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Justice Is Overrated

Many of us are dismayed by the injustice we see in the world. We want our society to treat people fairly. Our sense of justice feels absolute and right and good. Yet different people hold incompatible views about what’s fair. How can this be?

Could it be that justice is indeed objective and that some people happen to be getting it wrong? Do some people lie about what they think is fair when it’s in their interest to do so? Do some people choose to ignore justice because they prefer to focus on other priorities? Probably. But that’s not the whole story.

There are those who argue that land owners unfairly extract unearned rents and should therefore be taxed to correct the injustice. Others insist that taxation is a form of theft—that the government is stealing justly earned profits from upstanding productive citizens. And still others believe that capitalists exploit labor to get rich on the backs of poor workers. Each of these narratives is compelling.

To make sense of the disparate narratives of injustice, it helps to remember why we have justice in the first place. Justice exists because it helps us prosper. Our culture can only survive if we all play by the same rules. There’s more than one way to skin the prosperity cat, so it’s natural that different societies settled on different sets of rules. Some rules might work better than others, but justice keeps us in line with whatever the rules happen to be.

There are multiple ways to achieve prosperity, but is there a best way? Ultimately we want to be as prosperous as possible. We want to be maximally happy, healthy, and free. We want to thrive. What system of justice helps get us there? Whatever it is, that’s the one we want.

Part of why justice works so well is that we internalize it as a moral instinct. We develop ingrained narratives telling us what’s fair and what’s not. Our judgments become automatic. But, every once in a while, it’s important for us to re-evaluate those narratives and ask ourselves how well they support our collective prosperity.

It can be frustrating and counterproductive when we disagree with each other about what’s fair. But that’s not the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is when our shared narrative of justice causes us to work together against our own prosperity. In that case, we’re in deep trouble.

In 2015, I wrote a post on my personal blog about the morality of labor.

We should be fighting to embrace joblessness as a positive force for humanity. This is the single most important social issue of our time.
— Alex Howlett | Our Moral Compass Is Broken

You may not agree with me that embracing joblessness is the most important social issue of our time. I don’t even agree with everything I wrote back then. But what kinds of things are we getting wrong about the way our society should work?

Is it right for us to expect income to be earned? If so, why shouldn’t people get money they didn’t earn? “Because it isn’t fair” is not a good enough answer when we’re trying to define what should be fair in the first place. Does it somehow help our prosperity for it to be unfair for people to receive unearned income?

If we feel that people should have to earn their income, does that mean that everyone should also have a right to a job or a wage? What kinds of things should and shouldn’t be rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Article 25, Paragraph 1 is particularly interesting.

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 25, Paragraph 1

That’s quite a commitment. It takes real resources to make this kind of thing happen. If a benefit is not feasible to provide, then entitlement to that benefit is not enforceable as a right. In 1948, the UN General Assembly seemed to believe that this was achievable.

So why haven’t we achieved it? If our goal is to promote prosperity, then we have a moral obligation to provide everything we can for people. If we lack the resources to provide very much, then people won’t get very much. If we have the resources to make everyone rich, then everyone should be rich. Maybe the UN General Assembly was wrong. But I don’t think they were.

In May, our basic income discussion group debated some of the moral issues surrounding labor, justice, and rights.

One thing we can all rightly agree on is that humanity should prosper. We might just disagree on how best to make that happen.

The way not to make it happen is through a dogmatic appeal to justice. As soon as you start saying things like “taxation is theft,” “rent is evil,” or “capitalists are getting rich on the backs of the poor,” you’ll weaken your case and alienate the people who don’t already agree with you. And that’s a shame because, ultimately, we all want the same thing. We’ll make more progress by working together.

Our sense of justice a powerful tool, but it can be easily misused. When handled wisely, justice can be a force for promoting human prosperity. That’s what it was made for.