Archived Story

Is this a human rights violation?

Published 2:21pm Friday, July 4, 2014

The United Nations last week accused the city of Detroit of violating residents’ human rights by disconnecting water service when residents failed to pay their bills.

The potential of human rights violations by American cities, including Troy (monthly utility bills warn of disconnection for failure to pay), should concern us all. The story affords a demonstration of the conflict between economic rights and personal freedom.

The U.N. only alleged that shutting off service for residents who could not afford to pay violated human rights. It would be acceptable for Detroit to terminate the service of customers who could afford to pay, but choose not to pay their water bills, presumably only until they pay their past due bills.

Article #25 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts a right to a standard of living adequate for health. Access to safe drinking water is indisputably important for public health, and was critical in ending deadly outbreaks of cholera throughout the course of our nation’s history. Consequently denying poor residents access permanently to municipal water and sewer service would affect their ability to live healthy lives.

Other articles of the Universal Declaration proclaim rights to food, medical care, free education, social security, and work with “just and favorable remuneration” and paid holidays. Such rights are known as economic rights, in contrast with the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. America’s traditional rights limited government to protect individuals: freedoms of the press and religion, gun ownership, and property rights.

Professors love abstract arguments about rights. Leaving the abstraction aside, an important practical difference exists between traditional rights and economic rights.

Suppose you wish to live without violating others’ rights. What must you do? The libertarian “noninitiation of force” principle tells you how to live within traditional rights: don’t assault others, steal their property, or interfere with their voluntary activities. Law-abiding behavior respects rights, and the same observation basically applies to government.

Yet law-abiding behavior will not provide everyone with clean water and sewerage service. Someone must build and maintain a municipal water and sewer system. The same goes for food, medicine, housing, or education: all must be provided by someone. And provided to people whether they pay or not, which rules out using the market. Having the government pay only superficially solves the problem, since government must then impose taxes or other charges on somebody.

Should Americans unable to afford the necessities of life be forced to go without, and possibly starve, freeze, or die of easily treatable illnesses? The modest cost of the necessities of life and America’s wealth suggest that we can afford to prevent such avoidable suffering and hardship. Dr. Arthur Brooks, president of the American

Enterprise Institute and one of the most thoughtful defenders of the free enterprise system today, argues forcefully that a safety net should be part of American freedom. I largely agree with Dr. Brooks.

Does this mean that we must have a government welfare state to provide

Americans with the necessities of life? No. Two distinct cases for a safety net have been offered, one based on economic rights, the other on America’s wealth and compassion. The difference has two implications. First, a compassion-based safety net can be supplied at least partly by charities. Voluntary assistance to the poor has a proud, if today largely forgotten, role in America’s past. Second, government’s part of the safety net need not be provided through entitlement programs. President Clinton’s landmark welfare reform in 1996 illustrates the difference between entitlement- and compassion-based public programs. Clinton ended the right to welfare and enacted a new program that included work requirements.

A safety net can be built based on compassion. And welfare reform illustrates, perhaps surprisingly, that policies eschewing entitlements can help recipients more effectively and humanely. That story, however, will have to wait for a future column.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. Respond to him at and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.

Editor's Picks