The Spice of Life – Part 4 (Equality and Justice)
Updated: Aug 31
To the conservative, equality is a descriptive concept not a proscriptive one; it is not a state-sponsored project of looking for unfairness over here and addressing grievances over there and pulling down this group while attempting to prop up that group. That does not mean there is no place for the state to ameliorate unfairness or address grievances. But such endeavors must be anchored to a political process where the laws are applied equally—as we discussed in Part 2—and not bent to provide for someone’s preconceived notion of fairness. The role of the state is to recognize and respect equality, not to “create” it.
But what of those who live below the poverty line, to say nothing of those in abject poverty? Does the conservative deny that the state has any role to play in alleviating the suffering of the poor?
Libertarians vs. Neoconservatives
There is no “conservative consensus” on such questions. Some conservatives—let’s call them libertarian-conservatives—hold that an ideal state would be one that seeks to meddle as little as possible in the free market. The role of the state would be to arbitrate disputes and provide for an ordered framework, perhaps even a monetary system, whereby the rules are known and equally enforced. The state’s “role” in addressing poverty would simply be to recognize that the free market is the greatest mechanism for alleviating poverty ever known and the greatest number of people can receive the greatest amount of help if the state would simply leave everyone well enough alone.
At the other end we have those—at the risk of oversimplifying I’ll label them the Neocons—who argue that an affluent society can “afford” to provide for a social safety net or Welfare State to ensure no citizen falls below a certain standard of living. They may acknowledge that such bureaucratic measures are going to be less efficient and more costly than leaving things to the private sector. But they would counter that these costs are worth ensuring no one “falls through the cracks”. Further, they may point out that the pure laissez-faire model may sound great in a theoretical sense, but the population at large would view this as unfair and immoral and may opt for radical State control if at least some Welfare State isn’t already in place. They may view the Welfare State as a positive good or a necessary evil since a purely free market-driven society is utopian and unrealizable.
Clearly there is a great gulf between these viewpoints. Nevertheless, we can identify some common ground. Both camps would say the goal of the state is not to enforce equality. They would say government programs are prone to abuse, inefficiencies, and—far too often—cause more harm than good. They would also agree central planners may be able to alleviate some poverty, but never eliminate it. And no amount of State command of the economy is going to make us wealthier.
“Often those who are concerned about the alleviation of poverty are also concerned about inequalities of income,” observed economist Thomas Sowell, “Seldom is there any recognition that reducing poverty can sometimes conflict with reducing inequalities.” As we explored in Part 1, once we are disabused of the fallacy that inequalities exist because someone, somewhere is doing something wrong, we have to deal with the unsettling fact that forced equality may not lead to the utopia we were promised. What lies on the other side of enforce equality is not the elimination of poverty, class struggle, and material want but, time and time again, a tiny minority who exert totalitarian control over an impoverished population.
Asking the Right Question
It’s not just that equality is the wrong answer to addressing poverty. The bigger issue is that we only arrive at this wrong answer by asking the wrong question in the first place. The question is not what causes poverty? because the answer should be obvious: the human condition. You were born poor. You came into this world knowing nothing and possessing nothing. If it weren’t for someone—your parents, loved ones, the state—choosing to raise you, you surely could not have survived the first several years of your life and, for many years thereafter, you would have been reduced to begging in the streets had it not been for their continual support.
All of this is true whether or not some group of powerful individuals or class are also too blame for your current economic condition. All of this is true despite glaring inequalities. We don’t need a complex theory to understand the causes of poverty because even if everything were made equal it wouldn’t change the fact we are all born into poverty. The real question we should be asking, then, is what causes wealth?
The State cannot create wealth; it can only redistribute it. And those who do create wealth—private enterprises and citizens working to further their own ends by meeting the needs of others—expect some share in the wealth they have created. If the State were to simply confiscate all wealth, they would have succeeded in eradicating the wealth-creator’s incentive to work. Whatever poverty could be alleviated by such confiscation would be more than overshadowed by the impoverished population left behind.
Noble Laureate Milton Friedman argued that “a society that aims for equality before liberty will end up with neither equality nor liberty. And a society that aims first for liberty will not end up with equality, but it will end up with a closer approach to equality than any other system that has ever been developed.” While there is much inequality—in terms of wealth—in the United States, our nation has also provided for more social mobility whereby people who are born below the poverty line in the U.S. have a greater opportunity to get ahead than had they been born almost anywhere else.
Reparations and Equality
There is, of course, another argument for wealth redistribution beyond a general proclivity towards equality or an as a means of addressing poverty: reparations. That is, confiscating the wealth from some privileged class and redistributing it to a group or victim-class as a means of righting some historical wrong.
The conservative may even support certain reparations in a limited since. Say, for example, if a government attempted to destroy certain “undesirable” minorities through confiscating their property, imprisonment, or even genocide. If that government were overthrown—either by the people or by some outside intervention—there is a strong case to be made for returning the confiscated properties back to those minorities.
Indeed, if we could easily determine which properties were robbed from which individuals, the conservative would argue justice demands that such properties be returned. But history is rarely so clear-cut. And with each added complication, it may become less apparent what “justice” means. This is the conservative’s first argument against many calls for establishing “justice” through reparations: it may not be possible to determine what justice means.
The judicial system provides for justice as between individuals—in the case of one individual harming another—or as between individuals and companies or associations—such as class action lawsuits against a corporation that deliberately misled its customers as to the safety of their product. Yet even within these closed systems where the law is clear, and the plaintiffs and defendants are easily identified, justice can be difficult to achieve and we may each walk away with a different idea in mind what “justice” would mean. Perhaps—someone might say—the defendant got off too easily, just as someone else may object that the defendant was perfectly innocent and shouldn’t have been punished at all.
But a far greater, even insurmountable, problem arises when we move beyond the identifiable individuals or groups and case law into the murky territory of “class”. The most obvious example is the sad story of American slavery. This great American sin is a stain on whatever otherwise stellar record American-loving patriots love to extol. And nowhere else have calls for reparations been louder. If it’s true that white America’s enslavement of black America caused the latter lasting economic harm, then wouldn’t justice demand that at least some wealth be taken from white America and given to black America?
I Have Questions…
But what exactly do we mean by white and black America? Are ethnic groups like Cubans, Chinese, or Indians included? If so, are they white or black? Should descendants of Northerners related to those who fought in the Union to free the slaves be included? Perhaps some fought to preserve the Union while others fought to end slavery. Would that make a difference? Not all whites in the South owned slaves, of course. Should we only hold the descendants of slaveholders responsible or presume everyone in the South was racist? What of those Northerners who married Southerners? Are they only responsible for the percentage of their bloodline that hails from the South? What of someone who’s white and has devoted their entire life to fighting racism but also happens to be the descendant of slaveholders?
What if the races intermarried? Should someone receive reparations if they are only partially black? Should someone who’s partially white be made to pay if they are the descendant of a slave who was impregnated by their white master? What of the millions of white immigrants who moved to the United States from parts of the world where there were no slaves or immigrated many years after slavery had ended? What if they intermarried with the white and black Americans who were already here? What of the multitudes of races who immigrated to the United States from nations that had slavery and intermarried? Do we need to determine if they were descendants from slaves, slaveholders, or none-of-the-above in those foreign nations?
How do we calculate the costs of reparations? Should it be provided to certain associations or companies? Should it only impact property that was once used as a plantation? What if we couldn’t determine if the plantation even had slaves? What if it had slaves at one point, but then the owners freed them all because they couldn’t abide slavery? Should we just raise everyone’s taxes, then divvy it out to individuals who can provide some kind of evidence of slave ancestry? How would that be determined? What criteria should we use? What constitutes “proof”? Who gets to make these decisions?
Is it reasonable to suppose that we could find answers to these questions that would satisfy anyone’s idea of “justice”?
The point is not that injustices must go unanswered if they get uncomplicated to untangle, but that forcing an untangling would likely result in other injustices that don’t resolve the original injustice. “The fruitless attempt to render a situation just whose outcome, by its nature, cannot be determined by what anyone does or can know, only damages the functioning of the process itself,” wrote economist F. A. Hayek. If we get any one of those answers wrong from the questions above—not to mention a legion of other questions that we might ask—we will be committing further injustices to more we try to enforce “justice”.
There is a term for this vain pursuit of ill-defined justice: social justice. And that is where we’ll turn next week in the fifth and final part to this series.