the idea that others must provide one with the enjoyment of that right. So my right not to be murdered by you entails not only a duty on your part not to murder me but also a duty on your part to see to it that third parties do not murder me.
Although Basic Rights purports to focus on foreign policy implications, Shue never notices the radically interventionist implications of this right to security, namely, that we have a duty to defend everyone everywhere and that failure to defend anyone is morally equivalent to attacking that party. Shue's crucial argument for the right to subsistence—the right he is most interested in—is that subsistence is just as basic to the satisfaction of people's other rights (whatever they are) as is security. Shue rejects the objection that such subsistence rights place positive burdens on all others by pointing out that, as he construes them, so do security rights.
To show that he is no crazed Marxist indifferent to political and civil rights, Shue insists that some of these are basic too. The main one is a right to political participation. Whatever such participation amounts to, Shue is certain that it is necessary to guarantee the provision of security and subsistence as rights. The last (and least) basic right mentioned is the promising-sounding right to freedom of physical movement. But Shue is careful to ensure that this right does not preclude conscription or systematic governmental controls on immigration or emigration. Presumably, for Shue, conscription also does not violate anyone's basic right to security.
The author combines this philosophical arsenal with highly dubious economic analysis. He provides the hypothetical example of a relatively prosperous Third World peasant who is induced to switch from black-bean farming for local consumption to flower farming for export. The peasant is also induced to purchase labor-saving equipment. For Shue, the consequences of this typical, unregulated, economic activity would be that the local price of black beans soars, unemployment increases, and malnutrition ensues. This is supposed to illustrate, on the micro level, how free markets lead to the violation of subsistence rights.
Characteristically, Shue does not wonder about, for example, what effect the soaring bean price has on production decisions, what happens to the peasant's extra income, or what additional jobs come into existence in flower transportation or equipment production. Though market innovations can be disruptive—and harmfully so—Shue fails to recognize that the prospects for individuals born into the poverty of repressive societies are more likely to be enhanced by a general commitment to freedom from government and to a genuinely free market than by governmental social and economic programs and institutions.
On the macro level, Shue seems inclined toward extensive State (or international) control of economic affairs. What exactly he would endorse is unclear. He recognizes that in countries characterized by mass poverty, the governments have been systematically involved in managing the economy. And he recognizes that, politically, these countries are typically despotic. But he never imagines that the association of mass poverty and despotism with political control of the economy is anything but accidental. Shue's policy position seems to be that all would work out better if only the truly right-minded people could ascend to the power now evilly exercised by dictators and transnational corporations.
It should be noted that some realism does break through within Shue's discussion of recommendations for the present. He realizes that current US economic (and military) aid to most countries does not serve the subsistence or security of the people in those countries. Rather, such aid tends to reinforce the control of brutal regimes. So he recommends the cessation of such aid—until it becomes possible for the US government to transfer wealth successfully via new, farsighted, benevolent rulers. Shue has a long wait.
Eric Mack is a professor of philosophy at Tulane University and a REASON contributing editor.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Wrong about Rights".