Beware Of “Economic Justice” (2005 May)

by Barry A. Liebling

Often you can obtain insight about a person’s core attitudes by noticing his or her choice of words. Consider the expression “economic justice” which is frequently used to cajole the listener that the speaker has good intentions. Here are some recent examples of “economic justice” being used to argue public policy.

* A man with a bullhorn stands in front of a luxury hotel that the owners intend to convert to condominiums. The man proclaims that the city government should prohibit the hotel from closing in the name of economic justice.

* A “community organizer” argues that no Big Box store should be allowed in her neighborhood since it might disrupt existing businesses. She asserts that economic justice demands that the Big Box store be forbidden to operate in the area.

* A television journalist advocates tariffs on imported clothing to protect domestic producers in the name of economic justice. He worries that without tariffs consumers will choose to buy more foreign-made clothes.

What do these speakers mean by “economic justice”? What attitudes do they have in common?

Consider first what “justice” means. The concept of justice is essential to ethics. It refers to evaluating and treating those you encounter properly. You are just to the extent to which you use objective, correct standards for praising or condemning a person’s actions – accurately distinguishing the morally good from bad. Of course, you should always strive for justice. The challenge is to have correct standards and to apply them consistently.

So what is “economic justice”? It could be a politically neutral term. It might signify the topic of justice applied to the economic realm. But typically, “economic justice” is not politically neutral. Instead, it is a catch phrase that is embraced by zealots who are intent on attacking everything that is essential to capitalism.

It is revealing to enter “economic justice” on your favorite internet search engine and see which sites are at the top of the list. As of this writing I see organizations that identify free trade, capitalism, globalization, and individualism as their adversaries. They advocate the “left perspective on economic affairs,” fighting for “economic democracy,” and the elimination of “profit-driven enterprise.”

Let us return to the previous examples of “economic justice” to see what is implied and how this is different from genuine justice.

* The man with the bullhorn regards taking away the property rights of the hotel owners as economic justice. He believes that if his friends are benefitting from the status quo they have a right to keep it that way via government force. Genuine justice would regard the man harshly since he is calling for coercion, rather than persuasion, as a means of bargaining with the hotel owners.

* The community organizer believes that economic justice consists of sheltering existing businesses by government muscle from having to compete with a new business. Genuine justice would inform her that voluntary actions of customers and business partners should determine the success of all businesses – existing and new – in her neighborhood.

* The television journalist feels that taking the rights away from consumers to buy inexpensive imported clothing is economic justice. He thinks that guaranteeing by force the success of domestic producers is morally good while respecting the freedom of clothing buyers is expendable. Genuine justice would tell him that he has no right to interfere with anyone’s honest and voluntary business transactions.

Notice that in every case where “economic justice” is the excuse for a policy, the policy consists of using coercion to achieve an objective. The presence of coercion should be your clue that something is wrong. The good guys do not initiate force in business. A necessary condition for any business relationship to be ethical is that the individuals involved deal by voluntary mutual consent. Thus, the term “economic justice” as used by interventionists is at odds with genuine justice.

While anyone might use the term “economic justice” in discourse, it has been adopted as a favored phrase among advocates of a command economy. The term is a code among committed leftists for identifying who is part of the “struggle against globalism and free trade.” It also can lull uncommitted individuals into supporting leftist causes since the words “economic” and “justice” sound innocent to a naive listener.

When someone advocates a policy in the name of “economic justice” be sure to investigate the speaker’s intentions. Is the person really interested in justice and inadvertently slipping in the word “economic”? Or is the person committed to a leftist agenda that is hostile to capitalism? Either way, you should be an advocate of genuine justice.

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