human development, social justice and sustainable social systems
human dignity by right, not gratuity
Jeff Bezos’ net worth was estimated in January 2019 at 137 billion US dollars. Apportioning his estate over an average productive life of 40 years, it comes to well over 3 billion dollars per year (or around 218 million euros per month). There is nothing wrong with people earning a lot or being rich but, by any standard, this is incomprehensible. The same goes for any huge fortune, whether it is inherited, passing from generation to generation, or “earned”.
Dan Riffle, a former prosecutor and repentant big law guy who is now top policy staffer for the US Democratic Party rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has named his Twitter account “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure”. Every homeless or poorly lodged person is a policy failure. So is every unemployed person, every inadequately skilled person and every worker struggling to keep above the poverty threshold (the working poor). Poverty is hardly a choice. The list of social policy failures is of course much longer.
Inequality is both cause and consequence. The opposite of inequality is not equality – as in identical income or estate – but equal rights in practice. It is about human dignity delivered by a comprehensive social policy that unlocks opportunities for each and every one and unleashes every person’s potential. George Orwell knowingly said that poverty annihilates the future. Arguably, the opposite of inequality is access to an equitable claim to humanity’s common heritage.
The European Social Charter – known also as Europe’s Social Constitution – stipulates that the state undertakes “to ensure that any person who is without adequate resources and who is unable to secure such resources either by [her or] his own efforts or from other sources […] be granted adequate assistance”. In other words, a basic income. The postulate is not new. It was formulated for the first time at least five centuries ago (attributed to Joan Lluís Vives and Thomas More).
The European Committee of Social Rights, the Council of Europe body entrusted with monitoring compliance with the European Social Charter, construes minimum income beyond the classic food and shelter to encompass social security and social protection, health care or medical assistance, and social welfare services. Although it is difficult to quantify precisely, the Committee compares the aggregated minimum benefits – whether cash payments or benefits in kind (unemployment benefits, non-contributory pensions, social assistance, housing) – to an estimate of the poverty threshold or the at-risk-of-poverty level (median equivalised income). It all contributes to preserving human dignity in the absence of paid employment or other sources of revenue.
There is less need for assistance in times of economic buoyancy. Paradoxically, lower demand coincides with abundance. The opposite is also true: support and policy-based solidarity among human beings shrink when the need is greatest. Over the last decade, resources were diverted to assist business and to fund bailout programmes – contrary to the dogma of economic liberalism and pre-eminence of market forces – while the most vulnerable, fragile and needy people in the community were inflicted severe pain and suffering under a cloak of austerity measures.
Economic recovery did not immediately reverse the trend. Billionaires amass unprecedented levels of wealth, poverty remains. Zygmunt Bauman pointed out that the rich get richer because they are rich, while the poor get poorer because they are poor. In October 2018, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency reported that 25 million children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU alone, and stated “Children living in poverty are more likely to become impoverished adults whose own children will live in poverty” in a lasting cycle of disadvantage. Echoes of Orwell’s ominous words.
Breaking the cycle requires acknowledging the root cause and re-establishing the balance.
Social rights are fundamental human rights. Failing to provide a decent livelihood or tolerating homelessness can entail pain and suffering tantamount to inhuman or degrading treatment. Life expectancy, and therefore the enjoyment of the right to life, can be shortened by years – or even decades – by homelessness, remediable poor health or poverty.
The ideas of welfare and redistribution, or even opt-out affordability clauses for the state, blur the nature of social rights. The narrative has to change. The President of the European Committee of Social Rights recently said “Privileges that stem from unequal opportunities, income or acquired estate may be justified in part but cannot be considered a hard and fast, absolute or perennial right.”
No one can claim to be entirely responsible for their income or for their wealth. Neither can anyone be held entirely responsible for failure or for poverty. No matter how talented, no one could generate wealth or income in a vacuum, without thousands of years of aggregated human experience, knowledge and development, and without the material, technical and social constructs we live in.
All of these factors add up to a strong social, moral, legal and logical justification for taking robust measures to redress social policy failures, illustrated by inequitable access to humanity’s common heritage. An alternative win-win approach is needed, whereby every human being is better off. Human dignity by right, not gratuity, while thinking also of our legacy to future generations.
The reflection about a (universal) minimum income should be pursued, even if the construct is not free from pitfalls that require careful consideration.
About the author Jan Malinowski is a lawyer, qualified in Spain and in England. Following eight years of professional practice in Barcelona and London, Jan joined the Council of Europe, the 47 member-state international organisation that promotes and defends human rights, democracy and the rule of law. He worked for eleven years with the Council of Europe’s anti-torture watchdog. Between 2005 and 2014, Jan was responsible for media policy, freedom of expression and Internet governance. During part of this time, he also had responsibility for data protection and cybercrime. In December 2014, Jan became the Executive Secretary of the Pompidou Group, the Council of Europe platform designed to provide innovative and human rights-based responses to the phenomenon of substance use and its effects on people and communities, and of drug-related criminal activity. Since July 2018, Jan is the Head of the Department of the European Social Charter and Executive Secretary of the European Committee of Social Rights.