I happened to catch a television show “Justice with Professor Michael Sandel” on iChannel. It dealt with social justice and the work of American moral philosopher John Rawls. Good show, but it troubles me.
Rawls proposed that society is organized in ways that benefit some but not all. People that do the best are typically from families that have done well, are the first born, or live in wealthy countries. The system supports them. Not necessarily more, but it is easier for them to plug in.
Since they have fundamental advantages, not of their own doing, then they have no clear entitlement to the complete value of what they earn. Effort alone is not enough.
Society as a whole contributes in some indirect way and should be rewarded for that contribution. Rawls proposes income redistribution from those that have more to those who have less.
Essentially should the value of their natural advantage accrue to them alone, or should they share that with society as a whole? If so, how much?
I have no dispute with the idea that society contributes to the success of the wealthy, that it costs to operate society as we know it, and that wealthier people should contribute more to that cost. I might quibble about whether or not income redistribution is the complete answer and certainly would argue the quantum and method of distribution.
Rawls reasonable proposal holds four blemishes. They must be addressed in order to do redistribution so that society, taken as a whole, is better off. Missing the “as a whole” requirement means the end would be an equal sharing of poverty.
There are flawed implicit assumptions:
I believe that people, all people, want to do their best and be their best, and that each of us has impediments to doing so.
I further estimate that people who hold delusional beliefs invariably fail.
Lastly I believe that governments get in the way of successful achievement because they are impatient.
Impatience is the mark of the unsophisticated. Some problems take time to resolve. Some go away on their own. If the temperature at home is 15 Celsius and I want 20, turning the thermostat up to 25 will not make it warm faster. So it is with regulation and standards. Rigorous mandates have little effect in the short term, but politicians need immediate results so they tend to overdue their solutions.
Education, another patience issue, is key for the disadvantaged. Not only the traditional education material, but it must also include practical education, a way of life idea. Things like:
Education should include “strategic financial literacy” and it should further include some kind of “life literacy.”
Ideas that cannot be implemented or that reduce the overall total wealth of society should be discouraged.
Meaning well is not a sufficient condition.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.