The Economic Theory of Rights – Essay

Of recent origin is the Economic Theory of Rights and it finds its inspiration in the teaching of Karl Marx. It rejects the concept of natural and inalienable rights as also various other theories enunciated from time to time as an explanation of the nature of rights.

Marx’s thesis is simple and to a certain extent convincing too. He regards the State as a coercive agency to uphold the particular type of social organisation and law is a tool of the State that perpetuates and safeguards the interests of the dominant group in the society.

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Marx explained that political, social, religious and other institutions of any given historical era are determined by economic factors, which is essentially the mode of production.

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To each stage of production in the development of society corresponds as appropriate political form and an appropriate class structure and every system of production has given rise to two opposing classes, the exploiters and the exploited, the owners and the toilers free man and slave, patrician and plebian, baron and serf, guild master and journeyman.

As in the ancient world the interests of the slave owners were opposed to that of the slaves, and. in the Mediaeval Europe the interests of the feudal lords were opposed to that of the serfs, so in our times the two opposing classes confronting one another are the employers and the workers, fife; exploiters and the exploited, and there is an uninterrupted warfare between the two, “now open, now concealed”, as Marx has said.

Laski, too, mainly agrees with Marx’s thesis and maintains that the way the economic power is distributed at any given time and place will shape the character of legal imperatives which are imposed on that time and place. The economically dominant group in society controls and regulates the machinery of government and occupies all the key positions of power, authority and influence.


The laws are so made and the policies of the governing class are so devised and formulated that they protect and further the interests of this group alone. It is a society of vested interests and relentless exploitation of the masses is its raison d’etre. Consequently, the dogmas of equality before the law and other fundamental rights of the people are only a cloak of inequality, in fact, slavery.

Rights are, as such, neither the product of human nature nor their origin can be traced to the hoary customs, or in their inherent utility, nor are rights the result of external conditions essential to man’s internal and real development.

The economic structure of society at a given period of time is the foundation on which the political system of a country is built and its legal framework formulated. In a capitalist society, the aim and nature of rights is to promote and foster the interests and privileges of the dominant economic group that owns productive forces, but is in a miscroscopic minority. For the masses rights are the instruments of their thralldom.

Karl Marx finally believes that rights can exist and flourish only in a classless society where all are equal and no one is an exploiter. He dismissed all talk of rights in a capitalist society and regarded fundamental rights, the pillars of democracy, the fetish of bourgeois jurisprudence.


There is much truth in what Karl Marx says and evidence of history is strong enough to support him. He opens a new vista of the nature and content of rights. But all that Karl Marx says is not correct.

The laws of the State are the product of multiple sources and not alone the handiwork of the dominant economic class. It is an inescapable truth that rights can exist and flourish in a democratic setup which presupposes a society of equals and such a society is plural.

It has been universally recognised now that economic democracy must precede political democracy and even the traditionally capitalist States have made determined efforts to make their political systems progressive, adaptable and flexible to meet the growing aspirations of the masses and provide all those amenities of life which can make a just and happy life for all.

A just and happy life is the sum total of a complex of social forces in which equalising opportunity plays a vital role and brute economic disparities, that have plagued the society so far, are wiped out.

The concept of Economic Rights, as enunciated by Karl Marx, was faithfully reflected in the Constitutions of all the Communist countries, particularly in that of former Soviet Russia. But civil rights were subordinated to economic rights as they were to be in, conformity to the interests of the working class and emphasised that the interests of the, individuals and that of society were not incompatible.

This is not the essence of rights Laski says that rights are those conditions of social life without which man cannot be at his best or give of his best, what is needful to the adequate development and expression of his personality.

If inequality is iniquitous, economic equality alone and that, too, to strengthen a particular ideological system defeats the purpose of rights which aim to ensure all-round development of man and his personality.

The true essence of rights is the creation of that atmosphere which is congenial for chiseling of man to be the best of himself. To rely exclusively on an economic factor and subordinating civil rights to economic rights is a lopsided effort that dwarfs man’s personality.


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