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In an Age of Austerity

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The famous historian E. H. Carr once noted that historians have an inherently ironic profession. Historians may research the past, but the past is not the reason why people are interested in their work. Rather, people become interested in history because they are searching for guidance into the future. In this way, the study of history is more about knowing the future than about knowing the past. This observation seems counterintuitive, but it does make sense once a person is willing to let go of any notion of history as a linear, inevitably progressive unfolding of time. Indeed, many epochs and decades—at least in certain aspects—would be considered far more “progressive” than our own time.

Or, at least such is the case with what is often referred to as “economic rights” in the United States. The codification of economic rights such as the right to health care, food, housing, and other amenities necessary for material subsistence is regarded as a progressive cause in the United States. It is a project that is pushed forward by the Left, and only pickup in piecemeal and often half-hearted manner by the Democratic Party. This was not always the case. At one time, trying to achieve a guaranteed level of material prosperity for every American had bipartisan support.

After the devastation of the Second World War there was a collective understanding—one that even trickled up to elite thinking—that the world had to reach for a higher humanitarian standard if it was to avoid self-annihilation. Thus, the United States—which was the only true winner of the war—sponsored the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While many of the articles in the Declaration are familiar to many Americans, in that they focus on a liberal conception of rights as prohibiting state action, the Declaration also has provisions which require action by governments in order to secure a degree of material prosperity for each citizen. The most important of these is Article 25(1) which reads: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was never intended to be a legally binding document, but its moral force in the world was clear. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—who acted as the chair to the committee that drafted the document—referred to it as the “new Magna Carte.” The United States’ relationship with the Declaration was always complicated. Policymakers and political pundits trumped the importance of the document internationally, while at the same time worked to ensure that it did not apply domestically to end segregation. They accused it as being communist inspired, while at the same time used it as a propaganda tool against the failures of Soviet “socialism”. Regardless, initially there were clear efforts in the United States to take some of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seriously, at least when it came to housing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on the 10th of December 1948. Less than a year later the United States Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949. The Act dedicated federal funds to renewing urban neighborhoods, ensuring availability of low-income housing, and increasing the access to fair mortgages. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Act was its Preamble which stated that it was the responsibility of the federal government to make “as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”

Unfortunately, the Housing Act of 1949 did not accomplish this goal; neither did the Housing Act of 1968; nor did the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974; nor the Housing and Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983; by the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act 1990 the ambitious and universal language of the 1949 Housing Act had been completely removed. Not only that, but the federal government has not passed any significant legislation inching Americans towards that goal since the mid-1990s. This is a real tragedy. Still feeling the pains of the collapse of the housing market, the idea that the federal government would guarantee every American a decent home would be a godsend for Americans. However, the needs of the majority of Americans have rarely been a serious priority of Congress, and for many Americans the situation keeps getting worse. According to the The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University in 2012 homeownership fell in the Untied for its eighth straight year. African-American homeownership is the lowest it has been in thirteen years. More than 1.4 million homes were foreclosed on in 2013. That represents an astonishing 3.6 percent of all mortgages in service, more than four times the average between the years 1974–1999. At the same time rent continues to climb at a rate of 2.5% or more per year.

Americans are experiencing a state of economic anxiety unheard of for several generations, but they find little solace for their woes in the political atmosphere around them. With the growth of free market populism and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, the political class in the United States has universally turned its back on the entire notion of economic rights. Today, many pundits agree with the stingy view of former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick – who described the provisions of the Universal Declaration dealing with economic rights as “a letter to Santa Claus” that “neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of `entitlements,’ which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors.” For these reasons any effort to codify economic rights—either through domestic legislation or ratifying international treaties—has been considered dead on arrival; nothing but a pet project for quixotic activists and ineffective legislatures.

The reason that this is so is that the United States has always been a rights-based society. It is the first country to have a modern Bill of Rights and Americans refer to their Constitution with a degree of sacredness that is uncommon in other democracies. Unfortunately, this rights-based consciousness has not flowed through the country evenly. If it is true that rights act as legal “trump cards”, as legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin proposes, then the rich have sought to deal themselves a hand of nothing but trump cards. Thus, talk of securing economic rights such as housing, food, and social security is considered a pipedream, but strengthening private property rights is considered essential to an efficient economy. The idea of ratifying international treaties that recognize economic rights—such as the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—is considered outrageous, but the idea that for-profit corporations are entitled to the same rights as natural persons is considered legally sound. Despite all the talk of financial reform and stabilizing the economy, little has been done by the Obama administration—or anyone else in Washington—to change this stacking of the deck. And again, in many ways the situation has gotten worse.

The silver lining in all of this is that past never disappears; it is just felt in new and different ways. The prospect that the United States could have expanded certain freedoms so that the country would have been a genuine social democracy was slim and short, but it was also very real. It was a product of long and resilient struggles through the Great Depression and two World Wars. While many books on economic history will leave readers believing that the creation of social wealth is simply a matter of market dynamism and entrepreneurial innovation, the truth of the matter is that it is largely dependent on the establishment of laws encouraging economic inclusion. Once those laws are set in place “economic” rights tend to be promoted to the status of “political” rights; that is, recognized as essential to the workings of a democratic society. When voting rights were tied to the ownership of property participation in elections was considered an economic right. Once suffrage was open to all people regardless of property it was recognized as a political right. Same is true with in varying degrees to right to an attorney, to a jury of one’s peers, to due process, and even freedom of the speech. There is no reason to think that current “economic” rights won’t go through a similar “politicizing” process. Indeed, today’s economic rights must go through this process if the majority of Americans are ever to see an improvement in their livelihoods. Not forgetting the experiences of this past reality if we are ever able to use the past to propel from our miserly present, and hopefully into a more just and prosperous future.

Marco Rosaire Conrad-Rossi is a graduate of the United Nations school the University for Peace, where he studied human rights. His previous articles have been published in The Humanist Magazine, Z Magazine, and the Peace and Conflict Monitor. Currently he is a shop steward for UFCW 21. 

CounterPunch Magazine

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