Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Searching for the Holy Grail of Social Justice

Many scholars, politicians, and pundits worry that large concentrations of income and wealth in the hands of a few in Western market democracies can lead to social and political instability. They contend that redistribution of income from the wealthy few to the less well-off many, thereby achieving a more “equitable” distribution of income, increases “social justice.” Improving the financial condition of the lower half of the income spectrum increases its access to health care, education, housing, and other goods and services. In particular, the high-tax, big-spending “social market economies” of Europe, especially the Nordic countries, are touted as ideal models.

During the past fifty years, I’ve visited Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway numerous times. I’ve spoken with academics, business leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, and persons in the street. Residents of each country regard their political economy—the scope and size of government spending, taxation, and regulation—as the most just in the region.

I found no consensus on the “optimal level” of social justice among the four. Over the decades, opinion has changed in each country on the appropriate size of government that maximizes social justice. Sometimes the level of spending and taxes were too low, sometimes too high, sometimes just right, but the just right level never stayed intact for any length of time.

Turning to America, politicians who push for higher taxes on couples earning over $250,000 a year to fund more health insurance, prolong the solvency of Medicare and Social Security, and finance new programs of public investment often speak of achieving greater social justice. I, for one, would be more comfortable if someone, anyone, would define with absolute clarity and provide a standard of measurement that enables us to recognize social justice when it has been achieved. And, to insure we can keep it once we get it.

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