What is economic justice?

I should begin by saying that I don’t think that “justice” is something out there, beyond humanity, waiting to be finally grasped and comprehended. Justice, on my view, is just the situation that obtains when everyone’s happy with how the social order is structured (more or less). The devil’s in the details, I know, but the basic point is that economic systems, like governments, like morality, and so on, exist to serve human beings. And they should be evaluated according to how well they do that job. I take it this is fundamentally a humanist perspective.

So to talk about economic justice, we need to talk about different approaches to structuring our economies. I should note, incidentally, that the economy is invariably tied to the legal order, and also has consequences for the values expressed in the culture. It’s all tangled, if you will, so any focus on one piece of the puzzle has a tendency to mask the other pieces. But hopefully you can see how it all hangs together.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to economic justice. Let’s call them (1) the proceduralist approach, and (2) the consequentialist approach. The proceduralist approach views an economic order as just if the procedures by which goods are allocated meet certain standards. The consequentialist approach views an economic order as just if the social order produced by that economic order meets certain standards.

Contemporary free-market advocates tend to be proceduralists. That is, they think that what matters for justice is the freedom of economic agents to choose how to spend their money and their time. As long as contracts are entered into freely (that is, without coercion or compulsion), and as long as goods are exchanged freely, the demands of justice have been satisfied. They get quite sophisticated and fancy in fleshing this basic idea out, but I take it that’s the gist of it. If at the end of the day some people end up with lots of wealth and others end up with very little, the proceduralist has nothing to say about the matter as long as everyone played by the rules. If people work at my factory and make me super rich, they can’t complain about my wealth and their (relative) poverty because I haven’t stolen anything from them, and no one forced them to work at my factory. They can quit any time. If they want to be as wealthy as me, they should open their own factory.

The consequentialist is not necessarily an anti-proceduralist. What the consequentialist thinks is that the proceduralist’s notion of “freedom” (and of human agency in general) is abstract and underspecified. If, for instance, the small businesses of a given town are put out of business by the arrival of some big box mega store, is it really fair to say that workers are “free” to work or not work at the big box store? Is it fair to say that shoppers are “free” to shop or not shop at the big box store? Surely, the proceduralist will say, shoppers are free to shop or not shop at the big box store. If they hadn’t wanted to shop at the big box store, it could never have put the local small businesses out of business! Notice however that this reply assumes shoppers are perfectly rational and perfectly informed. The fact of the matter, however, is that we are rarely perfectly rational and perfectly informed. Quite the contrary.

Consider Sue the smoker. Sue is an intelligent human being who picked up an unhealthy habit in college (say). She wants to smoke, but is having trouble quitting. The proceduralist might tell us that, since Sue has in fact continued to smoke, she really wants to smoke. But most of us would be uncomfortable saying this without qualification. Sometimes we don’t always do what we want to do. One of the ways Sue might help herself quit is by recruiting some help, either in the form of nicotine patches, an accountability partner and co-quitter, or perhaps something else. One way to make behavioral change is to publicize one’s intention to make that change, and then lean on the resulting social pressure to conform to one’s stated intentions. So Sue could start a blog about quitting smoking. Or tell her Facebook friends she intends to quit. Or ask somebody to call her first thing in the morning when she usually has her first cigarette. Whatever. The point is just that all of these things are manifestations of Sue’s desire to quit.

So also, I submit, governmental regulation, unionization, and other collective exercises of agency can be (though I concede that they are not always) one way of writing our best selves–our truest and best desires–into law. Maybe we find it hard not to shop at Target, or Walmart, or whatever, but in our more reflective moments we realize the harm caused by such corporations (depressed wages, outcompeted local businesses, environmental impact, etc.). We might as a result work against such corporations, by refusing to shop there, by encouraging workers to unionize, by voting not to allow their stores at the city council, etc., etc., etc.

The consequentialist cares about the kind of world produced by an economic system and is therefore willing to tinker with the law to protect important interests, incentivize certain activities and disincentivize others, and so on. We try a certain set of laws, see how they work–if the lives they lead to are truly worth living–and then we adjust accordingly. Proceduralists are wary of this tinkering mindset, and tend to fall back on their intuitions about what “freedom” is, and so on. But this is an insufficiently empirical mindset. If we care about the quality of the lives we lead, we need to take certain risks. Most importantly, if something isn’t working (exhibit A: the U.S. economic system), we need to actively try and fix it, by whatever means necessary.

Just a thought.