Trouble with rights and poverty


It’s snowing outside, a blizzard. As I watch the snow swirling I try to imagine what it would be like to live outside on a night like this without shelter. What would an Inuit do?

By modern standards the Inuit were among the most impoverished people on the planet. They had no agriculture, no trees and had one of the harshest possible environments in which to survive. Yet despite all this deprivation, the Inuit did not live in poverty. They enjoyed a rich social life filled with sharing, art and a strong technological tradition. The Inuit also had one of the more egalitarian social systems on earth. This was due, no doubt, to the scarcity of resources and the need for cooperation.

I have to say, I’ve been thinking about the human condition a lot more lately what with Sharon taking a course on human rights and poverty. I’m learning by association, so bear with me.

What I’ve learned is there are 50,000 preventable deaths a day every day. Much of this is due to the unimaginable squalor and disease around the world, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. If world poverty is seen as a violation of human rights accepted by the international community of nations—which it has—then poverty on the such as scale is a shameful blight on humanity.

This seems particularly unseemly when considering the exponential accumulation of wealth at the top .001% of society. This, not surprisingly, is the moral dilemma.

But what about the legal dilemma? The international answer is protecting the rights of the poor. But, in my opinion, if one of the goals of human rights is to eliminate poverty, it won’t be found in legislating protection for the poor. We, through our politicians, can say all the right things and enact all the politically correct legislation in the world but that doesn’t mean things will change. Because the answer isn’t found at the bottom. Unlike the Inuit, the modern poor have been disenfranchised. But by whom?

This mass violation of human rights is being prolonged by the very people advancing human rights legislation and indulging in philanthropy—the wealthy and the powerful. Legislation and largesse may ease their guilt, but does little to end the suffering of the poor. But is it a crime are to amass extreme wealth and power? Of course not. Legally, there is no crime in distorting the resource equilibrium of humanity. And this is not a new phenomenon. History is the story of economic inequality and the violence that ensues.

The better legal solution, of course, would be to limit the amassing of great wealth and power. Human nature being what it is, that will never happen. And this is what Francis Fukuyama was talking about in The End of History. Communism was to be the end-state of economic evolution. But since human nature, being as pernicious as it is won’t allow true communism, democratic–capitalism (the second-last stage) was as good as we are going to get, according to Fukuyama. Thus, we’re at the end of history. So, instead of solving the problem of world poverty, we’ll continue to tinker with the machinery.

And then there’s the subject of including the “right to development” as a basic human right, another noble objective. But again, development, with its dependence on capital, is controlled by the wealthy. But in this case it’s not wealthy individuals, but wealthy regions. As President George W. quipped at a roast, there are “the haves and the have mores!” So how, as Prof. Marks at Harvard asks, does one force large economic systems to deliver the balance between nations? In the past the U.S. has shown a reluctance to sign on to such sweeping legislation, but its politicians make great hay in promoting such empty altruism. And they can get away with it because such legislation when enacted is virtually unenforceable.

But there are examples of the freeing up of human rights for development. For example, the opening of the American West allowed immigrants from around the world an equal opportunity for development in the new frontier in Oklahoma and other western states. Indeed, the history of the Americas is the repopulating of two continents after the near extinction of the indigenous peoples.

Another example is equally instructive. The illegal immigration issue along the U.S.–Mexican border is a fine case of unbridled development on the individual level. Illegal migrants are now a major export industry, sending billions of U.S. dollars back home, while providing much needed menial labour in the American agricultural and serve sectors.

So how would one apply these “solutions” to the problem of development as a human right? First, one needs to recognize that the barriers to free access to development are real and physical. These barriers are our national borders with customs checkpoints and armed guards. The British, while occupying India, took this one step further and bisected that country with an impenetrable 30-foot wide 2500-mile-long hedge complete with customs gates and 12,000 guards to collect the Salt Tax. Since Gandhi, the repeal of the Salt Tax and Indian independence, nothing remains of the Great Hedge, not even its memory.

If one were serious about allowing development, the solution would be the abolition of all international boundaries. In a borderless world, development opportunity would be equal. That already happens within nations. Rural residents have the freedom to relocate to cities, where huge slums spring up. And as bad as these slums may seem, they invariably often offer greater access to income, education and health care than rural villages.

Again, given human nature, wealthy nations will never allow this to happen. So our diplomats will continue to tinker with the machinery of international legislation.

Yet, international trade and corporate globalization have followed the same models, crossing borders more freely, resulting in improved health, longevity, population reduction and higher levels of education. This was made possible—because those who control and rig the game, the wealthy, were motivated to make the changes.

Now, what could possibly motivate them to tear down national borders and to cap their personal net worth? Answer that, and we can eliminate world poverty and add development to our list of achievable goals.

If we find the answer perhaps we should try it in Maine and New Brunswick first, to see how it works.


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