Political rights and economic rights.

Recent discussions have reminded me of the relationship between economic and political rights, and the varying interpretations of it. For orthodox Marxists economic rights supersede political rights for two reasons: 1) without an equitable material distribution of resources political rights mean nothing; and 2) with an equitable material distribution of resources there is no need for political rights.  In this view “politics” is either a status quo instrument of domination that conforms the masses to the requirements of production in a system dominated by private interests, or is a means of revolutionary challenge to that status quo. In neither case is it an end of itself. Subsequent Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist interpretations all concur with this view.

Socialists see economic rights as taking precedence over but not superseding political rights. Here the view is that economic rights are more important than political rights but the latter are needed to ensure the just distribution of material resources in a society. Even if imposed by dictatorial fiat, the maintenance of economic rights requires popular participation in the decision-making process surrounding the collective allocation of resources. That is a matter of political rights.

Social democrats see political rights preceeding economic rights. Here the priority is on gaining political rights first in order to subsequently secure economic rights to the material benefits of production. Since they see political rights as a universal good, they recognise the rights of non-socialists in the political arena, which means operating from a position of structurally-conditioned disadvantage within capitalist societies. The emphasis thus shifts from control of production to redistrubution of surpluses (via taxation and state involvement in the social relations of production, mostly).

The Right has its own interpretations of the relationship. Libertarians place the emphasis on political rights (e.g. the right to do as they please so long as it harms no other) and, in the most extreme version, do not believe in economic “rights.”  Beyond that, the Right gets a bit fuzzy. Some free-marketeers assume the precedence of economic rights over political rights, so long as the rights conferred are market-driven in  nature (i.e., the “right” to make a buck without government interference). Other conservatives see political rights trumping economic rights (e.g. “no taxation without representation” or the right to mandate morality on a collective scale). The Right notion of economic rights differs from the Left notion, as it is not about material redistribution but about unfettered access to and freedom within an economic system controlled by private interests. Likewise, the Right view of political rights is more about freedom of choice and expression rather than about vehicles of collective redress and representation.

Showing my colours, I subscribe to the view that political rights are required for economic rights to obtain. The formation of unions, the extension of suffrage, the recognition of indigenous claims, the redress of past injustices, the acceptance of  universal “human” rights and the very ability to speak truth to power and challenge the status quo or elements of it all hinge on the prior granting of legal authority, or at least recognition, to do so. That is a political act, and legal recognition is the certification of political rights. That makes the move to secure political rights the precondition for the eventual recognition of other rights, to include those of an economic nature.

This is the hidden factor in transitions from authoritarian rule. The transition is most fundamentally marked by the extension of political rights to previously excluded groups, who in turn use the opportunity to agitate for previously unobtainable economic rights. The more the extension of political rights is achieved by force and economic rights redefined as a result, the more revolutionary the character of the regime change. The more negotiated the extension of political and economic rights, the more reformist the change will be.

This is just a broad sketch and not meant to be a definitive pronouncement. Readers are welcome to add their own intepretations as they see fit (within the bounds of civility, of course).

24 thoughts on “Political rights and economic rights.

  1. A quick response, first thoughts:

    “the right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins”, someone famously said.

    I’m with JS Mill on this one. Rights are “nonsense on stilts”. They are a strong claim to protection of a particular value, but they are not natural, and thus they are not naturally absolute. We may decide that particular rights are absolute, or absolute for practical purposes

    Thus, we come to a conflict of rights. The right of the land-owner to remain unmolested conflicts with the right of others to remain unharmed by climate change (to take a concrete example).

    All of this is uncomplicated, and should be clear, but it seems that sometimes it isn’t

    I think there is a position for a socialist-libertarian, someone who tries to take maximilist positions on every spectrum, but anyone who does so should do so without illusions that the rights they decide to prioritise will inevitably conflict with other rights claims.

    The market is not a de-facto institution. Nor is the state. They exist on the back of a particular set of social arrangements, many of which do not derive from any pure moral priniciples. The degree to which this is the case will be argued by reasonable people, but again, many refuse to even concede this much.

    Setting the premises of debate is the most important thing. If we can’t agree on those, or at least a range in which we might accept certain premises as true, then we are unlikely to get anywhere useful.

  2. George:

    The notions of “rights” may indeed be an artificial construct, but it is certainly not nonsense on stilts. Wherever the notion came from and whatever the absolute value it may contain, rights are now accepted as universal constructs that are inalienable by definition. These rights may be material or existential, but they inform the conduct of individual and collective affairs.

    The question then is how to resolve the contradictions betwene different notions or sets of rights, and priority should be assigned to one or the other in the pursuit of a fair and just society (which I admit is an ideological construct that skews the definition of rights in a particular direction).

    Whatever the philosophical misgivings about the notion of rights, and wherever and however those notions developed into practical constructs for the organisation of (ideal) society, they are here to stay and must be dealt with accordingly.

  3. Let me clarify my objection. I don’t think it is a strong difference to your position, but I think it is important.

    Rights are things that we collectively agree have a strong moral claim. Some have reached a degree of recognition that we regard them as absolute, or practically so. We do not allow other claims, whether rights or interest based to void them. The use of torture is perhaps the clearest example, and you can argue that the United States lost much of its real legitimacy in international affairs when its direct (rather than proxy) use of torture became evident. The right of a civilian to not be killed by the state is almost there. Others are less universally recongnised, and the use of the term ‘right’ indicates an aspiration rather than a fact. These can be, and are, frequently voided when there are conflicts of rights, or appeals to interests. Unfortunately, New Zealand politicians have developed a tendency to treat rights in law that should be in the former as though they are in the latter. This is not what I am defending, and the hollowness with which ‘Asian values’ is considered by civil society and much of the population in Asia suggests that you are right in claiming a degree of universalism, at least for strong rights. Differing notions of the individual within society can and do sustain widely in a range of societies however, and I think these undermine claims to universality of all rights in all times and places. Rights shift, and thankfully they have in the last decades expanded in scope.

    We can use rights in either way, and with time a right might shift from one category to another. There’s nothing wrong with this. Our problems occur when people use appeals to rights as absolutes (rights as trumps), when no such absolutes exist (in the latter sense established above). I’m thinking here of things like strong “property rights”, rather than the right to bodily integrity or free speech. There is no reason why such rights should have a stronger bearing than interest claims, or stand against other ‘weak’ rights claims such as Sen’s capabilities.

    Human rights based discourse is a rather modern construct. It gained ground during the mid-20th century, and saw a flourishing in the 1980s and 1990s. Its widespread adoption in the ‘west’ and takeup within the United States institions gave its moral strength real backing, and cemented it as a concept that is universally recognised. Appeals to natural rights, or universal goods (usually handed down by a god) of course go much deeper, but are usually grounded in an appeal to that which hands down the rights.

    All of which is to say that I don’t think that rights stand up trumps against interests, and need to argue their own way. Since rights language is used by libertarians, those on the right, liberals, and socialist-libertarians/anarchists, I think this is an important point. You may of course disagree.

  4. I don’t mean to suggest above that rights did not exist as a concept before the 1940s, simply that their expression as such was not common. An illustration of the takeoff of rights since the mid 1970s can be seen in this relative frequency graph.

  5. here’s Lew for you

    Socialists see economic rights as taking precedence over but not superseding political rights.

    What does that actually mean Lew, would Chris Trotter understand,
    would Sanctuary, does anybody understand .
    go on Lew try to be be brave don’t denigrate, as usual,
    does it mean anything Lew:
    start political abuse here Lew,

  6. PQ:

    You were not particularly brilliant in your exchanges with Lew on a different thread, and hijacking this thread with semi-coherent barbs is not going to alleviate that problem (I deleted the incoherent version of your comment here as per your request).

    Less you have not noticed, Lew and I are different people with different takes on things, so asking him to defend something that I said (with some hostility, I might add), is just plain weird. Plus, my last words in the post were a request to be civil, which your comment is not.

    If you persist in this sort of trolling you will be deleted forthwith.

  7. PQ, this is the second time in the past few days you’ve mistaken one writer for another. My objection to your ongoing idiocy isn’t political — if you have any coherent political views I’ve yet to divine them — it’s to do with bare competence. If you wish to remain welcome here you’ll need to sort your act out.


  8. Pablo,

    I think this is likely to attract a fair bit of heated denunciation, particularly from right-wingers who’ll feel you’ve mischaracterised their unique and precious conceptions of rights. In truth I think the only one you’ve omitted which merits a mention is the Objectivist conception of political and economic rights, viz, that economic rights are political rights — ie, that the two are indivisible, both from each other and from the fact of existence as a person. I find this definition so reductive as to be almost meaningless, but nevertheless it does seem to be gaining some sort of currency (if you’ll excuse the wording). If you scratch the surface it’s also internally contradictory, rendering it no more ‘pure’ than the conceptions of right described by yourself and George.

    My own view of rights, political and economic, closely resembles George’s explanation above — and I suspect our theoretical background is pretty similar too (though philosophy isn’t my strong suit, so I may be a bit inarticulate). Rights are not inherent in nature, nor divinely-granted; they are what human society says they are, and they take precedence over each other and over other phenomena according to a particular rights-framework implementation in a society. From this, I employ the same liberal pragma Pablo describes: since the nature and extent of any rights are socially defined, political rights are necessary to exercise sufficient social agency to secure other forms of rights. As far as this goes, robust political rights are a necessity, since there is no other ready means of determining what society’s values even are (much else actually securing them).

    A bunch of other important things flow from this. Probably the most important is that under such a scheme there are no ‘universal’ rights in the very strict sense of that word. Since each society sets its own rights, each society must necessarily have the power to revoke the same. That’s pretty scary, and is an understandable ground upon which anti-statists of all sorts (not just objectivists) despise that liberal framework. But formulating, negotiating and implementing these sorts of non-trivial systems is what civil society is for. In addition, I do believe that societies themselves ultimately have the right (and in certain cases a responsibility) to act on their own autonomy, and in some very limited cases this can be used to legitimately justify the imposition of one set of rights over another. I must stress that I don’t believe in the imperialist’s unilateral carte-blanche; nor a PNAC-like imperative to impose ‘American values’ on the rest of the world. What I’m thinking of in these case is tightly-theorised, limited situations such as governed by Responsibility to Protect and the Just War doctrines.

    Another consequence which makes people squeamish is that, under this scheme, rights such as humans enjoy are not possessed by animals unless (and only to the extent that) society deems it to be so. Because they do not derive from some natural phenomenon (such as sentience), I reject claims by animal welfare activists such as PETA that human exploitation of animals violates their rights, since the only rights they have are those we (as a society) give them. If we grant them some sort of right to be free from certain sorts of cruel treatment (such as by passing a law banning certain practices) then they enjoy that protection as of right; and in theory a society could grant animals all the same rights as human beings.

    Both those examples of the consequences of such a theory of rights in implementation have entire books written on them, and there are plenty more examples, so I’ve hardly done the topic justice. But I think there’s a very great deal of talk about inherent or inalienable rights, possessed of near magical powers, in our popular discourse (especially in liberal discourse) without much attention paid to the background, and I think they’d be a bit more transparent to people if it were better understood. The phrase in the Declaration of independence, after all, is We hold these truths to be self-evident…” after all.


  9. Lew:

    I agree with you and George that the notion of rights is a social construct and thereby not immutable. I assumed that aspect of the discussion rather than explicitly state it at the onset. Having now done that, my point in writing the post was to ponder the relationship between economic and political rights in various (mostly Left) ideological strains, mainly (but not exclusively) as a way of framing another starting point for discussion of regime change (among other things). I certainly do not buy the economic rights=political rights argument because, to not put too fine a point on it, I am grounded in reality.

    On the inferential main point, it seems to me that in the Middle East the demand is for political rights where they have not, or in the measure that they have not, obtained before. In turn, it seems to me (again, as an outsider looking in) that there is an expectation that certain social and economic rights will automatically follow once those yearned for political rights are granted (should they be, which is an open question over the short term). That, I am afraid, is where the rubber will hit the road when it comes to reconciling alternative and competing conceptualisations of social and economic rights, and the trade-offs, as George points alludes, are not simply a matter of academic import.

  10. Pablo – I added a clarifying comment on the hardliners soft liners post if you did not see it.

    I think I will let my response to this post mull in my mind before posting but a few comments. A genuine libertarian cannot object to the free association of labour via a union any more than they approve of the free association of capital through limited stock companies.

    Where the issue arises is when they combine with the state to prevent a company from employing alternative labour during a strike.

    I agree with the thrust of what George is saying. There are too many people screaming loudly that their (newly manufactured) “rights” are being abrogated.

    I would be interested in your clarification of what economic rights are.

  11. Hi Phil:

    I will double check the hardliner/softliner post because I do not remember having to offer a response. Apologies if you were expecting one.

    I think that the Left and Right differ most on the notion of economic rights. My view is along the lines that there should be guarantees of fair compensation for productive labour, unfettered rights to organise in defense or pursuit of economic objectives, and a minimum standard of living for those who are functionally unable to contribute to production (the old, the young, the mentally unwell or physically disabled). All of these rights can only be achieved once political rights to voice, vehicle and representation have been secured. What matters less is how they are achieved in practice (social democracy, trickle down laissez faire, etc.). What matters more is that there is a social consensus that they must be achieved at some basic level. That consensus can only be reached by political bargaining, and in order to bargain one has to have the right to do so. Ergo, I believe in the need for political rights prior to the achievement of economic rights as construed here.

  12. Pablo – Although it might seem deliberately provocative I want to prove that rights come with responsibilities with the comments below.

    What is your definition of fair? If we can agree that it represents a balance between the needs of the market and companies to pay a rate which allows them to make a fair profit and recognise the contribution that modern society makes to an educated and healthy workforce then fine. That means acceptance of youth wages at lower rates than adult minimum wage. The imposition of a minimum wage can be argued as the minimum level at which a society is willing to make a return on its individuals. Below that the state is required to effectively subsidise the worker’s income to ensure the stability of society. It is a message to companies that activity below that threshold is not deemed to be economically valuable and to individuals unable to find work at that rate that they need to move to areas where work is available and/or increase their skills or motivations.

    I reject the idea that there is any “right” to a redistributionist society. I accept that it is the responsibility and self interest of those endowed with greater fortune and skills to ensure that society perpetuates itself through constantly improving education and a safety net. I dont accept that we should automatically maintain people through welfare at a level where their income from welfare is substantially higher than the minimum wage. That is the case in the UK where benefits combine at around £8.40 and minimum wage is around £5.70.

    unfettered rights to organise in defense or pursuit of economic objectives,

    So presumably you approve of cartels and private unconstrained monopolies? Both workers and capital should be constrained from “rent seeking”. That is a value judgement which we should recognise and be clear about as George identifies.

    On the obligation to take care of the weaker members of society I think we can agree on the principle of that but will inevitably disagree on the means of delivery. I prefer the private charitable approach which looks to the community to look after its own rather than a state imposition which inevitably substitutes state compulsion for a community looking after its own. The difference is important because it substantially reduces the power of the state to direct largesse.

    The various muslim organisations have valuable popular support because they are private organisations delivering value judgement based charity versus the state controlled and corrupt non delivery of western aid.

    The state monopoly on force and its ability to compel is what makes it so dangerous

  13. When I write like that I normally do not have the time to edit so pursue the thrust of the arguments rather than pick holes please.

  14. Phil:

    Allow me to be polemical.

    You start with the premise that market forces will continue to operate in perpetuity. I do not, and I see worker’s political rights as the first means by which they can begin to reclaim, should they choose to, their rightful place in the ownership of the means of production as well as the benefits derived from it. That is what makes democracy so dangerous to capital if it is not mystified, and why capitalists historically tend to choose capitalism over democracy when their structural power is seriously threatened.

    The genius of democratic capitalism in its most enlightened form is that it is as Lenin says: capitalism’s best possible political shell. Mystification is done in myriad ways, and workers trade the right to vote for acceptance of capitalism as the basic organizing principle. Under such conditions they vote against their class interests because they merely want a bigger share of the economic pie, as individuals, rather than the majority of it as a class.

    What “obligations” exist to help the less fortunate in modern democratic capitalism is more of a sop thrown out by political elites to avoid rendering transparent the class basis of their rule. That is why the neoliberal regression can only work so long as workers are profoundly alienated from each other in production and the social division of labour, something that Tories of all stripes work desperately to promote and reproduce using a host of diversions and buy-offs.

    Your comments about the minimum wage and the self-interest of elites in promoting minimalist welfare schemes demonstrates that you realize the need to extend some measure of economic rights to subordinate groups, at least in democratic capitalism. What I am merely saying is that although now that is traded off for workers acceptance of the economic status quo, that is a class compromise that is not guaranteed forever under conditions of universal political rights. At the point the compromise breaks down and workers move to claim a greater share of economic control is when the choice between capitalism or democracy becomes capitalist’s nightmare scenario.

    So for your sake, lets hope that rugby, celebrity scandal, commodity fetichism and other alienating diversions continue to occupy mass attention for the foreseeable future in NZ (change the sports for other countries but the method is the same). Otherwise the economic rights of the majority just might supersede political rights of the minority, something that is, needless to say, the preference of some of KP’s more militant readers.

    As for me, since I prefer democracy and political rights over economic rights in the first instance, I accept that the peaceful transition away from market logics is neither guaranteed, inevitable or necessarily wanted by the majority, be they alienated or not. That is their choice, but they first must have the political right to make it on several levels–economic, social and political.

    NZ may guarantee such choice but from where I sit in a small authoritarian SE Asian country that is considered a model of capitalist development, it remains a dream rather than a reality.

  15. Pablo – Your fundamental problem is that you see the economy as a pie to be distributed. The google guys invented something new. People with ideas create something new from nothing. Even if you had the power to command equality tomorrow you would rapidly find, like China now that some will do better than others if market structures are enabled, or you would mandate continuing equality and the economy would stagnate like Cuba.

    How do you deal with the dilemma of ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship in your distribution of labour and capital? how do you deal with differences in human nature?

  16. Phil:

    I do not want to get side tracked any further on this, as I was only interested in the relationship between economic and political rights, as opposed to different interpretations of their content (although that is an interesting subject). A while back I wrote a post on rights and entitlements that may be of interest to you: http://www.kiwipolitico.com/2009/06/deconstructing-democracy-part-4-entitlement/

    I do agree with you that the lack of incentive structures in socialism other than solidarity is a major problem. But that is not unresolvable, and just because something has not worked ideally in the past does not mean that it cannot work in the future if appropriate changes have been made.

  17. Lew, and principles of this post.
    please accept that I am genuine in my posts,
    if I offend you I am sorry,
    your fool is another mans wise,

    I am allowed on most posts like Farrar, and Trotter,
    and Micky Savage,
    do not deny me

  18. PQ:

    Nothing you have written here at KP has been wise or civilised, the latter as per our guidelines/policy. You are welcome to take your rants elsewhere, because among other things you continue to confuse KP authors when making your tirades and you add nothing to any discussion regardless of who you address.

    Should you refrain from trolling you are welcome to comment here. Should you not, you will be summarily deleted.

  19. My preference is for political rights first, because I think that can allow economic rights to be obtained more peacefully than they would be if obtained first.

    But, I also I like the way that the seminal British socialist thinker R.H. Tawney sees the relationship between equality (economic rights) and liberty (political rights) – he sees equality as being essential to liberty.

    “When liberty is construed, realistically, or implying, not merely a minimum of civil and political rights, but securities that the economically weak will not be at the mercy of the strong, … a large measure of equality, so far from being inimical to liberty is essential to it.””

  20. Thanks solatnz, for the good contribution.

    It reminds yet again that freedom, construed as a universal right, is a multifaceted thing, even if it is a social construct or artifice. I agree with your preference but cannot deny that economic equality increases the political range of choice available to individuals and groups.

    Perhaps that is why supporters of the Greens in NZ are basically members of the liberal bourgeoisie rather than the (maori) working class–the material essentials have been addressed and there consequently is room to support “non-essential” advocacy causes (I realise the Greens would argue that their causes are essential and sympathise with a few of them, but voting stats and demographics tell a different story).

  21. That’s a poor analysis of the Greens, who actually have the most active advocacy for reducing income inequality of all parties. Greens are also more activist on both political rights and economic rights than the other parties, perhaps because their own idealisn is actually rooted in deep respect for the best of existing “values” (political and economic rights) as a base (sustainable society) for focus on environmental sustainability.

  22. I am looking forward to your comments on the events in Cairo, Pablo. It appears the Army have enforced the will of the people.

    I am particularly interested I the parallel with Honduras and I believe whaleoil is interested in the parallel with Fiji.

    I would write more but I am invoking the principles of the Magna Carta locally.

  23. Personally if corporations were willing to limit their bullying to restricting Brian Edwards’ ability to wank on at length about how great he is I’d be pretty comfortable with ant amount of corporate oppression

  24. Apologies for starting a thread and then leaving it – I’ve been moving countries over the weekend.

    Perhaps it is possible to explain the disconnect by stating that in New Zealand the language of of politics is largely disconnected from frameworks of either rights (natural or human) or interests.

    Politics does utilise either, to push forward agendas that keep parties in power, but neither major party need seek ideological coherence, because the basic framework has been laid out: post 1985 deregulated economy, with a level of social provision. Alterations to this consensus do occur of course, but for the most part electoral politics is fought on minor alterations on the provision side (Labour), and on appeals to issues such as race, crime, gender (National).

    Labour was able to appeal strongly to class interests, but haven’t tried to for decades. Those voices within the party still concerned don’t want to upset the order. Until recently Labour was loyal to sectional interest and rights claims (eg Maori, gay and lesbian), but many of these have been put on the backburner in appeal to regain ‘the centre-ground’ as defined by NZ’s discursive gatekeepers.

    The Greens appeal to both rights and interests, more often the former as the socialist block in the party has been replaced with anarchists, but because of the alliances in their party (which I think are largely sustainable), no coherent plan for overhauling social relations exists – theirs is very much policy based, rather than a whole of government approach.

    National is actually rather complex, in my opinion, because it seems to encompass rather competing worldviews that I haven’t quite encapsulated. The ACT, Maori, and other parties all have their own approaches, some of which are rather straightforward, others contradictory.

    Perhaps the strongest call to direct interests (often wrapped around national unity) comes from New Zealand First. Because of their lack of difficulty in enunciating these positions (even when problematic for other reasons), they really do occupy a territory of their own. There are reasons why they may not make it into Parliament, but I think their chances are fair.

    This isn’t a particularly complex view of NZ politics, but it does help me explain a little.

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