The Good, The Bad, The Ugly [Pt. II]: Democracy, Social Justice, & Conservatism

“We were taught… that man’s business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the jungle… Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago, the question was asked, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society.
Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality but by the higher duty I owe myself. What would you think me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death?”Eugene V. Debs, 1908 speech

Previously, I have looked at justice in general terms, purpsely excluding the role governments play in promoting it. In the following post I will explore the idea of social justice — the idea that we can create a set of social and political institutions that ensures the just distribution of benefits and costs throughout a society.

The idea first emerged in the late 19th century, and stood at the heart of political debate throughout the 20th. It requires that the state become much more involved in justice than earlier times. It was also a controversial idea: whereas only a few extremists have attacked the idea of justice, social justice has been ridiculed, mainly by critics from the libertarian right, who view it as a transgression against personal freedom, especially the economic freedom they feel a market economy requires.

Let’s look at these attacks more closely. Critics such as the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek argued that there was a fundamental error involved in addressing social justice in the first place. According to Hayek (and many self-loathing neocons that call themselves “libertarians” LOL!), justice is a consequence of individual actions. An action is unjust when it violates a general societal rule that allows members of a society to interact with one another. For example, theft is unjust because it violates a rule protecting property. If we look at how resources — money, property, employment opportunities, and so forth — are distributed across a society, Hayek maintains, we cannot describe this as either just or unjust, since it is a consequence not from the actions of a single mediator, but from the actions and decisions of millions of separate individuals, none of whom intended to create this or any other outcome in particular.

To be fair, Hayek is right to point out that “social distribution” cannot be attributed to any single distributing agency or entity, given the complexity of any contemporary society in the postmodern world. But Hayek’s fundamental error — a glaring weakness — is that the distributive pattern we observe around us does, generally speaking, depend on the institutions we have created , consciously or not. For example, the rules governing property and contracts, the system of taxation, the level of public expenditure on health care, education, housing, and employment policies, etc. — these are all institutions that have been shaped and can be changed by political decision, and so if we leave things as they are, that is the same as accepting the existing distribution of resources. In addition (let’s not be naive), we can certainly understand what the effect of proposed institutional change would be.

To that extent, the distribution of resources across any society — who gets what benefits, how wide the spread of incomes will be, etc. — is something that, at least in a democracy, is under collective control. It is perfectly reasonable, then, to ask what social justice would ask us to do.

But Hayek isn’t done yet. His criticism begs the question of whether social justice is something we should pursue. Hayek’s second claim is that, in attempting to make the distribution of resources match up to justice, we would destroy economic freedom and in that way kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. For the sake of argument, let’s assume Hayek is right when he claims that a market economy is the most effective way of organizing production and trade (a priori alert!), and that any alternative would involve a reduction of the living standards in economically advanced societies. The question then is whether striving for social justice means turning our back on the market economy, or whether it’s possible to pursue social justice through a market economy, one shaped in the right way and that has other social institutions working alongside it.

These questions, my friends, and how they have been answered, are at the core of today’s “Great Recession.”

In order to more fully explore these questions, we need to look at different ways of interpreting the idea of social justice. The most radical version, touted by Marxists and some communitarian anarchists, reduces social justice to the principles of equality and need. A just society, in this view, is one in which each member contributes to the best of his or her ability, but resources are distributed according to need, with any resulting surplus distributed evenly. There is no consideration here for the idea that people need incentives, or deserve material rewards for making their contribution.

The question here becomes, could such a society exist?

On a small scale, it undoubtedly has. In addition, China has definitely put a crimp on the notion that communism is completely dead. Still, the question remains whether a large society could successfully practice social justice in this form.

There is, however, a less radical view of social justice which has been embraced by many democratic socialists and contemporary liberals. From this perspective, social justice requires the equal distribution of some social benefits — especially equal rights of citizenship such as voting and freedom of speech. It requires that some benefits be distributed on the basis of need, so that everyone is guaranteed an adequate income, access to adequate health care and housing, etc. However, it also allows for other resources to be distributed unequally, so long as there is equal opportunity for people trying to acquire a larger share. These inequalities may be justified on the grounds of merit (“desert”), or on the grounds that by giving people material incentives to work hard and produce goods that other people want, all of society benefits.

Arguably, the most influential interpretation of this form of social justice was developed by John Rawls who argued in his Theory of Justice that a just society must fulfill three conditions. First, it must give each member the most extensive of basic liberties that is consistent with the same liberty for everyone else. Second, social positions possessing greater advantages, higher paying jobs, for example, must be open to everyone on the basis of equality of opportunity. Third, inequalities of income and wealth are justified when they can be shown to benefit the least advantaged members of society — in other words when they provide incentives that raise society’s productivity and in that way allow more resources to be channeled to those at the bottom of the heap.

Rawls’s theory of justice obviously makes room for a market economy. Rawls’s third principle allows for the possibility for people to keep at least part of the gain they make through producing goods and services for the market if they are going to be sufficiently motivated to work hard and use their talents in the most productive way.

This demolishes Hayek’s claim that social justice and market freedom are mutually exclusive. On the other hand, a market economy governed by Rawlsian principles would look completely different from from the economic systems of modern liberal democracies.

For one, Rawls’ idea of equality of opportunity is radical. It is not enough that positions of advantage should be given to those who can be shown to be better qualified to hold them. It must also be true that applicants have had an equal opportunity to become qualified. What this means is that from the moment of birth, people of equal talent and motivation should be afforded the same opportunities in education and elsewhere.

Obviously, this is not the case in any existing society. Furthermore, Rawls’ third principle, often called the difference principle, allows inequalities only when they can be shown to benefit the worst off in society. In actual practice this would mean that governments would set tax rates so that benefits were continually redistributed to benefit all of society. Although most democratic societies have so-called progressive tax structures, they fall far short of Rawls’ requirement.

My own view is that a theory of social justice should retain Rawls’ first two principles — equal liberty and equality of opportunity — but replace the difference principle with two others. The first is that of a guaranteed social minimum, understood as a set of needs that must be met in order to assure every citizen a decent life (think: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). This minimum is not fixed, but changes over time and within different societies. In a debate during the last presidential election, it was asked if each candidate considered health care a right or a privilege. Their respective answers were telling… The second is one of merit (desert). Inequalities of income and wealth should be proportional, measured by their success in producing goods and services other people need and want.

Like Rawls’ theory, these principles don’t conflict with a market economy — at least not in the sense that it entails getting rid of it. However, they do require the construction and maintenance of an extensive web of interlocking social safety nets, as well as a flexible legal system within which the market economy works so that there is a real link between what people contribute and what they receive as compensation for that contribution.

Much of the economic turmoil we face today is a direct result of decades of lax governmental oversight combined with an almost slavish devotion toward free market principles — Hayek’s view of “freedom.” Therefore, it is important for people to think about these matters, to question the validity of these apostles of the market.

Of course this would require a real change to the way capitalist countries operate, since the existing rules of property and inheritance allow people to reap huge rewards by virtue of luck, inherited wealth, corporate position, etc. — factors all unrelated to their contribution to society. What most conservatives and libertarians alike all fear is that the pursuit of social justice will take us towards a form of market socialism in which the means are owned by those who work in them rather than by outside shareholders, so that the profits can be shared among the actual producers. I don’t think this is something to be feared but rather something to be pursued. This is not the communist utopia espoused by Marxists and other radical socialists, since it also allows for harder working and more talented individuals to reap the fruits of their labor. Still, it takes us far away from the failed political agenda of the present, at least as far as liberal democracies are concerned.

Social justice, like democracy, will always be unfinished project. It is up to us to envision what a just society should look like, without losing our pragmatism nor delude ourselves in fantasies. I believe, like many, that the struggle for social justice has been sabotaged by global developments that place the market before the concerns of people — before the concerns of justice. It strikes me as the ultimate irony to hear others go into the “people are so stupid rants” without paying attention to the larger, more powerful forces at play. What good is intelligence or critical thinking in the face of a global movement in which social justice is scrapped in favor of the bottom line?

Paz y Amor,