Economic Freedom and Human Rights in Business

22-23 November, 2016, Dusit Thani Manila Hotel, Manila, the Philippines


The Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia is a network of research institutes, practitioners, influential think tanks, and individuals with an object of promoting the benefits of the market economy, civil society and individual liberty to enhance human development and economic growth in Asia. EFN Asia was initiated by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in 1998 as one of the Foundation’s key principle mechanisms to help individuals fulfill their potential and create an open society.

EFN Asia provides a platform for political dialogue, public education and academic exchange in order to appeal to the public, policy advisors and political decision-makers. Its aim is to broaden the public policy debate on the merits of open economies and limited government. The Network cooperates with the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) Index to further analyze the economic development of Asian economies in the global context. EFN Asia annually launches the local edition of the Economic Freedom of the World Index. During the EFN Asia conference, we focus on a different interesting topic each year and this year it is about ‘economic freedom and human rights.’

Economic Freedom and Human Rights

In recent decades, the debates on business and human rights have become more and more widely discussed. There have been increased expectations that business should undertake responsibility in their spheres of responsibility. We have witnessed several codes of conduct and regulations worldwide, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UN Global Compact, OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, EU Directive on non-financial reporting and EU Directives on procurement, UK Modern Slavery Act, Dodd-Frank Act and California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. However, the debates are not without controversy as some economic liberals stress that business is most socially useful if it concentrates on economic matters. As Milton Friedman famously stated fifty years ago: ‘the business of business is business’ and ‘the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.’ On the other hand, critics of the free market often argue that freer markets lead to violation of human rights. They claim that free market reforms are mostly undertaken by elites for their own benefits, in which the rich reap all the gain and pass the pain of austerity and budget cuts on the poor. Free trade is seen as problematic as foreign companies use labor practices that violate human rights norms, especially in non-democratic societies, and thus compete on unfair terms. They demand much stronger control from government on how business should operate.

As liberals, we believe in both economic freedom and human rights and we also believe that they are two sides of the same coin. Economic Freedom is present when individuals are free to conduct their businesses. They are permitted to choose for themselves and engage in voluntary transactions as long as they do not harm others. Individuals have freedom to enter and compete in markets and they and their properties are protected from aggression by others. The data in the Economic Freedom of the World report also confirm that greater economic freedom is associated with better quality of life and prosperity. Higher economic freedom also has a strong positive correlation with the United Nation’s Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living for countries worldwide. By creating virtuous cycles and reinforcing mechanisms, the prosperity created by economic freedom results in reduced illiteracy (through greater access to education) and increased life expectancy (through access to higher quality health care and food supplies).

We also strongly believe in human rights. In fact, liberalism and human rights are inseparable. The universal rights of the citizen are the foundation of liberal belief and they demand the maximum degree of personal freedom.

We believe that human rights and economic freedom go together and in fact economic freedom is a forgotten human right. To use Amartya Sen’s words, “development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity for exercising their reasoned legacy.” People want to be free from hunger and strive to attain a good life. By decreasing barriers to fundamental human rights, economic freedom will create an environment in which people can realize their full potential to fulfill their dreams and achieve prosperity. Economic freedom and human rights also link with political freedom and they support each other. According to Milton Friedman, economic freedom is an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom, because economic self-reliance makes people less vulnerable to pressure from powerful groups or the state. Economic progress through advancing economic freedom has created a more open and inclusive society.

Nevertheless, freedom and responsibility have to go hand in hand and the increase of prosperity and the protection of human rights have to grow together. When it comes to the issue of business and human rights, indeed companies can no longer afford to ignore social responsibilities, which include human rights standards. Political support for free trade cannot be maintained if this aspect is not addressed. Numerous studies therefore indicate that a company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies are necessary to maintain their brand. For example, according to a survey by the European Commission, 70% of Germans expect companies to take more responsibilities. A survey by Landor Associates, the branding company, found that 77% of consumers say it is important for companies to be socially responsible. Consumers and other companies are likely to reject firms that develop unethical reputations. And arguably, companies that do not pay attention to their ethical responsibilities are more likely to stumble into legal troubles, such as mass corruption or accounting fraud scandals. Many corporations have made CSR their priority and not merely window-dressing programs. For example, ten years ago, only about a dozen Fortune 500 companies issued a CSR or sustainability report. Now the majority does. More than 8,000 businesses around the world have signed the UN Global Compact pledging to show good global citizenship in the areas of human rights, labor standards and environmental protection. The next generation of business leaders is even more likely to prioritize CSR. Globalization of information, where public image and marketing can be boosted or ruined easily, is also a major factor in the change. Furthermore, CSR also help companies recruited young talents. According to a Deloitte survey, 70% of young Millennials, say a company’s commitment to the community has an influence on their decision to work there. Therefore, not only do companies have responsibilities in human rights protections, but in doing so, it helps them attract customers, employees and other stakeholders.

However, concerning business, economic freedom and human rights, when it comes to specific details, there is a wide array of topics that need to be discussed from different angles. It is a topic where there are many different viewpoints among liberals. For example, when it comes to supply chains and human rights, to what extent should states pass regulations that deal with violations of human rights that occur in businesses? To what extent should companies take responsibility for human rights compliance in their complex supply chains? What can realistically be done by trans-national corporations (TNCs) to enforce minimum standards as global sourcing increases? How should a framework for TNCs look like -voluntary self-regulation or binding law? How large do companies have to be in order to have “serious” human rights obligations? How can SMEs who may have neither the financial resources nor the know-how to implement rigorous human-rights monitoring and policy-making adapt? How do we support sustainable human rights-based and at the same time, market-based business models? When it comes to the issue of international trade regimes and human rights, it also poses questions like, for example, should human rights clauses be included in trade regimes (ex. WTO and TPP)? If so, what kind of human rights? To what extent should they be included? What are the prospects of trade regimes in the future concerning human rights?

Another important focus at the conference deals with the relationship of economic freedom and the rule of law, including human rights protection. Can economic freedom exists without rule of law and human rights? Can human rights and political freedom exist without economic freedom? To what extent do rule of law and human rights help the market economy and vice versa? How reliable and sustainable is a situation where the rule of law exists in the commercial sphere but not in other spheres? Should businesses be worried about an erosion in human rights standards, and what could they do about it?

Objective of the Conference

In this conference we aim to provide a platform for spirited debate on the tensions and solutions that arise when Human Rights and Economic Freedom are combined. It is an area where a plethora of new policies, instruments and alliances have emerged, both in the business and the political fields. This should both offer us a chance to engage in debate and engage policy makers that wrestle with these issues as well. The backlash against free trade that we are witnessing in Europe , exemplified by Brexit and the resistance to TTIP, and the US, exemplified by both Trumps radical protectionism and Hillary Clintons newfound skepticism for free trade agreements makes it all the more necessary to clarify and strengthen the liberal voice in the debate.

Hosting the annual EFN Asia conference in the Philippines offers myriad opportunities:

  • To provide an interesting platform for political dialogue, public education, and academic exchange in order to engage and appeal to the public, policy makers, and political decision-makers, and to conduct a public policy debate on the merits of a free economy. The platform includes academic debates with people from different point of views and backgrounds and also innovative sessions where all participants can contribute and exchange ideas.
  • To better understand the relationship of economic freedom and human rights and assess various policy options in this light.


The conference will be attended by approximately 60 international experts from Asia and beyond and approximately 150 participants in total. Participants include EFN Asia members, eminent figures, and interested participants across Asia and beyond.


The conference is hosted and organized by EFN Asia and FNF Philippines, with support from the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, Philippine Economic Society, Bloomberg TV Philippines  and Ateneo Human Rights Center.

For more information about the conference and registration please contact Mr. Pett Jarupaiboon at pett.jarupaiboon@fnst.org


EFN Asia Conf 2016 – Full program as of 17.11