Because "Justice for All" is still a good idea

My earlier post, "Because It's Right," brought some objections from one of our culture's Haves. That is how it goes. Whenever the Havenots object to the Haves, the Haves counter with "because it's mine, not yours - that's why." I've been thinking about this perspective lately. Is there, actually, something fundamentally unjust about the Haves relinquishing any of their goods or wealth for any reason? Is it unlawful to make a law saying that they must do so?

Awhile back, I heard the cultural anthropologist, Mary Catherine Bateson, speak at a gathering around her newest book, Composing a Further Life. In the context of our elders demanding to be heard about subjects other than a hand-out, an entitlement, or some other self-interest, while making the point that it is the elders who ought to have the wisdom to help lay plans for a viable future, she began to speak about "access."

(As an aside, she also said, "age brings wisdom ... but only if you've done your homework.")

To illustrate the concept of having "access," she drew the lines between the civil rights movement (access to the political process by those not in the racial majority), the women's movement (access to equal pay for equal work), and the Americans with Disabilities Act. None of these things, she asserted, were about privilege. These were movements that demanded access to the wider world, and the special concessions, changes, alterations in the status quo which needed to occur were not the elevation of a particular group to protected or privileged places. These were changes needed for us to make the playing field functionally level.

This point - the functionally level playing field - is one of the points made by development economics expert Ha-Joon Chang, in his book, 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. His illustration is the foot race. Ready? Set? Go! And all the children across the land are allowed to race. Everyone gets to work hard and strive for excellence and make something of himself. No one is excluded from the American Dream. Everyone has the same chance as everyone else ... except ...

The kid with one leg doesn't have a functionally fair chance. If you were born into chaos and/or poverty, you do not have the same chance as the children of privilege. If your school did not perform in its responsibility to you, you d
id not have the same chance. Working hard does not overcome all obstacles. It doesn't have that much power. Working hard can do a lot. But it cannot do everything. And this is why we have gradually tweaked and changed and written and rewritten the laws of the land. Most of the time, most Americans would, I think, desire to have an actually and functionally fair chance for everyone. We're willing to handicap the players that need it, and flatten the corners of our sidewalks for wheelchairs, and even go overboard a bit to correct racial bias in the workplace and colleges. We're Americans. We believe in liberty and justice for all, and we know how to fix our problems. Eventually.

In fact, we're good at this! We Yanks can improvise our way into armored vehicles when the unarmored ones keep getting blown up. We know how to make do and mend. We can look around and say, "Too much money is going into the escap
e hatch of depressed and overwhelmed men on the way home from work! They're coming home drunk and nasty, and beating up their wives and kids!" ... and then make such a wide correction as the utterly unworkable and silly Prohibition years ... and then get over ourselves and fix the correction so that it doesn't make fifty times the problems it attempted to solve.

And that is what we need to do now.

For several decades, we have tried to free up our most success-likely innovators and chance takers. We have been throwing off the shackles of regulations, and giving tax breaks (which were originally agreed upon as "temporary") to the wealthiest of the land. We have made it easier to hire by making workers less protected, and we have made it easier to fire by the same mechanism. States do not have to determine their own livable minimum wage - the feds did that - thank goodness - or else most of the work force in some states would currently be in need of public assistance in even greater numbers than they currently are! We have been trying to throw off all the rules and strictures that keep us from national prosperity, but the result has been more than we bargained for. The disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom has become unsustainable. Again.
It is to our national shame and national peril that this is true:
The megarich hold more of the nation’s wealth and collect more of the overall income today than at any time since right before the Great Depression.
Henry Ford was right. There is a basic component to success, and it is as true for the nation as it is for the corporation. It is not justice to make a few people rich by means of making a severely under-provided worker class. Justice is provision for a functionally level playing field.
There is one rule for the industrialist and that is:
Make the best quality of goods possible
at the lowest cost possible,
paying the highest wages possible.

Henry Ford

No comments: