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Can a commodity be a human right?

Posted by Rebecca Kneen on

What would it mean if housing were considered a human right?

If taxes pay for infrastructure which facilitates our needs, shouldn’t shelter be one of those basic needs that our taxes provide for everyone? We pay for clean water, roads, hospitals, but we don’t include food and shelter, or heat for that matter.

A universal basic income is often touted as the solution to lack of housing. It's an individualist solution however, doing nothing to address the commodification of basic needs. All it does is place the responsibility for acquiring basic needs back on the individual, while allowing profiteering on those needs. It actually privatizes that which should be already publicly provided. It is, in fact, monetizing human rights.

Part of the basic question, it seems to us, is what we consider “rights”, and what having those rights implies. Human rights are being interpreted to include the “right” to safety, food, water, and housing. Having those “rights” means that someone is obligated to provide them. In point of fact, the “someone” would be the government, as it functions as caretaker, guardian and manager. The whole definition of a “right” is, in fact, something which is granted by those with power to those without.

And in that definition we see part of the problem. Those with power are happy to say that something is a right, it sounds amazing. Yet there is no way to ensure that those rights are actually embodied, because that would give resources to those who are, by definition, powerless in the system - otherwise there would be no need for those “rights” to be made law. The law is the mechanism which is supposed to move resources around, to balance different parts of society and look after the needs of all – but only as defined by legislation and government.

But let’s go back to the discussion of the commodification of rights. Housing is not a right, no matter how much lip service is given to it. Housing is privatized, with realtors and developers making money off a basic need of society. As long as we buy and sell land and housing, there is no way to make housing an actual guaranteed human right. As long as profit is the only true right that is given and supported, no other rights will ever be genuine.

As Brewster Kneen always says – it’s not about rights, which simply support the power structure. It’s about responsibilities of communities and people to each other and with the earth. If we look at our ideas of human rights with this lens, it becomes vital to actually decommodify land and housing so that food and housing can become our mutual responsibility to each other, something we do out of care and love.

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