The Promise of Economic Rights and the Welfare State

Article excerpt

Labour Left Out: Canada's Failure to Protect and Promote Collective Bargaining as a Human Right. By Roy Adams. Ottawa: Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, 2006.

The Welfare State Nobody Knows: Debunking Myths about U.S. Social Policy. By Christopher Howard. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Economic Rights in Canada and the United States. Edited by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann and Claude E. Welch Jr. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

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The International Bill of Rights, which includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966), and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966), embodies a wide range of human rights. The universalism, interdependency, and indivisibility of these rights have been reaffirmed at the World Conferences on Human Rights, organized by the United Nations (U.N.) and held in Teheran (1968) and Vienna (1993), and in various U.N. resolutions. Yet, there has been resistance to accepting the full scope of human rights articulated in international documents, and civil and political rights have been privileged. Economic, social and labor rights tend to take a back seat in international discourse in many countries, including Western democratic states that often present themselves as the flagship of human rights.

A widely shared belief is that international human rights are a product of Western culture and philosophies, although the counter-arguments and evidence have been compelling (Arat 2006a). Some scholars not only trace the origin of human rights to the Western liberal tradition, but also claim that only liberal social democratic regimes reinforced by welfare policies are compatible with human rights (Howard and Donnelly 1986; Donnelly 1989; Howard 1995). Their arguments, of course, are based on the evolution of liberal theory and changes in the function of the state in liberal, Western societies. As Liberalism has evolved to become a more inclusive and less discriminatory political theory, liberal democratic states in advanced industrial countries became welfare states that have been relatively more successful in realizing several social and economic rights for large segments of their population.

Writing in the mid-twentieth century, students of Europe pointed to a gradual rise and recognition of certain rights. For example, T. H. Marshall noted that

   it is possible without doing much violence to historical accuracy,
   to assign the formative period in the life of each [category of
   rights] to a different century--civil rights to the eighteenth,
   political to the nineteenth and social to the twentieth. These
   periods must, of course, be treated with reasonable elasticity, and
   there is some evident overlap, especially between the last two
   (1964: 74).

Similarly, Seymour Martin Lipset identified major issues encountered in Western societies as the place of religious institutions in the society, extending "citizenship" to the lower strata, and the distribution of national wealth. He noted that the religious issue "was fought through and solved in most of the Protestant nations in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries" and the "citizenship," or "political rights," issue was resolved "in various ways around the Twentieth Century," and the "only key domestic issue" still waiting to be resolved (in the post-World War II era) was "collective bargaining over differences in the division of the total product within the framework of a Keynesian welfare state" (1959: 92-100).

What these scholars observed as an unfolding process is now considered complete by some of our contemporaries. For example, Jack Donnelly argues that "the welfare state has largely ended controversy over the idea of economic and social rights" (1989: 30-31). According to Donnelly, "the West has been pretty successful, not merely comparatively but absolutely, in progressively implementing economic and social rights" (2005: 1). …