If the so-called “free” market is proving untenable, what’s next? Many are homing in on the idea of a Human Rights Economy, which would restore economic rights to the realm of human rights, and value people as more than just workers and consumers.
At a raw and perilous moment for our world, Oxfam and the New School Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy convened a discussion near Capitol Hill about ushering in a new model for our global and US economy. On March 20, 2023, a packed room welcomed some cutting-edge thinkers to a conversation that touched on the failures of unfettered capitalism (in the recent form of neoliberalism), as well as ideas for ways forward to a more equitable, prosperous, dignified future.
Speakers included Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations; Professor Darrick Hamilton, Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, and the founding director of the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School; Abby Maxman, President and CEO of Oxfam America; and moderator Ishaan Tharoor, Columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post.
Watch the full video of the event.
It’s well past time to challenge the failures of the curdled free market, as modeled by the idea of “neoliberalism” (see definition and history below). Neoliberalism may well be “on the ropes,” according to Prof. Hamilton.
1) Neoliberalism aborted dreams for liberation, and deepened structural inequalities worldwide
We need to understand the rise of neoliberal economic ideology as a response to gains in equality in countries such as the United States, and to countries freeing themselves from colonialism.
As colonialism started to fade, powers in the Global North sought new ways to continue the extraction of cheap labor and raw materials from the Global South, keeping those countries in a “dependent relationship,” said Byanyima. Justification came with the idea of the “free market,” which they sold as a win-win.
As a person born in Uganda as a British subject, she felt the promise when African countries like hers became independent; but she says that privileged white men crafted economic thinking that led to “the abortion of our dreams for independence and good lives with dignity.”
Central to this have been global economic rules written in the interests of the richest countries, corporations, and people–on issues from corporate taxation to intellectual property to debt, and more.
As a result, neoliberalism entrenched and exacerbated every inequality–disproportionately impacting historically marginalized populations, especially on the lines of race, gender, class, and geography.
As Byanyima noted, “free markets are not free, and don’t reach everyone.” A neoliberal model does not account for, value, or compensate the enormous burden of care work, largely performed by women. “Women pay a high price to get into the workforce, they do so much care work that is not valued or compensated.”
Meanwhile, those who are paying the highest and deadliest price are the people least responsible for the climate crisis. Floods in Pakistan, cyclones in Malawi, drought in East Africa. As Byanyima noted, “We die when shocks come.”
What is neoliberalism?
A lot of misleading syllables for a simple concept.
Neoliberalism is the dominant economic model that has been in favor since the 1980s; but it's hardly new.
In the wake of the Depression and two World Wars, the US and many European nations pursued the model that government intervention is helpful in rebuilding and sharing prosperity, at the same time that developing countries freed themselves from colonialism.
However, this era threatened the interests and dominance of the ultrawealthy and large corporations, and an organized response, starting in the late 1940s, began to invest in and promote the benefits of the “free market.”
Central to this was increasing individualism, expanding the rights of property, reducing government intervention and regulations, busting unions, and slashing taxes (mostly on the wealthy). This ideology found its most influential champions in the 1980s in President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; and it was advanced the world over through international financial institutions.
All of which paved the way to the extreme inequality we see today.
During the conversation, Professor Hamilton noted that neoliberalism came out of “an intentional gathering of people aimed at trying to create an evolution of a political economy with the intent to codify the rights and accumulation of wealth of the capitalist class.”
2) Political and civil rights are not enough–we need economic rights
Neoliberal economics has advanced a very narrow view of rights–civil and political rights rather than economic–and this serves to undermine a democratic society. As Professor Hamilton says, how can people exercise their political and civil rights without economic security: “Your freedom of choice–to go vote, to organize–are irrelevant if you’re homeless or hungry.”
Prof. Hamilton noted that the UN included economic rights in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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.”
Hamilton notes, “A human rights economy emphasizes people and the places they live. It determines what are the necessary ingredients without which people are either at the whim of somebody’s charitable giving, or vulnerability to exploitation."
3) We need to embrace ideas that offer the promise of transformational change, such as guaranteed income and baby bonds
The idea of a guaranteed income (GI) is rapidly gaining traction in the US, as initiatives to test its viability are returning overwhelmingly positive results (reducing poverty and enabling people to work more). Hamilton notes, “The theory is that we can’t guarantee an income, or people won’t work. But that’s been disproved. When we offer people a basic income, they’re able to do things like hire childcare and afford transportation to work more.”
The US saw a stark illustration of the benefits of sending money directly to people during the early days of the pandemic. People used the money to cover basic needs, pay down debt, save for the future; and childhood poverty fell to its lowest level on record.
Baby bonds address wealth inequality directly. Wealth begets wealth, which has led to structural, generational wealth inequities along lines of race, gender, and class. Baby bonds offer, in Hamilton’s words, “a birthright to capital.” The bonds guarantee that a young adult will have access to a vehicle of asset appreciation (much like many will have inherited assets, or a home, or a 401K match through work). Hamilton called it “a state-preserved asset so you can accumulate wealth.”
These ideas complement the role of organized labor, which provides one of the few substantial, legal, continuous challenges to corporate power; and is a bulwark in preserving democracy.
4) The human rights economy is a vision for where we go next
Neoliberalism has so drastically narrowed the concept of what makes a successful economy that it may be difficult to envision another way. But an economy can operate in many different ways. We can value more than money and profits and the accumulation of wealth.
Hamilton says, “We can decide we value capabilities of people to create great things, regardless of the family they’re born into…. the human rights economy starts with the notion that a basic human characteristic is a desire to contribute productively to our society.”
Moreover, a healthy economy based on human rights has the potential to be both equitable and prosperous; planning for the long term rather than short-term profits; considering the impacts on structures of inequity and finding energy and ideas in all people.
Hamilton: “A human rights economy that invests in people–our most treasured resource–is not only right and just, it also promotes economic activity in a way that benefits us all.”
Byanyima: “You have companies trashing the environment, oppressing women, and counting profits–is that a good business model?”
5) There is hope for the future–if we listen to all voices, and build power together
Neoliberalism has enabled the ultrawealthy and corporations to capture our political system, and use it to their benefit. “Billionaires now have a bigger voice than ordinary people,” said Byanyima.
She also cites the growing pushback on women’s rights and the rights of LGBTQ people, noting that neoliberalists are digging in, as they can’t accept a world where there’s balance.
Critical to embarking on this journey is the commitment to center the voices and experiences of everyone—not just the few powerful and wealthy who have been writing the rules for far too long.
But, as Hamilton notes, “Just having people on stage who look like us doesn’t mean justice or advancement… We need to be politically aligned, have our narratives work in coordination. We can’t think economic science is devoid of politics.”
Further, he says, neoliberalism may be on the ropes, but the capitalist class is not. They are thriving in their excess of wealth and power; and we need to fight back together.
Watch the full discussion here, thanks!