Economic Rights Are Human Rights

U.S. foreign policy has exacerbated many of the evils it set out to eradicate. It needs an overhaul.

Eleanor Taylor illustration for Foreign Policy
Eleanor Taylor illustration for Foreign Policy

The United States has promoted human rights internationally for decades. But today, at a moment when support for authoritarian leaders who claim to speak for those left behind by globalization is spiking abroad and at home, the U.S. government must rethink those policies. The rise of populism threatens human rights — and the promotion of certain basic rights without a broader effort to combat the inequality that endangers them is shortsighted.

For 40 years, America’s human rights policy has focused narrowly on political and civil liberties and has been coupled with a free market libertarian agenda for the world. By neglecting social and economic rights and the vast disparities both within and among nations, U.S. policy has exacerbated many of the evils it set out to eradicate. It needs an overhaul.


It was only in the midst of World War II, and after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, that Americans first started to think seriously about how to improve people’s lives in the rest of the world. If there were to be a global New Deal, many assumed, Americans would have to think boldly about economics, committing to providing basic goods and also fair distribution of them.

“When the war ends,” Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles noted in his Memorial Day address in 1942, “only the United States will have the strength and the resources to lead the world out of the slough in which it has struggled so long, to lead the way toward a world order in which there can be freedom from want.”

Welles was alluding to one of the “Four Freedoms” Roosevelt had famously promised to promote in a 1941 speech: protection from the miseries of poverty. Now Welles argued that inequality elsewhere mattered, too. Indeed, in his view, remedying inequality within and among nations beckoned as a task of peace.

In 1944, in his penultimate State of the Union address, Roosevelt looked back to the Four Freedoms speech and imagined a second Bill of Rights for Americans that would include the economic and social protections of a welfare state. But Roosevelt never translated this soaring rhetoric into policy. And a worldwide New Deal that concerned itself with subsistence — as well as a modicum of material equality as a global norm — never came to pass.

As World War II wound down, the United States agreed to include human rights in the Charter of the United Nations and participated in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. But Washington was careful to ensure that none of the new international institutions would be empowered to protect economic and social rights by providing fundamental entitlements. Spooked by the looming communist threat, President Harry Truman did expand U.S. development assistance, but such aid was meant to serve political (i.e., anti-communist), not humanitarian, ends.


Three decades later, the human rights rhetoric of the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was rediscovered and made central to America’s foreign policy under President Jimmy Carter. Carter even considered supporting economic and social rights in the face of demands for a worldwide New Deal from the newly independent states emerging from colonial rule. In the early to mid-1970s, after the oil shock and the end of the Bretton Woods system (which maintained fixed exchange rates for more than 30 years), developing nations in Asia and Africa banded together with Latin America to propose a “New International Economic Order” and demanded that wealthy countries support the project at a global level.

Policymakers in Washington briefly acknowledged these demands as they began to pay attention to global poverty, something wealthy countries had not taken seriously as a problem before. In a historic University of Notre Dame commencement address in May 1977, Carter spoke of “new global questions of justice [and] equity.” He reminded his audience that, alongside free speech and other civil liberties, basic subsistence cried out for attention since “the immediate problems of hunger, disease, [and] illiteracy” were not going away. At the University of Georgia that same spring, Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, went further, arguing that U.S. policy should include “the right to the fulfillment of such vital needs as food, shelter, health care, and education.”

Despite their occasional rhetorical gestures, Carter and his administration never fully developed a policy to advance economic and social rights. As State Department official Sandy Vogelgesang later explained, Vance’s passing reference to economic and social rights was a last-minute add-on in a speech meant to fill a “vacuum in the early months of the Carter administration.” The statement was issued before officials “had mapped out a comprehensive policy on human rights.” As that narrower policy crystallized, pressure from developing countries was declining, and efforts to include economic and social rights never again picked up steam. From the Carter administration onward, U.S. human rights policy concerned itself with political and civil rights alone.

Indeed, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, he nearly scuttled the fledgling commitment to human rights by nominating for a State Department post Ernest Lefever, a declared foe of Carter’s policy who, like many conservatives, rejected any role for moral concerns in the midst of the Cold War struggle. Lefever wasn’t confirmed, and a bare-bones U.S. human rights policy survived. But concerns for economic rights were gone for good — in part because the United States was also giving up its own New Deal commitments to contain inequality at home. In the decades since, that new trajectory has allowed economic inequality to spike in many countries — a surge that has helped fuel the rise of populism around the globe.


Many human rights activists, including Americans who grudgingly began paying attention to economic and social rights only when the Cold War ended, might think the 1970s were a missed opportunity because these principles were lost. The truth is that the mistake was even graver: No U.S. administration has ever successfully connected human rights to global equity by including economic policies that provide not just for basic subsistence but for equal outcomes. That’s because Carter’s presidency coincided with the birth of an economic orthodoxy that saw the country prioritize markets above all else, alongside a narrow human rights policy privileging free speech and integrity of the body.

Though there was space for aid to provide the foreign poor with basic needs, it stopped there. As Robert McNamara, steward of the Vietnam War-turned-World Bank president, said in 1977: “[F]or the developing nations to make closing the gap [between them and wealthy nations] their primary development objective is simply a prescription for needless frustration.” But “reducing poverty is a realistic objective, indeed an absolutely essential one,” he added. A genuine effort to redress disparities among nations was off the table — and free market reforms drove a form of growth that exacerbated inequality locally, too.

Starting in the Carter years, and especially under Reagan, the United States set off to promote a free trade agenda through its direct influence and the long arm of the international financial institutions it helped control. It never again came close to a human rights policy that prioritized economic and social rights. As late as 2011, Michael Posner, who led human rights policy at the State Department under President Barack Obama, adopted Roosevelt’s old rhetoric in a speech at the American Society of International Law, declaring that human dignity has a political component and an economic component — and these are inexorably linked.

But the Obama administration never made more than a nod toward such principles. When U.S. officials faced criticism for their practices in the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2010 and 2015, Obama’s lawyers rebuffed pleas to make economic and social rights binding nationally and internationally.


Combining the promotion of economic and social rights with a real effort to reduce global inequalities, which once seemed imaginable under Roosevelt and Carter, has since then never reappeared. Those who vote for populists around the world, after all, rarely seem to be among the most indigent. Rather, those who see their wages stagnating while others profit wildly are the easiest prey for contemporary demagogues. The United States has overseen a form of globalization that deserves some credit for a significant reduction in extreme poverty worldwide — though China deserves the most praise for this outcome.

But that same globalization has caused galloping inequality in most countries, which creates dangerous levels of instability.

Human rights policy then becomes hostage to whether majorities feel globalization is fair for them, rather than a boon for tiny elites. Indeed, election results across the globe have shown that pledges to fight economic inequality appeal to majorities who are not interested in hearing politicians tell them that the human rights of the worst off matter more than their own, especially when they are living paycheck to paycheck. America’s human rights policy, if it survives the current president, should therefore be reframed to focus on helping the poorest around the world. That may be accomplished through the promotion of economic and social rights, as well as more ambitious policies that combat the disparities that have enabled populists to rise.

Otherwise, the United States risks being remembered as a country that pledged to promote freedom and instead entrenched inequality across the globe.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Samuel Moyn teaches law and history at Yale University and is the author of "Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World." Twitter: @samuelmoyn

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