Socialists claim they just want justice. That casts capitalists as opponents of justice. But capitalist have always insisted they value justice as much as socialists. Both can’t be right. What’s going on? How can both honestly be in favor of justice?
Untangling the knot is simple: each side operates from different definitions of justice. Capitalists derive their ideas of justice from the Bible: people have rights to life, liberty and property; those who violate the rights of another are evil doers (Romans 13) and should be punished. Christian notions of justice built Western civilization.
Socialists define justice as the equal distribution of wealth. Its pedigree reaches back to an ancient myth that in prehistory private property didn’t exist. People shared the bounty of the earth equally. As a result, primitive society experienced no evils such as inequality, theft, slavery or murder. The first part is probably true if in prehistoric people lived like the tribes in the Amazon: they have no wealth, but it is evenly distributed among members. However, Helmut Schoeck demonstrates in his masterpiece, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, that tribal societies are not sinless; they’re consumed with envy and many of the same evils as modern society.
John Rawls reached the summit of the philosophy of equality of goods as justice with his books A Theory of Justice (1971) and Justice as Fairness: a restatement (2001). Regressives resort to Rawls to defend their notion of justice. I argue that it’s just another “justice as envy” formula.
Rawl’s “difference principle” is the heart of his theory of distributive justice. It states that society must distribute wealth equally unless an unequal distribution benefits all or the poorest more than anyone. Talent, skill, work ethic, morals and inheritance should not permit anyone to get ahead of others. Such a strong emphasis on equality of wealth as fairness is the classic manifestation of envy according to Schoeck. For why should disinterested people care about equality of wealth? Ensuring that the poorest have enough is reasonable, but that has nothing to do with how much the most successful have.
Rawls’ fear of inequality of wealth stems from a demand for absolute equality of political power. He assumes that wealth translates to political power. But why shouldn’t the wealthy have more political power since they pay most of the taxes? The original parliaments included only land owners because they paid the taxes and justice demanded that the people paying the taxes should determine how much they pay and how the state spent the revenue. Today, the rich pay the taxes and the other 80% determine how much the rich will pay and how to spend it. How is that fair or just?
The demand for strict equality of political power is itself a manifestation of envy, as Schoeck shows, for envy feeds on any difference between people of the same class, not just money differences. People will envy others for their talent, good looks, youth, and political power. The elected representatives of Rawls’ utopia will have far more power than the voters as will the unelected bureaucrats who run state machinery and both will be the targets of envy.
Rawls’ economics isn’t medieval. He allows for greater inequality if it produces economic growth that benefits all. Under capitalism, growth benefits all, but Rawls finds the inequality in it unacceptable. Where is the optimal trade off between inequality and growth? That’s an empirical question and the answer is easy. The US and UK achieved the fastest growth in average living standards in the period between the US Civil War and WWI when inequality was twice what it is now, 60 on the Gini Index. I doubt Rawls’ knew that fact of history or would approve of that level of inequality.
Rawls assumes that envy only happens with great differences in wealth and power. In Justice as Fairness he wrote, “Put another way: citizens’ sense of justice, given their character and interests as formed by living under a just basic structure, is strong enough to resist the normal tendencies to injustice. Citizens act willingly to give one another justice over time.” In other words, once the state eliminates inequality, envy will die. That’s typical of socialists long before Rawls and the basis for their belief that socialism will perfect humanity.
But Schoeck proves that envy never dies. The more equal societies become the hotter envy burns. Greater equality inflames envy because people fixate on the remaining differences and exaggerate them. People aren’t born innocent and catch envy because of inequality, as socialists assert. The Bible insists, and Schoeck demonstrates, that people are born envious. Only Christianity has managed to suppress envy sufficiently to produce economic development.
The disinterested persons under Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” are not motivated by envy, Rawls wrote in Justice as Fairness, because he defined those people as not being envious: “Since envy, for instance, is generally regarded as something to be avoided and feared, at least when it becomes intense, it seems desirable that, if possible, the choice of principles should not be influenced by the trait. So we stipulate that the parties are not influenced by these psychologies as they try to secure the good of those they represent...That is, parties ignore persons’ inclinations to be envious or spiteful.” That’s a typical socialist ploy – redefine all terms so that the socialist wins by default.
“Rawls's definition of envy is tendentious because it is perfectly tailored to his difference principle. If it is urged that the difference principle is "based" on envy, he answers by defining envy in such a way that it could not serve as a motive for choosing that principle. But this is a circular argument. The objection was based on the common understanding of envy, and cannot therefore be circumvented by redefinition.”
Walsh adds that one of the primary goods that must be distributed equally is self-respect. Rawls wrote, “Significant political and economic inequalities are often associated with inequalities of social status that encourage those of lower status to be viewed by themselves and by others as inferior.” Since a loss of self-respect and a sense of inferiority are aspects of envy, the choice of self-respect as a primary good and the demands for equality must be based on envy.
Rawlsians will complain that envy doesn’t influence the scheme because Rawls said it doesn’t. But few have ever confessed to envy. Every envious person sees his motives as pure and for the common good, the public’s health and safety and all that. The evidence of envy lies in the demand for equality of outcomes, such as wealth or political power, instead of equality before the law, as the Christian definition of equality states.
The Biblical view of society has something in common with Rawls’ abstract and artificial society, a concern for the poor. But rather than trying to satiate envy as Rawls’ does, the Bible calls for voluntary redistribution out of love for God and for other people. Rawls found such motivation odious: “The least advantaged are not, if all goes well, the unfortunate and unlucky – objects of our charity and compassion, much less pity – but those to whom reciprocity is owed as a matter of political justice.” But the Biblical view of justice and charity worked for 1,900 years and gave us Western Civilization at its best. Rawls thinks he is much wiser than God and can devise a better system.
Socialists protest that envy does not motivate them or Rawls. Yet, any casual reader of Schoeck’s book will see Rawls written on every page.