Justice is a living thing: not something set out in a book

by Jonathan Todd

Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor, recently called the Mormonism of Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, “a cult”. In contrast, Jeffress endorsed Rick Perry, one of Romney’s rivals, as a “real Christian”.

Similarly, fears about a Catholic president were traded upon during John F. Kennedy’s White House run. As religion is a private matter, he retaliated; his religion would have no bearing on his presidential conduct. The philosopher Michael Sandel argues that Kennedy’s response was more than tactical.

“It reflected a public philosophy that would come to full expression during the 1960s and 70s – a philosophy that held that government should be neutral on moral and religious questions, so that each individual could be free to choose his or her own conception of the good life”.

This neutrality was central to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Forty years on from its publication this remains one of the dominant texts in Anglo-American liberal philosophy. Tony Crosland conceded, shortly before his death in 1977, that the notion of equality advocated by Rawls was the same as that advanced in The Future of Socialism.

The first series of The Hour (a BBC attempt to go HBO about a BBC news show) opened a window on an ancient world. This series was set in the same year, 1956, as The Future of Socialism was published. Yet this book remains an integral part of any Labour thinker’s bookshelf. Given this centrality and the claimed agreement between Crosland and Rawls, it is curious that the communitarian critique of Rawls, led by Sandel, has made minimal impact on Labour thinking.

This critique rejects the neutrality proclaimed by Rawls. “It is tempting”, Sandel acknowledged, “to seek a principle or procedure that could justify, once and for all, whatever distribution of power or opportunity resulted from it”. Rawls argued from such a procedure with his “veil of ignorance” – the ultimate artificial abstraction of the individual from the ties that bind and define to a position of neutrality. And, much earlier, Jeremy Bentham advocated such a principle in the form of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, which continues to animate mainstream economics.

“Such a principle”, Sandel continued, “if we could find it, would enable us to avoid the tumult and contention that arguments about the good life invariably arouse. But these arguments are impossible to avoid. Justice is inescapably judgmental … Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is about the right way to value things”.

When Labour sees justice as synonymous with distribution, reducible to the gini-coefficient, we can think that the man from Whitehall knows best. But he might ride roughshod over cherished values in chasing a particular distribution. For example, Frank Field argues in the Purple Book that because of the last government’s use of means-testing in welfare, “fairness ceased to be based on contributions and reciprocity and was supplanted by a single mechanical calculation of supposed need”.

But what contributions to whom should be valued? What should be reciprocated? By whom? And how? Neither the man in Whitehall nor A Theory of Justice or even The Future of Socialism can tell us these answers.

Part of Sandel’s point is that, while public policy might claim to be neutral, in actuality, it rarely is. And the best way to have the judgments embedded in policy arrive at outcomes that are understood and recognised as just is to have these judgments reflect public deliberations amongst concerned and informed citizens.

Consequently, the devolution of power that the Purple Book argues for shouldn’t just be about realising more dynamic, bottom-up means; it should also be finding the contemporary meaning of our ends by uncovering what should be valued, why and how. This isn’t to default to government by focus group. It’s about finding out what justice now really means.

The revisionist tradition that New Labour inherited from Crosland has often not thought deeply enough about its ends, particularly the series of value judgments captured both within any concept of justice and its application to policy. Perhaps this is because it is fundamental to this tradition that ends are fixed and means are flexible. And the end of justice to socialism deserves to remain fixed.

If Sandel is right, however, that justice is inevitably about how things are valued, not simply distributions; about whether, for example, the welfare system values the virtues of work, responsibility and effort, as well as whether it achieves a more equal distribution. And the best way to know which virtues should be valued is through the deliberation of active citizens. Then the end of justice cannot simply be a hallowed artefact to be dusted down from sacred texts, even a text as sacred as The Future of Socialism.

Raymond Plant argues that Crosland’s political project failed because he was a mechanical, not moral, reformer. Put another way, he didn’t allow enough space for value-based deliberations, which should be woven into the power devolving project that the Purple Book spearheads. Into these deliberations should come the real reasons that people value things as they do, including such things as Romney’s Mormonism and family, faith and flag.

We may not always like these reasons but social justice that endures requires moral reform and this needs honest engagement with these reasons.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

Tags: , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Justice is a living thing: not something set out in a book”

  1. aragon says:

    Economics or at least the current model of the last thirty years is collapsing and this article is about a sterile argument about morals.

    To address the issues raised:

    We all can agree an irreducible minimum below which no-one should fall ?
    Until we have met that standard all talk of morals is irrelevant. And we have no where near met this standard with the current welfare system.

    The Labour party is in danger of embarking on the deeply immoral route of the deserving and undeserving poor. This is just an excuse for abandoning principle and demonizing groups within society.

    For example those that have a job are more deserving of social housing.
    Why ? It is not as if there are enough jobs for all those who want them.

    People who excluded from the Job market are already most disadvantaged, and should be further penalised ?

    Browns obsession with means testing is just as objectionable as Ed Miliband views on responsibility at the bottom, a subject he is lucky enough to have no experience of.

    I find the morals, of many in power, like their economics, colored, by their extremely comfortable (and lucky or inherited) position in society.

    As for the Purple book, it is misguided and not up to the challenge facing Britain and the world, and not a solution for the Labour party.

    I could go on and on …

  2. swatantra says:

    At one time socialism was regarded as a cult, an offshoot of Methodism.
    But Mitts ok, as long as he keeps his religion out of politics.

Leave a Reply