I’ve always loved the cautious understatement in the title of Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. There’s a kind of bad faith humility implicit in the claim that you’re just offering the world another account of right and wrong, to be set on the shelves next to all those other cockamamie normative theories: nothing special, move along. Of course, this is more ironic in retrospect, because we now know that political philosophers would find this humility so authentic and charming that they can talk of little else but Rawl’s halting, fallible go at defining justice as fairness in excruciating detail.
The name of this site captures that feeling I get whenever I think about “a” theory of justice. There’s an ironic meta-statement about political philosophy built into my nom de plume, “anotherpanacea.” I’m both a big fan and a big skeptic of utopias, of cure-alls and universal remedies: communism, anarcho-syndicalism, or immortality through extreme calorie-reduction. I’m just as big a fan of dystopian predictions, apocalyptic planning, and conspiracy theories: Y2K, the Second Coming of Christ, Silent Spring, the Illuminati, etc.
The name is meant to be both descriptive and cautionary:
“Hey guys! Look at this great solution-to-the-world’s-ills I’ve discovered!”
“Another panacea? Great, I bet you worked out all the kinks in the human condition this time….”
So that’s me: I’m both an idealist and a cynic. I have both the arrogant sense that I know how the world should run (at least a little better than most of the people actually in the position to do it), and yet I take great pleasure and wonder from its complexity and resistance to control, from the emergent behaviors that constantly trip up master planners and evil geniuses alike. Part of my job involves spending a lot of time studying the deleterious effects of the global political economic order, which is a task that can easily lead to despair. Another part involves talking with people about the good life, about happiness and flourishing, about community and belonging, and about the legal history of the United States of America, which is a pretty wonderful, hopeful story. That’s the tension I navigate most days, and it’s a satisfying one.
I’ve been thinking about these basic questions of identity and method lately as I find myself embroiled in conversations about the upcoming stimulus bill. Diagnosing economic disasters is a kind of Rorshach test for political philosophers. Any market failure in a capitalist economy has a multitude of contributing factors, many of which are not even evident at the moment of the disaster itself. We can locate the problem in ordinary human greed (consumer spending, household debt-to-savings ratios) or the special greed of bad men (bankers and brokers, speculators and Republicans), in lack of regulation (Where was the SEC? Should we have public bond-rating agencies?) or in over-regulation (mark-to-market accounting, distortionary taxation schemes), in the systematic exploitation of capitalism itself or in the apparently self-defeating impulse to control the business cycle (war spending, central bank regulation of interest rates), in the broken global financial order (trade deficits and tariffs) or in a long-overdue correction of Euro-American economic hegemony (Chinese trade war waged through exchange rate manipulation.)
Added to the diagnostic question, there are the solutions and prescriptions adopted not just by political philosophers and economists, but by ordinary citizens. Right now, the national debate is focused on two solutions: deficit spending and tax cuts. It’s amazing how much ideology and political affiliation shapes our approach to this question: deficit tax cutting and defecit spending both have inflationary effects, and both saddle the next generation with debts for the spending of the last generation. Right now, we seem confident that our governement will spend the money wisely, though the same government under different leadership has stupidly wasted almost $2 trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, between war-time appropriations, future commitments to veterans’ education and health, and the costs to the economy of taking all those young, healthy workers overseas at a time when we needed their help domestically bolstering productivity.
Increasingly, I’ve seen people asking: how are we to deal with the social justice issues that are attendant with any government spending when larger economic or political forces threaten everyone’s welfare but promise to harm the least-advantaged disproportionately? I’m glad this question is emerging for so many different kinds of people. Some of them express their concerns in terms of the ‘moral hazard’ of bailing out failing banks and negligent bankers, others with the question of the fairness of bailing out home owners at the expense of those who rent. A recent article about forgiving student loans (which is not a provision of the stimulus bill) excited a major debate at Metafilter over the justice of a wealth transfer from the poor and uneducated to the educated but indebted, about personal responsibility and moral hazard, and about the economics of higher education.
There are a profusion of panaceas on offer here, and an even larger set of reasons for skepticism. All of this is driving our attention back to the fundamental questions: how should our shared world be structured? What role is there in it for the state’s legitimate monopoly on violence and coercive taxation? What division of labor and goods is just? What goals and goods ought we to pursue as citizens, as parents, as neighbors, as friends? What’s fair? What works?
While as a citizen and a worker, I’d like to see steps taken quickly to rectify the ailing economy, I also like to see the debates and deliberations on these issues taking place in newspapers, in churches, in internet forums and blogs, and at the dinner table. It gives me a special thrill, in part, because these are my favorite questions, but even that is rooted in my belief that everyone benefits when they confront these questions head-on and dig deeply to make their answers cohere in comprehensive theories of justice. As Michael Sandel says, “We live some answer to these questions every day.”