Kinds of Rights and the Necessity of Economic Democracy

Democracy, or “rule of the people,” obviously cannot mean oligarchy, i.e., “rule of the few,” or majoritarianism, i.e., “tyranny of the majority.” A democracy is a system in which all of the people participate in making decisions concerning those things that affect them. Such an arrangement necessarily includes recognizing individual rights. Recognizing individual rights means that a decision that is made by the people cannot impose upon individuals undue burdens or substantial harm.

But it means more than this. There are two kinds of rights. The first is that class of rights that protects individuals from the arbitrary and manifestly harmful imposition of practices of others. For example, if a capitalist firm releases harmful toxins into the atmosphere, then that firm is violating my right to be free from exposure to harmful substances. The second class of rights guarantee individual access to those resources and institutions that permit the full development of the self. For example, in order to have an equal possibility of living life in the manner we choose, we must have free access to nutritious food, clean water, decent housing, safe neighborhoods, educational institutions, health care, and opportunities for leisure. 

Both kinds of rights are equally important. However, the kinds have been counterposed in history. The first has historically been associated with liberalism (of which modern conservatism is a subspecies). The second is historically associated with socialism. There is but one thing that keeps these rights in opposition (granting limited compromise): private control over capital. Crucially, there is no intrinsic reason why socialism excludes the first class of rights. Socialism permits recognition of the first class of rights as essential to any functioning democratic order. However, economic liberalism is incompatible with the second class of rights because it rests on the artificial “right” of private property, a supposed right with no anthropological necessity. Private property is in contradiction to the right for free full development of persons. Indeed, liberalism cannot realize its own class of rights because the “right” to private property makes materially impossible the full realization of the right to be free from the arbitrary and manifestly harmful imposition of practices of others, as illustrated in the example provided above. 

Realizing democratic ends, as well as the freedoms claimed by liberals, requires that the liberal class of rights by incorporated into socialism by abolishing private capital. This is the necessary foundation for real democracy in practice.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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