Friday, November 18, 2011

When Does Justice Become Freeloading?

In the old days of the agricultural age, justice suited the ruling landowner class.  Nobody thought about the needs of the agricultural laborer.  The only thing was to make sure that he paid dearly when he poached a rabbit or stole a sheep.

Even divines like Martin Luther were clear that the new liberty was for the townsman.  The peasants should obey their landlords.

So when the modern era dawned some time in the 18th century, your average man was pretty well held down by a yoke of injustice.  There was slavery, there was serfdom, there was indentured servitude, you name it.  In the new conception of justice, that all men are created equal, the old hierarchical ethos no longer applied.

If we take the words of Robert William Fogel, a scholar of slavery, there are several things wrong with slavery, when viewed from our modern society.  In Without Contract or Consent he sets forth a four count indictment of slavery:
  1. "Slavery permitted one group of people to exercise unrestrained personal domination over another group of people."
  2. "Denial of economic opportunity."
  3. "Denial of citizenship... the utter exclusion of slaves from civil and political rights."
  4. "Denial of cultural self-identification."

Obviously these are the words of a liberal, but they resonate with me, not just in the case of slavery but in all questions of justice.  For in modern politics, the question of justice is usually decided by analysis of these four points but at a less extreme situation.  If there is a question of injustice, then people are asking these questions: Is domination a problem? Is economic opportunity constrained?  Is access to civil and political rights diminished?  Is cultural bullying a problem?

Our liberal friends are experts at this sort of thing and they have unerringly focused on the one thing that validates the four questions.  Is the person or group in question a victim?  If he/she or the group is a victim then the power of the state can be deployed legitimately to redress the victim's grievance or claim of injustice.

But here is a thought.  Let us categorize degrees of victimhood.  Let us say that slavery is the worst.  Then would come, in descending order, serfdom, political repression, economic exploitation, and last of all marginalization.

The question that conservatives ask is whether government is always the appropriate vehicle to redress these grievances.  For our liberal friends it goes without saying that all of it, down to marginalization, can and should be addressed by legislation and government programs.  But conservatives aren't so sure.  We look at economic exploitation and say, well, if there is no serfdom or political repression then a free laborer is free to leave an exploitative situation.  If you get the government involved in fighting economic exploitation you end up with collusion between big business and big labor, economic regulation, crony capitalism, and Solyndra.  You get duelling exploitation.  If we set up a government program to provide pensions for the disabled, then all of a sudden, people find ways of qualifying as disabled.   Government employees seem to be expert at this kind of work.

And as for marginalization, which is worse, the marginalization of immigrants by conservatives that tell them to get with the program and Americanize or liberals that ruthlessly marginalize conservatives at the university with speech codes?  Freedom means that people are free to deal or not to deal with other people.  At what point does the freedom not to deal with someone become a marginalization or repression that requires the intervention of the state?

The problem with empowering the state to interfere at the lower levels of the slavery, serfdom, political repression, economic exploitation, marginalization axis is that people are human.  They naturally think that government action is warranted when their friends are damaged.  But they are quite unmoved when people they don't like are harmed.

One big reason for our gigantic government is that politics has recognized no limit on government action.  If people are hurting, said President Bush, then the government must help. "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move."

But that means that limited government is out the window.

But if someone is hurting then surely we must do something to help.  The question is: who is we?  Is the the government?  Is it the neighbors?  Is it business?  Is it "society"?  Our liberal friends are too quick to assume that if someone is hurting, then government must move.  But it would be better for all of us if, instead of government, Americans moved.  Because society, at bottom, comes down to humans acting sociably.  When government moves, people don't need to, and their social instincts atrophy.

It comes down to the basic truth about government: government is force.  So in every question about justice or marginalization, the question comes down to this: Is force the only way we can deal with this?  Because when you use force, then the four count indictment above may apply.  Never mind what the action does for the "victim."  Does it end up dominating someone else?  Or denying them economic opportunity?  Or abridging their political and civil rights? Or their cultural self-identification?  Chances are that it will, so we have to judge whether the cost is worth the benefit.

Because every time someone gets something from the government, the chances are that it amounts to freeloading.

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