Is Economic Equality a Human Right?

By Alistair Robertson

By Alistair Robertson

This article is part of our May issue, Human Rights and Money.

If the Occupy movement was an emotional plea for greater economic equality, in Thomas Piketty’s opus Capital in the 21st Century we have at hand the legal submissions. Based on two centuries of economic data, Piketty’s guess is that without public intervention global inequality will continue rising, a dynamic that will eventually turn our society into one characterised by an extraordinary sum of wealth held by a minute class of globe-trotting oligarchs – sound familiar? Such a world endangers the balance of democracy that relies on correctly balancing the rule of the many against the rights of the few. More radical than Piketty’s descriptions of the nature of capital are his prescriptions for a more socially sustainable economic system, calling for the elimination of absurdly high incomes and a global tax on wealth.

It is timely to ask then, is economic equality a human right?

The traditional concern of human rights is our formal equality. The words ‘‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity’’ open the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But formal equality applied in circumstances that are inherently unequal results in discrimination. We might have the right to buy a loaf of bread but do not possess the right to afford one. The fact that most people would agree with the fairness of that proposition is consistent with prevailing mythologies about capitalism. One such myth is that technological innovation, entrepreneurial pluckiness and the trickling down of wealth will ameliorate the detrimental social effects of economic inequality, creating the fairest possible society for the greatest number of people.

This conceptual separation between economic and political equality replicates itself on the international stage where political and economic discussions are not to be mixed. At this level, technocrats are called on to aid development, devising loans and contracts, but are not permitted to be seen as political. In the UN General Assembly, where states are formally equal, with one vote no matter their size, questions of economic equality are taboo.  Of course what things constitute a political issue verse an economic one is itself a political question, but for poor states, the splitting of international institutions into the economic and political makes this conceptual separation real.

There are, however, historical examples of resistance. In 1986, the General Assembly passed a declaration on the right to development that explicitly voiced the question of economic fairness. It opens with these words:

Article 1
The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.

This declaration now enjoys broad international support precisely because the document itself is widely viewed to be ineffectual, representative of a rhetorical victory that creates no obligations on the haves to help the have-nots. But in these words lay dormant the seeds of a radical reconfiguration of wealth between states and in our own community.

President Obama has called the issue of economic equality “the defining challenge of our time”. Indeed, Piketty’s predictions are not confined to a distant future; already the US exhibits levels of inequality commensurate to Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century. On a positive note, these dynamics can respond to political intervention, as was the case in the mid-20th Century when steep income taxes raised revenue for war, diminishing inequality. In a time when Australia commits through its budget to exacerbate inequality, fighting for that clause of our social contract that promises a fair share is worth the struggle. The language of human rights can express that demand.

Alistair Robertson is a Research Assistant at the Melbourne Law School’s Asian Law Centre.