This is Human Rights Year. It is especially incumbent on us this year to penetrate beyond the fair-sounding phrase ‘human rights’ and examine with care and in depth the assertions made in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted and proclaimed at the United Nations twenty years ago. The Assembly called upon member nations to ‘cause it to be read and expounded’. I should like to make my small contribution to this by ‘reading and expounding’ one part of one of the articles.
It runs as follows: ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including’ – then follows a list of items, one of which is ‘housing’. The relevant part of this declaration is therefore: ‘everyone has the right to housing of a standard adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family’.
I noticed that this was paraphrased two or three weeks ago, in the way in which it would ordinarily be understood, by the director of the campaign called Shelter. He said that ‘Britain had denied millions of people one of their basic human rights, the right to a decent home’.
Nothing is further from my intention than to launch into a philosophical discussion of the various meanings of ‘right’. But when we say, of something we do not actually possess, ‘I have a right to that’, the statement clearly means that somebody else – whether an individual or a body corporate or the community itself – ought to furnish me with it, and that if he does not do so voluntarily, he can and should be forced to do so.
Since compulsion is thus involved, the question whether the statement ‘I have a right to that’ is true or false must, in a society which lives under the rule of law, be decided by legal process. The judge orders, at the end of the day: ‘This man has a right to this; let it be taken from someone else and given to him.’ Even where the thing is an abstract, such as a fair hearing or personal liberty, the notion of a ‘right’ is still inseparable from enforceability.
The statement ‘I have a right to a house’ therefore implies that someone has a duty, which can be and ought to be enforced upon him, to provide me with a house.
The statement is obviously incomplete in two vital respects. It does not say what is meant by a house, and it does not say on what terms, such as rent, I have a right to it. Again the director of Shelter, on the same occasion, made the point for me. ‘The houses,’ he said, ‘must be in the right place, at the right price, of the right size and of the right standard.’ At least, this indicates the specifications which are necessary; but the word ‘right’ (the adjective, I mean) does not help us to fill them in. Does it mean what I think ‘right’, or what you think ‘right’, or what the judge (and what judge, applying what law?) thinks ‘right’?
Although price is only one of the specifications, it is the crucial one. In effect it contains all the rest. Where a good or a service is offered for sale at a price at which the supply and the demand balance, the notion of enforceable right does not arise: between willing seller and willing buyer there is, by definition, no room for compulsion. The question of compulsion only arises if a right is claimed to have the article at a price below that at which the seller would dispose of it voluntarily. The idea of a right to a house therefore necessarily means the right to a house (whatever its other characteristics) at a price below the market price. When that right is made universal, by saying ‘everyone has a right to a house,’ this is tantamount to taking housing out of the market altogether.
The seller or producer of an article cannot usually be forced to go on selling or producing it below a certain price, if he is allowed any alternative. Housing however is a special case. Because of the durability of a house, the provider of house-room can only gradually stop providing it however low the price goes – by allowing it to fall into decay and not replacing it. In order to secure the maintenance, the replacement and, even more, the increase of the supply, compulsion must be applied elsewhere. Money must be taken from others and given to the producers, to raise the price to that at which they are willing to continue to produce.
Here, in a nutshell, is the anatomy of rent restriction and subsidised housing. Rent restriction prevents maintenance and replacement and creates the slum. Subsidy enables public authorities to order and to let accommodation at prices at which it does not pay to produce it. In either case, because the price is artificially reduced, the demand must by definition always exceed the supply. And so it does. We know it as what we call ‘the housing shortage’.
Thus, where everyone has a right to a house, shortage of housing is guaranteed in perpetuity.
Compulsion to provide an article at a price below that at which it changes hands voluntarily causes not only shortage but insecurity. The tenant of a house let at a rent below the market rent, whether by a private person or a public authority, is insecure, whatever the law says and however benevolent the public authority is. If we were paying the market price, the owner would have no interest in dispossessing him: Rachmanism and market price cannot exist together. Equally, he would have no anxiety about finding other accommodation in the market, if he wished to move or was obliged to do so. It is the controlled or subsidised sub-market rent which chains him to the one spot and makes him either a fixture or a suppliant. Any Member of Parliament or housing manager who reflects upon the families applying for an ‘exchange’, as it is called, between one subsidised or rent-controlled tenancy and another, understands the connection between price and personal freedom. There is no man so independent as he who pays the market price for what he gets.
I am sure that those who applaud the declaration of a universal human right to housing sincerely desire thereby to reduce, if not put an end to, homelessness, which is the ultimate product of shortage and of insecurity. Incompetence and misfortune there will always be. But there is no reason why families should be denied the accommodation of which they can pay the market price, and no reason why – as with food, clothing and a thousand other things – the supply of accommodation should not progressively improve in quantity and quality. The one sure way to prevent both, to perpetuate shortage and insecurity, is to assert a universal right to housing.