Notes From Babel

The Siren Song of Ends-Oriented Justice

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There is a lot of talk going on lately about the basic differences between the economics of the Right and Left: The Right thinks that things work best when you keep all your money and spend it as you see fit. The Left points to the failures of the market and the general unsympathetic characteristics of the rich and conclude that things would be best if a substantial chunk of individuals’ earnings be reappropriated. Given that I have no particular expertise in economics, I can’t provide a pragmatic justification one way or the other. What I do know is that this is not merely a question about economic policy: this debate showcases the dramatic differences in theories of justice and political theory that rage just under the surface of our system of government.

On the one hand, our liberal (small “l”) system of government is founded on the recognition of rights and a process-oriented system of justice to protect those rights. In other words, we provide a basic set of laws to prevent theft and enforce contracts, and leave the “free market” to run on auto pilot. On the other hand, the progressivist/collectivist trend in our government is founded upon a basic dissatisfaction with merely protecting rights; because we are born with varying degrees of ability in order to promote our respective rights and happiness, inequities invariably result. God, it seems, has a thing for caprice. Accordingly, a system that stops merely at protecting our inherently unequal abilities to advance our own rights is a system that stops too soon. Equal in the eyes of the law? Who cares about that if justice is wearing a blindfold, after all? Equality of results, that’s the ticket.

Rights, then, have been the enemy all along, in the progressivist view. Thus, they must be replaced with entitlements, which, unlike rights, are afforded by government according to perceived need. This brings about a shift to ends oriented justice, justice without the blindfold. This progressive justice cannot be meted out through an anachronistic rule of law; it must flex and bend depending on the social good, or a particular moral suasion, or the proximity of the next election.

Again, we don’t need to reach the question of whether process-oriented justice or ends-oriented justice reaches the best results. And that is because ends-oriented justice is not really a true choice for a society founded upon such basic notions of written laws, the rule of reason, and the separation of powers. That is, there is no real choice, because such a system cannot survive. As I have written before, ends-oriented justice is nothing more than vigilante-ism. In a classically liberal, process-oriented system of justice, ends are immaterial – the individual is free to craft the product of his God-given liberties provided they do not impinge upon others’. In a progressive, illiberal, ends-oriented system of justice, in which liberties are deprived in order to grant entitlements in equal share to all, there is no rule but satiation. The legitimacy of such a system depends entirely upon the quality of the ends produced. An administration that does not distribute entitlements to the liking of the majority is overthrown and wealth is redistributed in revolution – shifts of power in the tradition of the miracle of 1800 do not exist in an illiberal structure. Keep your incentives to produce, we’ll just take the products outright, thank you very much.

Classical liberalism, of course, means that, to a large extent, we have to live and let live, and not conscript the coercive power of government to equalize all our differences through the manufacture of entitlements and the redistribution of wealth. It also means that the pain and consequences that are the natural result of our own choices must not be negated — a highly unpleasant notion given present conditions. If we cannot learn to live with that, however, we will only hasten our own destruction and descent into dystopia.


Written by Tim Kowal

March 20, 2009 at 5:22 am

Posted in Political Theory

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