After reading Brian Barry’s book Why Social Justice Matters, I found myself coming to terms with some of my very deeply held beliefs – ones I did not even know I held. I consider myself an advocate for the underserved and the disadvantaged, but the notion of social justice Barry puts forward begins to clash with mine. Specifically, he suggests that personal responsibility is a poor explanation that the privileged (including government) offers to justify disparities, that absolute levels of social determinants (e.g., income, education and so forth) matter less than inequality of those determinants, and that social justice is not only achievable, but sustainable over time.
I have a hard time believing that the implementation of these ideas is feasible within the United States with its capitalist, individualist, free-market philosophy. My stance is based on three key points: personal responsibility is needed for personal motivation, absolute levels of “social determinants” provide the bare necessities, and free-market competition leads inevitably to disparities in outcome in the absence of constant government intervention.
First, I feel that the individual must feel a certain amount of personal responsibility in order to be motivated towards action. While personal responsibility is not the cause of disparities, I certainly believe that for the very advantaged and very disadvantaged, for whom moving up or down the ladder of society is not an option, there is little motivation for taking personal responsibility. However, I believe that those in the middle class should be held personally responsible as much as possible to ensure that they remain motivated to achieve. If perfect equality could be achieved, then, it seems that personal responsibility would go from being considered entirely unimportant as misplaced blame, to entirely important as a reason for waking up in the morning and accomplishing things.
Second, I feel that it is the role of government not to ensure equality of outcomes, but only equality of opportunity. Barry suggests that relative deprivation, even in the face of having one’s basic needs met, equates to inequality of opportunity. I disagree. I feel that is our responsibility to ensure that no member of our society goes hungry, homeless, or without basic health care. It is not our responsibility to ensure that every member of our society can buy a plasma television. While public transportation might be considered a basic necessity that government should provide, there is no obligation that everyone be given the opportunity to drive a sports car. Meeting the basic needs of every member of society is, in my opinion, all that is required of social justice.
Third, and finally, I do not feel that the notion of an enduring social justice defined by sustained equality of opportunity is likely to be achieved in this country. What motivation do individuals have to obtain wealth if they are simply going to be subjected to new penalties (e.g., taxes) as a result? It seems to me that the effect would be to create an artificial ceiling, above which the return to work is diminished. This runs counter to the very ideals upon which our country was founded. Thus, while such concepts as those presented by Barry may work out well in theory and on paper, I am skeptical about their prospects in application. Ultimately, I still believe in the idea of social justice, I just think that I am a realist and a pragmatist. Rather than talk about the perfect world that is unlikely ever to be, I am more concerned with making a difference for as many persons as I reasonably can as quickly as I reasonably can. We need to focus–as a society–on building floors, not ceilings.