The materialization of distributive justice
In reading Adam Smith’s and Milton Friedman’s texts for the role moral persuasion plays in them, I followed the play of praise and blame in the characterizations that explicitly or implicitly seek moral legitimation through generating sympathies for competition as a way of confirming the market as a selfregulating and independent (from politics) dynamic social system. These characterizations influence our view of the market economy through a narrative invocation of decorum – expectations of appropriate behavior; this invocation of decorum serves the function of moral judgment, which is to say justification, that is necessary to political legitimation insofar as this moral judgment delineates the relation between the economic and political domains as respectively private and public. Three consequences followed from this. The first was that distributive justice became entirely instead of only partially about material distribution. This is what I mean by saying distributive justice became materialized.2 The second consequence was the naturalization of distributive justice’s criteria of appropriateness into social decorum, which provided an imprimatur of authority to the dominant social order’s decorum. The third consequence was the elevation of the decorum of the marketplace itself into contention with social decorum. Each of these consequences in turn contributed to the distortion. The question of justice in material distribution disappeared into the distribution of the marketplace itself, either wholly, in classical liberalism’s natural rights view of property and the efficacy of market exchange, or mostly, in what became modern liberalism’s view of correcting for market failures of various degrees. Social decorum became a matter of personal preference, private taste, and interpersonal dynamics, and so outside the domain of justice entirely. Market decorum took on the nonmaterial functional tasks of relational social coordination served by distributive justice – the functions of enabling individuals to identify themselves in terms of self-understanding and in terms of relation to others. Achievement in
the marketplace became the measure of merit, and the source of honor and esteem. In theory, especially from Adam Smith’s vantage point, everything could proceed from that point forward. In seeking to satisfy their self-interests, social actors would be constrained by the requirements of appropriate behavior found in social and market decorum. Smith’s task was overcoming the strongly hierarchical remnants of feudal economic arrangements and opening up a freedom of movement in trade. Doing away with the residual feudal view of distributive justice – birth, social rank, and so on – was clearly necessary.3 Opening up opportunities for new achievement looked to be a brave new world. But from the beginning there were problems. Social and market decorums were often in conflict, and dominant social orders clung tenaciously to their privileges and ranks as long as they could. The social orders also worried, with reason, that the market would be corrosive of bonds of tradition, not least because of the dislocation of populations. The process of urbanization in the nineteenth century meant that living in cities was truly a matter of being in the company of strangers. The economic and cultural shocks and problems of poverty, both rural and urban, kept reoccurring even as economic and technological progress accelerated. These problems kept pressure on material distributional issues and on the relational elements embedded in social and market decorums. Let me restate the claim of distortion here, to clarify the import of the consequences. The problem with distributive and commutative justice changing places, as it were, is that the broader function of social ordering once performed by distributive justice became instead taken over by the narrower sense of commutative justice.4 This is a problem and a distortion because commutative justice’s range is too narrow. By this, I mean to draw attention to commutative justice’s central focus on the transactional nature of economic interaction in exchange and contract.5 The commutation involved (the “=” between price and commodity or price and performance of service) in market interaction is the focus of justice in a commercial society, as Smith styled it, and is what counts as “real justice.”6 This view of justice as an outcome of bargaining works to confirm and validate other moral judgments at the level of ordinary social interactions and imbue them with the characteristics of the market – in other words, to create a decorum of social relations as bargaining. To relegate broader questions of just treatment to private preferences in social decorum, as I indicated in my reading of Friedman’s argument, is to pretend that the only abuse of power is by government. Ordinary social decorum, as we commonly understand it, is not sufficient to successfully bear the burden of distributive justice because of its partiality to a dominant group. Keeping in mind that any decorum is connected to a discourse community, primary communities will occur where people live and work in proximity to each other (while others will be symbolically mediated communities). I say “primary” to indicate the relevance and even significance of daily life. In a society of bodily encounters, a social decorum will necessarily have its own symbolic codes that have a history. In a pluralist society, differences and residues of former hierarchies, at the least,
cannot help but hold themselves as the correct order of things. (To glance ahead to Chapter 7, one of the functions of identity politics is to push back against this sort of thing.) The limitation of ordinary social decorum is its tendency to tend to its traditions; in this respect, social decorum is attached to a form of life that desires its own continuance. This is not necessarily bad, but its own history may prevent it from giving free voice to those who feel excluded or injured by it, which would raise questions of justice. Market decorum in and of itself is likewise not bad. The problem is that none of the three – material distribution, social decorum, and market decorum – are adequate to the task of distributive justice in an age of freedom because none of them support public argument on relational issues; relational matters, except in contract relations, are considered to be private – in colloquial terms, “none of your business.” Distributive justice’s role of relational social coordination has been neglected in these developments. Relational social coordination depends on each person understanding their position relative to others; this is partly status, as in what one’s standing is, but it is also position, as in what one’s place is. Social understanding, in this view, is necessary to self-understanding as well; recognition is the process by which the understandings of self and other are activated. The web of social connection through which people locate themselves and others is the background condition against which judgments of distributive justice can be made; equals cannot be treated equally without that background knowledge because that background knowledge is the basis for identifying equals as such. This description of distributive justice is functional rather than normative. It can describe different societies organized around different sets of norms. The normative condition Adam Smith faced in the late eighteenth century was a society whose relational norms were still heavily based on birth and social rank; his task, in harmony with a developing political liberalism, was to make the argument that liberalizing economic relations would be more productive than the traditional relations, making everyone better off. As successful as Smith’s argument eventually was in turning attention to a broader division of labor, he underestimated the relational problems. Nevertheless, his description of how moral judgment happens, through sympathies with resentments at mistreatment, continues to be a valuable insight.