Robbery is not right

The ‘rights-based approach to development’ is immoral and illiberal

Why was there ideological collusion in the passage of a bill that promises ‘food security’ but is certain to severely undermine India’s development path? Several reasons can be adduced—from the electoral to the conspiratorial—but what gave both the terrible bill and the even more terrible scheme it seeks to implement the impression of inevitability was the underlying narrative of a “rights-based approach”. And, as Narayan Ramachandran writes, “[the] apostle of the rights-based approach in India is the National Advisory Council (NAC).”

Over the last decade, the NAC’s narrative of a “rights-based approach” to development has acquired dominance. It has pervaded government policy because Sonia Gandhi, its chief and Congress party president, in all likelihood, genuinely believes in it. The power of narratives is such that even if you replace Mrs Gandhi and her NAC with another political leader and his or her own clique, they will be compelled to persist with the same policies as before, or undertake the Hanumanian task of countering the rights-based narrative before rolling back or changing tack on the massive entitlement schemes. (See my previous post on this).

Narayan argues that the rights-based approach is the wrong development model for India. In fact, “rights-based approach” is a misnomer. It is a clever way to refloat the failed policies of socialism under a new, fashionable but dubious political philosophy. In essence, this ‘development model’ identifies an ever-growing list of life’s needs and necessities, declares that they are ‘rights’ and suggests that these be provided by the state.

A lot of well-meaning people are fooled by this sophistry. Since few good people will dispute that people need food, education, healthcare and jobs to live in this world, they become susceptible to the argument that such necessities are rights. Moreover, since a lot of famous people, including Nobel laureates and rock stars, advocate this approach, the notion that such things are rights acquires wings.

Yet for all the celebrity endorsement, warm fuzzy feelings it creates, the so-called rights-based approach is immoral and illiberal. The only true rights are those that do not come at anyone else’s cost. Preetam’s right to life, equality, freedom and property do not come at Palani’s cost, and vice versa. The state might have to incur a cost to protect these rights, but not to provide them. [Meet Preetam and Palani, in Redistribution as Theft]

The entitlements that the NAC-types call ‘rights’ are different. It costs someone something to provide them. If Preetam and Palani are the only two citizens in a hypothetical state, the cost of providing Palani’s right to food, education, healthcare and jobs must be borne by the state. If the state, in this example, is financed by Preetam’s tax payments, Palani’s entitlements come at the cost of further infringing on Preetam’s rights (in this case, the right to use his money as he pleases).

It is sometimes reasonable to argue that Preetam must be made to pay for Palani’s necessities in order to have a equitable society. Or because Palani might be contributing to Preetam’s welfare in other ways. What is wholly wrong, though, is to contend that food, education, healthcare, internet connections, jobs and suchlike are ‘rights’, in the same way as life, freedom and property are rights.

However desirable, however necessary, if it costs (someone else) to provide, it is not a right. It is an entitlement. Liberal democracies can agree to make some entitlements obligations of the state. But it is important to keep these obligations distinct from rights. The framers of the Indian Constitution made this distinction when they separated Fundamental Rights from Directive Principles. Unfortunately, their successors in parliament lacked the same moral clarity, and proceeded to undermine Rights even as they attempted to rightify the obligations that fall under the Directive Principles.

Because it violates (someone else’s) rights, the rights-based approach is universally immoral. India cannot afford the luxury of this ‘international development’ fashion. The cost of providing an ever-growing list of entitlements is prohibitively large, and will severely undermine India’s future. Right-minded people and political parties (no pun intended) should reject the rights-based approach.

1. The Two-Person Test to determine what is a right (also known as the Preetam & Palani Test). If it costs Preetam to provide Palani something (and vice versa), then, however desirable it might be, it is not a right.

2. If we accept the rights-based approach, then we urgently need to legislate the “Right to Richer Spouse.” If every citizen has an enforceable right to marry a richer person, then poverty will disappear fairly quickly. Such a right will take away some freedom from the richer persons, but that’s no different from the rights to food, education, jobs and suchlike. If you find the Right to Richer Spouse absurd or repugnant, just remember that it is based on the same logic as the right to food, education, healthcare, jobs, internet connections and so on…

3. A storified series of tweets on the topic.

6 thoughts on “Robbery is not right”

  1. Rights constitute minimal claims/powers of an individual in a society. eg roads or walkways provide the right of an individual to move and access space. Similar are things like access to water, food etc. Liberty without rights is meaningless.

    1. Equally meaningless is liberty without duties.
      6th pay commission recommended pay rise along with many preconditions related to their duties.What happened? Very high wages have not improved govt efficiency but increased their expenditure.Worse,most govt depts have stopped hiring and they make do with contracted employees on exploitative terms, as they don’t have budgets to pay those high salaries.This is the result of “ONLY RIGHTS FOR HIGHER WAGES”

  2. But won’t Right to Richer Spouse have a multiplier effect if spouse is made fungible within the meaning of the Act?

  3. I read this piece twice just to see if I missed out on any substantive proposition.

    1. legitimate taxation and spending the revenues on common good or in a helping way on some sections of the population is never called robbery, more so when this is done by a legitimate state. Robbery is over powering and taking away wealth or valuables in an illegal way.

    2. Rights are not heavenly norms, they also evolve with the societies .

    3. Every norm will in someways cost some. eg the people of a city or a colony pay for the infrastructure like roads, the owners of the lands pay for the roads and parks in the area indirectly. Yet many others use the roads with rights to do so.

    3. To distinguish rights from other norms is like “baal ki khaal ” may be just academic.

    4. Particular to our society with history of extraordinary subjugation of the lower classes and resulting poverty solutions have to be innovative and can’t be copied from elsewhere.

    Else than this was largely sarcasm in the article

  4. You are right or rather correctly Right of Center.State can’t keep on bestowing rights to its citizens without [a] Providing for the resources and [b] specifying duties.
    In case of FSB, it seeks allocations from a bankrupt govt and seeks delivery from rotten,corrupt,incompetent govt depts.Does FSB involve sacking of ministers/babus in case of failure? Does it involve prosecution of all those involved in leakages? PDS suffers from 40% leakages.What remedies are listed in FSB to avoid such leakages? These are all part of legitimate duties that one has to perform to earn the rights.
    When we were kids,our parents provided everything to us as matter of our rights.Moment we grew up we had duties.When our parents grew old, their rights became our duties.Can anyone give rights to aging parents w/o calling upon their children to perform their duties for their aging parents.Socialist state says, the state will do this.Children need not worry.Hindu culture says,the state need not worry about aging parents.

  5. If one has to put the case in plain and unflattering terms, it will go like this: our present politicians are parasites and they would like make two thirds of the population parasites like themselves. The parasite politicians are careful not to impart a sense of self-respect, dignity to the target class (like the cliche goes, by teaching them how to fish instead of doling out fish), and they are crafty enough to keep them (the putative beneficiaries) dependent on them (the politicians). This way they can perpetuate the myth they took care of the poor even while they picked my pocket and yours to detract attention from their (the politicians’) perpetuation of plunder.

Comments are closed.