Monday, December 05, 2011

Two horizons of hope: justice vs economic growth III

Guest series by Matheson Russell

This is the third in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The first can be found here and the second here.

In the previous posts I’ve explored the way justice is prized in the biblical literature. To conclude this short series I want to return briefly to the puzzle I started with: why is it that Martin Luther King’s (thoroughly biblical) demands for justice strikes us today — even those of us who profess to be Christians — as somewhat naïve and perhaps even deserving of suspicion?

Is it that we have fundamentally lost our moral bearings and no longer care about justice? I don’t think that’s quite right. We do still care about justice—both individually and collectively. (Even bankers, it turns out, have moral intuitions about fairness and desert.)

It’s not so much that we’ve forgotten all about justice; it’s just that justice has slipped down our list of priorities. This is evidence of a subtle reorientation of the basic theological horizons of society: In the place of divine justice and mercy, economic growth has become our primary source of hope. Our faith is now firmly in free markets (alongside scientific and technological innovation) to provide for us a happy and prosperous future. And as a consequence, economists have become our high priests, periodically prescribing for us the sacrifices required to ensure economic growth (bailouts, stimulus packages, austerity measures, etc.).

One consequence of this theological reorientation is that our imaginative grip on the role of government has changed. We tend no longer to demand that governments order their activity above all else to the goals of justice and righteousness. Indeed, such demands seem to us potentially irresponsible insofar as they threaten to curb economic growth. The imperatives of justice compete with the things we truly believe to be the source of life and happiness, and so we keep them on a short leash. The ideal of government as an agent of justice to punish wrongdoing and to prevent injustice has thus become marginal for us. In its place we now tend to imagine government first and foremost as the manager of the economy and as a provider of services.

The shift has been gradual and it remains partial — we haven’t given up the previous cultural paradigm entirely — but it has been a marked shift all the same. Indeed, it is so deeply entrenched in our thinking that it has become second nature to us to size up our elected representatives almost entirely based upon their performance as managers of the economy and providers of services. Come election time, every politician knows that it would be electoral suicide not to promise economic growth and better — or at least more efficient — provision of health care, schools, roads and so on. These are the fixed parameters of public debate.

It goes without saying that economic growth and technological development have in many ways been a great blessing and have brought about staggering improvements in the quality of life. And if (and this is a big ‘if’) we can find ways to sustain economic development within the ecological limits of our planet and the moral limits of care, respect and solidarity, it may continue to be a path that we can and should pursue. But this should not obscure the underlying issue. Claims of justice have been displaced from the position of primacy given to them by the Christian tradition, and this is no mere oversight but is entirely consistent with the new reigning theology of our ‘secular’ world.

For those of us who are Christians, then, we need to reflect soberly and honestly on where our deep faith lies. We who confess faith in God and claim to share his concern for justice and righteousness — practically, what do we put our faith in? What do we support with our money, our voice and our vote? Are we prepared to choose justice over increases in our own personal material wealth and wellbeing? Are we prepared even to countenance decreases in our wealth and limits on our lifestyles for the sake of justice? And do we ultimately believe that this is the more excellent way — not just for us but for everyone?

Managing the economy and providing services are important, of course. But before all else the gospel teaches us that we need our institutions of public justice to answer the muted cries of those who are exploited and cast aside; and, today more than ever, that we need them to respond to the silent groans of the creation whose capacity to extend hospitality to the human race and all living things is being over-taxed in myriad ways that we are only now beginning to understand. We cannot execute these tasks merely as private citizens; we must also execute them collectively through public institutions that act in our name.
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.


byron smith said...

Reflecting on this series, I wonder whether a more thoughtful apologist for economic growth might not question your characterisation of growth as an alternative to justice. In its place, such an interlocutor might argue that growth is necessary for justice, or at least that growth tends towards greater flourishing for all ("a rising tide lifts all boats") and so a greater chance at (material) wellbeing for the poorest.

Such a line of argument has three serious problems. First, it needs to be true that all benefit from growth, which is questionable. It was probably true in the first half of the twentieth century in developed nations, but is very much more difficult to make the same claim for the last few decades. Second, it has to ignore questions of distributive justice: inequality must be ruled outside the realm of justice, or at least of little consequence, requiring the various studies that link high levels of inequality with all kinds of social ills to be rejected. Third, it requires a planet on which growth can continue. If growth itself is unable to be sustained due to ecological limits, then the idea of a universally rising tide takes on a new and far more sinister connotation. In a stable or shrinking economy, the question of wealth distribution cannot be endlessly postponed as it so often is during periods of growth.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I guess I was with this whole series right up until the end. The idea that we Christians have specific political duties, particularly in societies such as mine (the United States) where there just isn't any organized mainstream political movement that comes close to hewing any kind of Biblical injunction regarding justice. Withholding one's vote in such circumstances, it seems to me, is as important an act as pretending that supporting the "least worst" of those available might push back the date of our demise by a few weeks or months.

The Biblical injunction for justice includes, but also transcends the political. Which is why, I think, the Occupy Movement, at its best, represents one of those movements of the Spirit deciding for itself which direction it is going to blow.

Otherwise, great stuff here.

Matheson said...

Geoffrey - I really appreciate your comment. And I agree with you. I certainly didn't intend to suggest that Christians have specific duties to uphold or fall in line behind the state per se.

In fact, I think Christians in the US should align themselves with the Occupy Movement - precisely because it echoes God's judgment on the systems of human judgment (government) and exposes their failures to uphold justice.

But the Occupy Movement at its best also recognizes that the better world it aims to bring into being is one in which there are worthy institutions of government, institutions that serve the people and are not corrupted from their calling to uphold justice and protect the vulnerable.

byron smith said...

AlterNet: What motivates the Occupy movement? Graphs and stats of US inequality.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Archbishop Tutu's take on Occupy.

AndrewE said...

Hi folks. Sorry to be late to the party. Mat, thanks for the series -- great work. My one nagging suspicion though, is that you have over-simplified the idea of "justice". In The Ways of Judgment, O'Donovan draws important distinctions between justice as judgment and justice as natural right, or between attributive justice and redistributive justice. I think the burden of O'Donovan's theory is to argue that government has a responsibility to do meaningful judgment within the available constraints, not to establish some perfect vision of justice. That is something that belongs to the kingdom of God. This is why I'm not wholly persuaded by your argument. It's also why I am not completely convinced by the Occupy movement generally. It has the kind of ring of utopia that I believe Christian engagement with public good should be wary of.

byron smith said...

Would Obama's 2012 State of the Union have sounded anything like this without Occupy?

Not that I have much confidence that he'll actually do very much about it (even if re-elected), but the conversation has shifted.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Occupy London: What went wrong?

I find the level of vitriol in the comments (remember, this is the Guardian) reveals something, though I'm not sure what. I suspect at least it reveals the fact that defenders of Occupy have stopped defending and the noise is therefore almost all being made by the cynical.

byron smith said...

Occupy London: How Hayek helps us to find capitalism's flaws. A thoughtful piece from Occupy London identifying three areas for focus in the UK: tax avoidance, housing/homelessness; income inequality.

byron smith said...

Two reflections (one and two) on hostile infiltration of Occupy movements.

It is very difficult to know where paranoia takes over in such discussions. It is clear that such tactics are at least relatively common from law enforcement, and the very paranoia they potentially generate can be just as disruptive as any direct activities performed by infiltrators.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Kalle Lasn: the many who inspired the Occupy movement. Review of a new book on heterodox economics.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Occupy's next plan - rolling debt jubilee. Nice idea.

byron smith said...

AJ: $333k in settlements for 6 pepper-sprayed Occupy protesters.