In my last post, What About the Poor? Sustenance Rights Examined, I noted the position of Nicholas Wolterstorff that, “If a rich man knows of someone who is starving and has the power to help that person, and chooses not to, then he violates that person’s rights as surely and reprehensively as if he had physically assaulted the sufferer.” I argued that as stated, this position is subject to three problems; first, that it leads to absurd consequences, entailing that I have a duty to give to every poor person I know about. Second, that it has totalitarian implications and third, that acceptance and practise of this principle would destroy any incentive people have to work.
In a more recent article “Christianity and Social Justice,” Wolterstorff attempts to defend his thesis against the three criticisms I mention above.
Turning to the first problem, Wolterstorff’s response is to note that “acknowledging a person’s right to some good does not imply laying on everyone else a duty to extend to that person that good.” This seems odd, if a right to sustenance on the part of the poor does not mean we are obligated to give them the means to sustenance, what bite does it have?
Wolterstorff puts forward an interesting suggestion. Turning to the paradigm of a right to not be assaulted, Wolterstorff suggests that while we have a duty to not assault people we do not have a duty to protect every person against assault. However, he goes on to note that in addition to having a right to not be assaulted, people have a right against their society “to have practises” and “social structures” that protect them from assault. In particular, such things as a police force, courts and an army. Clearly, if the right does not just mean that members of society refrain from attacking people, it also means that these members have a duty support the police force. Further, if the police force is ineffective, people have a duty to try and improve it (through such things as voting and lobbying).
Moreover, Wolterstorff suggests if “I see you about to get mugged when no policeman is in view – then I may be obliged to offer you my protection in a direct way.” Wolterstorff’s argument is that sustenance rights are analogous to the right to not be assaulted in this way. People have a duty to support whatever institutions or charities exist that alleviate poverty. If they are ineffective, they have a duty to reform them. Further, if one encounters a person in extreme necessity one is required to assist them in a direct way.
Turning to the second criticism, Wolterstorff makes three points to get around the totalitarian implications sketched previously. First, he states that,
the general idea behind having such a right to some good is that individual actions and social practices ought to be such that one enjoys that good. But the role of the government in practices which secure that right may be nil or negligible. Not all rights are enshrined by law. Sometimes in the early church the care for the poor of society was principally in the hands of the bishop.
He goes on to note, correctly I think, that,
Far from acknowledging that there is such a right, nothing directly follows as to what, if anything, governments should do by way of securing that right. In particular, it does not follow that the poor should be put on a dole supported by public taxation. In principle there is a wide variety of other practices which would undo the violation of this right, some of which the government would have little or no role.
Accepting sustenance rights then, does not entail accepting massive public ownership or redistribution.
Second, he tries to mitigate the objection by appealing again to the analogy with assault; “in our fallen world… we do not suppose that, in the face of all the aggressive impulses of human beings purely voluntary arrangements would suffice to secure our freedom from assault.” He goes on to note, “why should we suppose that, in the face of acquisitive impulses of human beings, purely voluntary arrangements would suffice to secure our right to sustenance?” Finally he notes, “it is true, indeed that there are dangers lurking when governments try to ensure that the rights of the poor are respected. But who would be so foolish as to argue that the armies and police forces that we assemble propose no threat?”
Wolterstorff makes some pertinent points here. However, it is worth noting that if one takes the assault analogy seriously, several things are evident. First, the police and armed forces actually do not play as big a role in protecting us from assault as it may appear.
The Police do not patrol everyone’s houses at night, nor does it have 24/7 video surveillance cameras set up on every home, nor do we have publicly funded burglar alarms. If people want any of these things, they hire private security guards, install privately owned cameras and buy their own alarms. The police are called when these systems fail and there is immediate danger.
It is also worth noting that the ability of the Police to catch and prosecute assailants is limited by such things as the presumption of innocence, the need for warrants, probable cause, etc. In societies with lower crime rates, police typically have more sweeping powers, powers our society rightly rejects precisely to avoid the danger of excess state intrusion and its subsequent abuses. As such, if the state is to secure our rights to sustenance similar limits should apply.
Turning to the third criticism, Wolterstorff states that while people do not earn their basic human rights by merit, such as the right to be free from assault or the right to liberty, the same is true of the right to sustenance. Wolterstorff notes correctly that a person can forfeit these rights by misdeeds; if a person attacks another his right to be free from assault is forfeited and I can strike him if necessary to defend myself. Similarly, if a person commits a crime they forfeit their right to liberty and can be imprisoned.
In the same way, Wolterstorff suggests that the right to sustenance can be forfeited if a person is capable of providing for themselves but refuses to do so; just as a needy person has a right against society to sustenance, society has a right against those it supports that they will take responsibility for themselves when they can and not pass of their responsibilities onto someone else.
As far as I can tell, Wolterstorff’s responses enable him to accept sustenance rights without falling into the problems mentioned in my previous post. It is worth noting, however, his response makes the claim that the poor have sustenance rights significantly qualified.
What it means is that individuals in a society have a duty to support various institutions that aid and assist those who are unable to provide for their own needs. These institutions may or may not be run by the state but if they are, the state plays a last resort role and is subject to careful checks on its power. This picture may differ from that some proposed by certain types of Libertarian, particularly those who believe we have no obligations to support the poor at all, but it is hardly the charter for statism or massive public ownership