by David McCarthy
In last month’s column I wrote about a very general concept that I termed Liberation Economics. In many ways, this whole idea comes from a yearning, an expectation, and an inspiration about what is right, and what is possible. It is, in fact, a yearning for economic justice. It is not going to work to simply talk about outcomes and expectations and express our dissatisfaction with the way things are. Neither is it enough, of course, just to talk about the theory of economic justice. But unless we develop a coherent, shared narrative about economic justice as our starting point, we will probably stumble over the details—or, for that matter, our own anger and confusion.
With that in mind, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the subject, with the caveat that they certainly fall short of a fully developed theory.
First, justice should be based on ethics, more so than on hypothetical reasoning. Most of the early social science thinking behind theories of justice is based on hypothetical constructs. For example, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) spoke of an implicit contract people made with a monarchical ruler to bring them out of a state of barbaric anarchy. Later, a school of thought called utilitarianism based its reasoning on the idea that happiness could somehow be quantified and added up in a mathematical way, and decisions made on the basis of what brought the most happiness to the most people. Without dismissing these thinkers or schools of thought (Hobbes was one of the pioneers of the idea of individual rights and freedoms), we can agree that basing justice on ethics leads to a much more direct perspective on the subject. An ethical model for justice takes notions like fairness, harm versus benefit, and opportunity as qualitative factors, not as quasi-scientific quantities. And ethics can be traced back to a respect for cause and effect, as well as a sense of kindness or compassion, both of which arise from basic intelligence and wisdom. These factors put a lot of responsibility on those who try to implement justice, but it is realistic—far more so than rigid, equational systems which pretend to be based on some sort of objective reality.
A second key point is that economic justice must span the past, present, and future. It is not enough to say, “Well, everyone has a right to own property.” That ignores present and past power arrangements. Furthermore, our considerations need to extend to those yet to be born. It is fine to talk about the ethics of transactions and dealings in the present, laws and regulations and so on, but if there is no justice for people in the future, there is no true justice now. That is, by the way, what 300,000-plus people were marching for in New York City recently. I have great respect for that.
Third, economic justice must honor the whole-system quality of human society and the natural world. This is different from older views about individual versus collective rights. These older systems of thought failed to take into consideration the radical interdependence of human society and the natural world. All the real leaders in economic thinking today are keenly aware of the fact that economic justice and environmental justice are inseparable. Taking a whole-system approach in that sense is radically different from collectivist thinking per se. It does not deny individual rights, but rather extends them to everyone.
Finally, we should not assume that economic justice can or should be achieved by political means alone. Justice is “pre-institutional” in the sense that it encompasses all four domains of human society—government, business, civil society, and the individual. We can each bring about justice on a granular scale by practicing positive ethics in our lives and dealings. We can build those principles into organizations we create and in which we participate. We can insist on such principles as a condition of doing business.
We are a long way from seeing true justice in our world today, but that fact could motivate each of us to aspire to work for it based on a sense of responsibility and possibility. In Western society there is the deeply rooted notion of a guardian leader as described in Plato’s Republic. From the East, we have the ideal of the bodhisattva, who works for the benefit of others by taking compassion as the path. There are a great many sources of inspiration and example in our varied cultural legacy, and they can help each of us step up and join in the work in our own way.