Human Rights and Economic Freedom in Afghanistan

by David E. Shellenberger on September 21, 2015

It was an honor to make a presentation via Skype to the Human Rights Club of the Afghanistan Economic & Legal Studies Organization (AELSO) on September 5th, 2015. This article is adapted from the presentation. The principles discussed apply to all countries.

AELSO is a member of the Atlas Network. AELSO’s mission is “to promote the values of individual freedom and of the responsibility of civil society for the creation and sustenance of the institutions of limited government, the rule of law, and the other institutional foundations of the free society.” AELSO celebrated its fifth anniversary in December 2014.


Afghanistan will benefit from economic freedom. This freedom will enable the improvement in life sought by advocates of human rights. I will discuss the following:

  • Human rights vs. natural rights;
  • Economic freedom as the foundation of a free society;
  • Afghanistan and economic freedom; and
  • Creating change.

Human Rights vs. Natural Rights

Some human rights are natural rights. Others are “positive rights” that clash with natural rights.

What Are Natural Rights?

Natural rights are a moral concept. Violation of natural rights is immoral.

Natural rights come from our nature, not from government. Some thinkers appeal to theology in recognizing the rights, and others simply to man’s power of reason.

As Aeon J. Skoble discusses, natural rights are based on the idea that we are equal and we own ourselves. We have the right to rule ourselves, living freely, subject to not infringing on the rights of others.

Natural rights uphold our dignity. Aaron Ross Powell explains, “Humans are by nature rational beings possessing dignity. This dignity prevents us from being used by others, and hence we have rights against such use.”

John Locke famously argued for natural rights in 1689:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.

The Online Library of Liberty notes the significance of Locke’s words:

This passage from Locke is one of the foundation stones of the classical liberal notion of private property as a natural right which all individuals have. What is often overlooked by critics is the importance Locke places on the corresponding duty of the individual to respect the equal rights of others.

Negative vs. Positive Rights

Natural rights are “negative rights.” They are rights to be free from acts of others that infringe on our life, health, liberty, or property. Professor Skoble explains that a negative right “only requires others to abstain from interfering with your actions.”

By contrast, Professor Skoble notes, “[P]ositive rights require others to provide you with either a good or service.” “If we are free and equal by nature, and if we believe in negative rights, any positive rights would have to be grounded in consensual arrangements.”

An example of a consensual arrangement is the lease of an apartment. The tenant has a positive right to live in the unit, and the landlord has a positive right to collect rent.

The problem with non-consensual positive rights is that they infringe on natural rights. If the state declares a right to housing, who fulfills this right? Are landlords required to accept tenants without rent? Or are taxpayers forced to pay the rent of others?

Natural Rights as Human Rights

The United Nations explains that its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948,  “is generally agreed to be the foundation of international human rights law.” Certain of the rights declared are natural rights. Here are examples:

Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Article 4: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 13: “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Other rights listed are consistent with natural rights, such as the right of due process described in Article 10: “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”

Human Rights That Clash with Natural Rights

The Declaration of Human Rights also includes positive rights. Examples include the following:

Article 23(1): “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”

Article 25(1): “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, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Article 26(1): “Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.”

Again, who will fulfill these entitlements? Will the state force employers, farmers, doctors, and teachers to meet the obligations? Or will it take the wealth of taxpayers to pay for the services?

Positive human rights not only violate natural rights, but they are also counterproductive. They encourage the growth of the state and thus the theft of liberty. They limit the economic freedom that allows people to flourish.

Positive human rights are not real rights; they are means of empowering the state. Economic freedom, rather than a system of positive rights, is the key to a better future.

Economic Freedom as the Foundation of a Free Society

Economic freedom is based on respecting natural rights. It means that the state does not infringe on people’s labor, the legitimate operation of their businesses, or the use of their capital or other property.

Freedom is indivisible, and freedom is its own virtue. However, economic freedom, in particular, brings great benefits.

Economic Freedom and Prosperity

Economic freedom, combined with a culture that respects and values commercial activity, allows people to flourish. Deirdre McCloskey, in her trilogy, The Bourgeois Era, argues that these factors — economic freedom and the dignity accorded businesspeople — are the basis for the “Great Enrichment” since 1800. See her essay “Liberty and Dignity Explain the Modern World” and her summary (PDF) of the trilogy, “Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Changed the World.”

Countries with a high degree of economic freedom prosper, while those with little economic freedom remain impoverished. We can compare South Korea to North Korea, Chile to Venezuela, Mauritius to Zimbabwe, and Greece to Germany.

We can see the benefits of the expansion of economic freedom in countries such as China and India. A recent Cato Institute article, “Extreme Poverty’s End in Sight,” observes,

“The share of people living in absolute poverty … has dwindled to around five percent of the world’s population. Much of this progress can be attributed to massive poverty reduction in China that elevated hundreds of millions of people out of destitution.” The article includes a graph showing the decline in poverty in China as economic freedom has increased.

A recent Atlas Institute article, “‘India Awakes’ Explains a Country’s Rise from Poverty to Prosperity,” describes the progress in India:

In 1991, a new prime minister began a series of economic reforms, reducing India’s central control of the economy and opening the country to an influx of foreign investment. These reforms weren’t perfect, and could have gone much, much further, but even this relatively small degree of new economic freedom began to work wonders. Within a decade, the average income in India had doubled, and nearly 250 million people — about a fifth of the population — have risen out of poverty since then. A new middle class has exploded, bringing extended families and villages into a newfound and solid quality of life.

The prosperity that comes with economic freedom allows for better and longer lives. People have more choices, greater safety, more leisure time, and better health.

Other Benefits of Economic Freedom

Economic freedom allows for a free market. The market requires virtue, rewarding honesty, reliability, quality, and concern for the needs of others. The market also breaks down societal barriers and creates bridges.

Economic freedom promotes peace. When people can create wealth through production and trade, they have no need for war. When people have international business relationships, they benefit from preserving those relationships through peace.

International trade also provides exposure to different cultures and different ideas. At the least, this exposure can foster tolerance. It may also lead to a cosmopolitan viewpoint, in which people accept others regardless of their differences, honoring universal rights.

International trade additionally creates the opportunity for cultural evolution. Claudia Williamson observed in “Civilizing Society: Virtues, Freedom, and Development,”

In addition to the gains associated with economic exchange, the exchange of ideas has the impact of shaping values, perceptions, and beliefs of those participating in these interactions. These changes in values subsequently impact the evolution of social and economic interactions. In other words, a market economy not only provides economic benefits but it actually creates a more civilized society.

Finally, economic freedom allows people to pursue higher aspirations as they meet their basic needs. They seek civil liberties, political freedom, and better stewardship of the environment.

In China, prosperity has spawned activism. While the state has responded to environmental concerns, it is trying to repress the assertion of civil and political rights. However, as Freedom House concluded, the state’s efforts have not discouraged the activists:

Despite heightened repression, fear of the regime appears to be diminishing. Civic participation in rights defense activities is growing. Banned information circulates despite censorship. And activities that the authorities have invested tremendous resources in suppressing have continued and even expanded.

In India, economic freedom has begun to break a societal chain, the caste system, enabling anyone to become an entrepreneur. A recent report from the Cato Institute, “Capitalism’s Assault on the Indian Caste System: How Economic Liberalization Spawned Low-Caste Dalit Millionaires,” observes,

[M]ajor changes were sparked by economic reforms in 1991, opening up a once-closed economy. Dalits have increasingly managed to get out of their historical occupations and move into new ones. One district survey in Uttar Pradesh shows the proportion of dalits owning brick houses up from 38 percent to 94 percent, the proportion running their own businesses up from 6 percent to 36.7 percent, and the proportion owning cell phones up from zero to one-third. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry now boasts of over 3,000 member-millionaires. The former serfs have now become bosses hiring upper-caste workers.

Economic Freedom and the Goals of Proponents of Human Rights

Economic freedom can help lead to the achievement of the goals of advocates of human rights. We can create better lives for all people within the framework of respect for natural rights and the rejection of positive rights.

With economic freedom, the market, not the state, provides the solutions to needs and aspirations. People can attain a high standard of living; find employment that is compatible with their skills, interests, and values, or create businesses of their choosing; enjoy the leisure that prosperity allows; obtain security through insurance, savings, and investment; access health care and education; and benefit from the artistic and scientific creativity of a free market.

In addition, as noted above, the prosperity that arises from economic freedom allows people to pursue civil and political freedom. It also enables them to seek better stewardship of the environment, while, ideally, recognizing free-market solutions.

Finally, as also discussed above, international trade facilitates cultural evolution.

Afghanistan and Economic Freedom

Afghanistan suffers from weak economic freedom. This problem is an opportunity for change, led by people of conviction and courage.

The World Bank’s ranks Afghanistan 183rd out of 189 countries in its 2015 index of the ease of doing business. The organization explains, “A high ease of doing business ranking means the regulatory environment is more conducive to the starting and operation of a local firm.”

Transparency International ranks Afghanistan 172nd out of 175 countries in its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. The index “ranks countries/territories based on how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be.”

The 2015 Heritage Index of Economic Freedom does not rank Afghanistan. However, it notes that problems include weak property rights, corruption, “complex customs procedures [that] deter imports,” and the prevention of foreign ownership of land.

Creating Change

AELSO’s mission statement reflects many of the means of working for freedom. These include education — sharing the ideas of liberty.

Education is the fundamental means of enhancing economic freedom. We can offer a vision of liberty, peace, and prosperity.

Economic freedom will lead to better lives for Afghans today, and for their children and grandchildren in the future.


The most effective way to lead is by example. Advocates of freedom are leaders of ideas, and succeed by setting a good example. Below are some ways we can do so.

We should be willing to speak out. Firm commitment to a good cause, backed by knowledge, earns respect.

We should always continue to learn. We need to be aware of events in our own countries and the rest of the world, and to understand fields including economics, philosophy, and history.

We should demonstrate good character and good nature, so that others will be receptive to our message.

Finally, we should find people and groups with whom we share common ground, within our own countries and internationally. We should learn from the experience of others, and offer the benefit of our own experience.

The Power of Stories

People learn from stories. The daily news provides examples from around the world of the harm done as states restrict freedom, and the good that comes when freedom expands.

Stories can be parables. Frédéric Bastiat’s economic parables from the first half of the nineteenth century continue to inform people today. “The Broken Window,” for instance, illustrates the need to consider opportunity costs. It explains why, despite claims to the contrary, war and natural disasters are true disasters, not economic stimuli.

Stories can also be fables. Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper” teaches the importance of working hard and saving. Writers have used it to contrast government, the lazy grasshopper, with taxpayers, the industrious ant. They have also employed it to contrast profligate welfare states with freer countries, as well as to demonstrate the need for production rather than purported government stimulus.

Tom G. Palmer has observed, “The great challenge for libertarians in all cultures and contexts is to identify the roots of liberty in their own culture and to connect our struggle with those roots.”

What are the roots of liberty in Afghanistan? What are the best means of influencing people? What stories will be persuasive?


Change will come through patience and perseverance.

Plant seeds today. Have faith that these will bear fruit in the months, years, and decades ahead.


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