Harvard Economists Debate Human Rights Language

February 11, 2005
Rob Meyer

Although Jeffrey Frankel and Amartya Sen are both economists, both teach at Harvard, and both agree that ending poverty is one of the most important issues of our day, the two debated vigorously tonight during a Forum event that tackled the question: Is human rights language useful in the fight against poverty?

Frankel, a professor at the Kennedy School, started out by saying that while he thinks human rights is a “tremendously important concept,” he doesn’t always agree that applying the language of human rights to economics is helpful.

“It’s ineffective at best and counterproductive at worse,” Frankel said. For instance, using human rights language is appropriate when talking about freedom from torture, but not when talking about reducing auto accidents. The harm in applying the term “rights” to everything, he said, dilutes the impact.

Frankel pointed to a new “employment guarantee” policy currently being debated in India’s parliament. “It says every poor household is entitled to 100 days of work on a public works project,” he said. “You can see the sentiment, but this could be more harmful than good. If you start using the term ‘rights’ for everything, you undermine the credibility of human rights when it’s really useful.”



Sen, a professor in the Economics Department and a Nobel Prize winner in 1998, agreed that defining rights can get tricky, but insisted that not recognizing the importance of something—the right not to be hungry and the right to receive medical attention, for example—“can lead to a heavy price.”



Sen continued: “The question is, do we recognize that there is such a claim? What is the importance of recognizing a claim for rights? It’s bad for a society to have hungry people, for example. A right says they have a claim…and that people have an obligation to help.”



Frankel said he had no quarrel with certain issues being important. What he objected to was the use of language in making them a guarantee. “There are lots and lots of words you can use in a democracy,” he said. “It’s just the word ‘rights’ that I object to. I’m not insisting that something be in the law.”



Frankel talked about the right to medical coverage which is written into the law in most European countries. But it’s not the case in the United States — and that’s okay. “Here we have a pretty messy system,” he said. “But medical coverage is not some God-given right…because we have market systems that can deliver the goods.”



Sen insisted that by making issues like medical care and poverty only conditional, not guaranteed rights, poverty will never end. “If you want to make people less hungry, you have to build institutions,” he said.



A video archive of the event, which was moderated by Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood, can be viewed at the following site: http://www.iop.harvard.edu/events_forum_archive.html

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