A few days ago, Filip Spagnoli, who works in research and statistics at the Belgian Central Bank and who has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Brussels, wrote on his blog about the relationship between the recession and unemployment. Dr. Spagnoli’s contention is that the recession has caused unemployment, and unemployment is the violation of the human right to work. I challenged this notion of the right to work on the grounds that it is a positive right, which violates the negative rights of others, and because it is reasonably impossible to assign blame to an individual.

Today, King Banaian, the chairman of the SCSU economics department, discussed the issue about violators of human rights on his blog. Dr. Banaian, quoting William Easterly, argues that poverty cannot be a human rights violation because there is no clear violator and because the definition of poverty is not precise. Moreover, he argues poverty is largely the result of violations against property rights.

I agree with the professors here. When a person murders another, we blame the murderer for violating the other person’s right to life. When a person becomes unemployed (or impoverished) who is it that we blame, that we place responsibility on? Dr. Spagnoli’s response is that finding a single violator is “too simplistic” and that human rights violations are “often much more complex, i.e. the result of social pressures, traditions, mimetism, power structures etc. I think it’s fair to say that ‘traditions’ can cause rights violations. So why not the ‘economy’?”

This is indeed a moral question, and the question is to whom (or what) do we assign blame and responsibility. Can we say an economy or a society is immoral, or do we instead say individual actors within these structures act immorally? If the former, how do we possibly change these structures (to correct the problem of human rights violations) without taking individuals into consideration? Can we change economies or societies without changing the individuals within those structures? (And I am immoral for merely participating in the market capitalistic mode of production, which Dr. Spangnoli contends causes this humans right abuse?) The problem with Dr. Spangnoli’s argument is that he wishes to blame ways of thinking (e.g. traditions, memes, social ideals, mores). I think it is much more helpful to blame individual actions that might result from these ways of thinking. If that is the case, though, I am immoral for participating in our capitalist mode of production which propagates unemployment.

This is why I do not find it proper to think of employment or wealth as human rights. To argue one has the right to wealth or employment implies the forcing of others to distribute wealth or to employ. Some might find this perfectly acceptable. Others, like myself, see it a violations of negative rights, which implies people have the right not to be subjected to the harmful actions, interferences, or restraints of others (which is always wrong). On the other hand, positive right implies all people are entitled to things like wealth, employment, health care, social security, etc. and that the absence of these things from any person is a human rights abuse. In this sense, liberty comes from the ability and access to resources to “achieving self-realization,” which often implies it comes from above, from the state, from the allowance of some power structure. I find this to be a perversion of the definition of liberty.