Economic Justice

In this entry, I hope to address a moral question that troubles me greatly: why is anyone else entitled to the product of my labor if they do not provide for themselves?

The issue is highlighted by the hypocrisy of free market advocates defending both the concept of equality of opportunity and inequality of outcome. One cannot commit equally to both. The latter is guaranteed by the natural inequalities inherent in our natures and nurtures, but these inequalities if perpetuated doom any possibility of the equal starting line that is a fundamental feature of the American Dream and the great selling point of unfettered capitalism. Appeals to fairness are difficult to judge, for they rely on a comparative calculus of relative merit between individuals, but an appeal to the natural rights of citizens to have their economic needs met allows a calculation of the equality of kind necessary for all to meet their needs without demanding a crushing equality of degree that characterizes failed egalitarian experiments.

The sticking point in this argument is the question of responsibility. It is all very well to say that all citizens in a polity deserve the distributive justice that allows them the equality of kind necessary to fulfill their needs. But the question remains: who carries the responsibility to meet that need: the state, meaning the collective will of the citizenry, or the individual in need?

A core argument of natural rights theory is that all needs are also rights, and these include economic needs (for a fuller explanation of natural rights theory, please see  “A Virtue Ethics Primer” and “Where Do Rights Originate?”). A polity that deprives citizens of the equality of kind that allows them to meet those needs is an unjust system violating their human rights. Most of us find polities that have such a gross disparity between rich and poor, one in which some wallow in luxury while others starve or are homeless, to be morally objectionable. These cases are easy. It is a bit more difficult to pass judgment on those polities characterized by general scarcity, those in which few citizens are able to satisfy their needs for the goods of human life. The applicable moral principle in this situation calls for an equitable distribution of goods, so in the absence of distributive justice for all, equity for all must suffice in the spirit of an equality of kind, though it is worth mentioning that needs neither lessen nor decrease their urgency no matter how long they go unsatisfied.

In the current climate of materialist excess, a generalized scarcity seems unlikely except in systems that are chronically underdeveloped, and in those cases the deprivation is likely to include a more comprehensive catalogue of unmet needs than merely economic ones. Nothing could be clearer than the moral imperative to repair this deficiency. But who effects the repairs? This macro scale of hardship runs parallel to a situation within a rich polity in which some citizens lack the equality of kind that justice demands while others enjoy a surfeit. The question suggested in these parallel cases can be stated as follows: are rich countries obligated to act positively to meet the economic needs of poor ones; are rich citizens in a developed country obligated to act positively to meet the economic needs of poor citizens? In simple terms the question is this: who has the moral obligation to help those who lack the equality of kind they are entitled to?

To answer that question requires a little weed whacking. The question is a moral one. And its answer depends on the warrant one employs in her moral judgment. The three absolutist moral systems that command universal love and charity—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—would provide a clear answer to the question. Their morality frames social justice issues as obligations of the haves to improve the lot of the have-nots. I have attempted in earlier posts to untangle the disjunction between universal charity and justice (“Religion and Truth” and “Is Goodness Real?”). To an outsider, it seems the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself invalidates any appeal to what that neighbor is personally due in justice. Islam specifies alms-giving as one of its five pillars, and both Christianity and Judaism regard a tithe, a percentage of income donated to the less fortunate, as just, perhaps as repayment for God’s blessings of prosperity. This seems something of a pragmatic compromise in the case of Christianity, for surely Jesus’ self-sacrifice, the model of Christian love, is rooted in the transparent injustice of giving up his own life for the sins of the world. In any case, the distance between a 10% tithe and the self-abnegation that is at the root of Christian love makes any conjoining of the terms “Christianity” and “social justice” problematic. I would prefer an answer to this question that appeals to moral universalism rather than moral absolutism because reason is more ubiquitous—and more consistent—than a particular religion’s traditions. So let us set aside the precepts of religion in the issue of economic justice in favor of giving to each her due, the very essence of justice and the foundation of virtue ethics. Admittedly, this will prove an insufficient bounty for religionists, but as it is presently underserved, they may regard justice as a preliminary to an economic ethic of charity.

This choice returns us to our conundrum though, for while religious charity and “social justice” may place a high value on active giving, justice insists on a scrupulous adherence to the principle of “what is due,” and that requires more than a bit of wisdom in the arena of distributive justice.

For example, opponents of the “death tax” insist upon its unfairness. But while they may argue that all taxation is theft, they have a stronger case against the income tax than against the inheritance tax. Their logic is that they are entitled to the rewards of their own labor. But it is only hubris and ingratitude, not to mention hypocrisy, to claim that the government that provided the conditions for their capitalist success at its own expense should receive nothing for its labors in providing those conditions. And if they wish to sustain their argument, they can hardly claim that their heirs are due what they have not labored for. I am not arguing for a confiscatory “death tax,” though one could be argued for on the grounds of economic justice. Nothing could better exemplify the principle of the “equal starting line” than an estate tax that redistributes opportunity to each generation. I ask only what capitalists themselves insist upon: that economic rewards should be commensurate with personal achievement, something the scions of the rich cannot claim as easily as their inheritance. But this is only one among innumerable examples of the thorniness of economic justice (see “Income Inequality”).

We may discern three rough categories here. The first identifies economic inequality of kind rooted in undeserved circumstance. The largest single cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical expenses. Children suffer because of their parents’ drug use. Good workers are laid off. The moral resolution for this category is clear to all but the most stringent libertarians: here is a class of people who deserve economic assistance sufficient to produce an equality of kind with their fellow citizens. An equality of degree is an egalitarian dream: unachievable, undesirable, and unjust.

While exploring this first category—and while enjoying what I assume would be wide agreement that economic assistance sufficient to guarantee an equality of kind—we should explore the problems implicit in the state, the aggregate will of its constituent citizenry, providing economic goods to some of its people rather than simply granting them room to procure them for themselves. Make no mistake. Providing for our economic needs is our own responsibility as adults. At least some of the reluctance we all feel about this issue derives from the unseemliness of treating adults as we would treat children: as people unable to provide for their own needs. The very young, the very ill, the very old, the very unlucky: all of those who undeniably qualify for public assistance, whether it be Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance: we all recognize a deficiency in their freedom, one produced by the circumstances that rob them of the ability to do what all adults must do. In these cases, we recognize the moral imperative justice requires, but we also recognize that the costs of providing it involves more than money.

The costs are murkier when considering the second category, an inequality of kind caused in part by circumstance and in part by the responsible individual. What is the statute of limitations on youthful mistakes or poor investment decisions for a worker’s 401K account? Those filing Chapter 7 bankruptcies are “forgiven” their debts after ten years and are allowed to reestablish good credit. We no longer throw scofflaws into debtor’s prisons. Only those too wealthy to notice their own poor economic decisions or extremely cautious or very young consumers can claim not to have made poor money choices. Nearly all economic assistance programs set criteria for qualification and attempt to motivate their beneficiaries to become independent, which is just as it should be and not merely for economic reasons. Because categories one and two are not exclusive, some recipients of public assistance suffer a mix of misfortunes, some circumstantial and others for which they are responsible. But who wishes to suffer the close scrutiny of Big Brother to apportion relative responsibility in these instances? Critics of government assistance seem all too ready to assume that much of it is undeserved. Certainly true, but would they want a government paternalistic enough to ferret out proportional responsibility in cases where misfortune and carelessness are entangled? I suspect a government that intrusive would also earn their ire, so the question becomes whether the decision on public assistance errs on the side of parsimony or generosity, of giving too little or too much. Both would be unjust, but to unjustly deprive people of economic goods they need seems more damaging to me than to unjustly reward some whose hardship was partially their own doing.

Of course, some make their own hard bed. The final category, an inequality of kind caused by the responsible party, includes those who are in financial straits because of big and repeated poor decisions. Gamblers, addicts, criminals, dropouts: people who seem intent on placing their lives on the cliff’s edge also need all the goods that make us human and may illustrate their need for these things more obviously than those in the other categories. Those who play by the rules understandably resent the claims of those in the third category and perhaps the second. Why should they remediate the mistakes of those who refuse to look after their own best interests?

Strictly speaking, justice does not demand that others remedy our own errors, so the argument for economic justice cannot support supplying persons with economic needs that they should provide or should have provided for themselves, for this provision reduces the beneficiary to the status of minors dependent on adults for their sustenance and unjustly deprives those who act responsibly of what is their due. In practice these issues are so contextualized as to require the wisdom of Solomon—the moral issue is dependent on the degree to which the supplicant falls into one of the three categories listed above. That is the variable. The constant in all such cases is the equality of kind all need, and it cannot be negotiated or discounted. As contextualized as each issue is, these same kinds of situational appeals to the standard of justice are a constant feature of our judicial system. No federal regulations can guarantee justice in every situation, but just as justice is the unvarying aim in civil and criminal cases, so should it be the continual objective in the arena of distributive justice. But consider how clearly positive law defines justice in civil and criminal law and how contentious such definitions become in regard to economic goods!

I think the reason issues like these are often painfully opaque is our confusion about the nature of economic justice. Notions of fairness introduce unnecessary complexity into this dispute since fairness must arbitrate one’s due relative to another’s, and that is a quagmire. Justice concerns itself with the satisfaction of needs, equalities of kind, and leaves issues of fairness to the inequalities of degree that regulate fairness. That distinction eases the calculus somewhat, though it still compels us to face squarely the injustice of providing economic goods to those whose poor choices left them in need. I suppose we could apply a Dickensian standard to such decisions as a community, never forgive lapses of personal judgment, and as a consequence allow people to live without the satisfaction of their human needs. This was the kind of thinking that moved Immanuel Kant to advocate for the death penalty: people deserve the consequences of choices freely made no matter how dire. But I am troubled by the easy use of “freely” in such cases. And here we face an issue that the criminal courts have confronted for half a century, one guaranteed by the human sciences’ blurring of the meaning of “freedom.” The courts still act as though persons are completely responsible for their criminal conduct, yet face testimony from criminologists, sociologists, psychologists, and social workers that explicitly call that freedom into doubt. We stand on the threshold of a whole new wave of neurological and genetic evidence that will further cloud what once was the cornerstone of criminal trials: that persons are responsible for their actions because they are free to choose otherwise. All of morality rests on this preferential freedom, and the ad hoc efforts to weigh limits on this freedom in order to apportion relative responsibility in terms of guilt and sentencing has hardly clarified the issue (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). The essence of all issues of justice is that persons get what they are due, but curtailed freedom means curtailing responsibility, so what is due in questions of both retributive and distributive justice becomes much more difficult to apportion. To what degree do we hold persons who have failed to exercise prudence in the satisfaction of their own needs responsible for that failure?

Ironically, it is political conservatives who carry the banner of Enlightenment liberalism in this quest, upholding the eighteenth century concept of individual responsibility. Political liberals are much more influenced by postmodern notions of group identity and the social creation of personal consciousness, and so they find it difficult to allocate the degree of freedom and therefore responsibility that influences behavior. The difference between the conservative view and the liberal one does not arise in regard to the first category I discussed earlier because both sides hold harmless the individual in need. Only doctrinaire libertarians would disagree that these persons should receive public assistance. The second category presents more gradations of personal responsibility and freedom, though in times of plenty, both sides might see the justice in public assistance simply because the hardships that require it are partly the result of fate, not fault. Both sides would disagree on the constituents and the justice involved in the third group, though. Conservatives seem to think most of “the 47%,” those who receive some government assistance, are malingerers and frauds working the system, members of the third category who do not deserve a safety net. Am I wrong to think they would feel more generous to the other two groups? There seems nothing but anecdotal evidence on either side of this debate. Reliable statistics seem much harder to find than rancid stories, but certainly the qualifications for all kinds of assistance are designed to winnow out those who cheat the system.

The current level of distrust indicates they could use some improvement. One disturbing aspect of the Affordable Care Act is the requirement that emotional and mental disturbances be treated the same as physical ailments for purposes of insurance coverage, but when this allows a flood of applicants to claim Social Security Disability Benefits, can anyone blame conservatives for crying foul, considering how imprecise and changeable these human science diagnoses of such problems as depression are? On the other side, liberals rightly point the finger at corporate America’s opposition to raising the minimum wage to a livable amount. Many of the working poor require government assistance not because they don’t work hard but because their employers have transferred the responsibility for meeting their economic needs to the government.

My own preference in these questions is probably in line with most other citizens. I prefer to err on the side of generosity if our resources permit it, if only because I know how common it is to make mistakes in life, how hard to see their nature in the moment and how easy in retrospect. But even if applied more strictly than I am comfortable with, the application of “kind” and “degree” to questions of economic justice would provide much-needed clarity to the debate.


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