Justice – Week 3

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due. 

Over the week, I reflected on privilege and the role that power structures play in maintaining justice.

The structure of the State, at least in Europe and Australia, involves a separation of power. Law-makers are responsible for establishing fair legislation; judges are responsible for settling disputes; executive organs – governments and their various agencies – must coordinate the work of administration, police and public service in a just manner. These powers balance each other, limiting the risk that an entire state will shift away too far from justice. But this balance structurally limits fast and decisive action. Hence, as happened in the recent French election, the appeal of a strong man taking initiative to concentrate all powers in their hands. This is a path to greater strength, not greater justice.

Where does justice begin, and where does fortitude? Does justice command that – whenever possible – we step up and exert leadership when a system is unjust? Does it only require that we not take part in whatever evil is orchestrated? Or does it demand that we publically strive to name things for what they are – and leave it there? Is justice a virtue that mainly concerns individual action, or does justice invite us to consistently reflect on the structures around us, and what those nudge us to do? Where does justice begin, and where does prudence?

As I attend the first day of the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance pre-summit in Berlin, I reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of entrepreneurship and its supporting systems. Start-ups are very good at building not only private goods, but also club goods – open access to valuable things for a limited pool of members. The danger is, such club goods often pass off as public, and on that basis, receive undeserved amounts of scarce resources and attention. Facebook has over one billion users, true. Most of humanity therefore is not on it. Sharing economy platforms do wonders for educated residents of global cities. In most of the world, they bring no benefit.

Start-up ecosystems, put forward as part of city-branding by Berlin, Melbourne, San Francisco, Shanghai and Amsterdam – or even Johannesburg, Hanoi and Nairobi – belong to the same class of club goods: access to co-working spaces, incubators, networking events and all forms of seed-funding for new projects is dependent on a certain attitude, language, skillset, information and dress-code. There is nothing inherently wrong about this – but passing off a selective members’ club as a community space for all is telling a lie, and endangering justice.

The discourse of entrepreneurship articulates a new form of aristocratic ethos. Risk-takers create the world of tomorrow based on a deep desire to leave a mark through their impact.  On this basis, they demand privilege – access to rulers, exemption from tax, a looser relationship to the law. They believe in working hard, but also believe in cultivating the traits that will nurture a greater creative vision: they do sport, they like beautiful things, and gather in cosmopolitan forums to shape the world of tomorrow – expecting subsidies to fund their travel costs and salmon canapes. This is just only to the extent that their efforts genuinely contribute to public welfare.

As the week ends, and I reflect on the summit I just attended, I return to the role of structures. I met beautiful people, but found the curation underwhelming. It was not clear whether we were mainly supposed to learn new things, meet new people, or propose new policy. Hence, probably, a light sense of coldness and competitive hostility. I leave on a high – there was cheesecake, champagne, and I was one of the happy few. But I leave with a mild sense of frustration: we could have done more, better. It’s not clear what though. I’m in the club, for sure, but what was the great contribution of this publically sponsored forum to the welfare of all? It is what each one of us makes of it, perhaps. But if we demand privilege, should we not work harder to deserve it?





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