Topic: Decline of the West
“Economic justice” is one of those expressions that dance trippingly on the tongue. It’s a favorite with certain progressive thinkers—for example, those who greeted the Occupy Wall Street movement with hosannas and waving palm branches. But like so much contemporary political terminology there’s rather less to it than meets the ear—nothing, in fact. “Economic justice” is a term that cannot be swallowed by anybody with an understanding of (a) economics and (b) justice. Let’s take (a) first.
What is the function of an economic system? Whether it’s capitalist or socialist, hunter-gatherer or post-industrial, an economic system has but one function: the allocation of resources. As we know (but often forget) resources are finite and have alternate uses. Take the labor of human hands. There’s only so much of it available and it can be allocated to any number of uses. Labor can be used to build houses or hospitals, boats or baseball bats. It can be used to drill for oil, dig for gold, grow wheat or raise cattle. And the more labor that’s devoted to one task, the less there is for other tasks. The same is true of material resources like coal, oil, iron ore, wood, etc. The process by which these things are allocated is what we call economics. In a pure market economy the so-called invisible hand allocates resources; in a pure socialist economy the Ministry of Centralized Economic Planning does it. In reality most economies are an amalgam, purposeful or not, of the market and the ministry. Here the market predominates, there the ministry has the major say—but somehow, in some way, resources have got to be allocated.
And what is (b) justice? We think we know but when it comes to a precise definition things get vague. Is it fairness? Impartiality? Does it demand that virtue be rewarded while evil is punished? It implies all of these things, sure. But is justice in the natural order of things? Is it a solid, inescapable principle, akin to the economic principle that resources are finite and have alternate uses? Not even close.
Justice is a pure product of the human intellect that has no reality outside the human mind. Its existence depends on a societal consensus, e.g. that a person accused of a crime should be deemed innocent until found guilty by a jury of his peers. Now of course there are people who will claim that human beings are entitled to justice because they’re made in the image of God, possess natural rights as human beings, etc. These claims may or may not be true but as a practical matter justice cannot exist independently of societal consensus. If society gives up on the idea of innocence until guilt is proved, if the law ceases to embody that idea—out it goes.
Nor is justice cosmic, by which I mean all-embracing either in principle or in fact. Certainly the natural world operates on no principle of justice. Nor does humanity embrace a single standard of justice. We in the West think we have it figured out. But elsewhere in the world there are societies that not only ignore Western standards of justice in practice but reject them in principle. At the point of delivery justice is merely a package of defined benefits, e.g. the civil liberties spelled out in the American Bill of Rights.
Economics, then, is part of the natural order of things: an integral component of human society. Whatever its form an economic system has just one function: the allocation of finite resources. It does not embody and cannot produce justice. Whatever we define as “economic justice”—the minimum wage, the right to a job, the guarantee of a basic standard of living—is really just a package of defined benefits. It is what we say it is, nothing more and nothing less.
So for all the sonorous nobility with which it's sounded, the term “economic justice” always comes down to a case of special pleading: that my wages should be raised, that my student loans should be forgiven, that my health insurance should be provided free and so on and so forth. That such demands imply tradeoffs—that more economic justice for me means less for thee—is an inescapable fact of life that is usually ignored or denied. Because they are neither fair nor impartial, measures of economic justice violate our understanding of what is just. That we ignore the violation is a sad commentary on human nature. But you know something? It’s a just commentary…