Social Justice

Some responses

To Jacob:

1. You can think social justice matters without claiming  that social justice (or even justice more broadly) is the first virtue of institutions.

2. I don’t take it for granted that “society” is co-extensive with the modern nation-state. Contrary to Rawls or Sam Freeman, I think immigration restrictions violate social justice.  Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world. From my point of view, if you oppose free immigration (or something very close to it), then it had better be because you have an empirical disagreement with me about the expected consequences of free immigration. Otherwise, any claim to be concerned about social justice or the well being of the poor is mere pretense.


To Bryan:

I have the same intuitions you have about your specified case. Note that many on the left would agree with you. John Rawls’s difference principle applies only to able-bodied workers who are in fact contributing to the economy. People who lack the ability to do productive work aren’t covered. Even Stuart White, a modern-day Marxist, argues that justice forbids the weak from forcing the competent to provide for them. He actively argues against enslaving the able.

Unlike Rawls, I think that people have strong economic rights.  As a matter of basic justice, people have the right to acquire, hold, use, give, and in many cases destroy personal property. They may decide what to eat, drink, and wear, and determine what kinds of entertainment and cultural experiences they will consume. They may acquire wealth for themselves or for others. They have the right to enter into a wide range of contracts for the exchange of goods and services. They may enter into and negotiate employment contracts (including wage rates, hours worked, working conditions, and so on) as they see fit. They may decide for themselves how to balance leisure and work. They may choose to join unions or not. They may manage their households as they see fit. They may create things for sale. They have the right to start, manage, and stop businesses, to sell franchises in such businesses, and to run such businesses for their own private ends in the way they regard as best. This includes the right to form certain kinds of joint ventures, including certain kinds of corporations and workers’ cooperatives. They may own private property in the means of production and develop property for productive purposes. They may acquire, lend, take risks with, and profit from capital and financial instruments. They have the right to determine their own long-term financial plans, including retirement saving and investments in certain forms of insurance.

I understand these as strong prima facie rights, rather than absolute rights. I also agree with David Hume, Adam Smith, F. A. Hayek, and many people on the left that property rights and economic rights are largely conventional. That is, though we are owed these rights as a matter of basic justice, there are many different ways to realize these abstract rights in the real world. Consider questions such as: If a plane flies over my property, when does that count as trespassing? If I end up buying all the land around someone else’s property, is that person then entitled to cross my land without my permission? Under what conditions? Can a person put his own body up as collateral on a loan? If a ship comes to port two days late due to a bad storm, and thus delivers goods late, does that count as reneging on a contract for delivery? How many times can stolen property be transferred until the final holder no longer has an obligation to return it to the original owner? (Look up “holder in due course”.) Under what conditions exactly does a person forfeit property through lack of us or through adverse possession? And so on. If you read the history of the common law or, say, Elinor Ostrom’s work, you see that there have been many different ways of realizing property rights throughout history. Some of these conventions produce better consequences than others. Some property conventions allow us to live together in peace, while others produce conflict. Some produce prosperity, while others do not. Some property conventions solve problems, while others cause them.

So, suppose there is a particular set of property rights, commercial laws, and other economic institutions X. Suppose X counts as a laissez faire capitalist regime, though there are alternative sets of conventions that also count as laissez faire capitalist regimes. Now, suppose that whenever we instantiate X, we get the following result. (Or, suppose we can predict ahead of time that we would tend to get the following result.)

Marxist Nightmare: As successive generations live under X, a small number of able-bodied entrepreneurs capture more and more of the wealth. Eventually, after a few generations, a tiny minority of people own almost everything, while the remainder have almost nothing. The majority are skilled and able. However, they have no real opportunity to acquire wealth. Instead, the minority offers them subsistence level wages. The majority must either accept these wages or die of starvation. And so it goes on, forever. Generation after generation of able-bodied, competent people are born into a world where a small minority owns almost everything. They have no opportunities and lead miserable lives.

If X tended to cause the Marxist nightmare, I’d say that’s good reason not to instantiate or live by X. It would be good reason to look for an alternative set of property/contract/commercial/economic conventions Y that 1) is compatible with our basic rights of economic liberty, and 2) which doesn’t cause such results.

Some caveats:

  1. Don’t interpret Marxist Nightmare as a complaint about inequality. I think income (or wealth) equality has no intrinsic value.
  2. I’m not arguing Marxist Nightmare is realistic. Like most people who have studied economics, I think Marxists are wrong about how economies work. The issue at hand isn’t a social scientific one but a moral one. The question is what we should think about X if X did systematically produce such bad results. A conventional libertarian would have to say, “Ah, no big deal.” A classical liberal like Adam Smith or a bleeding heart libertarian would say, “X sucks.”
  3. Note that in saying X is a bad system, I am not thereby saying that once in X, we should have a government intervene and redistribute all the wealth. Principles of social justice are meant to identify which systems are good or bad. They are not on their own meant to tell us what to do when we are currently living in a bad system. Sure, if we’re living in an unjust system, all things equal, we should try to instantiate a just system. However, there may be no way of doing that without committing worse injustices.