Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Amnesty, liberty and poverty

I have been thinking some more about the column by Nick Cohen which I recommended here a couple of days ago.

Cohen was, quite rightly, taking issue with Irene Khan, the new secretary general of Amnesty International, and her claim that:

"If you look globally today and want to talk about human rights, for the vast majority of the world's population they don't mean very much. To talk about freedom of expression to a man who can't read the newspaper, to talk about the right to work to someone who has no job; human rights means nothing to them unless it brings some change on these particular issues."

I realised that I have already posted the best answer to this sort of argument to my other blog Serendib - an anthology of favourite bits and pieces from my reading.

In November 2003 I added an extract from Brian Magee's autobiography Confessions of a Philosopher where he discusses the importance of Karl Popper's work. It ran:

Before Popper it was believed by almost everyone that democracy was bound to be inefficient and slow, even if to be preferred in spite of that because of the advantages of freedom and the other moral benefits; and the most efficient government in theory would be some form of enlightened dictatorship.

Popper showed that this is not so; and he provides us with an altogether new and deeper understanding of how it comes about that most of the materially successful societies in the world are liberal democracies.

It is not - as, again, had been believed by most people before - because their prosperity has enabled them to afford that costly luxury called democracy; it is because democracy has played a crucial role in raising them out of a situation in which most of their members were poor, which had been the case in almost all of them when democracy began.

That is all that needs to be said. You can read more about Popper's work here.

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