Perspective and social justice

8 05 2012

Whatever the faults of our current economic and political system are (and there are many), we should at least acknowledge that, in relative terms, the poorest Westerners are better off than a decent chunk of the world’s population.

Conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation have pointed out that even Americans living below the poverty line enjoy products and technologies that were luxuries a generation ago; these results are then trumpeted by proponents of free markets, who are quick to note that it is hard to call a household with multiple televisions, cars, and modern appliances truly impoverished. In a country where lower income individuals are more likely to be obese than starving, we might want to re-examine our understanding of the word poor.

Just don’t try making that point to a left-leaning friend acquaintance. I’ve tried. It doesn’t end well. So you don’t even think the poor should enjoy television or refrigerators!? is the usual response – as if I don’t want individuals of all income groups to benefit from our modern economic bounty. It’s an incredibly unproductive argument – and a frustrating one.

There’s a reason for this frustration. You can outline your favored position over and over again, but no amount of logical clarity will ever allow you to confer your perspective on another person. And perspective is everything; without it, you’re just talking past each other.

In a piece titled Rawls the Irrelevant, Jason Kuznicki helps make sense of this deadlock. It’s not about increasing standards of living, or poor people with flatscreens and unhealthily large portions of food – it’s about social justice:

But what is social justice, then? It’s the kind of justice demanded by socialism. We might want to say that market institutions can provide it. We might want to say a lot of things about markets. We think markets are good; naturally, we want to promote them. But we should not lose sight of what markets actually are. Or of who our real audience is. This stuff isn’t going to convince socialists, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it will.

The type of justice demanded by socialism is neither the type favored by libertarians — that of continuous, undirected, uncoerced economic activity — nor the type favored by Rawlseans — too complex to set off neatly with dashes. Social justice appears to mean (1) an ever-greater equality of outcome through forced wealth transfer and/or state-run economies; (2) a prediction — surely falsifiable — that forced transfers enhance the dignity and autonomy of the poor, (3) state-subsidized status enhancement for members of aggrieved groups, and (4) never mind about the absolute holdings of the poor, already.

That’s also why I will never be a socialist, and why I will always be skeptical of social justice.

The advocates of social justice do not like it that the poor have surprisingly large holdings in absolute terms. Point it out to them, and they grow resentful or condescending. (“Well… but… it’s not really very nice cake…”) All these consumer goods dull the sense of envy, and that sense needs to be sharpened if we’re going to force the equality of outcome.

It’s definitely worth a read, especially if you’ve wondered why an argument that seems so common sense to one person – that markets have enabled everyone, from the wealthiest to the poorest, to enjoy a historically high standard of living – sparks such indignation from the left.

Kuznicki also lays out why, to a committed advocate of social justice, capitalism can never provide a positive outcome. I’m not sure how this will help win any arguments with individuals who make fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of justice, but if you find yourself beating your head against your wall after trying to talk to a proponent of state-enforced economic equality, at least you’ll know why.




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