Floors, Ceilings, and Beams: What’s Missing in Moyn’s Account of Inequality

At the heart of his provocative essay, Samuel Moyn highlights the shortcomings of the human rights framework to confront socioeconomic inequality. His central argument asserts that human rights norms articulate the minimal obligations of states to protect the poor but say nothing about the excesses of wealth, therefore accommodating a neoliberal ideology that fundamentally threatens human dignity. In my view, Moyn produces a brief but inadequate description of human rights provisions for social welfare (floors), overlooks some recent attempts at placing limits on accumulation (ceilings), but most tragically, he wholly ignores the role that key civil society actors have traditionally played as fortifications against inequality (beams). By considering neoliberalism’s antagonism for organized labor as a force for working classes, I present a fuller picture of the root causes of inequality, focus attention on areas where human rights has something to say about socioeconomic disparity, and create space for the human rights movement to positively contribute to movements that resist the persistent encroachment of neoliberal ideology.

Moyn’s most incendiary pull quote proclaims, “Human rights, even perfectly realized human rights, are compatible with inequality, even radical inequality.” This statement is overstated at best and at worst inaccurate. Human rights norms explicitly address questions of socioeconomic inequality and, in a utopian manifestation, individuals would have legal redress when these rights get violated either by acts of commission or omission. It is surely true however, as Moyn argues, that the human rights movement has not made life even remotely uncomfortable for neoliberalism, but I believe there is more reason for optimism if strategies adapt to meet this most formidable challenge.

With respect to floors, Moyn correctly points to the thin welfarism contained in major human rights documents, but his essay does not establish it explicitly enough. In the Universal Declaration, provisions pertaining to inequality are clearly laid out in articles 22-26 with rights to social security (whatever that means), employment, fair pay, and standard of living. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) spells out these principles in greater detail. Conditions of work should be protected to enable “a decent living for themselves and their families” (§III.7.a.i). Social security includes “social insurance,” which sounds like the safety net programs that we would recognize (§III.9). Articles 11, 12, and 13 expound on rights to food, clothing, housing, education, and health. Socioeconomic inequality can be measured on the basis of the fulfillment of these public goods and human rights documents certainly address them, if only with attenuated precision.

Regarding ceilings, human rights relies on a modest plea for economic redistribution. After all, safety net programs depend on extracting money through taxes; legislated ceilings fund floors. While the human rights movement has only adopted more progressive stances reluctantly, relative to the need and to the fervor of other social justice movements, even this is changing. Thomas Pogge has written elegantly on the need for “just taxation” of multi-national corporations in order to guarantee social and economic rights for the world’s poor. Oxfam has initiated a campaign for a “Robin Hood Tax” to generate financing for programs to support development and ward off the impacts of climate change. And as the Center for Social and Economic Rights forcefully argues: “Taxation is a crucial instrument for the realization of human rights.” These developments may be recent and late, but they are evidence that the human rights framework supports political platforms that advocate for ceilings on the accumulation of wealth.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Moyn ignores the crucial ways in which human rights establish a firm basis for the conduct of labor unions—the true “beams” of a fair and just economic edifice. Moyn briefly confesses the role of organized labor as a political force to which welfare states surrendered, but more must be acknowledged about the impact of unions on a society’s health. Labor unions enable social mobility and economic prosperity for working classes, and their demise is a road map for the rise of inequality. Strong labor unions and protected labor rights constitute structural barriers against inequality, yet are conspicuously absent from Moyn’s account.

The erosion of the middle class in Western liberal democracies can be traced in lock step with the emergence of neoliberalism from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan straight through to Scott Walker and John Kasich. Austerity measures (i.e. the whittling away of the state) that accompany neoliberal moments affect not only the social welfare programs that get cut, but also reduce the need for public sectors jobs that are very likely to be unionized and are disproportionately occupied by people of color. Through policies of austerity, neoliberalism reduces spending on social welfare and weakens public sector unions at the same time. In this context we must think only of the rhetoric of the “right to work” asserted by opponents of labor as the ultimate cooptive appropriation of rights-talk.

The human rights framework Moyn derides as having “so far contributed little of note” in fact provides a relevant and capable foundation for defenses against poverty and extreme wealth. Indeed, the emergence of national human rights institutions for claims to social and economic rights is one significant example of how norms become translated into practical accountability politics at the core of human rights. Whether the age of inequality presents an opportunity for human rights is a crucial question whose answer may lie in the ability to resurrect the social beams that have historically held the floor beneath us and the ceiling from caving in.

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