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.
This week, I reflected on the relationships between justice as a set of balancing mechanisms and the blind effects of chaotic complexity – or, to use a more traditional word, fortune.
Price is a mechanism for establishing justice, say supporters of the free market: the sum total of private interests will end up in a fair price. Not so, say the supporters of regulation: intervention is required so that the random forces of the marketplace do not result in blatant inequalities, or incapacity for the poor to cover their basic needs – that is why we must set maximum prices for certain types of goods, a minimal income, and differentiated taxes.
The difference between those two positions on economic policy may, more fundamentally, reflect two very different belief systems. Is our world inherently good, but corrupted by our incapacity to let nature have its way – or is our world inherently flawed, and ethical behaviour a deliberate effort to counter the destructive effects of a fallen nature? Our answer to this question will determine the way that we think of justice and the role of the state.
I read the following in a piece that circulated on my Facebook stream: ‘massive corporate avoidance, which is just legitimised corruption.’ It is only possible for business ventures and collective entities to generate profits because a set of public goods make their activities possible – including rules and regulations, educated populations, and material infrastructure. It is, therefore, legitimate that private benefit should partly be redirected towards the maintenance of the very public goods that made them possible to start with. This is the principle of tax, and a matter of justice. Corruption occurs when private individuals benefiting from public infrastructure no longer bear their fair share of effort, but rather, direct excessive amounts of scarce resources towards their private accounts. Failing to pay the right share of tax is therefore, in logical terms, a clear form of theft. And yet, in too many circles, evading responsibility for supporting public goods is celebrated as a form of intelligence and the mark of a free spirit – or at least, tolerated as the way things are and have to be. Not so stealing from supermarkets, squatting an empty house, or – God forbid – claiming excessive unemployment benefits.
Justice is always about change. It forces us to question a certain state of affair, and make required adjustments. As we, humans, are biological creatures, interacting with other biological creatures, change is permanent, in us, and around us. Whenever we reach a state of balance, something occurs to quickly disturb it. Therefore, the work of justice is not a once-and-for-all attempt at establishing the right balance, but a continuous effort, that our very nature undermines, always.
Our lives are based on heritage: language, architecture, and the laws guiding our behaviour from a very young age are all remnants of the past, giving shape to the present. Meanwhile, the chaotic interactions of groups and individuals have unexpected effects, and unequal impact. A building permit will cause one to lose access to sunlight or an open view – while another will benefit from a new school or train station built around the corner. Some will experience this as a form of injustice, and fight a collective decision that they perceive as excessively detrimental to them. For others, a decision taken somewhere else, and affecting them positively, will be perceived as good fortune. Which of them has a wiser approach? When should we see the world in terms of justice, and actively question the way that a decision impacts on various parties – and when should we, rather, take things as a matter of fortune, rejoice in our own luck, or accept a negative turn with calm, as part of the way that things have to be?