The economics of human rights

The other day I decided to skip class in favor of a discussion with my friend. Well, it was worth it: from that discussion came the ideas in my previous post as well as what you'll read below.

To summarize the last post: it was an analysis (and meta-analysis) of the classic Dickens fable, "A Christmas Carol." Suffice to say, the negative portrayal of Scrooge enrages free-market fundamentalists and intrigues me, because Dickens implies that it's possible for a person to be "not charitable enough." Enough for whom? Well, for society, I suppose. (And God, if you believe in a god and if your god believes in a certain level of charity from every human being.)

This, more or less, segued into a discussion of human rights, and (in my opinion) a very good economic argument for defining them. How? Follow me..

We begin with an interesting quirk in Dickens' subtext. For him (and for a lot of Christians, traditionally), being a good Christian meant giving to charity. Or at least giving to your church, which was expected to help poor people. Since this sentiment extends all the way back to Dante (and, well, to Jesus and the Apostles themselves) we can assume that it is a pretty old idea in Christendom.

Fast forward to the modern day, when self-identifying "conservative" and "fundamentalist" Christians often defend the rich and successful, while deriding the poor and unemployed. What happened? Well, without going into a theological discussion, I think it's because today's right-wing is very much more fond of the Old Testament, or of the apostle Paul and the Book of Revelation. For the OT Hebrews, God rewarded His faithful with wealth and success—although, OT Canaan being the hot polytheistic mess that it was, faith in Yahweh wasn't the only way to be wealthy and successful, just the only right way for a good Hebrew. This whole "success = God's blessing" thing, of course, falls neatly into the right-wing narrative, and off they go.

And even more obviously, the Old Testament provides the strongest grounding for the right-wing's more overtly theological (some say 'theocratic') beliefs. You've heard the talking points before: Islam is of the Devil, America was founded on 'Judeo-Christian' values, secular humanists on the Left are destroying America, creationism is a perfectly sound explanation for the origin and development of life, life begins at conception, and homosexuality is a sin.

Some of these touch on questions of human rights, and in light of Hilary Clinton's eminently true speech at the United Nations (seriously, go read or watch it), I'll focus on LGBT rights today. But first, a teensy economics lesson.

There are two concepts in economics called "willingness to accept" (WTA) and "willingness to pay" (WTP), both related to a potential change in benefits. To give a concrete example, suppose the government was considering giving you free healthcare. Your WTP would be the amount of money (or other things you find valuable) that you would be willing to pay the government in exchange for this service, such that you'd basically feel just as happy after as you did before. Conversely, your WTA is the amount you would accept from the government instead of that service, such that your happiness would be unchanged.

An interesting thing about these two values is that they don't have to be equal. In fact, while WTP is always finite (you can only pay as much as you own), WTA can be infinitely large. For example, if a factory wants to dump its waste into a nearby river rather than pay for waste processing, some people (environmental groups, etc.) would be willing to pay a certain amount (to avoid such a situation, in this case), but no amount of money would be large enough to compensate for polluting the river.

Over the course of our discussion, my friend and I speculated that human rights have this exact infinite-WTA property. Because while you might be willing to pay a finite amount for more free speech—say, the ability to lie in court—what about zero free speech? That is, you'd be somehow incapable of independent expression, with no thought leaving your head that wasn't government-approved (and even whatever approved thoughts that you don't agree with). I don't think any amount of money would convince anyone to accept such a situation, hypothetical though it may be.

So we might consider a right (in economic terms) to be a bundle of permitted actions within the range of possible actions, all with a certain characteristic. It would also satisfy the infinite-WTA property. This might be abstract, but consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and whether any of those rights outlined do not fit my definition:

Life, liberty, and security of person: I think this can be summed up as "self-sovereignty." Almost axiomatic for personhood, in my opinion.
Slavery: How much would you be willing to accept to become property, and yet still be satisfied? Similar to the right of legal personhood, which if denied would make one a slave of the state.
Freedom from torture: How much could the government pay you to accept being tortured in any and every way possible?
Legal equality: Even if everyone is a person in the eyes of the law, what if some people are more equal than others? What if you tried to sue for damages or defend yourself in court, but you couldn't get a fair trial? What if you could be jailed or exiled for no reason?
Habeus corpus: What if you were brought to trial and assumed guilty? What if anything you ever did (or didn't do, no matter how irrelevant) counted as "evidence" for that accusation?
Security of property: What if the police or military could enter your home at any time, at will? What if you really didn't own anything, and it could be confiscated at any time?
Asylum: What if you tried to seek safety in another country, but nowhere in the world was safe?
Nationality: What if no country wanted you, or a government forced you to change it for their own reasons?
Freedom of thought, opinion, and expression: As in the example above, how much would you accept to be a true mind-controlled slave of the state?
Freedom of assembly and association: What if the government defined where you went and who you could see, no exceptions?
Political franchise: What if you couldn't ever vote? What if you couldn't participate in your own government at all?
Social security: What if you had to live life as defined by the State, and not by your own personality and interests?
Freedom of labor: What if you never had the right to ask for a wage? What if you weren't allowed to rest?
Food, clothing, shelter: What if certain uncontrollable conditions (like age) determined how much or what kind of food you were allowed to eat?
Culture and science: What if you could be shunned from cultural or scientific pursuits?

But here's the rub. For LGBT people, that they deserve these rights are obvious. Why do conservatives oppose them? Because, I think, they see homosexuality as a sort of anti-right. That is, granting equal rights to LGBT people (that is, passing legislation that affirms such rights) has the exact same infinite-WTA property for conservatives as restricting LGBT rights is for LGBT people and their allies!

So what we have here is an impossible binary loggerhead. But it's important to remember that very few things are fixed in economics. When we talk about WTA and WTP, whatever values they have are contingent on certain preferences. And preferences can change—not easily, in many cases, but they can change.