Citizens of affluent countries are not responsible for their social institutions’ violations of human rights – a critique of Thomas Pogge

Thomas Pogge

Thomas Pogge

The German philosopher, Thomas Pogge (2007) who wrote his PhD dissertation under the supervision of John Rawls and has since made a name for himself, claims that severe poverty is largely avoidable today if the more affluent, given the wealth that they have accumulated, would actively attempt to improve the lives of the poor. Pogge maintains that one important means to reduce poverty significantly is by restructuring national and global legal systems so that they become more consistent with Article 25 and Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 states that every person has the right to a minimum standard of living that is “adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” This right aims to ensure that everyone is at least alleviated from severe poverty. Article 28 states that all persons are entitled to a “social and international order” in which all human rights as articulated in the UDHR, including the right of minimum sustenance, can become realized.

Pogge argues that the national responsibility to alleviate severe poverty should become an international responsibility. According to Pogge, this responsibility lies predominantly in the collective hands of citizens of affluent countries, because they have been contributors to the inequality and poverty in poorer countries by maintaining the unfair international economic system. Pogge believes that these citizens should be held responsible as they contribute to the unfair economic order in the form of voting, paying taxes, and participating in economic transactions. He puts forward the following deductive argumentation as a justification of attributing responsibility to citizens:

  1. Human rights are universal and should be upheld by any society;
  2. Citizens are responsible for their society’s organization;
  3. Human rights demand citizens to accept and protect human rights;
  4. Since citizens are responsible for their society’s organization, they are responsible for human rights violations that occur due to the society’s institutions;
  5. In the case citizens fail to reorganize their society, citizens become human rights violators.

Assuming that Pogge’s assertion that the economic order we live in is unfair is correct, I would like to critique Pogge’s view that citizens of affluent countries are responsible for their social institutions’ violations of human rights in three separate arguments. I will first resort to public choice theory to maintain that our representatives are acting in self-interests and do not act in the interests of the collective citizenry. They can therefore not truly represent the people. In addition, I will maintain that citizens who do take part of the democratic process are mostly rationally ignorant voters who do not have a direct say in political decisions. Lastly, I will maintain that by merely paying taxes and participating in the economic order does not make one tacitly consent to social institutions.

1. Political representatives are like everyone else subject to self-interests and cannot represent everyone equally
The problem with extending responsibility from social institutions to the collective citizenry, is that it is fundamentally grounded on the belief that a collective can have motivations or wills. Public choice theory maintains that politics is not a process by which political agents can elevate themselves above their self-interests. In addition, politics is ruled by clashing opinions of policy makers, which makes it difficult to pursue the ‘public interest’. One may want to use public funds for building new roads, another may want to spend more on defense, a third on social welfare, a fourth on education, which makes it impossible to generate a sensible policy that represents the interests of the general public. It is moreover well-known that people with similar special interests regularly organize themselves politically in order to influence legislation. Such minority groups have strong incentives to do so, because favourable legislation can lead to great gains that are distributed among participants of the small group. Lobby groups of solar panel producers in the European Union have for example successfully persuaded legislators to use more tax money for solar energy subsidies, and in 2013 they have succeeded in persuading legislators to enact import restrictions on cheaper Chinese produced solar panels. European solar panel producers have of course benefited greatly from this legislation at the cost of tax payers who have financed the subsidies and who are saddled with higher prices for the panels. Large groups like taxpayers do have little incentive to spend their labour campaigning for particular legislations, because the impact and benefit of a decision is spread more widely among each individual taxpayer. In other words, the taxpayer finds that the cost of labour and effort in seeking influence on legislation is higher than its benefit.

I believe that conflicts of interests and differences in incentives among citizens cannot result in equal representation. If our representatives cannot act in the interests of all citizens – they represent some citizens more than others – they are not truly the representatives of the collective citizenry. Imagine for example that there is a piece of legislation that our representatives can either pass or not with 35 per cent of the public in favour of the legislation and 65 per cent who oppose it. If our representatives pass the legislation, they will represent the 35 per cent and ignore the interests of the 65 per cent. If they do not pass the legislation, they will represent the 65 per cent and cease to represent the interests of the 35 per cent. It is impossible to represent a constituency.

2. Citizens may choose to be rationally ignorant voters and have no direct say in political decisions
Pogge has furthermore claimed that by taking part in the democratic process, citizens become responsible for the actions of those they elect to power. However, I would like to argue that most citizens choose to be rationally ignorant voters and therefore they cannot be truly held responsible. A principle can be rationally ignorant if he or she realizes that spending much time and effort to become well informed of politics are not worth the minuscule chance that his or her vote will have an effect on the election. I believe that it is unjustified to attribute responsibility to the voter in a representative democracy, because the incentive of the voter to rationally and considerately engage in the election is significantly lower than the cost of informing oneself. A political system like democracy encourages voter ignorance concerning public policies, and actually produces citizens who do not employ their reason to the extent that they can be held responsible for the results of their voting. Another consequence of the voters’ high-costs/low-benefits is that the turnover rate of elections is often far below 100 per cent. Can we attribute to those, who have not voted, responsibility for the social institutions’ violations of human rights? Following Pogge’s claim that voting automatically makes one responsible for the state’s representatives’ actions, we can assert that those who abstain from voting cannot be attributed responsibility. Hence, the state cannot represent the whole collective citizenry by voting alone.

If it is impossible for political agents to represent the interests of all principals and if voting alone does not authorize political agents to act in the name of all citizens, can tacit consent then maybe extend the responsibility of political agents to include the whole collective citizenry? One possible objection is that even those who do not vote are still contributing to the economic order by participating in the economy and by paying taxes which supports social institutions. One can argue that people are therefore tacitly consenting to the social order. However, I will argue that the tacit consent theory does not suffice.

3. Objecting to the tacit consent argument
Pogge claims that participants in market transactions are not only affecting the seller, but indirectly also the employer, the producer, the shareholders, the employees etc. We are hence also affecting employment opportunities in poor countries, and we are therefore affecting families by mere participation in the economic order. Changes in our fashions may thus save lives or kill hundreds of people in poor countries. Can we however claim that citizens are responsible for the economic order through tacit consent when they merely participate in the order? According to libertarians, all consent must be derived voluntarily. The problem of tacit consent is that citizens have never explicitly signed a social contract with the agencies of the social order or with the order as such. We are simply born into a system that works in a particular manner. It is not to say that one cannot attach a moral claim to the operations of the order. Many people, if they could, would like to improve the order. However, one may not underestimate the extent to which the economic order operates. As the economic order is so extensive in scope, it is almost impossible for citizens in the affluent countries to retreat themselves from the order without being significantly affected in their personal living standards. Withdrawal from the international economic order would mean that one should only consume local products and services. Even a product, as simple as a pencil as is evidently clear in Leonard Read’s I, Pencil (1958), cannot be produced and consumed on local division of labour alone. If basic consumer products are difficult to get by, it is reasonable why people would not withdraw: the cost of retreating from the system is so great that we simply submit ourselves into participation in the unfair economic order. Likewise, the alternative of paying taxes is being fined and being imprisoned. Taxes, being compulsory, do not make it possible for any citizen to rightfully claim that they voluntarily support the social institutions. Mere participation in a society does not necessarily make us also endorsers of the society if we do not have any other sensible option. The absence of this third choice has actually moved citizens into “tacit submission”.

Pogge, T. (2005). Recognized and Violated by International Law: The Human Rights of the Global Poor. Leiden Journal of International Law, 18, pp. 717-745

Pogge, T. (2007). Severe Poverty as a Human Rights Violation. In T. Pogge (Ed.), Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right, (pp. 11-53)

Read, L.E. (1958). I, Pencil. New York: The Foundation for Economic Education

UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948


2 thoughts on “Citizens of affluent countries are not responsible for their social institutions’ violations of human rights – a critique of Thomas Pogge

  1. Very well written article you have posted. I have one question: does political representation necessitate equal or proper representation? Although it could be the case that the majority of the representatives endorse the minority opinion of the constituents, it seems this is not permissible only if the voters cannot be held responsible, which I am inclined to think you have demonstrated.

    Again, good post. I haven’t seen an academic posts on wordpress for a long time.

    • Thank you, Yang Ho! I think that we grow up with the idea that our democracy is based on the notion that everyone is being represented equally as everyone’s vote is of equal weight. I have argued that this is not the case. Although I’m not a big proponent of democracy, I still think that a ‘fair’ democracy would indeed necessitate equal reprentation otherwise you are assuming that some people have greater political rights than others. If we would approve that some have greater political rights we are also assuming that same have greater political dominion over others and therefore we are approving (a form of) master-slave relationship. I have tried to argue that equal representation is impossible, which makes it also an implicit argument that democracy is a form of slavery.

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