Andrew Oswald: rights at a price

The cost of new human rights legislation is being ignored. Society will suffer, warns Andrew Oswald

It is easy to be in favour of human rights. We all are. But most people have not considered the expensive repercussions that are about to flow from our new human rights legislation, including the modern Data Protection Acts.

Take a look at the UK's recent Human Rights Act. Or read Protocol 12 of the Council of Europe's 2000 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Then step back and worry.

Consider Article 5 of the Convention, in the UK Human Rights Act 1998, which states that 'Everyone who has been the victim of arrest or detention in contravention of the provisions of this Article shall have an enforceable right to compensation', or Article 8: 'Everyone has the right to respect for his … correspondence.'

But perhaps most starkly, consider the Rome Ruling of 4 November 2000: 'The member states of the Council of Europe hereto … agree … no one shall be discriminated against by any public authority on any ground.'

I predict that problems will soon be apparent - because no one has been thinking of the costs.

In their first lecture in economics, students are taught to pay attention to net returns - the benefits of things minus their costs. Yet when it comes to human rights legislation, that lesson seems to have been forgotten.

The individual versus society

First, sensible crime prevention techniques such as security cameras in shops will become more expensive or will even be outlawed. Antiques shops, for example, often have little security cameras to protect against shoplifters and fraud. Under the new legislation, legal evidence now suggests that such videotapes violate our liberties. So goods will have to become more expensive to cover the increased losses.

We have persuaded our citizens that they matter, as individuals, above all else. But societies need people to pull together, to show a certain amount of altruism - not a particularly attractive idea to those who are primarily self-interested. Valuable actions such as donating organs for transplants, giving time to help run Saturday football matches, running citizens' help groups and so on, are likely to come to an end as a result of too much interest in personal rights.

The purpose of human rights legislation is to reduce the chance that any member of society will be treated badly. This means that other ways will have to be found to encourage people to behave well - and bigger carrots are costly.

In this new world, we are going to have to think of innovative mechanisms to get people to do things that are socially important. Pecuniary incentives will simply have to be greater - bribes or subsidies of some sort will be generically necessary.

Another point to consider is that the concern for rights will make certain jobs less enjoyable.

Go and talk to any teacher. Schoolteachers today can barely punish a child who is ruining a lesson. There are so many rules and regulations for them to adhere to, they have little time left to teach. And that will also be expensive because it is going to drive teachers out of the profession in droves. Then it will be necessary to raise teachers' wages, since the job will have become so much more onerous. Society pays - just through another door.

Finally, I believe that all sorts of intriguing economic consequences are going to flow from the anti-discrimination clauses in the legislation. I suspect that over the next decade we are going to see more and more people argue that, because they were simply born with low ability and not high ability, that should not be grounds for discriminating against them in promotions. They will argue that it is unfair to punish them for their genes. That may sound unbelievable, but we have little idea where the legislation will lead us.

Fresh carrots

The fashion for human rights legislation will produce two kinds of winners. One will be lawyers. That bit is predictable. The other will probably be economists. When you downplay social rights, and elevate human rights, you need people who know how to design incentives. Our society will have to figure out a whole new range of financial and other carrots.

Human rights are going to prove much more expensive than has been realised.

Andrew Oswald is professor of economics at the University of Warwick. Visit the author's website at

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