The Ends of Freedom: Reclaiming America's Lost Promise of Economic Rights


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$26.00  $24.18
University of Chicago Press
Publish Date
6.3 X 9.1 X 1.1 inches | 1.3 pounds

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About the Author

In December 2017, Philip Alston, an Australian human rights lawyer and the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights for the United Nations, was commissioned by the UN to take a fact-finding tour of the United States. The purpose of his trip was to determine whether "the persistence of extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens." After a two-week tour that took him through California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, DC, Alston described what he observed:
"I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage filled yards in states where governments don't consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by prescription and other drug addiction, and I met with people in the South of Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death."
By almost any economic measure, the United States of America is one of the richest nations ever to exist. At the same time, 65 million of its people live near or below the poverty line, struggling to feed, house, and care for themselves on a day-to-day basis. As Alston interviewed the scores of homeless occupying LA's Skid Row, he was told repeatedly that theirs is a great country: "American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations." In Alston's summarizing report, he questioned whether this was still the case: "Instead of realizing its founders' admirable commitments, today's United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound."

The causes for this tendency are many, but one is historical. There are no more influential or important documents in the history of negative freedoms than the US Declaration of Independence and the first ten amendments of the US Constitution that followed, otherwise known as the Bill of Rights. When Americans wish to expand the list of places where they might carry a firearm, or marry a partner whom they aren't legally at liberty to marry, or erect a statue of the Ten Commandments on public property, or terminate a pregnancy, these are the texts they either appeal to or cite.

For Americans, the invocation of freedom, liberty, or rights is typically framed in the classically negative sense of "not being interfered with by others." But as Alston's account amply demonstrates, this brand of American freedom proves insufficient when it comes to the destitute and desperate. What is the value of a constitutional prohibition on law abridging free speech to the resident of Skid Row who is without access to a toilet?

What good is the right to vote to the person too sick--or lacking time off from work--to get to the polls? Even the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the first to distinguish the concept of negative freedom and a great champion of its protections, acknowledged the perversity of its bestowal on those too wretched to avail themselves of it: "To offer political rights, or safeguards against intervention by the state, to men who are half naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition."
Such is the (quite literal) condition of many Americans today. And so it would seem American freedom, at least in its hegemonic form, needs a rethink. In what follows, I offer a comprehensive prescription that aims to address the problem of persistent economic insecurity in America, one based on an expanded notion of American freedom and grounded in an alternative model of economic thought. The United States can eradicate poverty and build an economy that works for everyone--that puts, as the mantra goes, people over profits--by adopting social and economic ("positive") rights: the right to a well-paying job, the right to health care, the right to an education, the right to a home, and more.


"Paul tells the full story of the nation's yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of a guarantee of a minimum standard of economic possibility and security for all Americans. As he shows, the principles of an Economic Bill of Rights date, at least, to the founding of the Republic. Not only does Paul give us the most comprehensive treatment of the history of the idea of a social floor for opportunity, but he provides a detailed plan appropriate for the twenty-first century. This is the book that throws down a forceful gauntlet on how, at last, to create an equitable America."
--William A. Darity Jr., Samuel DuBois Cook Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, Duke University
"In highlighting how the notion of economic freedom was hijacked by the right, Paul has put his finger on the missing link in any progressive agenda that purports to work for all Americans. The book connects the various seemingly separate strands of political crisis into one coherent idea: we need to revive a robust vision for economic freedom that centers on racial justice. Building on the core impetus of Roosevelt's Economic Bill of Rights, Paul revives it for the twenty-first century with an expert's understanding of economic trends and gaps in recent policy. This important and thorough account of history and economics will be an excellent resource for policymakers, students, activists, and citizens interested in achieving the promise of democracy."--Mehrsa Baradaran, University of California, Irvine School of Law
"Without a new foundation of economic rights for all, grounded in ecological safety and racial justice, democracy will not survive. Paul is one of the economists reimagining his field to meet this moment of compounding crises, and his new book brilliantly traces the history and irresistible logic behind the demand for an economic bill of rights. It's a gift to the social movements who are fighting to put those rights back on the political agenda, and to anyone contemplating the deeper meaning of freedom." --Naomi Klein

"Amidst the wreckage of the failed neoliberal project to shrink the idea of freedom down to limited government, Paul advances an expanded notion of 'freedom to' rather than just 'freedom from.' His program of economic rights may just be the best hope for securing a society built on positive freedoms in a sustainable democratic order."

--Samuel Bowles, Santa Fe Institute and author, The Moral Economy.
"Paul is sharp and deeply knowledgeable about his field, and his comprehensive approach is admirable. . . . A reminder of the country's lost ideal of economic freedom and the many actions that might turn that ideal into reality."-- "Kirkus"
"This is a fascinating book about a forgotten US intellectual tradition. Paul forcefully shows that there can be no real freedom without substantial and well-guaranteed economic rights for all: the right to education, the right to a job, and the right to housing. A must-read!"--Thomas Piketty, L'ecole de hautes etudes en sciences sociales and Paris School of Economics

"Paul argues that leaders need to prioritize providing equitable economic rights for all Americans. The book defines economic rights as the freedom to have basic necessities such as housing, employment, and health care. . . . To actualize these programs, the book calls for changes within the Medicare system and the creation of federal job-guarantees. This book will be of interest to scholars and general readers alike."

-- "Library Journal"