Who Owes What to the Very Poor?

That’s the subtitle of a new book edited by Thomas Pogge (on a theme that I tried to tackle a few years ago). Bookforum brought two good reviews to my attention. James Sterba of Notre Dame admires the book, but thinks the authors should be more radical:

[Many contributors] seem particularly concerned to empirically demonstrate that social institutions, particularly global ones, have the effect of depriving the poor of the resources they need for a decent life. Pogge, for example, frequently compares current practices to the historical examples of Stalin’s disastrous economic plan of 1930–33 . . . But why is it not enough just to point out that the rich are interfering with the poor by keeping them from using the surplus resources that the rich possess?

The poor clearly are coercively restricted from using the surplus of the rich to meet their own basic needs; and if the poor have no other way to meet those needs, why are these obvious social facts not enough to show that the rich are harming the poor by interfering with them? Suggesting that some complicated empirical argument is needed here, when in fact none is required, may weaken the strong case that exists for a right to freedom from poverty based on a negative right of noninterference. . . .

I would think that recognizing a right to freedom from poverty applicable both to existing and future people requires us to use up no more resources than are necessary for meeting our own basic needs here and now, securing for ourselves a decent life but no more. To use up more resources than this, it would seem, would be to deprive at least some future generations of the resources they would require to meet their own basic needs.

Here’s an excerpt from a review by Brian Harward:

Thomas Pogge and his colleagues at the UNESCO project on severe global poverty have provided a very readable, insightful, well-reasoned, timely, and exceedingly important collection of essays on the human right to be free from poverty. When more than one billion persons worldwide live below the $1 per day international poverty line, unable to access adequate food and other essential items, we are faced with a disastrous deprivation of basic human need and are forced to confront our own complicity in sustaining such an arrangement. . . .

[As] Pogge notes, “rules governing economic transactions are the most important casual determinant of the incidence and depth of poverty in the modern world” (p.26). As a consequence, an institutional arrangement that “foreseeably produces a reasonably avoidable excess of severe poverty . . . manifests a human rights violation on the part of those who participate in imposing the order” (p.30). The wealthy, then, have imposed an order that perpetuates and indeed may deepen world poverty. This constitutes a human rights violation insofar as the effects of the global order have been foreseeable. The wealthy then have the negative obligation to eliminate severe poverty.


In a particularly insightful essay, Marc Fleurbaey proposes that any inequality in wealth carries with it oppressive qualities. When the parties to trade include one who is severely poor, the effect is all the more pernicious. His thesis is that inequality (especially severe poverty) forces participants to accept options (work, for example) they would otherwise refuse. That is, “a society in which the poor are legally constrained to ‘accept’ degrading living and working conditions thus allows an oppression to be brought to bear on them which is close enough to physical violence for one to regard it as a violation of their personal integrity” (p.144). Such an analysis is interestingly connected to familiar objections to redistributive programs (e.g. Nozick 1974), as this perspective involves the consideration of the fairness in acquisition and transfer of holdings among unequal participants to trade.

Looks like some key features of Robert Hale’s thought are becoming respectable again.

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