Economics vs Justice

Economists reduce human relationships to mathematics — most egregiously so when it comes to justice.

Now they do have a point. There’s something called commutative justice. I pay you $10, and in return you give me something worth $10. Equal exchange. Mathematical justice. Important. Nobody wants to be cheated.

But not everyone distinguishes that from distributive justice — a different animal entirely. If commutative justice is a workhorse, distributive justice is a unicorn.

The idea of distributive justice is simple on the surface. You earn twice as much as me because your work produces twice as much value (you are twice as productive). That makes our situations equivalent, so it’s all good — mathematically. But it’s troublesome if you look under the hood.

First of all, your personnel productivity is fine in theory (if you don’t look too carefully), but it doesn’t exist in the real world. If you worked an hour this morning, and company revenues increased $1000 that hour, how much of that was due to your diligent labor? Ask your boss. You’ll get told to stop being weird and get back to work.

It just can’t be done. You’re working in a cooperative effort with a ton of other employees of all kinds. Everyone’s an essential part of the process, so you all deserve that $1000. There’s no way to separate you out.

Or say you’re digging trenches. How much of that revenue is because you’re using a backhoe instead of a shovel? So maybe the capitalist, who soon won’t need labour to run backhoes anyway, should get that $1000. Just who’s productive and who’s not? It’s like calculating the length of the unicorn’s horn.

But economists will insist that their mathematical models of perfect markets will automatically pay everyone according to their personal productivity, whether it exists in the real world or not. So just trust in markets and it’ll all be good.

But the silliness of the theory is not the key point. Justice is not a mathematical game. Justice is about people and their needs. Economists have no patience for needs. Only wants exist. It’s all preferences — needs are just strong preferences — and all preferences are created equal. Whoever has the most money gets their most trivial preferences satisfied. Needs be damned. That’s how the freedom game works.

There’s an interesting biblical parable that illustrates this point. Here’s the narrative (in my quirky paraphrase). One morning, some landowner wanted to hire workers to work in his vineyard. He was offering the going wage of the time, a buck a day. And some guys signed on.

But he needed more workers, and went to town later in the day to hire more. He asked idle workers there why they weren’t working, and they said because nobody had made them an offer yet. So he hired as many as he needed and took them to his vineyard, offering them the same going wage.

Then at the end of the day, it was time to hand out their pay. And he grossed out the all-day workers by paying everyone the same buck. Some hadn’t started working till late afternoon. The morning guys were grumbling.

The landowner said, “I can make any deal I want with my own money. You all agreed to a buck a day. Don’t be envious just because I’m generous”.

Then the parable ends with the famous kicker, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last”.

Modern people don’t know what to make of this. It’s mathematically unjust — paying the same money for different amounts of work. Since The Enlightenment period of the Eighteenth Century, justice has always been about mathematics. Now apparently some fool Messiah, eighteen centuries before that, was suggesting that justice is about generosity.

What then is generous justice? The guys who couldn’t get work until late afternoon had to feed their families just as much as those who got work in the morning. So give them what they need, even though the work is unequal. That is — when it comes to need — give generously until the needs are satisfied. That’s compassionate justice.

Once the basic needs of everyone have been met — around the world — then we can play the game of indulging our luxuries, satisfying our mere wants, giving the morning guys a little extra.

Or not. There are plenty more parables about giving up our profane luxuries and following a different path. The last shall be first in line.

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