Friday, February 10, 2012

Economics, Justice, and human rights

The economy has been on the mind of many lately, what with the federal budget due out soon (amid dire warning it will be rough), talk of more economic sanctions on Iran, backlash over the Keystone XL pipeline decision, and Harper's visit to China to talk trade all being prominent topics in the media recently. And there has been a good deal of worry that the focus on economics (particularly with Harper's visit to China) will result in concerns of human rights being put on the back burner or ignored altogether. With China's recent veto on the UN resolution regarding the violence in Syria, and Prime Minister Harper's Beijing visit to talk about energy and trade coming so shortly afterward, the concern does not seem unwarranted.

But one thing I wanted to raise in addition to talking about human rights, which we have discussed on this blog several times, is the relation of economic choices, economic practices, and justice. "The economy" seems often like it is a huge machine (perhaps a broken one, or one spiraling out of control) but when we really think about it, the economy is a system of relationships. It is a social phenomenon. Some (many?) of those relationships are exploitative--as we are hearing about the ongoing allegations concerning Apple and Foxconn making exploitative use of their workers. But nevertheless, the economy is based on humans engaged in socially mediated practices of an economic character. And when speaking of relationships, normative language makes sense. Whether or not the parties involved pay attention to it, there are ethical concerns that come along with human relationships.

We don't all agree on what those norms and ethical concerns are--that's an ongoing conversation--but these corporations are criticized for their economic practices because there is the understanding that they are wrong in a normative sense of the word. (I should say here that Apple is hardly alone in this: poor working conditions along the supply chain plague many other electronics corporations and suppliers. Apple is currently coming under higher scrutiny because they are the most prominent.) The reported wages their suppliers pay their workers, the conditions under which those workers are said to work, and the unsafe materials foisted on them are seen now by many as unacceptable. And yet, Apple, for example, has increased its profits dramatically, coming out with better profits this year than almost anyone had foreseen, though it is likely that such a large profit being posted was what triggered the New York Times article on the terrible working conditions.

As we have seen here people are raising questions about what is just--just wages, just living conditions, just working conditions. While such reflection is being focused on particular companies right now, it is the kind of reflection that I think is required more generally across the board in order to have a more just society. I raised above that what I wanted to talk about here are economic practices, economic choices and justice. How can justice inform economics, and what are some things we can consider when making economic choices, if we want to have a greater orientation toward justice?


  1. I think there are two approaches.

    1. A set of reforms or standards could be developed (which is what your question seems to be after) and these reforms could then, through a miracle of advocacy, achieve a critical mass of international commitment to work.

    If they did not receive this critical mass, the economies that implemented the reforms / standards would be unable to compete with those that did not. It would be like the situation with China where currency is manipulated to make Chinese businesses more competitive. Or where the Chinese government funds its businesses so that they can win projects by submitting bids that no competitor can beat.

    2. A set of reforms could be produced that, while providing a greater orientation to justice, they also make the economy more competitive. (The reforms / standards are not a drag on business but rather a boost.)

    If such a set of reforms was possible they *should* naturally spread as their implementation demonstrates their effectiveness. In this way they would avoid the need for obtaining a critical mass of international commitment, which I doubt is even possible, and spread more through a mechanism like survival of the fittest.

    Accepting this second approach as more possible and therefore superior, the question becomes: What kind of reforms could be made to our economic practices that would provide a greater orientation toward justice WHILE ALSO improving competitiveness?

    Without this condition of increased competitiveness being met I think the reform / standard is a non-starter. The world is more concerned about personal gain than it is about doing what is right. And I don't think that is going to change any time soon.

    1. I think there's a big flaw in your reasoning there, Jared. The conditions under which "reforms" would or would not work can include the systems (or meta-systems) under which they operate, and those systems themselves have normative underpinnings. An analysis that begins with the idea of success or failure being dependent upon "competition" takes a lot for granted about what is or is not on the table for consideration.

      Competition itself can be on the table. We already regulate it by enforcing standards of behaviour. It's not considered fair to attract your competition's customers by blowing up the competition's store, for example. At least not in Ontario.

      Perhaps currency manipulation needs to be on the table, too. Reforming the international monetary system can be a topic of discussion without making the litmus test for the desireability of the idea whether or not it can be "spread naturally". (remind me to quibble about the use of the word "natural" when we mean "inevitable" or "without further effort", someday)

      BTW, the travelling exhibit Massive Change made your point about achieving change through the marketplace, among other things. I hope you got to see it.

    2. Hi Daryl. I do take a lot for granted. I also think there is something to pragmatism, and to trying to find the best way forward from where we are right now.

      Right now personal gain tends to have a higher priority than doing what is right. The results of this are clear, and not ideal.

      The answer however, whatever it is, must promote both sides. Long term solutions must be both personally enriching and just.

      Perhaps I focused too much on competitiveness before to indicate what I believe is the necessity of including self interest in any conversation about bringing justice to our economic practices.

    3. Hi again Jared. After a weekend of fighting fever and sore throat I'm just glad my immune system won the competition with whatever bug happened into my ecosystem. :)

      I'm pretty sure I understand your thinking regarding competetiveness, maybe not all the way to the bottom, as that tends to be pretty different from person to person, but there is an undeniable attractiveness to the idea that competition is so well-aligned to human-nature and perhaps even the nature of life in general that to discount it as a primary consideration is foolhardy. Combine that with the obvious efficiency of a competition-based market system, and you have a compelling argument for making competitiveness a near must in just about any discussion about collective human organisation.

      My own thinking about competition is that it doesn't deserve all of the credit given to it. When we look at apparently competitive systems closely I think we discover that they are much more random and/or arbitrary than they appear to be and that competition is only a satisfactory way of looking at a segment of them.

      That is just to illustrate where I am coming from, not to argue against your point about the necessity of including self-interest in the conversation. Frankly, I think we would be naive to think that self-interest can be trumped by "justice", especially when we need to negotiate with each other to get things done. Rather, I think it is the case that justice arrives when our perceptions of our own interests, and/or our perceptions of what constitutes our "self", are expanded.

      You say "right now personal gain tends to have a higher priority" and while I can see that this is true in a lot of ways I have to point out that at the level of policy-making what constitutes personal gain is often different for those making the policies or negotiating treaties than for those whose interests they are supposed to represent. I would also point out that even where those individuals depend on those they represent for their very postions the opportunities for them to represent the interests of the few rather than the many are manifold.

      Finally, I would like to point out that there is a separation between the expectations and the outcomes of particular policies that initially appear designed to serve the self-interests of people. "Justice work" is, I think, a lot about closing that perceptual gap.

    4. Hi Daryl, I'm happy to hear you're feeling better! I also think the only aspect of my thought that you may have missed is my preoccupation with reforms that can be implemented. Hence my stress on policies that, while more just, also increase competitiveness, since this is a natural driver of policy adoption and avoids the need to obtain a critical mass of consensus/commitment in the international community.

      I suppose that would be my question to you: How do you think new policies can gain traction in this world? Will the apparent justness of them be sufficient to convince the major players to adopt them? Or, as you seem to suggest, is it a matter of negotiating international agreements?

    5. It's true that I'm not yet confident in my understanding of where you're coming from on that issue, so I've been kind of trying to surround it until something pops. I'll try to answer your question and maybe then we'll see if I'm grokking you fully.

      I think that the justness of any policy includes all its effects. For example, an environmental policy that causes economic hardship to some people while at the same time being beneficial to the health of other people may not be just.

      I also think that very often, political, systemic, or personal biases play a large role in the motivations of the "major players" and these motivations are not always about competition between nations in the global economy (which is what I assume you refer to with "competitiveness").

      Lastly, I think that if a reform that was needed and just ALSO gave the nations that needed to implement it a competitive advantage it still wouldn't happen if any of a large number other obstacles got in its way. For example, if repeal of a prohibition on the use of a certain drug were suggested as both just and apt to allow all the nations subscribing to the same drug treaty to spend less on interdiction and thereby improve the efficiency of the flow of their goods across borders, the measure could still fail if the polity of one of those nations contained a bloc whose identity commitments required opposing all legitimation of drug use. In this case that nation could be a holdout on that reform for reasons that have no direct linkage to competitiveness or justice. Other similar stumbling blocks could include the self-interests of the people representing their nations, interests such as having a large number of shares in companies that could be placed at an indirect disadvantage by the otherwise just and competitiveness-improving reforms.

      And I'm spent...

    6. I'm with you on all 3 points Daryl.

      Perhaps I'm too optimistic with my overly simplistic idea that any economic policy/practice that gives competitive advantage (to a person, a business, a nation, etc) will naturally take off and compel others to adopt it. (So that if the policy/practice is also just we have with this an effective way to bring justice to our economies.)

      But perhaps your response is a bit too pessimistic. It stresses the complexity and stumbling blocks that any effort to bring justice would face but in doing so it emphasizes the despair already noted, by Allyson for instance, when she mentioned being "hung up" on how to do this on a large scale.

      The bottom line then is that we still need a way forward. Perhaps my point can be made more agreeable by saying, simply, that bringing justice to our economies must include both a structural critique of those economies aimed at making them more just AND a plan for the widespread implementation of those reforms. Both pieces are vital to addressing the OP.

    7. Hi Jared,

      I wanted to make an important point of clarification. I don't feel there is need for despair, as you said above: when I said I was "hung up" on implementation, it was referring to not knowing how best to proceed, not to any feeling that proceeding is impossible. Which was why I said it did not stop me from wondering and trying.

      We do need a way forward, and competition, as a means of avoiding things like monopolies and encouraging more fair prices, will likely be part of that way forward. But I think that the last 150 years of capitalism as it has developed has shown us that competition does not just balance itself out for the good of society on its own. It seems to me that part of what we need in terms of structural critique is not just re-tooling the economy, but changing the way people think about their own roles in promoting justice through their lives, actions and choices--including their economic ones.

      Hope that helps.

    8. Despair was too strong a word to use of you Allyson. I never meant to suggest that you were hopeless. With these big problems though it is easy to feel that way. Hell, even in our personal economic situations it can be easy to feel despair, let alone before the massive crises of the world economy.

      I also agree about working to change how people think about their own roles. Through changing things on the individual level we can drive change globally. I like that you would combine this initiative with re-tooling the broader economies. I think that both approaches are absolutely necessary and not unrelated. That is, personal efforts to bring justice to our economic practices in concert with municipal-provincial-national-international efforts is the way forward.

      Finally, I also agree that increasing competitiveness can't balance things out for the good of society on its own. It was never my thinking that it could. What we need on all levels is a competitive spirit tempered by fairness and consideration. I think that's a standard that all economies should be measured by and those that refuse to meet it should be shut out.

      To make this work though a critical mass of participation is required. And that brings us back to being either hung-up on how to achieve it or despairing that it can be achieved at all.

      I suppose that's why I'm always drawn back to fighting fire with fire. To showing through concrete examples on the local and global stage that fair and considerate economic practices CAN outcompete those that are not. That, to me, remains the only way to securing widespread buy-in.

    9. I had this marked for reply and finally have time to do it.

      I'm not sure that "despair" wouldn't be the right word for my own attitude, depending on what we mean by it. I do despair that any more manipulations within our systems can have much effect. By that I mean policies, mandates and even education. Excuse me for going ultra-meta-macro but my perception is that we are almost in a prisoner's dilemma at every point now, surrounded by zero sum games and catch 22s everywhere.

      Man that sounds depressing when I say it aloud and all at once. Good thing I'm naturally an optimist and only depress those around me.

      I do believe there are solutions but I think that today they all start at a level way below policies. They start with shared habits and expectations and understandings so thoroughly ingrained and socially reinforced that they are like water to fish: always there but rarely noticed. This is more than people thinking about their own roles, or thinking globally and acting locally, or having (ack-ptooey) ideological commitments.

      Let me illustrate in one small way. It's not enough anymore for me to do my bit. I have to also ensure that doing my bit doesn't make it harder for the next person to do her bit. If I buy only free-range organic tomatos, I increase demand on those and price them out of reach for some other people. If I then suggest dropping taxes for people too poor to afford free-range organic tomatos I risk increasing taxes on myself, and then I may not be able to afford to purchase a hybrid. If I decide that the solution to that is to walk or bicycle to work then I will get fired, so then I am apt to support Rob Ford's subway agenda because the light rail agenda wouldn't help ME get to work any easier.

      You can keep that sad story going as long as you like. :)

      I have to admit that I am bothered by the proposition put forth by John Cleese in "The Day the Earth Stood Still", that humanity will only change when it's on the precipice. It bothers me because I don't want it to be true, but it has the ring of truth to it.

      The more hopeful alternative that I hold onto is that with enough effort and enough time we will know the problems completely enough and know all the blind alleys and can't-get-there-from-here's well enough that the new world we need to make justice possible will almost emerge on its own spontaneously. This thought causes me to feel excited about the kind of cross-sectoral dialogue the upcoming conference represents even while often being sceptical of activism per se.

      That plug was entirely accidental, BTW.

      Lastly, I will say that I have a great deal of sympathy for your idea of measuring economies by the balance they strike, but wow, how to do that...

  2. Allyson, you leave me wondering if the implication of your posting is to suggest something like a return to thinking about exchange, goods and services, and our social good that went into theorizations of a "just" price? This was the dominant framework within which the marketplace was thought about in scholastic circles in the Middle Ages. The production and distribution of goods was to be understood as a distributive mode of justice, where justice itself was identified as quality leading to flourishing human living in its complex intersubjective patterning. What a just price might be in the concrete was not the product of a simple calculation. It included issues like supply and demand that continue to function in contemporary capitalist economics, issues like the value of the labour used in the production of goods, but then also issues of equity that transcend the functional patterns of the marketplace or atelier. The point was to organize the production and distribution of goods in such a way that the social good functioned normatively (itself a complex and difficult "calculation"). So is it something like this medieval pattern of Christian thinking appropriately updated that you are suggesting we take up? Economics as a modality of the polis or political community? Surely there is a proper intersection of the economic and the political such that issues of justice are present in our economic lives. But are economic realities subsumed by the political, for that is what I hear you arguing for? It is an open question for me, a part of my own suspension between the ancient and medieval thinkers I study and have enormous respect for, and my understanding of the reformational tradition in its differentiation of and then integration of the economic and the political.

  3. I am genuinely unsure, Bob. I struggle with the notion of the economy as it stands now, and all the damage I have seen and continue to see it do--yet I do not see economic action as such as a bad thing, so yes, I think you are right to say that surely there is a proper intersection of the economic and the political such that issues of justice are present in our economic lives. I am not arguing that economics be subsumed by the political, at least if I understand what you are saying. Rather I want to find that proper intersection, where justice helps the flourishing of this world and all in it. Economic actions are a huge part of our everyday lives. There must be a way to pay greater social attention to the dimension of justice within them.

    When you say of the scholastics and their thinking on justice and economics that "the point was to organize the production and distribution of goods in such a way that the social good functioned normatively", that seems like a possible way forward. But how to do it on a large scale, in a modern world? That is where I find myself hung up. Being hung up doesn't stop me from wondering and trying, though... hence the questions I raise.

    It seems to me that, above and beyond the notion of competition, as raised in the above previous comments, there must be something else. A structural critique is necessary: one that really looks at both the question of what the economy is and what it could be as well as the question of what makes for social flourishing. Really considering these two in tandem, and seeing them as intricately related... that is what I am both hoping for and struggling with. Those are my thoughts, anyway, though I continue to struggle and see where we can go from here.

  4. Hi Allyson, I think a "structural critique" is absolutely necessary. It's just that after all the blue-sky thinking is done there would remain the nagging question of implementation, which you yourself are "hung up" on. (If you can't implement the new economy, what good is it?) Hence why I focused on increased competitiveness being an important qualification of any proposal. This would give the new practices what they need on their own to take off and establish themselves in this highly competitive world.

    This is not to be beholden to an economic system based on competition though. I'm not *just* trying to work with/in the system that is already in place. I also believe that competitiveness is a key virtue in ANY economy that is to stand the test of time. It is not the SOLE virtue but a KEY virtue. (For starters, it is a driver of quality products, of accessible products, and of personal enrichment, all of which fund the social flourishing you mention.)

    Anyways. Just wanted to clarify!