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 two concepts: equality of opportunity and fairness. One cannot commit to both. Their relationship is an inverse one. Inequality of outcome 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. How can unequal outcomes not cause unequal opportunity? But the fair and equal starting line cannot be maintained as persons pursue their desires with varying skill and persistence, using varying natural capabilities in varying environments.

What this implies for economic justice is disturbing, for no rebalancing of the scales can long forestall the inequalities of outcome that must naturally arise as persons of unequal ability chase their golden rings. Defenders of the status quo will respond with two different arguments, though they often deal with them as one and the same: that disparities reflect fair differentials a neutral playing field must allow or that they are unavoidable, and therefore beyond repair by government or economic system. I wish to argue against both of these positions.

I hope it is obvious that the goal should not be an equality of outcomes. Though an absolute equality seems to be the dream of egalitarians, no such arrangement will long survive. Those states that have attempted it have had to bring the full force of totalitarian power to the task of equalizing goods, and even with the kinds of blunt trauma inflicted by the early Soviet Union or Mao’s China, equality proved difficult to achieve and impossible to sustain. So an absolute equality of degree in outcomes is more nightmare than dream. Defenders of unrestricted capitalism take perhaps too much pleasure in the failures of egalitarian states, pointing to them as proof that the invisible hand should be allowed to pick economic winners and losers and that nothing further can be done or should be attempted. As usual, they overplay their hand, for they extend their argument to the ridiculous extent of claiming government should not be in the business of “picking winners and losers” when even a casual examination will prove that every government contract or appropriation of funds does exactly that. And when government is 19% of the economy in the U.S., picking economic winners and losers is well within its purview. The question is how such picking affects allocations of societal goods. Clearly government can do that. The question devolves to whether government ought to, so then some means of deciding goodness must be brought into the discussion (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”). In a very short while, that question must move conversation to the ends that government serves, making it a moral issue (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“).

By now, the defenders of the invisible hand have surrendered one of their arguments: that nothing can be done about inequality of opportunity. Their laissez faire approach rankles both reason and moral judgment, so they then retreat to the fallback position that they have mixed with their original denial of even considering inequality of opportunity a problem. This at least moves the argument into the realm of preferential freedom: proponents of government intervention as well as their libertarian opponents take the argument up a notch, elevating it if only a little.  Egalitarians claim that gross disparities that privilege the haves are more than simply the rule of fate. They are unfair.  Capitalist defenders deflect that charge right back to them, arguing that progressive taxation, inheritance taxes, and the other encroachments on their economic liberty are also unfair. That argument goes nowhere. Let’s examine why.

Wealthy citizens will assert that progressive taxation, for instance, is not fair. One might appeal to the contributive and retributive actions of government that allow the wealthy to prosper as the opportunity cost of their success requiring that they give back to maintain government on those grounds alone.  Or one might observe that inherited wealth is inherently unfair in the tradition of equality of opportunity offered earlier that is the grand narrative of capitalist enterprise. When the starting line is advanced for some and retarded for others, who can claim it to be fair? But that effort, like the libertarian response to it, relies on factors that cannot be known or calculated and so cannot be gauged for fairness. The recent focus on privilege as an ingrained obstacle to opportunity only carries force if the continuing prejudice or its legacy throughout the system deprives persons of their shot at flourishing. Egalitarians make a convincing case for just that level of deprivation, especially considering traditional inequities and contractarian deformities (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”). They argue that entire groups of persons have been treated unfairly over the entire history of modernism, and the remnant harms of all of these disparities persist. They argue these generational deprivations are also unfair to those whose subsidiarity has been affected.

A simple example should suffice to make their point. Consider the relative wealth of white families versus families of color based purely on equity in their homes. Before World War II, New Deal efforts at urban renewal were achieved in part through public housing, pushing second generation descendants of slaves who were already discriminated against and suffering the legacy of slavery into urban renewal projects. After the war, the VA and FHA mortgage financing agencies monitored by the U.S. government allowed white veterans to build in the burgeoning suburbs while loans to black citizens were actively discouraged or denied. These homes became a stable source of modest wealth for white families to meet their families’ needs that history, prejudice, and government policy denied to black families.  Racist governmental policies were furthered in the private sector by hundreds of thousands of homeowners well into the 1970’s who violated equal housing laws to avoid selling to persons of color. These actively racist behaviors continue to this day in the resegregation of schools and neighborhoods, and their effects linger in the differences in total family wealth for whites and persons of color.

These kinds of generational disparities were founded upon just the kinds of identity stereotypes that postmodernists use in their quest for an absolute equality of degree. They object to biases against persons of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities: all of the victims of contractarian majorities and institutional authority. What are the generational impacts of the kinds of broad disparities that housing bias perpetrated on persons of color? How does government, the collective will of strangers-writ-large, redress these grievances?

The postmodern answer must be framed in egalitarian terms, and that requires establishing fairness as the redress. That is a grave mistake. To explain why, I must clearly distinguish fairness from justice, a distinction that includes separating equality from equity. Failing to understand the difference must discourage a search for distributive justice as surely as libertarian and contractarian ideals will.

Whereas justice considers what persons are due as an equality of kind — it requires that everyone have enough of all goods to satisfy needs —  fairness requires an equal allocation of one to the other, a balancing of the scales. Justice is possible in distributions, fairness is not, at least in polities in which the individual is the measure of its achievement. Historically, unfairness has been applied to stereotyped groups: women, persons of color, immigrants. When it is, it produces injustices, for the members of those groups are denied what they are due. It seems intuitively true that correcting that injustice must then reverse the deprivations to the group by advantaging all of its members so as to rebalance the scales, viewed as one group in relation to the other. But while efforts like affirmative action based on race will establish a rough group redress, it will simultaneously also produce individual unfairness. And quite naturally the members of privileged groups now being deprived of their advantages will think themselves unfairly deprived so as to rebalance the scales to make distributions fairer to formerly deprived groups. The egalitarian view is that persons deprived of privilege think the remedies unfair. The libertarian view is that it is unfair, for it paints them with the broad brush of group identity rather than as moral agents who contribute to the problem in varying degrees. While the prejudice that produced the problem was a group deprivation and produced the initial unfairness to each member of the group, the egalitarian solution of group responsibility must perpetuate unfairness not to the groups whose broad social contours are rebalanced but to the individuals within them on both sides of the argument. Contractarians correctly think the unit of civil responsibility is not the group — though groups were unfairly privileged or deprived by that same contractarian majoritarianism they value — but the individual citizen. Their position is clearly hypocritical, but beneath the switch in calculus from group to individual (they seem quite content to deprive entire groups while viewing their own privilege in terms of individual merit) is a valid appeal to fairness to individuals who are, after all, the atomic unit of demcoracies. They use this appeal to fairness to thwart egalitarian appeals for redress, appeals necessitated by the group stereotypes and prejudices that contractarians were happy to inflict on individual members of oppressed groups. That was clearly both unfair and unjust. But redressing these group offenses by group redress is also unfair, this time to individuals. So contractarians stall, resist, denigrate, and deny egalitarian reforms because these cannot be fair to individual citizens, and they point out, correctly, that the moral unit of agency is the individual, not the group. Their response, like the government they appeal to, is a modernist one. Postmodernists correctly point out the residue of authoritarian and majoritarian unfairness targeted at numbers of individuals because of their membership in the group, the remnant disparities that undoubtedly remain, not to mention that active prejudices that lie beneath the surface, and insist that group unfairness can only be repaired by remediating institutional privileges derived from the original bias. Like Dr. King in Birmingham, they seek justice (see “When is Civil Disobedience Justified?). But in seeking it through fairness, they must deny it and will find themselves thwarted. Justice can never be achieved by seeking fairness, for justice is tied to moral agency, and that is an individual attribute whose exercise justifies participation in government.  In a democracy, group remedies like the group prejudices that seem to require them must be unjust because they ignore what is due to the individuals involved. The attempt to establish it at that granular level must fail. Five factors necessary to calculating fairness cannot be known.

Egalitarians cite the unfairness of the social, legal, and cultural biases for those who were actively deprived or advantaged or who inherited the warped institutional frameworks that perpetuate them. These kinds of calculations are both historical and contemporary and their implications monstrous. Call these systemic factors. Redress might be thought possible because the discriminations that produced them were also systemic and so may be thought amenable a similar group response in remediation. This is the argument of slavery reparations and racial affirmative action efforts.

But when we start adding and subtracting so as to determine systemic exploitation and deprivation, we find other considerations quickly rear their heads, and these have to be factored in if a fair outcome for the group is to be achieved. The effects of Jim Crow laws on persons of color are capable of our access because they targeted groups, but as in the housing example above, what about the rippling effects to the familial circles of the moral bullseye for those deprived and those advantaged? How do we factor in the tangential and generational effects equally disparative? All those privileged veterans paid their mortgages and cared for their property. Aren’t these also to be considered systemic effects of fairness calculations that must affect what they are due? How can systemic factors be balanced on the scales of comparison of one side to the other at the level of group privilege and disparity unless these are factored into  considerations for each group, never mind the individual ?

When we begin looking at even the most blatant institutional prejudice, other factors also affect fairness and social rewards. We’d have to factor in the crippling effects of illness, age, infirmity, and simple bad fortune that all influence preferential freedom to advantage or deprivation, for these factors surely influence the degree of deprivation or advantage that result from systemic factors and are hardly distributed fairly. But these then must introduce even more individual attributes that collectively affect preference that surely cannot be tabulated. Call all of these personal issues that variously affect all members of each group under consideration in incalculable but real ways. These are the slings and arrows of personal misfortune.

Then subtract from them the total X factor of deterministic causation so beloved of the human sciences whose theories try to explain motivation and mental processing. We ought not reward or punish persons for behaviors they are not responsible for. While nature and nurture work their influence on preferential freedom, no one now living can calculate it or correlate it with other causal factors in individuals’ choosing, yet we think it does have some effects. Again, no one can determine its influence on preference.

Then add that some persons suffer the kind of preferential failures that used to be called sin, the domination of virtue by vice. Postmodernists are unclear on the relation of preferential features to determinist ones, though any identity politics must favor environmental determinism. They are correct to charge privilege with thinking itself virtuous for unearned advantage, but how is the effect of that on preference to be fairly decided? Isn’t privilege as cultural determinant in their schema as deprivation? Call these moral issues, but remember to relate them to the deterministic, systemic, and personal factors that affect, cause, or may be distinct from them.

If the effects of each of these four factors is itself unknowable, then surely the final factor produced by their interactive effects must be beyond not only our calculations but even our imagining.

These limiting factors to calculating fairness are hardly exotic. We all see them playing out in our own lives, so why do egalitarians wish to accomplish an equality of degree that can never be achieved nor even calculated? Why seek what can never be found and in that futile effort frustrate the justice that they claim as their goal? Libertarians and defenders of privilege appeal to fairness because they sense the moral maze that appeal puts us all in. No fair equality of opportunity can ever be found by even the most careful consideration of individual merit, and while egalitarians attempt the impossible task of calculating it, privilege continues its traditional exploitations, resisting just reforms in the name of a moral standard no expert can conceive and no government can achieve. Blame this on the pretensions and fallacies of the human sciences that seek to subject human preferential freedom to an empirical determinism it can never accept. Egalitarians embrace the possibility, but it is a chimera. Any reliance on a comparative calculus based upon fairness of relative merit among individuals  will collapse into endless dispute, 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 (see “The Riddle of Equality”).

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 (see “Needs and Rights”)?

A core argument of functional natural rights theory is that all needs are also rights, and these include economic needs (see “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. We might begin with issues of utility, but before we go too far, we will see this question as 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 liberties of degree wherein variations of economic rewards can be justified by variations in ability or effort, again so long as all are haves in the satisfaction of their human needs. 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 because of the factors affecting fairness of distributions previously mentioned. 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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