January 18, 2004

Who wants Justice?

This post, cited approvingly by a great blogger (rhymes with Grian Bleiter) asserts that left-wing writers want justice, and right-wing writers want to perpetuate and increase injustice.

This is too simplistic. Moreover, to the extent that anyone on the left actually believes it, it weakens their ability to prevail over the right-wingers.

The left and the right disagree not about whether justice should be the goal of public policy, but about what justice is. The left thinks justice entails some fair distribution of goods, an obligation on the part of communities to assist individuals who suffer, and a recognition that cooperation is equally or more important than competition for establishing a just society.

The right believes different things about justice (or believes that different things take priority). They envision justice primarily as "just desert" for an individual's bad behavior, strict punishment for individuals who transgress authoritative norms, and a primary obligation of the community to avoid involving itself in the private economic life of individuals. (This book by George Lakoff explains this further and, I think, essentially gets it right.)

When right-wing writers (at least the honest ones) advocate policies that seem unjust to the left, it isn't because they don't want justice. They want a different kind of justice that the left believes is unjust.

This explains the right's tenacity and repeated successes. It isn't that they're cheats, or that they're corrupt, or that they're unscrupulous, or that they're wealthy (although some of them are these things also). At bottom, the right succeeds because it is successful at persuading people that its version of justice, and not the left's, is the correct one.

If the left's version of justice is going to prevail in the public arena over the right's version, the left shouldn't mischaracterize their opponents as enemies of justice. Instead we should argue that they honestly adhere to a notion of justice which is deeply flawed.

The stakes are too high for the left to casually dismiss their opponents. Rather than dismissing them, let's focus on prevailing over them.

Posted by Carey at January 18, 2004 12:37 PM

Your politics are very mature. I think you're absolutely right; part of the reason that the right has been succesful is that it paints liberals as misguided, while liberals paint conservatives as malignant. Liberals come off sounding strident and dishonest, and voters dislike it. Besides the obvious problem of losing votes, I imagine it's possible to get more done in government if you are less dismissive of the opposition.

Posted by: Mark Ashton at January 18, 2004 05:07 PM