Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Developing a New Standard of Social Justice

By Michael Strong

The Centre for Social Justice’s tagline is “narrowing the gap in income, wealth, and power.” Their publications are pro-union, pro-living wage, pro-welfare state, and anti-globalization and anti-corporation. There is a certain naďve, tribal logic to this perspective. If there are some whose needs are not being met adequately, and others have far more than they need, then those with more than they need should give to those who are in need. As Marx said, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Marx envisioned a revolution in which “the working class” would revolt against “the bourgeoisie” and a communist paradise would follow. And yet every nation that had a communist revolution ultimately became an oppressive tyranny, a hell rather than a paradise. As the monk Thomas Merton acknowledged after hearing from the Dalai Lama what the communists had done to Tibet, although “From each according to his ability” is the communal order of a monastery, it is impossible in a society larger than that.

Our moral instincts were optimized for tribal living in communities of 100 – 200 people. Just as our appetites for fat and sugar were optimized for a world in which opportunities for consuming fat and sugar were rare, but now we over-eat fat and sugar, so, too, our moral intuitions were optimized for a world in which those of us who were most concerned punished those who were not contributing their fair share to the common good. Indeed, there is evidence both from anthropological studies of indigenous cultures and from lab experiments with college students that those individuals who initiate solutions to collective action problems are also most eager to punish those who do not cooperate to solve the collective action problem. We do-gooders are literally bred to be punitive when others don’t share our do-gooder initiatives.

For some of us the Golden Rule obliges us to devote our lives to helping those less fortunate than ourselves. If somewhere on earth a mother’s child is starving or being harmed then “doing unto her as I would have her do unto me” unambiguously commits me to acting with all of my energies to help her to help her child. But just as I have learned that I must transcend my appetites for fat and sugar, I also know that I must transcend my appetites to be punitive towards those who do not feel as I do.

Leftist intellectuals in the U.S. who have long envied the Scandinavian welfare state now live in a chronic state of bitterness at their fellow Americans for not supporting a similar welfare state. I have no such bitterness and, indeed, have come to love the arguably superior moral qualities of the U.S.

For each of the last twenty years, the U.S. has welcomed more than a million legal immigrants a year, more than all other nations combined. (See Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox.) Consider that an agricultural laborer makes $3.65 per day in Mexico but $66.00 per day in the U.S. and you see why almost another million people per year enter the U.S. illegally each year (or are willing, all too literally, to die trying). Although the wages earned by unskilled Mexicans seem low to social justice advocates, from a Mexican perspective the wages are enormous. Remittances, money that Mexicans living in the U.S. send back to their families in Mexico, are the second largest source of income for the entire Mexican economy, less than oil (#1) but greater than tourism (#3).

There are fifteen million Mexican-born people in the U.S. and about thirty-five million foreign-born altogether. More than $18 billion was sent to Latin America last year, mostly savings from the farm workers, maids, and laborers many of whom find $66.00 per day to be wealth worth risking their life to obtain. More than fifty percent of the foreign-born in the U.S. are from Latin America, with Cuba and El Salvador providing the second and third highest sources from Latin America. Although Canada and Australia have higher percentages of immigrants than the U.S., in both cases a majority of their immigrants are European or from the Anglosphere, typically high-income immigrants with cultural profiles that allow for easy assimilation. There is simply nothing like the U.S.-Mexican border anywhere in the world, a developing world nation bordering one of the wealthiest nations with thousands of miles of border for the crossing and an unlimited ability to absorb people into our economy.

Our ability to employ immigrants is astounding. The immigrant communities in Scandinavia, and much of welfare Europe, are locked out of the labor market for decade after decade, generation after generation. Swedish unemployment among immigrants from Africa and Asia is higher than 50%. Richard Posner provided an analysis of how chronic unemployment leads to dangerous discontent in the summer of 2005, an analysis that seemed prescient regarding the fall riots in France because it focused on unemployment, rather than Islamic ideology, as the primary distinction between Muslims in the U.S. vs. Europe. Low-wage, entry-level jobs, virtually outlawed due to European labor polices, are crucial for immigrant outsiders seeking to get a foot in the door. Tino Sanandaji reports:

The average labor income in the years was 12.500 $ per adult Iranian and 20.500 for a native Swede. Average income for adult Iranians in the US is 47.000 $. While 37% of Iranian received some or part of their income from Welfare in Sweden, the corresponding US figure for public assistance was 4.3%.

While perhaps a different kind of Iranian tends to immigrate to Sweden than the U.S., it seems more likely that Iranians in the U.S. arrive poor, get an entry-level job, and eventually integrate into the U.S. so well that they eventually earn a higher-than-median income – and their children don’t vent their frustrated rage in riots.

Thus despite the apparent “generosity” of nationality-based redistribution schemes, I have come to regard them as the moral equivalent of gated communities. Gated communities often have swimming pools, tennis courts, clubhouses, and various other amenities for their residents – and they strictly control who is allowed to enter the community. Likewise welfare states have generous amenities for their residents, including free health care, education, family leave, etc. – and they strictly control who is allowed to enter the community. Moreover, as with many exclusive communities, sometimes outsiders are allowed in, but they are never really welcomed into the community, they never feel at home there. Moreover, the greater the benefits, the greater is the incentive to exclude: “They shouldn’t be using our services.”

Welfare states are satisfying to our moral egos: the ugliness of U.S. poverty rips my heart to shreds every day. The cultural aesthete in me would love to live in a welfare paradise like Sweden where everyone was well cared-for. Poverty in America is not a pretty sight. But while a minimal safety net may be appropriate, the broader anti-capitalist agenda of current “social justice” advocates is likely to decrease real social justice.

For a more conscious standard of social justice, we would learn to look at the overall consequences of policies, and how global free trade in goods, services, knowledge, capital, and labor will more likely help more poor people more quickly than will the policy proposals advocated by most existing “social justice” organizations. Indeed, a world that allowed such a free flow of opportunity would alleviate human misery more quickly and effectively than would two hundred welfare states with sealed borders.

The nature of the safety net in the developed world, and how to improve the upward ladders, remain important issues. But the enormous benefits of free trade (including free trade in labor) for the global poor must be part of our moral calculus. The fact that Oxfam now has a campaign against agricultural subsidies in the developed world (a billion immoral dollars per day) shows that some advocates for the poor have begun their own path towards a newly conscious standard of social justice. Proud support for a more open world will do more good for more people than will a bitter and self-righteous envy of problematic European policies. Our instinctive cravings for fat, sugar, and nationalistic “social justice” policies are difficult masters to conquer, but with a greater commitment to global consciousness we can create a more conscious standard of social justice.

Michael Strong is the CEO of Flow, Inc., the founder of several innovative high-performance schools, and the author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. He has a related article titled “Taking the Left out of Liberalism” currently posted on the FLOW website.

Copyright FLOW, Inc. 2006