Yale law and history professor Samuel Moyn considers why economic egalitarianism has not emerged as a commitment among proponents of human rights who, Moyn argues, have focused on state violations of political rights at the expense of broader social and economic justice.
This marvelous book is a history of one of the hardest things to explain: why something did not happen ... In this case, the non-event that Samuel Moyn describes...is the institutionalization of a political ethic of material egalitarianism ... Moyn argues that ... [t]he failure to establish egalitarianism as the foundational ethic of the welfare state at the moment of its creation...left the door open for the vengeful return of inequality starting in the 1970s. And by then, the now-truncated conception of human rights was simply not enough to hold back the revanchism of financialized and globalized capitalism that would engulf the last quarter of the 20th century ... the point is that the conception of human rights was fundamentally unhelpful not just for defending egalitarianism later on but even for justifying welfare states in the first place ... Moyn ends his book with the faint hope that perhaps the ethos of egalitarianism not only can but should be revived to address the galloping inequality that has been the fruit of neoliberalism and that lies at the root of the global flowering of populist nationalisms.
For this author the big question facing the left in particular is how to frame its economic aims. Should it advocate for equality, in the spirit of socialist movements past—ensuring that everyone has roughly the same share of the world’s goods? Or should it choose the more modest goal of sufficiency, so that every human being is guaranteed a bare minimum of what he needs to live well, even if a few lucky ones end up with vastly more wealth? ... Mr. Moyn is a historian of ideas, not a political philosopher, and he doesn’t set out to address these questions head-on. Rather, in Not Enough, he examines how they have been answered by international lawyers, political philosophers and human-rights activists since the end of World War II. He concludes that, while the human rights movement has not deliberately supported the growth of material inequality during this period, it has also not done enough to combat it ... This book, like the author’s last, is the rare academic study that is sure to provoke a wider discussion about important political and economic questions. As the left thinks about how to formulate its goals in a changing ideological landscape, arguments like Mr. Moyn’s may have a decisive influence.
Isn’t this formula — your globe or your nation? — a little … formulaic? Moyn often sidesteps real politics. He seems little interested in how Sweden’s welfare state was shaped by an innovative Social Democratic Party enacting policies that broadened support for egalitarianism. It wasn’t global. He is disappointed that the Labour Party did not turn construction of a welfare state in postwar Britain into an internationalist project — as if Labour could have persuaded workers to make global economic redistribution an immediate priority rather than, say, a right to health care. Parts of the left, faced with the facts that Marx’s working class was neither homogeneous nor history’s protagonist, substituted for it a romanticized third world. Moyn is, finally, a third worldist ... Might it be possible to interrogate abuses visited on Western workers and victims of colonialism without mythologizing either? ... Moyn leaves socialism undefined, seeming only to envision its global arrival through challenges to equally undefined neoliberalism ... In our rattled times, with Europe’s left in a tailspin and Trump in the White House, with political and social rights besieged, post-utopian egalitarians may need more than globalized third worldism.