September 6, 2007

Two concepts of justice.

Filed under: Friedman, Politics — duncan @ 7:29 pm

Here’s an interesting passage from the penultimate chapter of ‘Capitalism and Freedom’. (Sorry to keep banging on about this, but I’m going to be on the basics for… some time). Friedman is discussing the difference between “equality of rights and equality of opportunity, on the one hand, and material equality or equality of outcome on the other.” The true liberal, Friedman says, applauds the former but is deeply suspicious of the latter. This is what distinguishes the liberal from the egalitarian. The liberal “may approve state action toward ameliorating poverty as a more effective way in which the great bulk of the community can achieve a common objective. He will do so with regret, however, at having to substitute compulsory for voluntary action.”

“The egalitarian will go this far, too. But we will want to go further. He will defend taking from some to give to others, not as a more effective means whereby the ‘some’ can achieve an objective they want to achieve, but on grounds of ‘justice’. At this point, equality comes sharply into conflict with freedom; one must choose. One cannot be both an egalitatian, in this sense, and a liberal.” (p. 195).

I think this takes us pretty close to the heart of Friedman’s philosophy, and to the problems with it. With all due apologies for the incoherence of my thinking, there are difficulties here with what Friedman means by ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’.

The egalitarian “will defend taking from some to give to others, not as a more effective means whereby the ‘some’ can achieve an objective they want to achieve, but on grounds of ‘justice’.” I think it’s worth pointing out that this is true of virtually all political thinkers, at all times, everywhere. Try re-parsing this sentence, with its subject not egalitarianism, but the criminal justice system. When a criminal is robbed of his freedom by the state, this is a way in which the ‘some’ can achieve an objective they want to achieve. It is also a limitation of freedom in the name of justice. And Friedman has no objection to this form of justice. The loss of freedom that comes with the goal of economic justice is deplorable; the loss of freedom that comes from enforcing the laws of the land is commenable. Of course, in Friedman’s utopia those laws of the land would be severely restricted. But that doesn’t matter. The point is that Friedman’s love of freedom at no point moves him towards a position even vaguely resembling anarchism. He has no qualms about the right of government to punish and imprison its citizens. And Friedman doesn’t seem to be sufficiently conscious of the extent to which this puts him at odds with his own maxim, quoted above.

Let me go out on a glib, shaking limb. One way of considering the difference between ‘right’ and ‘left’ is by considering the different emphases these ideological alignments place on the concept of justice. When the right talks about justice, more often not it means the punishment of those who have transgressed society’s norms. “We demand justice”, on the pages of a right wing newspaper generally means “We demand punishment”: a punishment appropriate to the crime. When the left talks about justice, on the other hand, it generally means ‘social justice’: the reduction of income disparity, an end to prejudice, ‘fair trade’, etc.

Of course both concepts are always in operation. They’re not even really separate concepts. But my point is: there’s no prima facie reason why the right’s ‘concept’ of justice involves less of an infringement of liberty than the left’s.

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