Left vs Right
In Thinking about Politics, a few posts ago, I acknowledged that those on the left and those on the right both take Ethics as their starting point. I was rude about the left because, I said, whereas the right treats Justice as foundational, the left has invented a spurious foundation: so-called Social Justice. We in the West have theorised endlessly about Justice and, I think, are agreed that Justice means treating our fellows as they deserve to be treated. We have a visceral reaction to injustice against ourselves. ‘It’s not fair’ rises to our lips very readily.
Every individual has an obligation to treat every other individual according to his or her deserts, though this is not the end of the story. Each of us has a right to be treated according to our deserts.
Conservatives characteristically derive rights and obligations from the Creator. Our opponents (at least the atheistic opponents) have no such recourse. We see them as having no ultimate basis for morality. Even when it comes to our non-human fellow animals, Conservatives have a concept of ‘stewardship’, of an obligation to refrain from gratuitous or unthinking cruelty because animals are fellow creatures. They are not, in our view, ‘people’ – even though it seems plain that they can suffer.
Traditional conservatives regard human beings as the summit of creation. We believe that we are created in the image of God. But this is not a diatribe against ‘animal rights’ a very dubious proposition, which we would contrast with human duties towards animals, while acknowledging that animals have no duties towards us.
Human duties and rights with respect to other humans are horizontal and reciprocal. Human duties towards animals are vertical and one-way.
Utilitarianism, formulated by Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832, has as its axiomatic principle ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’, an idea which would appear to justify the enslavement by 51% of the population of the other 49%. The traditional concept of Justice forbids the exploitation of even one person merely to serve the wishes and needs of others – no matter how numerous they may be.
Having skimmed through Bentham on Wikipedia, I find myself sympathising with many of his ideas.
But, to get back to social justice; why is it spurious? First of all, what does it mean? It arises from our observation that some people have what we might call a sufficiency of material things: enough food, adequate shelter, effective medical intervention when they fall sick or suffer injury. Actually, this is false. For most of human history medical intervention has been pitifully inadequate. Kings died of diseases and no intervention is effective against a lance through the heart. This is still true. Doctors could not save Steve Jobs from pancreatic cancer.
A more accurate observation is that the distribution of some material things is uneven. A poor man may have a stronger constitution than a rich man, it is true; but what we focus on is food and shelter and toys and leisure. For most of human history these things have been scarce goods – until relatively recently painfully scarce for most people. Those not suffering from scarcity were a tiny minority.
Moreover, it is also true that many who suffered (and still suffer) from painful scarcity did (and still do) because they were violently dispossessed by others stronger than they. They had little leisure and no toys because they were physically compelled to contribute to the wants and needs of those who enslaved them. I suppose we can agree that where these conditions exist, Justice is absent. Social Justice is not a useful concept here.
Humans are sinful and humans very frequently succumb to the temptation to take by force or deception. We know this and have developed legal codes, which, for the most part, derive their justification from their effectiveness in mitigating the consequences of greed. Always and everywhere some humans will try to circumvent the code.
So, there are haves and have-nots. Sometimes this is because the haves unjustly dispossess the have-nots. Sometimes it is not. When it is, we appeal for Justice; when it is not, to what can we appeal?
If you eat better than I do or are housed more comfortably than I am, it may be because you are more diligent or talented in acquiring good things. If you are more successful than I am in winning friends, it may be because you are more charming and more winsome. You may beat me in sexual competition, perhaps because you are just sexier than I am. You may defeat me at squash or in an argument, perhaps because you have practised harder or perhaps because you have more talent. For me to whine, ‘it’s not fair’ will not wash.
It is curious that in these various arenas it is only in the first (the economic arena of food, housing, toys and leisure) that ‘politics’ raises its head, only here that we ever even think about levelling the playing field. Why? It may be that only in the economic arena is levelling even possible without recourse to really grotesque intervention. We have got used to the idea of levelling the field by progressive taxation, of making you pay at a higher rate than me. We would have to sink very low before recommending battery acid in your face or mutilation or a bang on the head to make us more equal. And it is not even possible for some of your talent to be transplanted into me.
Since I have introduced sport as an area of competition, you may be thinking about handicapping, as in golf. But handicapping is simply a system whereby players with different abilities can enjoy competition with each other.
And now to the really interesting issue: how do economically successful people succeed? They do so by serving their fellow men. Richard Branson gives consumers (who can exercise choice) goods and services for which they freely exchange their money. If his goods and services are of poor quality or if he demands a price consumers are not prepared to pay, he does not succeed. RB wants economic benefits for himself. In the market he has to provide economic benefits in return. Austrian economists have a value theory which explains this. Goods and services have no intrinsic, objective value. Value is purely subjective. If a flight across the Atlantic can be sold for £x, that is because sufficient consumers value the flight at more than £x. Does Social Justice demand that the price of the ticket be £x/2? Branson will soon shut up shop.
It would be very highly desirable for more people to have leisure, toys, comfortable homes and nourishing food – plus access to effective healthcare when they need it. This does not mean that everyone has a right to these things because that would impose an obligation on someone else to provide it. So, how do we enable those who have less to acquire more without dispossessing those who have more.
This is the miraculous thing about free markets under the rule of law: it has been happening for nearly three centuries, by fits and starts, in the west. Everyone wants to better his situation. To do so he has to be sufficiently energetic and creative to provide what others want. He may acquire capital which facilitates the creation of goods and services (wealth). He can do this in two ways. Either he denies himself in the short term, by consuming less than everything that comes his way; or he demonstrates his creditworthiness and borrows.
He may have little talent or inclination for entrepreneurship; in which case he can sell his skills and labour to those who do. When governments confiscate from the productive (for whatever well-meaning objective), there is less capital to be invested in wealth and job creating enterprises – much less. The process of taxing and spending is necessarily costly – you have to set up expensive and unproductive bureaucracies to do it. For a host of reasons, governments don’t spend our money well. The main reason is that they do not have anything like sufficient information to guide their decisions. When I spend my money, I have every reason to try to get best value for money. I want low prices and high quality. When I and the other seven billion members of my species are free to do so unhampered by government interference, we drive prices down and quality up – inevitably. When everybody is busy getting goodies for himself, wealth is engendered on a massive scale.
It is not always easy or pleasant, particularly in the short term. Nineteenth century factories were noisy, dirty and dangerous. But every John Countryman who took a factory job perceived himself to be better off than when he was working in a tranquil but dirty and dangerous (and probably back-breaking) farming job. In every generation John’s children and grandchildren had better conditions and higher wages, not because factory owners suddenly became nice people but because they couldn't get workers otherwise. We became more skilled. More sophisticated manufacturing processes required more and more skilled workers. Thousands of brand new industries have created billions of jobs. The trend was ever upwards.
Two things serve to put the brakes on: War and Welfare. War destroys wealth, although some get rich from it – so there is less capital for investment in things we want. State welfare siphons money from society and also reduces capital investment.
Henry Hazlitt’s wisdom is summed up in one lesson: ‘The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.’
Obviously, I am neglecting something huge. What about those who, through no fault of their own, from age, infirmity, sickness and sheer bad luck, have nothing to contribute in term of skills and/or labour? Don’t I care about them, at all? I do. We should. Ethics is not simply about Justice. It is about Compassion too. Of course, this where the concept of Social Justice comes from. But democratically elected rulers do not care about compassion, only about votes. Talking about compassion is popular – it’s very easy. The rule of law is something that governments can, to a significant degree, enforce. No robbing, stealing, thieving will be tolerated. Governments can also facilitate wealth creation – but only by standing aside and by declining to expropriate and otherwise interfere.
In a wealthy society compassionate behaviour is much easier than in a poor society. In the past, and particularly in Christendom, charitable institutions have done great work: in medicine, education and in the relief of poverty. They characteristically work by enabling the indigent to help themselves. The welfare state positively discourages charity. It gives us an excuse. The welfare state positively encourages dependency. The War on Poverty has been a catastrophic failure. We should encourage wealth creation. We should give and act compassionately, as individuals, as churches and through voluntary secular institutions.