Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In which Glenn Beck finds an ally.

Justice refers to rules of individual conduct. And no rules of the conduct of individuals can have the effect that the good things of life are distributed in a particular manner. No state of affairs as such is just or unjust: it is only when we assume that somebody is responsible for having brought it about...

In the same sense, a spontaneously working market, where prices act as guides to action, cannot take account of what people in any sense need or deserve, because it creates a distribution which nobody has designed, and something which has not been designed, a mere state of affairs as such, cannot be just or unjust. And the idea that things ought to be designed in a 'just' manner means, in effect, that we must abandon the market and turn to a planned economy in which somebody decides how much each ought to have, and that means, of course, that we can only have it at the price of the complete abolition of personal liberty.

F.A. Hayek, interviewed here (via)
I like this quote because it serves to show how what's being questioned by the most hardcore critics of social justice movements isn't merely the specific goals of particular movements, but the foundational notion of collective responsibility as an ethical imperative. There's actually a different set of ethical principles at work among advocates of social justice than among free marketeers, and if we don't actually talk about those differences of principle, we end up talking past each other and using justifications that don't answer the questions the other side is asking.

So I think it might be appropriate to spell out some of the ethical underpinnings of the idea of social justice, as I see them.

Firstly, markets are not natural forces. This is true partly because they are created and regulated through social and political processes, by real people. In particular, markets do not exist without the decision to violently enforce the property rights of rich people against poor people. We can meaningfully talk about markets and, by extension, about "the free market" as having architects, almost all rich, white, male, and European, who imposed the legal framework necessary for the market on the rest of the world.

Markets are also not natural forces in the sense that any particular condition which is the result of the "action of a market" is actually the result of actions by individuals. In general, if these individuals are acting as economists believe they should, they are acting selfishly. All of them had the option of acting to increase justice rather than acting to increase personal accumulation, and to the extent that they did not, they share in the responsibility for the injustice of the results.

It seems like part of the difference here has to do with trouble with the diffusion of responsibility. For Hayek, it seems to follow that, because the unfairness of the distribution of resources is not based on my actions alone but rather the action of a large number of people, therefore I bear no responsibility for my part in this continued injustice. For me, the sharing of blame does not make that blame disappear: all of the people who participated in a wrong share blame.

Furthermore, even if markets are thought of as impersonal forces to which terms like justice do not meaningfully apply, that doesn't mean we can't think about them in terms of justice. Floods, certainly, are such impersonal forces -- if a flood affects a particular subset of the population disproportionately, that doesn't make it an unjust flood, because floods can't be expected to be thinking about things like justice when they decide where to do their damage. And further, if a flood destroys my neighbor's crops, I shouldn't be held responsible for that injustice.

But -- and here's the biggest thing I think Hayek is missing -- that doesn't mean I don't have an obligation to remedy it. Even though I have not acted unjustly up to this point, it would be unjust of me to respond to this by saying, "Shit, sucks to be you," and hiring guards to make sure ze doesn't try to sneak in and eat my vegetables at night.

Even if you consider markets to be akin to natural forces, it's not always right to allow natural forces to dictate social outcomes. Or, to phrase it another way, the flood is the only person we can hold responsible for the destruction of the crops, but we're all responsible for the social structure that allows that destruction to starve one particular person rather than making all of us a little hungrier. And it is meaningful to apply principles of justice to that kind of action.

Essentially, all of this is about the idea that it is possible to ascribe responsibility to individuals for the actions of collectives of which they are a part. An interesting aside to this, though, is that a key ingredient in this ascription of responsibility is the separation of two aspects of responsibility that are often conflated: responsibility in the sense of guilt and responsibility in the sense of agency. This allows us to place responsibility for the injustice of the world as it is at the feet of the privileged and powerful, without also placing sole responsibility for the creation of future justice in their hands (and thereby endorsing their continued vanguard status in left movements).

This can seem like a bit of a sleight of hand on the part of social justice advocates: either oppressed people have the capacity to shape change or they don't. If they do, they should share responsibility for the injustice of the world as it is; if they don't, they might as well give up on trying to shape the future. But injustice can be created and maintained by a section of a community, for their own benefit; justice, on the other hand, requires the involvement of all. So even though poor people aren't to blame for their own poverty, we need their involvement in order to abolish poverty.

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