Political Science / Book Review

Vol. 5, NO. 1 / December 2019

Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World
by Samuel Moyn
Harvard University Press, 277 pp., $29.95.

In Not Enough, Samuel Moyn addresses a disjunction between the language of human rights and the facts of inequality. Our unequal world, Moyn observes, is one in which the rich have grown ever richer, but the poor have remained poor, or, at best, not quite as poor as they once were. The language of human rights may not have been the cause of economic inequality, he argues, but neither has it done much to prevent it. Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale University, draws upon a wide range of sources in making his claims: nineteenth-century debates about distributive ethics, eighteenth-century Jacobin texts and treatises, medieval and ancient sources. Moyn also considers more recent events that have long been associated with the history of human rights: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and later efforts to emphasize material equality and social justice in the context of decolonization. These efforts, Moyn believes, were too easily assimilated in welfare states, or outpaced in others. They converted none to the cause.

In The Last Utopia, Moyn argued that human rights became the cynosure for any number of eyes in the 1970s.1 In Not Enough, he argues that this was the same moment that ambitions for a new international economic order began declining into desuetude. The global debt crisis of the 1980s dealt a further blow to egalitarian aims, and the fall of communism in 1989, another. Using a Google NGram, Moyn demonstrates that 1990 was the crossover point at which the language of human rights replaced the language of equality. Their fortunes reversed: socialism was written about less and human rights more.2 Yet human rights campaigns failed to prevent the move toward market fundamentalism. Neoliberalism came into its own.3

Moyn draws on some of the well-worn concerns about human rights. Cold War ideology and internal politics led the US government to neglect the economic and social rights prescribed by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Campaigning against torture, political imprisonment, censorship, and election rigging, US-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) often dismissed economic and social rights as irrelevant or incompatible with their work. Within two of the most prominent human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, an indifference to economic and social rights persisted until the early 2000s.4 While massive transformations in economic globalization and labor markets were taking place, the task of defending the right to work fell to the International Labor Organization.

In Not Enough, Moyn is concerned with the vision of equality adopted by the human rights movement. Notions of equality, he argues, were focused on status. The Universal Declaration’s promise of equality for all “in dignity and rights” was, in fact, limited.5 Human rights law applied to those whose gender, race, or caste made them vulnerable to discrimination. Differences in income and wealth were not grounds for human rights concern. When the movement did campaign for economic and social rights, Moyn claims, it preferred subsistence goals to a more ambitious egalitarianism. The Universal Declaration’s rights to education, work, leisure, social security, healthcare, housing, and food acquired a reinterpretation in terms of what should minimally be secured—what decision theorists might call the least worst outcomes. This gave no grounds to complain about the rich growing richer.6 Economic and social rights advocacy became an ameliorative enterprise.

These are recognizable failures of vision. Yet they only partially characterize the global human rights movement and the heterogeneous groups that make claims within it. Economic inequality has clearly increased since the 1970s, bringing other inequalities with it.7 Such inequality matters, not only for the health outcomes, loss of opportunities, and precariousness of those who have less, but for political stability as well.8 As Moyn observes, early theorists of economic and social guarantees, such as Gunnar Myrdal, T. H. Marshall, Karl Polanyi, and Georges Gurvitch, all articulated these concerns.9 Their work was overlooked at critical junctures in the human rights movement, particularly during the 1970s.10 Moyn’s criticism is limited because it understates the conceptions of, and commitment to, material equality at work within the human rights movement.

In campaigning for status-based equality, for example, the human rights movement can claim gains for women, racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and the disabled.11 The removal of status-based discrimination can help the most disadvantaged gain access to schools, workplaces, voting booths, and medical offices. This redress is far more material than Moyn admits. Human rights advocates have long recognized that a single-minded pursuit of formal equality can only go so far. It is for this reason that greater protections have been called for, particularly at transitional moments when states are emerging from conflict.12 Moyn might have noted that in recent years, human rights formulations for status equality have been amended to include socioeconomic status as a prohibited ground of discrimination, and that authorities now call for the disaggregation of data on the basis of income quintiles as well as gender, race, and ethnicity.13 But this is a mere footnote to the broader campaigns that have been pursued in relation to material equality and human freedom since the Universal Declaration was adopted. These campaigns have embraced economic and social rights in a manner that is far more encompassing than Moyn acknowledges.

Many of these groups are based outside the United States. The health and human rights movement is an obvious example. Advocates for the right to healthcare have constantly noted the correlation between economic inequality and poor health, particularly in the rich countries.14 In poor countries, the connection is obvious: Paul Farmer’s work makes this clear in relation to the sick in rural Haiti, urban Peru, and sub-Saharan Africa.15 Champions of HIV/AIDS treatments and other medicines have campaigned against the intellectual property protections that render treatment unaffordable; in some instances they have succeeded in changing pharmaceutical markets to make them less prohibitive.16 Moyn overlooks these areas of vigorous advocacy, where economic inequality has been understood as a critical underlying injustice.

The right to water is another example. Water was not mentioned in the early human rights treaties; the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant mentioned only an adequate standard of living, but many commentators assumed water’s importance when interpreting this and other rights, especially to life, dignity, housing, and food.17 By 2010, a separately enumerated right was declared by the United Nations General Assembly—over and above objections and abstentions by the United States and other industrialized countries.18 Moyn erroneously attributes the appearance of this right to recurrent drought. The right to water was, in fact, recognized in official channels as a result of heated protests against encroaching privatization: it was commodification, alongside scarcity, that raised its profile as a part of the global commons, or as a basic human entitlement, or both.19 That debate expanded to include both anti- and pro-privatization arguments.20 In some areas, but not all, privatization was forced into retreat, as in Bolivia.21 The water wars are, of course, far from over, as are related campaigns concerned with a human right to sanitation. But human rights campaigners have had much more than limited ambitions in this debate.

Moyn sometimes acknowledges voices within the human rights movement who consider economic inequalities critical. But he views them as marginal. It is worrisome that a critical history of the human rights movement would emphasize, as Moyn does, the primacy of US foreign policy and the role of various US NGOs. In assigning elevated importance to these sources, Moyn understates the diversity of human rights claims, and their need for our attention.

The prescriptions offered in Not Enough are similarly incomplete. Moyn recommends that those concerned with economic injustice should pursue efforts to supplement the inadequate progress that human rights campaigns have made—by emphasizing sufficiency arguments for economic and social rights and egalitarianism elsewhere. This approach may seem plausible in the US context.22 It is less convincing elsewhere. In the decades that Moyn covers in his book, there has been a worldwide trend to formally enshrine economic and social rights alongside civil and political rights. Constitutions that decree at least one economic and social right are now more common than not: rights to education, health, and social security are present in more than two-thirds of all national constitutions.23 The older constitutional democracies, particularly in common-law settings, have little to contribute to these developments—economic and social rights remain absent from the US constitution, since constitutional rights, it is often supposed, lead inexorably to the judicial usurpation of the elected branches. Commentators who observe interactions among courts, legislatures, and executives have grasped the importance of constitutional rights, including their implications for economic inequality.24

It is impossible to define a formula for achieving equality, or a measure for the influence and impact of the various movements pursuing it as a singular goal. Still, a certain level of economic equality may be a precondition for the flourishing of any human rights that clearly impact social, civil, political, and cultural vectors. Human rights such as education and the right to vote refer to positional goods; these lose value in unequal settings.25 The long-term success of human rights strategies may require questioning the current market-based remedies designed for the poor.26 Moyn does not address the literature on these topics.

Finally, Moyn does not acknowledge that arguments in favor of the least worst outcomes have been vigorously contested within the human rights field. He points to the legacy of basic-needs arguments made within the World Bank development community in the 1970s and 1980s. These arguments have been criticized as having paternalistic and disruptive implications.27 It is unclear to what extent these arguments were connected to human rights. Basic needs for survival are not the same as basic needs for human dignity.28 Conclusions about the popularity of these ideas, and those introduced by influential thinkers such as Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, are strained.

Another strategy that has been contested, but is surely within the human rights movement, is the concept of a minimum core. In 1990, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted the goal of protecting minimum essential levels of food, healthcare, housing, and education.29 The concept has long been criticized for letting middle- and high-income countries off the hook, and has been seen as incoherent, or even defeatist, in relation to the broader goals of economic and social rights.30

Moyn has demonstrated a great talent for initiating debate, and human rights can, of course, benefit from more scrutiny. Yet this critique of human rights, although provocative, is only partial. So, too, is Moyn’s solution. His preferred agenda is not fully explained—he would simply distribute things fairly. As Moyn presents it, Not Enough is an “unrepentant but humbled” sequel to the economic and social rights history of his last book.31 He distances himself from those who have blamed human rights for neoliberalism.32 Instead, he merely claims that the two movements gained strength in the same historical period, and he implies that the human rights movement crowded out neoliberalism’s more effective opponents. If this is indeed the case, then one should take those other opponents seriously.


  1. Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010); see also Jan Eckel and Samuel Moyn, eds., The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). 
  2. Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018), 182. He searches English books. 
  3. The different trajectories of countries within Latin America and Eastern Europe are revealing. Moyn, Not Enough, 184–85. 
  4. Kenneth Roth, “Defending Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Practical Issues Faced by an International Human Rights Organization,” Human Rights Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2004): 63–73; see also responses in the same issue by Leonard Rubenstein of Physicians for Human Rights (“How International Human Rights Organizations Can Advance Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 26 no. 4: 845–65) and Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (“Advancing Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: The Way Forward,” Human Rights Quarterly 26 no. 4: 866–72). 
  5. United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948, reprinted and illustrated ed., 2015), art. 1. 
  6. Moyn, Not Enough, 2. 
  7. Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (New York: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016); Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). 
  8. These links bear out in empirical research. For a list of objections to inequality as an independent moral concern, see Thomas Scanlon, Why Does Inequality Matter? (Oxford University Press, 2018). 
  9. Moyn, Not Enough, 52–57. 
  10. The “equality of what?” question—i.e., welfare, resources, or capabilities, measured as opportunities or outcomes—has often driven human rights advocacy and targeting. For overview of this debate, see Jeremy Moss, “Equality of What?” in Reassessing Egalitarianism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 41–84. 
  11. These successes are sometimes not as great as advocates wish for, and it is a matter of stark concern that some have regressed in recent years. A hopeful response has been issued by political scientist Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). Political scientists who have sought to explain the conditions for success include Beth Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). A closer-up anthropology is offered by Mark Goodale, Surrendering to Utopia (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009). 
  12. This observation, offered by Moyn, is not new within studies of transitional justice: e.g., Louise Arbour, “Economic and Social Justice for Societies in Transition,” NYU Journal of International Law and Politics 40, no. 1 (2007). 
  13. E.g., Roberto Cuéllar, “Poverty and Human Rights: Reflections on Racism and Discrimination,” UN Chronicle 44, no. 3 (2007); Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 15 (2013) on the Right of the Child to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Health (art. 24), UN Doc. CRC/C/GC/15 (2013). 
  14. Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity through Action on the Social Determinants of Health (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2008); Public Health, Ethics and Equality, ed. Sudhir Anand, Fabienne Peter, and Amartya Sen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). Alicia Ely Yamin and Ole Frithjof Norheim, “Taking Equality Seriously: Applying Human Rights Frameworks to Priority Setting in Health,” Human Rights Quarterly 36, no. 2 (2014): 296–324. See also Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009). 
  15. Paul Farmer, Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Paul Farmer, Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). 
  16. Philippe Cullet, “Patents and Medicines: The Relationship between TRIPS and the Human Right to Health,” International Affairs 79 (2003): 139, 153. 
  17. E.g., United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (29th session), Substantive Issues Arising in the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: General Comment No. 15 (2002)—The Right to Water, UN Doc. E/C.12/2002/11 (January 20, 2003). 
  18. United Nations General Assembly (64th session), Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly on 28 July 2010: 64/292 The Human Right to Water and Sanitation, UN Doc. A/Res/64/292 (August 3, 2010). 
  19. Moyn, Not Enough, 197. Sharmila Murthy, “The Human Right(s) to Water and Sanitation: History, Meaning and Contestation over Privatization,” Berkeley Journal of International Law 31, no. 1 (2013): 89–147. 
  20. Multinational companies such as the French water, waste, and energy management service Veolia supported both privatization and the right to water. 
  21. This was not the case in Johannesburg, where users are charged fees for water despite complaints involving constitutional rights of access: Mazibuko v. City of Johannesburg 2010 (4) SA 1 (CC) (South Africa). 
  22. E.g., Cathy Albisa draws attention to human rights ideas outside of the professional class. Cathy Albisa, “From the Women’s March to the Poor People’s Campaign, A Call for Economic Human Rights,” In These Times, May 16, 2018. 
  23. Evan Rosevear, Ran Hirschl, and Courtney Jung, “Justiciable and Aspirational ESRs in National Constitutions,” in The Future of Economic and Social Rights, ed. Katharine Young (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 37–65; see also Daniel Brinks, Varun Gauri, and Kyle Shen, “Social Rights Constitutionalism: Negotiating the Tension between the Universal and the Particular,” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 11 (2015): 292. 
  24. E.g., contributions referencing class inequality by Malcolm Langford, Rosalind Dixon, David Landau, and César Rodríguez Garavito, in The Future of Economic and Social Rights, ed. Katharine Young (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 
  25. This is a rather elementary point, and it confirms that Moyn’s summary illustration—a thought experiment involving a benevolent overlord named Croesus who distributes health, food, water, and vacations to all, yet alone enjoys extreme wealth—is a very dubious instance of “perfectly realized human rights.” Moyn, Not Enough, 212–13. The implications for political power and the right to vote are just one cause for concern: see, e.g., Scanlon, Why Does Inequality Matter? Positional goods and education are described in Olivier De Schutter, “A Proposed Framework on Progressive Realization and Public Finance,” in The Future of Economic and Social Rights, ed. Katharine Young (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 527–623. 
  26. E.g., Lucie White and Jeremy Perelman, eds., Stones of Hope: How African Activists Reclaim Human Rights to Challenge Global Poverty (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010). 
  27. Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith (London: Zed Books, 1997). 
  28. Katharine Young, “The Minimum Core of Economic and Social Rights: A Concept in Search of Content,” Yale Journal of International Law 33 (2008): 113–75. 
  29. UN Economic and Social Council, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “Annex III: General Comment No. 3 (1990),” Report on the Fifth Session, Supplement No. 3, UN Doc. E/1991/23 (1991), ¶ 10, p. 86. 
  30. Katharine Young, Constituting Economic and Social Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). 
  31. Moyn, Not Enough, x. 
  32. Susan Marks, “Four Human Rights Myths,” in Human Rights: Old Problems, New Possibilities, ed. David Kinley et al. (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013), 226–35; Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Allen Lane, 2007). 

Katharine Young is an Associate Professor of Law at Boston College Law School.

More on Political Science


Copyright © Inference 2024

ISSN #2576–4403