Is “Economic Justice” True Justice?

The Vermont Worker’s Center has recently come out with a push for a so-called “People’s Budget”, which is designed to promote “economic justice”.  I have read numerous commentaries that point out the fact that this is just another high tax wealth redistribution scheme.  My reaction has been “of course it is, what else would you expect from this group”?  There also have been commentaries about how we are already way over taxed and have no room for further tax increases.  Again, an observation so blatantly obvious that it should be categorized as a “self evident truth”.

I would like to pursue a more fundamental line of inquiry regarding the latest pronouncement from the Worker’s Center.  Namely, is “economic justice” true justice?  To ask this question is to dig deeper than the argument over the numbers involved and question the very premise that the whole scheme rests on.  The symbol of justice as our founders understood it was a blindfolded lady holding an equally balanced scale.  The notion that “justice is blind” refers to its impartiality in dealing with various individuals.  Justice is blind in respect to one’s race, gender, creed, economic class, etc.  The idea is to dispense equal justice under the law.  It as not intended to tip the scales in favor of any particular party, but to simply ensure equality before the law.

The Progressive notion of justice is based on what the philosopher John Rawls has dubbed “distributive justice”.  Here the government acts not as a neutral and impartial enforcer of the law, but seeks to tip the scales of fortune in favor of a preferred party largely by confiscating the resources from other parties that it deems to be more successful and redistributing them to parties deemed less fortunate.  This is a completely different notion of justice than that one America was founded on and more closely resembles the welfare states of Europe.  The fundamental question here is not merely can we afford this, but far more importantly is this notion of justice something that we Americans should adopt?

There is a reason why our founding vision of justice was that of a neutral enforcer of the law.  When the government steps in and begins to favor various parties, a process of corruption begins that often leads to tyranny.  A prime example of this was the Roman Caesars giving grain handouts to the masses from the common storage.  They succeeded in turning the loyalty of the Roman citizens away from the Roman Senate and to the Emperor.  This was a factor in how the relatively free Roman Republic became an empire and went down the path to tyranny.  The dependency of the citizenry on the state to tilt the scales of fortune in their favor turns citizens into subjects and statesmen into demagogues.  This was a situation that our founders wanted to avoid at all costs, as their study of history had made them aware of just how destructive it was.


2 thoughts on “Is “Economic Justice” True Justice?

  1. There is a difference between being an egalitarian proponent of equal distribution, as you point out that Jefferson was, and favoring government confiscation and redistribution. Jefferson was not for the latter. One of his best known quotes about the role of government was :

    “…a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

    In short, he saw the role of government being chiefly to “restrain men from injuring one another” and did not think that it should “take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned”. On the contrary, government should “leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement”.

    Contrary to what progressives suggest, over the long run a more equal distribution of goods occurs in an open and competitive market. The greater the income mobility, the more likely it is that some in the lower income brackets will rise into the higher brackets and vice-versa. Greater government interference in the market slows income mobility and creates new income inequalities over the long run based on political connections.

  2. Jefferson was definitely a fan of distributive principles and a true egalitarian. What you’re talking about is re-distribution of goods. Marxism. Rawls was no Marxist.
    His distributive justice — and that of the framers — was for equal distribution of access to opportunity and a fair allotment of reward for work done. Do hedge fund managers deserve to make more in one morning than Einstein did in his life? Or what a thousand coal miners will make collectively in one year?
    Progressive taxation, welfare, unionization, and public education may not fit in with libertarian economic theory, but they are just — no doubt about it, and they help, not hinder, capitalism.

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