Economic Justice by Stephen Nathanson, Prentice-Hall, 144 pages.
April 1, 1998        

Everyone loves a good argument; and as we know from the dialogues of Plato, few questions are more likely to get an argument going than “what is justice?” In the most recent entry in Prentice Hall’s venerable Foundations of Philosophy series, Northeastern University professor Stephen Nathanson addresses the economic aspects of this perennial question. Economic Justice should generate many lively arguments -- and not only, one hopes, among its primary student audience. It’s a book that every reflective citizen can profit by.

To whittle this immense subject down to size, Nathanson concentrates on three economic systems -- libertarian or laissez-faire capitalism, statist socialism, and the welfare state -- evaluating them by three criteria: productivity, desert, and liberty. About each system he asks: “How well off does it make people? Does it reward people in accord with what they deserve? And, what is its impact on people’s liberty?”

Productivity is capitalism’s strong suit, and Nathanson gives it full credit -- as did Marx and Engels, who wrote in The Communist Manifesto that “the bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarcely a hundred years, has created more massive and colossal productive forces than all preceding generations together.” But producing wealth is not the same as producing well-being. The latter depends at least as much on distributing wealth in ways that maximize its happiness-producing effects (or, as economists would say, its “marginal utility”). Severe economic inequality has been the rule rather than the exception in capitalist societies. Is this a necessary or merely an accidental consequence of the operation of unregulated markets? And if it is a necessary consequence, can it be justified by capitalism’s overall high output?

This is (or at any rate, ought to be) the central political issue of our day. Nathanson’s treatment of it is penetrating and judicious, emphasizing exactly what needs to be emphasized. First of all, he acknowledges, inequality is not inherently unjust. What is immoral is not that some people have too much but that other people have too little; the one is not always the cause of the other. The Soviet, Chinese, and other formerly state socialist regimes made it a crime to be rich (actually, even moderately well off), which led, as capitalism’s defenders point out, to cruelty, inefficiency, and stagnation. So a first approximation to economic justice would seem to be: a decent minimum for everyone, and then let government “laisser faire,” or mind its own business.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. As Nathanson points out, the distinctively dynamic character of capitalism -- in a word, investment -- means that inequalities are cumulative. “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer”; “them as has, gets”; “you have to spend money to make money”: these are not merely folksy sayings but rigorous and inescapable deductions. As a result, even a decent minimum for everyone will require continuing redistributive efforts by government.

A final point about inequality that Nathanson does well to stress is its effect on liberty. Defenders of capitalism correctly point out that so far, all democratic societies have been market-oriented. But it’s also true that in a market-oriented society, political influence is, to some extent, available for purchase like any other commodity. Lobbying, campaign contributions, and media exposure require money, time, and skills that ordinary people don’t have and that rich people and corporations can buy. This is undemocratic. Continuing government efforts will be needed to prevent economic inequality from turning into political inequality.

But, some readers will ask, doesn’t justice simply mean that people ought to get what they deserve? And don’t people who work harder or have more valuable skills deserve to get more than others? When faced with difficult questions, philosophers make distinctions. Nathanson distinguishes between personal desert, which is due our individual efforts and achievements, and human desert, which is due us simply in virtue of our humanity. In theory, capitalism rewards personal desert, though as Nathanson points out, many people, especially in other countries, work long hours and receive very little, while others receive a great deal through inheritance or investment income, without themselves working. And of course, rich and poor children don't personally deserve their very different life chances. The notion of human desert implies that everyone deserves enough resources to support a minimally decent life. Once this principle is granted, we can haggle over what is “minimally decent” and how much is “enough.” What we can no longer do is let the devil take the hindmost -- the laissez-faire solution.

Nathanson calls his preferred solution the “comprehensive welfare state.” It would rely on the market and would therefore allow considerable inequality; but it would raise enough money through taxation to guarantee every citizen sufficient resources to live a life free from insecurity and acute deprivation, and it would try determinedly to curb the power of money in politics. This may not sound like a radical ideal, but although a few European countries approximate it, the United States still has a long way to go before reaching it.

I could say more in praise of Economic Justice, but I don’t want to leave the impression that it’s flawless. It is a convincing book, but not quite a compelling one. It ought to be livelier -- not only because today’s undergraduates, raised on television, are scarcely able to sit still for philosophical argument, but also because the case for economic justice must appeal to the heart as well as the head. After all, as Shelley wrote in A Defense of Poetry, “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination” -- and that means stories. For the benefit of future editions of this excellent little book, I offer Stephen Nathanson an example from -- of all places -- television.

In one memorable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise encounters a derelict starship full of twentieth-century humans in suspended animation. One of them is an ace investor and dogmatic libertarian capitalist. As soon as he is revived, he demands that the Enterprise turn around immediately and return him to Earth, where his large fortune (compounded annually for four hundred years) awaits him. Captain Picard demurs, explaining gently that wealth and poverty, luxury and want, became obsolete on Earth long ago; in the twenty-fourth century, each person has enough resources to live a full life and no one’s life is wasted.

It is Picard’s tone that speaks across the centuries to us viewers -- the same tone that an educated twentieth-century person would use in explaining to a visitor from an earlier era why, for example, we no longer burn widows or expose girl babies on mountaintops or torture captives or enslave other peoples. We have outgrown all that, we would explain patiently to our visitor; we can no longer, with a good conscience, inflict or ignore suffering on such a scale. And the still more grown-up humanity of the future, Picard seems to be saying, will consider the accumulation of vast wealth and power by some, while the lives of many others are stunted, to be equally benighted. I suspect that a great many Star Trek viewers were converted that evening to a belief in the comprehensive welfare state.