On Economic Justice
Who should get how much?
Who deserves how much money?
How do we decide?
It is, I believe, nonsense to say that deserve whatever we happen to earn. The value of our money is not something which is reliant on us as individuals, but is based instead on the productive capacity of our society, something which individuals have almost nothing to do with. Being born in America or Belgium is worth much more than being born in Nigeria or Bangladesh. You didn’t choose your parents, you didn’t choose your upraising, you can’t be said to “deserve” much if anything as a result.
People whose parents are poor don’t get into university as much as those whose parents are wealthier, nor do they graduate as often. Being lower on the socio-economic stratum reduces performance independent of ability, as the Spirit Level documents. As the joke about George Bush ran, he was born on 3rd base and thought he hit a triple. But the concept applies to so many of us.
Deserve is a very slippery word.
Perhaps we deserve more if we contribute more to society? If this is the case then we can only look at, say, the bankers and brokers of Wall Street, Bay Street and Fleet Street and say “they don’t deserve their money”, because they damaged the world economic system, damage which caused many people to lose their homes, caused food inflation and hunger, and certainly led to many deaths and much suffering which would not have occured otherwise. Financialization of the economy gave them great rewards at great cost to many of their fellow citizens. And it required trillions of dollars to bail them out, and even after they were bailed out, the damage they did was not undone.
Only by the most debased principles can, say, bankers, be said to deserve their money, the same principle that lead Thucydides to write that the strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must. The same principles that say anything someone can steal or take, they deserve.
Is that justice? Does that create a society we want to live in? As we have, more and more, come to believe that people deserve to keep whatever they make, however they make it (as evinced by the erosion of progressive taxation), has it made our societies better places to live?
And, to go back to the initial point about the value of money being social and not individual, does it make sense to say an individual “deserves” their money when most of what their money is worth is created by other people?
As I’ve said before, too many jobs today do harm, do evil, rather than good. The health insurance industry in the US makes its money essentially by denying care. Hydrocarbon companies actively stand in the way of stopping climate change. Many food companies produce food which they know leads to diabetes, obesity and chronic disease.
These jobs, these industries, actively decrease the well-being of individuals and of society. They decrease the real value of money, because money which cannot buy well-being is worse than worthless, it is actively harmful.
Who does more harm to society, someone on welfare, or a banker who contributed to the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression? Who deserves more? I find it hard to say that the banker deserves more than the person on welfare, for he or she has done vastly more harm. Perhaps the banker works harder, but is working harder to do harm so praiseworthy? Is it worthy of reward?
No compassionate society can base distribution of money or goods entirely on contribution to society. If we say that those who don’t contribute deserve nothing, we move quickly into dystopic territory, because someone who receives no goods, dies. If we take the harm principle too seriously, we could easily move into a scenario where we would find the arguments for killing those who do harm overwhelmingly strong. And make no mistake, those in power, private or powerful, can do more harm than almost any garden-variety criminal can. Even a serial killer doesn’t kill as many people as a bad policy can.
Justice recognizes that so much of what we are, so much of what we do, is based on circumstances. Humans are malleable, most people, under the wrong circumstances, will do the wrong thing. Most people, under the right circumstances, will do the right thing, too. That does not mean that we can tolerate too much of the wrong thing, it does not mean we say “oh, they couldn’t help themselves”, it simply means that we put the emphasis on correction, not vengeance; it simply means that we are compassionate, as we would hope others would be compassionate to us.
So we give a good living to those who contribute little, we correct those who do harm, if necessary through criminal sanctions, but better by finding work for them where their talents can do good, not harm. We do not allow major industries which do more harm than good. We recognize that people do change, and someone who is not contributing as much as we might want right now may contribute more in the future.
Knowing that most of the value of money is not individual, that even the most rewarded are rewarded because of the society and times he lives in, we put a cap on rewards.
(Note: There is much more to say about economic justice.)