Monday, 4 August 2008

Social Justice and Humpty Dumpty squared

Humpty Dumpty was a very sensible chap. He could never be wrong no matter what he said because words meant what he wanted them to mean. I mused yesterday on the new meaning of "unnatural", today I want to ask what "social justice" means.

Social justice is a term that trips off the tongue of politicians when they are at their most earnest and their most evasive. "What can you do for me?" asks the man of the parliamentary candidate, the candidate looks him in the eye, lowers his voice and says in his most reassuring tone "I will bring you social justice." Just two words act like Rennies after a vindaloo, all burning is negated and the hope of a good night's sleep is increased. How can these words have that effect? The answer is simple, because they do not have an established meaning and, therefore, can be interpreted by the listener to mean anything he likes.

Taking the words literally "justice" is an adjective qualifying the noun "society". Instead of saying "I will bring you a just society" it is snappier, and still grammatically correct, to say "I will bring you social justice". And Humpty Dumpty told us we can do anything with adjectives.

But what is a just society? It is fairly obvious that it is the type of society someone considers to be just, and therein lies the problem - we all have different opinions about what is just and what is unjust, about what is fair and what is unfair. Not only do we have radically different views about the justness or individual policies, we also have radically different views about the desired economic and social structure of the country as a whole.

On some issues there is probably broad agreement. I doubt few would disagree with the proposition that those who do work which requires great skill and which provides a great benefit should be paid more than those in jobs requiring less skill and providing a lesser benefit. We might compare a brain surgeon and a tree surgeon. Looking at it with a broad brush we can say it is fair for the former to earn more than the latter. We then have to ask the next logical question, namely, how much more? When we get to that level we find ourselves having to put a value on the two jobs and here there is far more scope for disagreement. Should it be twice as much, four times as much, should the comparison be made before tax or after tax, should it be reflected in pension arrangements and so on. The more detailed our examination of the subject, the more there will be disagreement. So we can start with a general proposition which carries broad consensus as one element of a just society and have no consensus at all about anything other than the general proposition.

Governments cannot operate by general propositions, all they can do is put into effect specific policies. When they tried to abolish the 10p tax band they were not met by people in the street saying "this does not accord with my notion of social justice", they were assailed by the poor saying "you are putting my tax up and I am already poor". The catch-all term "social justice" is completely irrelevant to assessment of the merits or otherwise of specific policies.

Any politician who uses the term "social justice" without defining, with precision, the policies underlying the term is being Humpty Dumpty squared. Not only does it mean whatever he wants it to mean but it will be interpreted by his audience as whatever they want it to mean. The reality is that it means nothing.

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