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WHO DEFINES “SOCIAL JUSTICE”?

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By Roger More

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The Montréal Review, May 2018

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One of the greatest current political flash points globally across different countries, governments, political systems and parties, academics, media, and minority groups is  concern and debate about the elusive and complex concept of "social justice". There is a host of major pragmatic challenges to any useful approach to or achievement of this objective. The greatest of these challenges are; what exactly is “social justice” in a society, what does it mean in reality, who defines it, and how do you measure it? One observable and useful point of attack on these questions is the wide and fundamental chasm in how social justice is viewed between the political liberal left (socialism) and the conservative political right (free enterprise capitalism). Without a clear and widely shared concept and meaning of what social justice should represent, and without any coherent measures of it, all of the dialogue and writing about it totally collapses into a garbled and incomprehensible rhetorical smorgasbord, where every different point of view and position is equally debatable and defensible. The serious problem is that these ideological differences may simply be irreconcilable in reality.”

Overview

“Social justice.” The phrase itself immediately evokes a wide range of feelings and perceptions. It sounds at first like something we should all desire in a society. However, on closer examination and research, you quickly discover huge differences in how different political parties, authors, researchers, politicians, philosophers, and academics conceptualize its meaning and dimensionality. To explore this, we will decompose some of the major underlying elements and dimensions of “social justice” and compare the differences in their conceptualization between the political left and right. In doing this, it is critical to frame the complex question of social justice in the context of some of the major factors that underlie its perception and influences.

The view from the political right

First, a brief review of some of the major dimensions of the conservative free enterprise capitalist political concept that forms the underlying bases for social justice:

  • Capitalism, free enterprise and conservatism is individual-centric. The world and fundamental human nature are conceptualized and accepted to be highly competitive. Human competition is every life arena is seen as a natural and desirable primal driver of human behavior, excellence, achievement and life success. Individuals are expected to take control and responsibility for their own life processes and needs on every dimension, financial, income, expenses, cash flows, wealth, health, work, education, relationships, housing, food, clothing, and other key areas.
  • Free enterprise capitalism is pragmatic and based on economic reality, not ideology. One cruel reality of the world is that, for a host of complex factors, there are just not enough financial or other resources for everyone in any location to have the same standard of living. There are always going to be unequal incomes, wealth, and lifestyles between individuals, states, and countries.
  • Despite the familiar utopian cliché, in reality all people are not created equal. Genetically, we clearly know that some people are born with superior intelligence, or athletic ability, or one of many other physical and psychological traits and attributes. Faced with the same set of “equal opportunities”, some people will succeed and some will not. This makes the concept of “equal pay for equal work” (pay equity) a ridiculous expectation. “Equal work” should be judged solely on job or task performance, (outputs) not effort (inputs).
  • In this natural human competition, the only real quantitative, numerical and comparative measure of personal competitive success is financial; incomes and wealth. More successful individuals tend to earn more and possess greater wealth. People who are more intelligent, who have self-discipline and ambition, who get better educated, who work hard and save and invest their incomes, who obey the laws, have competed and earned the right to live a wealthier lifestyle.
  • Capitalism is individual freedom-centric. Maximizing individual freedom and the right to compete is seen as an elemental dimension of social justice. Complete freedom of speech, expression, information access and assembly without censorship is critical. There is no tolerance for “political and social correctness” from government or any other person or group.
  • Individual success, progress, admission, hiring and promotion in every life area should be a competitive meritocracy, based purely on ability, effort and performance, in schools, jobs, and professions. There should be no room for preferential treatment, quotas, or “affirmative action” based on any other bases, such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion, indigenous ancestry, or any other.
  • All individuals deserve as much equal access to opportunities as possible. However, they cannot expect or deserve equal outcomes, success and financial rewards from their lives. Life success is based solely on ability, effort and performance in the many different situations faced. In the case of inherited wealth, the capitalist position is that personal wealth should be transferable to family or whoever else you want.
  • The majority of goods and services production in the economy should come primarily from private sector corporations and companies competing for customers and cash flows in local and global product and service markets.
  • Trade in goods and services, both locally and globally is seen as between companies, customers, and other companies.  Governments do not engage directly in trade, and should basically play a minimal role, and interfere only in the cases of other countries governments interfering with tariffs and other punitive measures.
  • The roles of governments at all levels and the taxes to fund them should be as limited and low as possible, to only those services areas where national security and collective needs for widely used monopoly services that require massive long-term investments and maintenance, such as roads, infrastructure, military, police, airports, power generation, monetary and fiscal policies and the like.
  • Governments at all levels should manage to minimize and reduce spending with fiscal prudence and balanced budgets. These balanced budget mandates should be enshrined in law. Governments at all levels should not be legally permitted to run budget deficits from year to year.
  • In the economy, the roles of wealth and job creation belong primarily to private sector entrepreneurs, companies and corporations. Employment by governments at all levels should be minimal. Governments should not compete in products and services with private sector companies.
  • For natural resources such as crude oil, minerals, lumber, and crops on un-deeded land, companies and individuals should be able to competitively bid for access or ownership to process the materials. Once a company has funded access, they should be able to proceed with recovery and other processes without interference from governments or any other group.
  • Government regulations on businesses in all areas should be minimum, and confined to areas of public safety and national security.
  • In government, there should be no employee unions permitted, for the simple fact that there is no real competition for the monopoly services provided to taxpayers. Any bargaining problems should be settled by binding arbitration with no service interruptions legally permitted.
  • Everyone is expected to work if they are able and there are jobs of any kind that they can perform, even if it is not in their chosen field. For people who are in poverty, disabled, or unable to work, there must be reasonable financial and other support and assistance programs. However, these must not encourage, condone or reward illegal or dysfunctional behaviors, such as drug addictions, gambling, purposely having children with no resources in order to avoid working and claim welfare, and the like.

The view from the political left

Compare the above perspectives with a brief review of some major factors underlying the socialist political concepts underlying social justice:

  • Socialism is group-centric in nature. The rights and freedoms of individual people are secondary and subordinate to those of groups or larger populations. The ideology is that the world and fundamental human nature should have a mutually concerned, interdependent, and responsible collective property. To the greatest degree possible, all people should be collectively responsible for the welfare of all others.
  • Because of this group centricity and empowerment, socialism breeds a large number of specialized minority groups, frequently highly activist and vocal in their behavior. Some examples of these groups are LGBQT, feminists, black lives matter, #Metoo, unions, civil servants, teachers, university professors, professions like law and medicine, and many others. It becomes important for many people to derive their identity, political power, protection and privileges on group membership rather than on their individual achievement and success.
  • This mutual group responsibility and protection is manifest and implemented in the institutions, regulations and laws from the empowerment of governments. As a result, socialist governments are expected to be the central controlling, managing and economic power in a country, with high levels of government employment, powerful public sector unions, and large and powerful bureaucracies, often resulting in high and increasing levels of spending and budgets, and often large financial deficits and long-term debt. Yearly budget deficits are conceptualized as “investments” rather than expenses and debt that must be repaid.
  • Socialism is anti-competition, anti-business, anti-corporation and pro-cooperation, consensus, collective bargaining and group decision-making.
  • Socialism does not accept differences in personal income and wealth driven by individual competition and personal achievement, and strives to narrow or eliminate any perceived “income inequalities”. The primary mechanisms for achieving this are high levels of both personal and corporate income taxes, and income redistribution schemes such as low income subsidies, minimum wages, highly progressive taxation on goods and services, and free medical care and other government tax-funded programs. In the case of inherited wealth, socialists believe it should be highly taxed or not allowed at all.
  • Powerful collective bargaining and unions in all jobs and professions is seen as a central and critical part of the group-centric socialist society and culture.
  • Socialism embraces the idea that the ability to compete and enjoy life success is denied some people and groups in different situations by a wide range of systemic and historical personal and group discrimination based on gender, race, color, ethnicity, sexuality, language, indigenous ancestry and others. The redress for these “unfair” situations is to empower governments at all levels to enact and enforce regulations and laws to protect the individuals involved from competition. These can involve reverse discrimination, affirmative action, preferential hiring and promotion, and pay equity (“equal pay for equal work”) laws and regulations for different groups in both government and business.
  • For people in poverty, who cannot work, or are disabled, the socialist position is parallel to that above on systemic discrimination; that their inability to support themselves is really “not their fault” and “not fair”, that they are “victims” of the “system” and therefore everyone’s mutual financial responsibility. This collective responsibility extends to chosen dysfunctional and illegal behaviors like drug addictions, gambling, and having children in order to exploit the welfare system and avoid working. In all these areas, government programs are heavily funded to treat these, including drug injection sites, medical treatment, extensive free counselling and withdrawal programs, psychological counselling, and many other services. The question of financing and affordability of all these programs and staffing is not addressed. As a result, government employment and budget deficits and debt tend to explode.
  • For natural resources, socialist ideology dictates that ownership of natural resources is collectively owned and vested in all of the population (“the people”), and must not be “owned” by a private corporation or individual. When resource development is possible and potentially profitable, such as crude oil, the overall process must be carefully controlled by the state (government). Private companies may not own sites and land, but may lease access to sites for oil recovery, and must pay high percentages of the revenues in lease rates to the state, who retain ownership of the asset. In these situations, government regulations on corporations are often severe. In the case of oil recovery and development, an example is the sets of oil company regulations on environmental protection, driven by activist environmental minority groups.
  • World trade is conceptualized as being inter-country and inter-region rather than company-customer and inter-company. As a result socialist governments see themselves as playing powerful roles guiding, managing, controlling, negotiating with other countries and regions, and constraining the strategies of corporations marketing products and services locally and globally. Examples abound, including local milk and egg marketing boards, who control critical supply-demand, quota capacity allocation and pricing decisions rather than accepting free-enterprise competitive marketplaces. Other key examples are socialist government’s control of oil pipeline construction and capacity, and the current Canada/U.S.A./Mexico NAFTA negotiations.

Summary

It is difficult to come to any simple conclusion in this complex area. However, we can say that some primal capitalist defining dimensions of “social justice” are individual-centric and competitive; the guarantees of individual freedom, personal responsibility, life control and the ability to compete, personal privacy, meritocracy, the right to succeed and to enjoy the resultant personal income, social status and wealth, free speech, private sector business dominance, and minimum government controls, regulations, taxation and interference.

By contrast, we can say that some primal socialist defining dimensions of “social justice” are group-centric, protective, maternal, “nanny state”, anti-competitive; high degrees of government size, taxation, power and dominance over business and trade, protection of unproductive people from competition and meritocracy through unions, social programs, government regulations, high civil servant employment, compensation, benefits and job security, and strong protective reaction and response to any minority group or individual claims of discrimination of any kind, real or imagined.

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Roger More is Professor Emeritus at the Ivey Business School, Western University, former professor at Harvard Business School, and former Hewlett-Packard Chaired Professor. He is president of Roger More and Associates, Management Consultants, and previously practiced Engineering with Celanese Corporation. Dr. More is author of 7 major management books and monographs, including, "Marketing High Profit Product/ Service Solutions” (Gower Press, 2013), and "Transforming New Technologies Into Cash Flow” (Haworth Press, 2006). He is also co-author of the book “Winning Market Leadership” (Wiley, 2000) which has been widely applied in consulting to leading global companies to focus strategic plans and marketing strategies for products, services, technologies, and businesses.

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