Getting the NIEO Right

Symposium on Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn

Karuna Mantena –

Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough is a pointed history of the present.  It provides a fast-paced narrative of the surprising ways we got to where we are now in our moral and political imagination of what is politically possible.  In this sense, like its precursor The Last Utopia, it is a distinctive kind of ideological and intellectual history (though not quite either), with disruptive intent. Moyn suggests that our philosophical and normative frameworks – i.e. the way we think and act on political ideals, ideologies, and possibilities – radically differ from what they were only four decades ago. More precisely, they have become radically limited and circumscribed. Not Enough usefully reflects the 1970s optimism that international law could reduce global inequality, but it mischaracterizes the New International Economic Order (NIEO) and leaves open the question of precisely how neoliberalism displaced its utopian aspirations.

In his previous examination of international human rights, The Last Utopia, Moyn argued that the ascendency of human rights was the most prominent symptom of a general decline of utopian politics oriented around broad-based institutional transformation.  Proponents of those alternative political utopias often advocated a range of rights embedded in the nation-state, and imagined the state as the agent and site of their fulfillment.   The shift to the contemporary human rights regime, in Moyn’s account, entailed the demotion of the nation-state as the site and agent of real political transformation which he described as the substitution of politics for morality.

In Not Enough, Moyn charts another vector of decline in political utopias linked to the nation-state, namely, the decline of welfare statism and its egalitarian distributive imagination. Moyn characterizes the shift not in terms of a shift from politics to ethics, as in The Last Utopia, but more substantively as a shift in the guiding principle of economic policy from the ideal of equality to the ideal of sufficiency.  Proponents of equality as a guiding principle are concerned with diminishing the gap in economic status between persons: when pursued, this involves not only lifting people up out of poverty but also limiting wealth accumulation at the top.  In contrast, prioritizing sufficiency entails focusing primarily on poverty alleviation and protecting people from the worst forms of deprivation, goals which in principle are compatible with – and in many dominant economic theories, may even require – extreme inequality.

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