Development is Important

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I’m used to bad Washington Post editorials, but this one really breaks new ground in terms of red baiting and absurdity:

As Ms. Clinton herself suggested, such pledges have been the common currency of American governments. But she did not limit herself to past principles. She offered an innovation: The Obama administration, she said, would “see human rights in a broad context,” in which “oppression of want — want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact” — would be addressed alongside the oppression of tyranny and torture. “That is why,” Ms. Clinton said, “the cornerstones of our 21st-century human rights agenda” would be “supporting democracy” and “fostering development.”

This is indeed an important change in U.S. human rights policy — but the idea behind it is pure 20th century. Ms. Clinton’s lumping of economic and social “rights” with political and personal freedom was a standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc, which used to argue at every East-West conference that human rights in Czechoslovakia were superior to those in the United States, because one provided government health care that the other lacked. In fact, as U.S. diplomats used to tirelessly respond, rights of liberty — for free expression and religion, for example — are unique in that they are both natural and universal; they will exist so long as governments do not suppress them. Health care, shelter and education are desirable social services, but they depend on resources that governments may or may not possess. These are fundamentally different goods, and one cannot substitute for another.

This is really insane. The Soviet Bloc used to argue a lot of things. They argued, for example, that achieving a high material standard of living was an important public policy objective. Should we reject that view because that’s the only way to teach Gustáv Husák a lesson?

Moreover, it’s simply not the case that freedom of religion will exist so long as governments do not suppress it. It’s extremely possible that violence by non-state actors can severely abridge the rights of minority religious groups. It’s true that if you assume the existence of a competent, capable, fair-minded, uncorrupt state apparatus that should take care of the problem of informal violence. But that’s simply assuming what doesn’t exist in the bulk of the developing world. To have the kind of state capacities that are needed to protect people’s fundamental rights, you need some measure of economic development.

To sniffly dismiss “health care and shelter” as merely “desirable social services” borders on outrageous. If you’re sleeping under a bridge amidst a snowstorm, coughing with untreated pneumonia, you’re suffering from an extremely serious crisis of human welfare. If states lack the capacity to deliver services to people like that, then the state is suffering from a serious problem—just as a state that’s not able to provide effective physical security for its population is suffering from a serious problem.

Last, I think the idea that it’s impossible to conceive of tradeoffs between classical political and civil rights and material welfare seems like the kind of thing that might play well in a freshman philosophy seminar but can’t survive much contact with the real world. In Singapore, you can’t get away with publishing vocal criticism of the government. In Mozambique, per capita GDP is $903 a year. But only a crazy person thinks the average Singaporean is worse off than the average citizen of Mozambique. Indeed, lots of people—including people from developed liberal democracies—move to Singapore to take advantage of the opportunities there. Nobody’s clamoring to move to Mozambique. That’s not to say that Singapore’s denial of political liberties is okay but massive poverty in Mozambique isn’t okay either. To put it another way, if you tell Fred Hiatt he had to choose between sleeping on the streets and never seeing a doctor for the rest of his life, or else finding a line of work that doesn’t involve criticizing the government, which do you think he’s going to pick?