6. Imagining Economic Justice

PJR Vol. 5 2015, Looking Back, Looking Forward: Celebrating CPJ’s 40th Anniversary


Gideon Strauss

Gideon Strauss is a senior fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies. He can be found on Twitter at @gideonstrauss.

I first encountered the work of the Center for Public Justice in the early 1990s while I was working on my PhD in political philosophy and social ethics at my South African alma mater; my dissertation title was The Ethics of Public Welfare. I was exploring the responsibilities of government for the alleviation of poverty, with a view towards a post-apartheid South Africa. I found the philosophical and social ethical work of the Center for Public Justice particularly helpful because CPJ was asking questions that were similar to my own, albeit in the context of welfare reform in the United States.

In 1992, I co-chaired the organizing committee for a conference on Christianity and Democracy in Africa, which was hosted at what is now South Africa's Northwest University. We invited contributors from across Africa and around the world, and I think this was the first time I encountered Jim Skillen and other folks from CPJ in person. Jim Skillen became one of the most significant influences on my own political thinking at that time, in concert with other thinkers in the tradition of Christian social thought. The work of CPJ profoundly shaped my understanding of economic justice and persuaded me of the enduring and global significance of Christian social teaching and Christian Democratic political thought. It was a great gift, therefore, to be the CEO of CPJ briefly almost two decades later and to assist in its transition of leadership from Jim Skillen to Stephanie Summers.

I write these words now in the town of Stellenbosch in my birth country, South Africa. Stellenbosch is the most unequal town in South Africa. South Africa, by every measure, is the most unequal country in the world. And while South Africa is one of the wealthier nations of Africa, it is very far from being as wealthy as America. Seen from South Africa, America has an enviable abundance of economic resources, an abundance that allows it far more leeway in the pursuit of economic justice than is available to most of the nations of the world.

But what is economic justice? What makes a political economy, by which I mean the political arrangements that shape the economic life of a state, just? Is the present-day political economy of the United States of America just? And is there only one way to arrange the political economy of nations justly? Or are there many ways to approach economic justice?

Economic Justice and the Image of God

William Edgar wrote earlier in this series that CPJ’s approach to politics is shaped by a particular anthropology, a particular understanding of what it means to be human. The poetry at the very beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, reveals human beings to be made as the image-bearers of God. This endows humans with an innate dignity that warrants our treating one another with justice and equity, which extends to our political arrangements. Edgar emphasizes the way in which that same poetry portrays God as inviting us humans to shape the world into which we have been created, giving us responsibility for history.

We bear the image of a God who delighted in creating and who offered a generous hospitality to all of the resultant creatures, and as such, we are to delight in opening up and unfolding the possibilities of all of God’s creatures with a similarly generous hospitality. An understanding of our humanity and our task in history that is informed by these biblical revelations suggests, among other things, that we are faced with myriad possibilities in shaping our societies. In this shaping, we are to image God, seeking divine wisdom as we explore these possibilities in each particular historical place and time.

Edgar also emphasizes CPJ’s commitment to a certain kind of pluralism, an understanding of human society in which “each institution has its own integrity and its own purpose before God.” The family has its own integrity and purpose distinct from that of the state and the market, for example. Family life is a sphere of human existence that is first and foremost about the giving and experiencing of parental and filial love. Family life is where we first discover our humanity in the context of an encouraging security, in which we discover who we are at the same time as we experience what it means to belong.

Political life is a sphere of human existence in which we contend with one another to accomplish a harmonious arrangement of the myriad public rights, duties, and interests of diverse persons, communities, and institutions. Economic life is a sphere of human existence in which we invest our generative capacities and employ creation’s many riches to produce and exchange the goods and services needed for flourishing. In these and other ways, the structure of human societies is plural in nature–that is, shaped by a diversity of mutually irreducible norms that guide the shaping of a diversity of spheres of human existence, none of which should subsume the others.

Economic Justice and Moral Imagination

So what is economic justice in this context? My own understanding of justice in general was shaped by my reading of the work of Richard Mouw, Jim Skillen, and Bob Goudzwaard. From Mouw I learned that justice involved hospitality--making space for each of God’s creatures to become what God has created them to be. Giving chickens (noun) room to chicken (verb). From Skillen I learned the picture of symphonic justice--an arrangement in which each of God’s creatures can be what they are created to be, and our ways of being are juxtaposed to bring about justice that is greater than its parts. From Goudzwaard I learned that there are alternatives to the tunnel vision of “there is no alternative,” and that justice demands a more imaginative disclosure of economic possibilities than are allowed for in a narrowly liberal capitalist view of the world.

Given what I have learned from Mouw, Skillen, and Goudzwaard, I would say that economic justice is that dynamic in which people have the opportunity to deploy their generative capacities and to access the riches of creation to become what God has created them to be. As well, it is the ability for people to open up the economic possibilities of their time and place in ways that contribute to God’s other creatures becoming what God has created them to be. It is not a state of things that can be fully attained in human history, but a dynamic that can have expression to a greater or lesser degree in every historical moment.

And so I want to suggest that there are many possible Americas when it comes to the shape of the future political economy of the United States. The future wealth of this nation can be generated and distributed in many different ways. What this moment requires is moral imagination, oriented towards a reconfiguration of the political economy of America that bears a closer resemblance to the worthy dream of economic justice. Imagination oriented towards the discovery of the patterns and norms God created into the world so as to make possible our human realization of justice.

Economic Justice, the Market, and Civil Society

When I was a university undergraduate student in the later 1980s, there was still, worldwide, a very open question about political economy, often oversimplified to a binary choice between “capitalism” and “communism.” This choice did not do justice to the actual complexities of political economy, or to the full array of political economic diversity in the nations of the world, or even the more expansive array of political economic options that one could plausibly imagine at the time. But the twentieth-century experience of avowedly communist countries like the USSR and China did provide substantial evidence that a post-agrarian industrial economy must be a market economy to achieve any degree of economic justice.

Markets—buying, selling, investing, renting, and so forth—are a wise way to structure human interactions in economic life. Market economies allow for a greater degree of economic justice than other arrangements of economic life that have been tried historically.

While economic life needs room to flourish, and needs protection from the encroachment of excessive government intrusion, twentieth-century democracies provide substantial evidence that the political economy of any nation in which the government is to some extent accountable to its citizenry will have active state involvement in the shaping of the political economy. Market economies have only ever functioned with a modicum of effectiveness and a measure of justice when they have been actively governed: supplied with money backed by the guarantee of the state, subjected to laws that secured the public trust in the operation of markets, served by courts that enforced laws and contracts, supported with public infrastructure such as roads and power grids and telecommunications infrastructure, and with national efforts to secure access to international markets and transportation networks.

In addition, in every twentieth-century market democracy, economic life was significantly affected by the arrangements of civil society. In the final quarter of that century, there was a vibrant public conversation in many countries that reached back to the little platoons lauded by Edmund Burke, the spirit of association identified by Alexis de Tocqueville, the sphere sovereignty championed by Abraham Kuyper, and the solidarity and subsidiarity required by Catholic social teaching. Healthy families, effective schools, vibrant faith communities, and vigorous efforts to make common cause in organizations that have other purposes than profit or government–all of these have been shown to shape the cultural contexts necessary for economic flourishing, and make contributions to the realization of economic justice.

Economic Justice and the Future

There were myriad twentieth-century arrangements of political economy that all fell well within the big intersection of a market economy, an active democratic governance, and an economically significant contribution by civil society. The differences in political economy, democratic institutions, and civil society among, say, the regions of Emilia-Romagna in Italy, Zeeland in the Netherlands, and the Upper Palatinate in Germany, are significant, and yet result in very similar economic outcomes measured in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person. Wealth was generated and distributed in very different ways in these places during the later twentieth century despite all having been market democracies. Similarly, America has the prospect of many different futures with regard to political economy, all of which can generate wealth at acceptable levels.

What is not possible is a libertarian America. Libertarianism reduces human societies to mere networks of individuals in which the relationships between people are governed by nothing other than explicit contracts and in which no power or authority governs the use of individual wealth. Human dignity is denied even as personal responsibility is idolized. The political economy imagined by libertarians would be corrosive of many of the things that really matter in truly human lives, because libertarianism overemphasizes the unconstrained expression of individual identity.

We humans are not most human when we most freely realize our individual identities, just as we are not most human when we are at our most relationally enmeshed: we are most human when we are in the humanizing crucible produced by the tension between individual identity and relational belonging. Libertarianism denies the value of using the capacities of politics to make life better for the most vulnerable of a nation’s citizens, and it relies on private charity and the beneficence of faith communities to accomplish common goods that are best taken care of by public means—by political means. There is a moral poverty of imagination inherent to libertarianism.

While the world is being distracted by the sheer mayhem of the Trump administration, it is possible to forget that a salient aspect of the 2016 presidential election was the vivid yearning for a greater degree of economic justice, expressed in various ways. Even though “economic anxiety” has since become a sarcastic euphemism for “racism,” many people voted for Trump because of their very real experience of economic anxiety, derived from a very real loss of economic opportunities and a very real increase in their economic precariousness, and because of their desire for an America in which they could recover a sense of opportunity and suffer less terror in the face of life’s vagaries.

The Sanders campaign had at its very core a similar yearning for an America in which economic life is more humane than the present arrangements allow. And the failure of libertarians and minarchists in the American Congress to get rid of Obamacare in the months since President Trump’s election confirms the political reality that a very large part of the American electorate is unwilling to surrender the gains in political economic kindness that an expansion in government-mandated health care represents.

American society is facing profound changes in the structure of its economic life at every scale, from the very local to the international. Some of those changes will be gains and some will be losses, when measured in terms of human flourishing and the ecological wellbeing of the earth. Negotiating those changes will require action on the part of American government, again at every level. Government must provide infrastructure for the movement of people, goods, and information. Government must organize and supervise the provision of education. Government must provide social safety nets for the many people who will lose their jobs because of these changes.

America can get there from here. A more humane America is possible. An America characterized by a slow but steady improvement in economic justice is achievable. And it is achievable without the loss of America’s remarkable enterprise, productivity, ingenuity, and capacity for innovation. What America will need to do so is citizens with the imaginative capacities to help shape and demand economic justice – and those citizens who are formed by the rich tradition of Christian social thought have access to marvelous resources to inform their imaginations.

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