Social Rights and Human Welfare, by Hartley Dean

Routledge, 2015, xiv + 194 pp, 1 138 01310 0, hbk, £95, 1 138 01312 4, pbk, £32.99

Hartley Dean will soon be starting the process of retiring as Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics, and this book is a worthy summary of his lifelong involvement in social rights and human welfare, first as a welfare rights advisor in Brixton, and then as an academic.

The first chapter discusses the evolution and characteristics of social rights. The second summarises much of the material in Dean’s 2010 Understanding Human Need, and, in the context of a discussion of inequality and poverty, understands social rights as the articulation of human need. The broad range of Dean’s treatment is particularly visible in chapter 3 on ethics and social rights, where he discusses a variety of ethical theories, categorises rights-based perspectives, and asks that ‘welfare’ should again mean wellbeing. The fourth chapter deals with a variety of challenges to the idea of social rights, and particularly the neoliberal challenge, that social rights compromise property, civil, and political rights, and the post-structuralist challenge, that social rights imply state control.

The book turns from a more theoretical to a more practical treatment of social rights at chapter 5, on the meaning of, and prospect for, global social rights. Here the broad canvas reveals even more clearly the tension between rights founded on universal principles (‘doctrinal’ rights) and rights based on experienced and expressed needs (‘claimed’ rights). Chapter 6 examines rights to work and to subsistence, and some possible relationships between them: and in this context Dean discusses arguments both for and against universal benefits. Earlier in the book he had constructed a typology of competing perspectives – liberal, moral authoritarian, communitarian, and social democratic/democratic socialist – and probably rightly sees universal benefits as fitting most easily into the liberal and social democratic/democratic socialist understandings of social rights.

Chapter 7 tackles rights to shelter, education, health, and social care. Throughout the chapter we discover conflicting rights – for instance, between the rights of parents and/or children in relation to education), and also throughout this chapter we encounter the complex relationship between the right to satisfy needs (for health, knowledge, shelter, etc.) and the right to government services designed to satisfy those needs (healthcare, education, social housing, etc.). Chapter 8 discusses rights of redress – a civil right that assumes such social rights as legal aid.

The final part of the book is titled ‘rethinking social rights’. In the cause of alleviating global poverty, chapter 9 explores the complex relationship between social rights and social development; and chapter 10 returns to the understanding of social rights as the articulation of human need and as the social means for satisfying it. Dean challenges T. H. Marshall’s construction of history, in which civil and political rights preceded social rights, by suggesting that we were social beings before we were political or civic beings, so in practical terms there were social rights before there were ever civil or political rights; and he goes on to show how, in the future, social rights will be as much a global phenomenon as a national and local one, and that the international human rights framework will be a significant factor.

Writing an index is not an easy task, and no index is perfect: but perhaps one word that ought to have been in this index is ‘contested’. It is a major theme of the book that ideas are contested: that is, that different interest groups in society will create their own definitions, ideas and processes, in order to satisfy their own needs, and that these definitions, ideas and processes might severely compromise other groups’ abilities to meet their needs.

The concept of contestation is just one example of the breadth and the depth of the discussion. The depth of the treatment as a whole suggests that the book would serve well as the textbook for a module on social rights and human welfare, and its breadth suggests that it would be a useful resource for an entire master’s degree on the subject. A complex agenda is well handled, and it is impressive how both depth and breadth are achieved without loss to either.

While Hartley Dean will soon be retiring from his full-time post at the LSE, we hope that he will not be retiring from the kind of thoughtful engagement with the theory and practice of social rights and human welfare of which this book is persuasive evidence.