The Case for a New Social Justice Model
- The multiple challenges of economic inequality, climate change, poverty, civil unrest and violent political conflicts around the world demand new thinking about social justice. We must break through the current polarization and political deadlock in this country.
- To this end, a new paradigm – called the Fair Society Model – may provide a way forward. It is grounded in evolutionary biology and the emerging, multi-disciplinary science of human nature, as well as the ancient legal principle of the “public trust.” (This new model is discussed at length in my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice [University of Chicago Press]).
- The Fair Society Model represents a value shift away from the traditional dichotomy between economic equality versus inequality in favor a more complex, biologically-grounded model of fairness and social justice. From an evolutionary/biological perspective, an organized society represents, first and foremost, a “collective survival enterprise” that is sustained by, at the very least, an implicit “social contract.” The legitimacy of this social contract is crucially dependent upon a consensus that it is reasonably fair (and inspires voluntary compliance), but there is a growing sense in our society that our social contract may be unraveling.
The Fair Society Model
- The Fair Society Model seeks to provide a new vision of social justice. It is based on three biologically-grounded fairness principles, or precepts, that must be combined and balanced in order to achieve a social order that is fair to everyone. These three precepts are equality, equity and reciprocity, and they have the following social implications, in brief:
(1) Essential goods and services must be distributed to each according to his or her basic needs (in this, there must be equality);
(2) Surpluses beyond the provisioning of our basic needs must be distributed according to “merit” (there must also be equity);
(3) In return, each of us is obligated to contribute to the collective survival enterprise proportionately in accordance with our ability (there must be reciprocity as well).
- Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Fair Society Model is the precept that calls for what I refer to as a “basic needs guarantee” for all of our people. There is a school of social theorists who deny that there is any such thing as a “basic need,” or that it has no meaning because it varies from one person to another. From a biological perspective, this head-in-the-sand theoretical stance is comparable to the denial of climate change.
- In fact, (1) our basic needs are increasingly well-documented; (2) although our individual needs vary somewhat, in general they are equally shared; (3) we are (most of us) dependent upon many others, and our economy as a whole, for the satisfaction of these needs; and (4) significant harm will result if any of these needs are not satisfied. (All of this is discussed at length in The Fair Society and is backed by years of research at the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, among other agencies.)
- There are, in reality, no less than fourteen distinct basic needs “domains” (so called because a number of them are multi-faceted). They include a number of obvious items, like adequate nutrition, fresh water, physical safety, physical health, mental health, and waste elimination, as well as some needs that we may take for granted like thermoregulation (which can entail many different technologies, from shelter and clothing to heating oil and even air conditioning), along with adequate sleep (about one-third of our lives), mobility, and even healthy respiration, which cannot always be assured. Perhaps least obvious but most important are the requisites for the reproduction and nurturance of the next generation. (For more detail and documentation, see Chapter Five of The Fair Society.)
- These “primary” basic needs domains represent biological imperatives in a given society or personal situation. Moreover, the satisfaction of these needs almost always entails an indeterminate number of context-specific, culturally-determined “instrumental needs” (see The Fair Society).
- The 14 primary needs domains represent a concrete, empirical foundation for the concept of a “basic needs guarantee.” Accordingly, the “collective survival enterprise” paradigm cuts a very wide swath through any complex economy and society; it requires an extensive policy agenda.
- However, it is also important to stress that a basic needs guarantee is not about providing an equal share of the wealth, nor does it involve an open-ended social commitment. A basic needs guarantee involves a specific and ultimately limited set of criteria for social action with measurable indicators for assessing outcomes.
The Public Trust Doctrine
Under girding this new social justice paradigm is the ancient legal doctrine of the “public trust” (and, incidentally, the moral claims to a “right to life,” as well as various modern affirmations of “social rights”). The concept of a public trust, which arose in Roman times, is embedded nowadays in English and American common law, as well as various constitutional and statutory incarnations. The doctrine asserts that the natural resources that the members of a society share – from water to clean air – are ultimately held under a public trust and that private property claims are subordinate.
A number of legal scholars hold (and there is constitutional language and case law to support them) that the public trust is one of the foundational responsibilities of democratic governments – like the police power. It is an inherent attribute of sovereignty. I believe this doctrine – and the general welfare clause of our Constitution – endows our government with an inescapable obligation to ensure that all of our people, and future generations, have the wherewithal to meet their basic needs. It is the public trust doctrine that justifies the idea of a “basic needs guarantee.”
The policy implications of the Fair Society Model are profound. Imagine a country in which there is full employment and everyone has at least a living wage, where there is a high level of job security with very generous unemployment benefits and free job retraining that is immediately available, a country where, if you get sick, there is paid sick leave and low cost or even free health services, where higher education is free or very low cost, where child care services are readily available at low cost, or even free, and are provided by skilled professionals, where new parents are paid to stay at home and care for newborns and even receive payments to help defray the cost of diapers, extra food, etc., where workers receive two months of vacation each year, as well as generous retirement benefits and low-cost elder and nursing care.
Never, Never Land? In fact, such cradle-to-the-grave economic security and social welfare systems already exist in some European countries, especially Norway but also to varying degrees in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and others. Fifty years ago, the U.S. was the social welfare leader and the model for the rest of the world, but this country has slipped badly. In order to restore our standing in this league, a broad reform agenda would be required. Although the political obstacles to doing so are formidable, the Fair Society Model provides a normative foundation and a unifying vision for what is possible. Many of the specific reform proposals are not new, but this paradigm provides a framework for a comprehensive “package” of reforms encompassing all three fairness precepts. I can provide here only an abbreviated outline; it is meant only to be suggestive. (Needless to say, it is also subject to much revision and improvement.)
- Under the equality precept and a basic needs guarantee, the reforms should start with a universal annual income guarantee, which could be achieved in several ways. These might include a mix of such measures as (a) a national full employment program (an idea that goes back to the Employment Act of 1946), (b) a major increase in the minimum wage, (c) a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit, (d) an enhanced food stamps program, (e) more generous unemployment and welfare benefits, (f) and perhaps even a rebate of payroll taxes to supplement minimum wage income (as some reformers have suggested), among other measures.
- Another set of basic needs-oriented reforms would include steps to eliminate financial barriers to adequate health care, mental health services, low-cost housing, child care, public transportation, pre-school, and end of life care, among other things. Such services should be available as a social right. (The prohibitive cost of higher education is another challenge; we must eliminate our “debtor’s prison” system of student debts.)
- A basic needs guarantee would also require major improvements in our “infrastructure” (broadly defined), including an expansion of our child care services, pre-school programs, job (and work skills) training, nursing care and hospice services, as well as mass transit systems, universal access to the internet, and, of course, reducing the backlog of “deferred maintenance” in our physical infrastructure.
- Under the equity precept and a commitment to “merit”, this should begin with a shift toward what has been called “stakeholder capitalism” – a model in which all the stakeholders in a business enterprise are “empowered.” This would result in a significant change in corporate America’s values and practices. A “Workers’ Bill of Rights” is also needed to curb abusive corporate labor policies.
- This must be accompanied by a serious effort to reinvigorate our long-standing commitment as a society to economic opportunity and upward mobility, from access to higher education to support for creating and sustaining new businesses. We must preserve and enhance the rewards for merit.
- Equally important would be a top-to-bottom restructuring of our tax system, which has been characterized as a “corporate welfare program” – ranging from oil depletion allowances to farm subsidies, “carried interest” tax rates for hedge fund managers, favorable capital gains tax rates, second home tax deductions, taxpayer subsidies of equity line revolving credit cards for homeowners, and much more.
- On the other hand, a reduction in corporate tax rates might have both political and economic benefits. It would be a concession to the conservative claim that corporate income taxes directly attack “merit” and undermine the incentives for achievement. It would be more than offset by the other tax changes cited above. It might also counteract the endemic use of loopholes by corporations to avoid their taxes. Finally, it underscores the fact that this paradigm also represents an effort to find a political middle-ground.
- The most important implication of this precept is an insistence that the quid pro quo for a basic needs guarantee and a generous social welfare system must be an unequivocal obligation to perform productive work in society, for all who are able to do so, to repay the benefits that we receive. While we must continue to support those who, for various reasons, are unable to work, we must ask everyone else to contribute a fair share.
- The third Fair Society precept also implies such obvious things as paying a fair share of the tax burden. Beyond this, both our society and our people would benefit from a universal national service obligation, ranging from the a tour in the military to various national and state service “corps” and such important community-based activities as volunteer fire fighters and hospital aides.
In the U.S. today, the Fair Society Model may indeed seem like Never, Never Land. But there have been other major reforms in this country in the past – from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage, the New Deal, civil rights, and now gay marriage. These changes always begin with an idea – a moral vision of what is right and what is fair — and, over time, they have been achieved with inspired leadership and concerted political action. As Bill Moyers put it, “The only answer to organized money is organized people.” What a few countries have been able to accomplish in terms of social justice, including the U.S. during its Golden Age, validates what is possible. There is a way forward if we are willing to seize it.