Equality and Social Justice

Since a recent posting about this topic created some discussion, I thought I’d address it more fully.
A local newspaper (Metroland) recently reported a study indicating that conservatives and Republicans profess greater happiness than liberals and Democrats. (The headline: “Happy assholes.”) The story suggested “that conservatives are able to rationalize economic and social inequalities that trouble the conscience of liberals.” As evidenced by some of the blog postings, some on the Left do seem to believe they alone possess consciences and compassion, while conservatives care only for themselves.
The philosopher John Rawls, in his book A Theory of Justice, urged achieving equality by focusing on all those born in unfavorable circumstances or with lesser native assets and trying to fix all those deficits. He posed the question of what kind of society you’d choose under a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing beforehand how well off (or not) you’d be. According to polls, most liberals believe a person’s life is shaped mainly by that kind of luck, whereas conservatives think it’s merit and action. Rawls and liberals feel that success is really an arbitrary roll of the dice, so fairness requires equalizing outcomes, while conservatives see that as unfairly negating what people’s talents and efforts deservedly achieve. This helps explain why liberals report being less happy—they see the world as more irredeemably unjust.
In truth, success in life is molded by both factors, luck and pluck, intertwined, and it’s impossible to untangle them for any individual, let alone for a society. It’s been said that the key to success is to choose your parents well, and that’s the element of luck liberals mainly have in mind. Yet many born with such advantages squander them while many born without them nevertheless do prosper through ability, hard work, enterprise, and drive.
But having personal qualities like enterprise and drive is also lucky in a sense, which renders problematical the idea of rectifying outcomes produced by luck. Not only being born rich, but also such attributes as artistic talent, athletic prowess, physical beauty, or entrepreneurial ingenuity are, likewise, matters of luck, the results of a great cosmic lottery. Does trying to level that playing field make sense?
Many advocates of “social justice” hold that wealth ultimately must have come from force, manipulation, exploitation, or other rip-offs, so that the rich are culpably responsible for the plight of the poor. If you are reading this, your wealth and income are probably in the top few percent globally. Did you get there by ripping off the world’s poor? Or mainly through a career that contributed to society and human betterment, for which you were paid, or profited, deservedly? That’s where wealth mostly comes from—not ill-gotten gains. (And corporate profits too, by and large, come not from rip-offs, but rather from products and services people willingly pay for because they add value to their lives.)
Thus it’s wrong to talk here in terms of social “justice.” The concept of justice does not apply. A poor person’s situation may be unjust, or it may not be, but in any case is unacceptable, and society’s helping him is not a matter of justice, it’s instead simply humane. Compassion toward the poor needn’t hinge on how deserving they are (which is anyway an impossible judgment); everyone should have a minimally decent life.
However, what a level playing field should mean is that the same rules apply for everyone—not that everyone is somehow made equal in capability so they all will achieve the same score. Of course, that cannot be done by strengthening the weaker players so much as by hobbling the stronger ones. Society does not gain by trying to squelch people with talent and drive, cut them down to size, or redistribute away the fruits of their efforts. Instead, we are all best served if such individuals have the maximum scope and incentive to make the most of their gifts. That is how to capitalize upon and let everyone benefit from the prizes doled out by the cosmic lottery.
Rawls argues that the “veil of ignorance” implies that any social contract must be egalitarian, because in establishing one, nobody would agree to being disadvantaged for the benefit of others. However, in an open society, the risk of such disadvantage is worth taking because the potential benefit is greater. Even in a “veil of ignorance,” rational people would accept inequality if that means better outcomes on average. Imagine choosing between two lottery tickets: one has a guaranteed $5 payoff; the other might pay zero, but most payoffs are $20. You would choose the second because the risk of not getting at least $5 is outweighed by the greater likelihood of getting $20.
And there’s my answer to Rawls’s question. I would pick the society in which the greatest number of people have the greatest opportunity to flourish. That means one with the greatest possible freedom—not one misguidedly seeking an egalitarian utopia by warring against all human inequality. In the latter kind of society we’d all be poor—because it would require virtually totalitarian coercion and confiscation, negating the incentive to be productive. Rawls (like many on the Left) is greatly concerned with societal distribution of goods and wealth, but not with the role of productive effort in creating those goodies. Instead, they are seen as just somehow materializing for distribution. No variants of the words “produce” or “work” or “creativity” even appear in the index of his fat book!
Ultimately, equality of economic outcomes is the wrong goal. The correct aim, instead, is to provide equality of rights, equality before the law, and equality of opportunity. And that is attainable without curtailing anyone else’s rights, without taking anything from anyone. There is far more social and economic justice in a free market where people benefit from their contributions than in a system that seeks equality through coercion and confiscation, stripping society’s productive members of the fruits of their sweat. That is no way to achieve any justice worthy of the name.
Capitalism is often portrayed as sacrificing some people, in a cold-hearted utilitarian calculus, leaving them behind in order to benefit the rest. No economic system will ever work to the benefit of everyone. But capitalism actually at least comes closest. It does give everyone at least the opportunity to thrive. And the overall richer society produced is better, even for the losers, than some egalitarian paradise of equal poverty.

5 Responses to “Equality and Social Justice”

  1. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Frank, I certainly agree with you in principle on this matter. Our democracy is founded on the right of equal opportunity, which does not necessarily mean equal achievement or standing in life. Much of the controversy arises, I believe, over how to achieve this equal opportunity in a fair and efficient way, without subsidizing those unwilling to try to raise their own economic or social status.

    There are still barriers in our society that prevent some people of ability from prospering as they might. Racial, ethnic, and other prejudices still exist, although I’ve seen a significant reduction of these in my lifetime, with the latest event being a black presidential nominee. Until these prejudices are ceremoniously buried once and for all, tensions over the question of economic/social equality will continue to simmer, I would guess.

    It is important that the barriers between social classes in this country be extremely porous. For the USA to prosper, we must allow the cream to rise to the top, so to speak, so the best of us become our political and business leaders of the future. For this reason, I’m in favor, for one thing, of an estate tax — to avoid the formation of a class of idle rich running the country. I don’t see this happening under the type of policies propagated by the current administration. Personally, I’m looking for change.

  2. John Howard Says:

    Well written and very concise, considering everything you address in one post, Frank. You are taking a utilitarian view of the issue rather than a principled view. You are chosing a system based on the results it tends to produce.

    I agree with the soundness of your argument, but I prefer to choose on principle and let the results fall where they may. The only legitimate political power is 100% over oneself and 0% over anyone else. Government, though intended to level the playing field, is nearly always and inevitably used for the exact opposite — to benefit insiders and those with political pull at the expense of the politically impotent, whether it be pork projects or regulation, favoring certain factions at the expense of others. It is a rotten system that enjoys support only by the connected and the gullible.

    I oppose every form of taxation in the same way that I oppose theft, armed robbery, and every other form of initiated coercion. It makes no difference if the person demanding my property wears a hooded mask or wears a tie and an official looking badge, and it does not matter if the person demanding my property desires my property for himself or desires my property for another person whom he or anyone else believes deserves my property. Taxation and theft are both a process of taking property from whomever it belongs and giving property to whomever it does not belong.

    Like Gregory Kipp, I am looking for change. But I seek the libertarian change of Ron Paul, not the activist government change of Barak Obama which I believe will simply benefit a different mob of insiders.

    FSR COMMENT: Both utilitarian AND principled, I think. But in a democratic society taxation per se is not the same as theft. It is part of the social contract; we agree to accept some strictures in return for the protection of the law. But that doesn’t mean taxation can’t be abused. Taxation should be used to support government’s protective functions. But if there is a societal consensus that no one should go hungry (irrespective of any “justice” considerations, but, again, from simple humaneness) then I think it is OK for taxes to be levied to implement that.

  3. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Choosing one’s position on principle is something we all do. But sometimes principles conflict. In principle, I want all taxes to be eliminated because they are a drain on productivity. But also in principle, I want the federal government to perform certain important functions, e.g. protecting the environment via national efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, or assuring equal opportunity by outlawing actions stemming from racial prejudices. Emphasizing one principle over another can lead to trouble by skewing the balance.

    Perhaps the most important principle we need to remember is the principle of balance. Extreme application of any one principle is bad. Considered application of various valid principles in a balanced way is good. Let’s face it, we all have a libertarian streak in us and don’t like being told what to do by “big brother.” But if the libertarian principles were applied to the extreme, we would have near anarchy and no national or global efforts to combat problems like global warming. There would probably be a lot less political polarization in this country if people spoke about how to balance their competing principles rather than taking some extreme position emphasizing their own favored ones.

  4. B. Peterson Says:

    Frank, in theory your position is sound. However, it will NEVER be the case that society creates rules and conditions that fully facilitate your predicted outcomes. Your argument that our society is an example of the best one around might be sound, but it is NOT the utopia that you cite as the desired end result.

    The Danes are happier as a group than the Americans, according to some recent research cited on 60 MINUTES. This research compares apples to oranges, in my opinion, but I will use it anyway. In MY situation, I would have been far better off living in Denmark, as I have 2 college degrees, $200,000 in college debt, but no professional employment prospects anywhere in the US. So… I want social justice!

    (FSR COMMENT: Why is it “social justice” for you to get what you want, because you happen to want it?!)

    There are thousands of people in the US who have a job that I could do and who can’t competently perform their job.

    (FSR COMMENT: Life is unfair. Rawls wanted to make it fair. So did Marx. Good luck.)

    The government educated me, it loaned me the money to pay for my education, but then it decided that it served no legitimate social purpose to guarantee that I became employed afterwards.

    Utopia is a great idea and a great goal. Reality is where we all must live. I am optimistic that I can still have an enjoyable life. I sell money because it makes me feel rich. I’d love to buy one of the new Zimbabwe $50,000,000,000 notes, even though it will only buy about 2 loves of bread over there. I also see the possibility that WE will be issuing $50,000,000,000 notes in the near future.


  5. American Inequality « The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] of wealth and income. I’ve given this a lot of thought (as evidenced by previous blog postings: June 21, 2008 & May 11, […]

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