Productive justice?

Over at Public Discourse, Ryan T. Anderson (the editor of that online publication) reviews Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism by Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks. Anderson does a good job of summarizing their argument, giving the book's strongest points the prominence they deserve, before making some very good points of his own about the failure of capitalism's most enthusiastic defenders to address basic questions of distributive justice. Brooks and Wehner suggest that concerns about material inequality were an academic innovation of the 1970s. They also suggest that any criticism of actually existing capitalism is an implicit endorsement of the totalitarian collectivisms that killed or immiserated millions of people in the twentieth century. As Anderson points out, both suggestions are false; the second is also a red herring.

[Brooks and Wehner] make an unfortunate claim that what fundamentally separates capitalists from those who want to redistribute income is a different concept of justicedistributive justice versus what has been called the productive justice of capitalism. So after claiming that the 1970s egalitarians broke with the tradition of philosophical thought, Wehner and Brooks reject a central theme in that tradition, first articulated by Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy: distributive justice.In its place, they believe in productive justice, the view that economic growth will create opportunity and wealth for those in every social stratumand, in the end, generate the best of all worlds: allowing people to succeed without penalizing excellence and achievement and providing opportunity for those at the bottom rungs of the ladder to move up. But this ignores the issue: Are the gains of economic growth distributed justly? Noting that capitalism creates the highest Gross Domestic Product, and the fastest GDP growth, says nothing about how that wealth is distributed. Wehner and Brooks offer no standard, no principles of justice on how to think about this question. And the idea that we always will be able to grow ourselves out of economic problems is wishful thinking, as thinkers as diverse as the libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel and the economic scholar Tyler Cowen have argued.[...]In framing their argument as a defense of capitalism against the alternatives of life pre-Industrial Revolution and life under communism, Wehner and Brooks have made their task too easy. The real question facing developed capitalist countries now is what type of capitalism to have, and what type of wealth distribution. Among the most thoughtful thinkers on these questions, few are strict egalitarians, and so even here Wehner and Brooks have engaged a strawman. One might think current disparities in wealth are unjust, not because material equality is the goal, but because human flourishing is, and too many people lack the requisite material goods for that flourishing. Income and wealth equality isnt the concern, but having sufficient goods to meet ones needs and fulfill ones vocation is. Likewise, one might worry about the disparate political power that comes with gross material inequalities. Wehner and Brooks say nothing about these concerns.

The whole review is worth reading.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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