Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Justice Everywhere Archive (Page 2 of 2)

Questioning the State

The history of nation-states is not a pretty one. State creation is often a bloody and very painful exercise. Either states boundaries are decided through years of fighting or as an arbitrary decision by colonial authorities. Once states have been created, violent border disputes aside, states have been responsible for the repression of thousands of its own citizens. Perhaps even more damning, the nation-state framework seems to be an obstacle to addressing urgent international issues, such as global climate change and a growing refugee crisis. The on-going bloody history of states and pressing international issues present strong reasons to consider a justification of the primacy of the state.
This post is not intended as argument against or in favour of the primacy of the state, rather to make the case that its primacy is not an automatic good and needs to be justified for those (like Rawls) who take it as the prime site of justice.  There seem to be three key arguments for the state 1) the identities argument, 2) the justice promoting argument and 3) the pragmatic argument. I will go through these in turn to demonstrate that justification for states as the prime site of justice relies on a pragmatic argument:  they exist and so we should make them better. I suggest that this leaves room for important work to consider whether there are other more effective institutional arrangements that would promote justice.
So, let us consider the identities argument. The world has many different communities, who have distinctive cultures, histories and ways of approaching politics. As such, they need their own territorially distinct institution to conduct their affairs. Although there are very different communities across the globe, current borders do not match the boundaries between these communities. A quick glance at postcolonial Africa demonstrates that borders do not follow divisions between existing communities. Redrawing boundaries would not fix this. Identities no longer (and arguably never did) map neatly onto distinct and clearly defined territorial areas. The territorially exclusive state enclosing a coherent political community is not a reality. The state is not a natural political unit reflecting distinct political identities. Therefore justification requires some belief that its existence promotes a particular good.
The second argument is the ‘justice-promoting argument’. It goes something like: “Having nation-states promotes justice. We need localised institutions, such as the NHS, tax redistribution, education to ensure justice. The state is the best organization for this. ” This, unfortunately, is not the reality for much of the worlds population. In the Global South, justice-promoting states are not the norm, and often states can produce a considerable amount of injustice. Moreover the poor environmental practices and unfair trade policies of states in the Global North also harm the lives of those in the Global South. The response may be: Don’t dismantle states rather improve the unjust states! But, on what grounds have we decided the state is the best institution? There are other forms of political organization, be it townships, chieftaincies, kinship networks, cooperatives and charities which also promote justice and in many cases are a more meaningful avenue for providing the necessary services of justice. What makes a state the most valuable form of political community?
I think the crux of the ‘pro-state’ position comes to a pragmatic argument. The overwhelming majority of the globe’s population live under the legal jurisdiction of states.  Even where, in practice, the state does not exist or it is is repressive, the trend is to improve state capacity and to make it more functional. Therefore let us not waste time considering alternative political arrangements or a more serious empirical consideration of whether the state is indeed a good provider of justice and rather work on ways to improve what is already there.
I am not totally against this final argument. States do exist, and improving them may be best in the short term. It comes down to a practical judgement call. If, in the short term, it is more effective to improve states – this is something we should do. However this is an empirical question. Given the violent history of states and current pressing international questions. Would it be more effective to improve states or create alternative political institutions, which promote justice better? Both avenues deserve careful normative and empirical consideration.

Should Snowden go back to America?

Source: Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Snowden-2.jpg  

Mr Snowden violated US law. He should return to the US and face justice,” argued a senior White House advisor. That attitude reflects the reaction of many in the American and British security establishment to Snowden’s leaking of classified documents detailing the mass surveillance programs of the US and British governments. Currently Snowden has temporary asylum in Russia, which is due to expire at the end of July 2014 (though I’m still hoping Germany might do the right thing and offer him asylum). There are however I think broadly three reasons that could be given for why Snowden should instead go back to America and face trial, only one of which has I think has some plausibility, though I think its overridden by other considerations.
First, some might argue that Snowden should go back and face trial because he harmed national security. This is the kind of argument made by the security services themselves and their political allies. The head of Britain’s MI6 for example said that the UK’s enemies were “rubbing their hands with glee” at Snowden’s revelations about spying practices. I think this kind of argument is entirely wrong. Not only should we be sceptical that national security, as it conceived by the US and UK authorities, is something to be protected. But as Glenn Greenwald shows in his excellent replies to this BBC interview the supposed harm done to national security is unproven, and most likely untrue. ‘Terrorist’ groups for example already know that everything they do is subject to intense monitoring by the security services. It is also an attempt to distract from how these surveillance programs have invaded the privacy of innocent people. Furthermore, we should always question official claims of harm done to national security if those same officials deny the public access to the information required to evaluate those claims.

Glenn Greenwald on BBC Newsnight
A second kind of argument doesn’t claim that Snowden did anything wrong but argues that if you carry out an act of civil disobedience you should be prepared to bear the legal consequences of it. It is often thought that even if breaking an individual law (such as leaking classified documents) can be justified for conscientious reasons, you are still have an obligation to the overall legal and political system. This means that you should stand trial as a way to show both your disagreement with the specific law and your commitment to that system. But as Kimberley Brownlee points out it is not clear that willingness to accept punishment is really an essential part of civil disobedience. In many cases of civil disobedience there does not seem to be any obligation to the overall legal and political system because that system is so unjust. This is definitely true of the US during the period of the civil rights movement (often thought a defining case of civil disobedience) and it is, I would argue, still true of the US today. The enormous levels of economic inequality, the extensive and institutionalised racial and gender injustices, and the military and economic actions of the US across the world, mean that citizens (such as Snowden) do not I think have an obligation to the US legal and political system.
A more plausible version of the previous argument is that Snowden should go back because this makes it more likely that people will take his views more seriously and challenge the surveillance programs of the state. This is essentially a strategic argument about what is most likely to convince people. A frequent reaction in the American press has for example to point to Snowden’s supposed ‘hypocrisy’ in asking for asylum from an authoritarian regime like Russia (it is frequently forgotten that Snowden was forced to stay in Russia because the US withdrew his passport). Returning to America, it could be argued, would make it easier to counteract this kind of argument and make the case against state surveillance.

While I think this is the most plausible argument (because we desperately need a campaign against the surveillance of the state) I don’t think its decisive. Its not clear to me that if Snowden would go back that it would make that much difference to the debate. There is an enmeshed security and media establishment in the US (and the UK) that is dedicated to the destruction of his credibility. Furthermore we have to consider how terribly the US has treated other similar whistle-blowers, such as Chelsea Manning. She was subjected to 11 months of solitary confinement, which the UN special rapporteur on torture described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” that “could constitute torture”, and she has now been sentenced to 35 years in prison. Given that Snowden could expect similar treatment I think he is justified in staying as far away as he can.

Rewards and Responsibility in the Banking Sector

The source of a particularly spirited 4-hour debate in a bar in Istanbul with Will Abel (we know how to have fun) – I thought I would bring this debate to a broader discussion in, dare I say it, a more intellectually rigorous environment.
In the lead-up to the financial crisis of 2007-8, senior executives at investment banks oversaw a system in which their firms reaped substantial rewards for selling products which they knew would ultimately lead to substantial losses for whichever firm was left ‘holding the buck’. The result of these actions we know all too well: an international financial crisis which has negatively impacted the livelihoods of billions of people worldwide.
The low number of criminal prosecutions for these actions appears to be due to a combination of the complexity of the financial products involved, the widespread and interconnected nature of the transactions and the fact that it is notoriously difficult to prove harmful intent.Thus, while their actions were dishonest, immoral and reckless, they were not technically illegal.
If a doctor were to knowingly take risks when treating a patient and that patient were to be adversely affected as a result, the doctor would be criminally liable for their actions. Likewise, if an individual takes the risk of driving when overtired or intoxicated and injures another person as a result, the driver would be criminally liable. Yet, in the case of banking, we require an additional proof of intentional malfeasance in order to prosecute.
At the current time, senior banking executives are entitled to large scale benefits while passing on the risk to their shareholders, the taxpayers who are (effectively) forced to bail them out, and a global community which relies on a banking sector in order to function. Sanctions, meanwhile, have focused on fining the offending institutions – punishing shareholders and reducing banks’ ability to lend to individuals and small businesses – rather than the individualswho ultimately made these decisions. 
I move that, given the banking industry’s importance to society and the large benefits bestowed upon its senior custodians, they have a responsibility to avert such systemic levels of risk and should be legally liable for creating such levels of risk, regardless of intentional malfeasance. Not only is this a more just alignment of power and responsibility, it is a more effective way to deter reckless behavior in the future, thereby benefiting society more broadly in the long term.
Admittedly, there are difficulties in defining exactly what level of risk is palatable for society, assigning responsibility to specific individuals (since in this case the practice was so widespread) and how to deal with rogue traders such as JP Morgan Chase’s Bruno Iksil. To an extent, however, I think that these issues can be resolved on a case-by-case basis – in a sector which perennially finds new and innovative ways to make money this may even be preferable. But by establishing a precedent that not just intentional malfeasance but a negligent attitude to risk is an illegal act, we can develop a more just reward-responsibility balance and protect the interests of society from the excesses of the few.
Finally, as much as I still hope to see prosecutions brought against individuals whose actions led to the 2007-8 crisis, I do not advocate for retrospective punishment and would intend for the standards outlined above to implemented only moving forward. As frustrated as I have been by the lack of widespread prosecutions, I take solace in the fact that the rule of law has been upheld in the face of strong public pressure. Conducting prosecutions based on retrospective law changes could ultimately create a broader ‘chilling effect’ on society which would be contrary to my intentions.

The Moral Limits of Markets

In August 2012 five people went on trial in China for facilitating illegal organ trading after a student was found to have sold his kidney in order to buy an iPad. In the subsequent reporting of the incident, the case was held up as an example of the foibles of a world obsessed with consumption; a world in which everything has a price. Even though I agree that such transactions should be prohibited, the focus on whether or not people are materialistic somewhat misses the point. The salient question is not to do with the morality or immorality of consumerism, but rather a question about the boundaries of legitimate state intervention in the affairs of private individuals.
I’m going to outline a couple of reasons there may be for wanting the state to stop these sorts of transactions. One reason is that if a market in a particular good or service corrupts the social meaning of a good, then it is legitimate to restrict the sale of that good.  The main problem with this argument is that it is quite illiberal. It can permit the Institutionalised restriction of the rights of citizens on the basis of reasons with which they may radically disagree, even if those rights have no harmful implications for anyone else. So, for example, the argument could be deployed in a country where a majority of Christian citizens object to the sale of kidneys on religious grounds. The Christian citizens may attempt to restrict the commodification of kidneys because they believe that Cup human organs are a sacred gift from God which should not be ‘corrupted’ by monetary valuation. Now consider if there was a minority of atheists in this country. The atheist minority can reasonably disagree with the religious justification for the laws restricting wholesale nba jerseys their choice to sell their kidney. The atheist minority could protest that they are not being treated as equals; a comprehensive doctrine that they do not accept is being used to restrict their liberty. They are not being permitted Markets to act as they choose, despite these actions having no harmful implications for any other members of society. 
A second (and better) reason for restricting markets is that people may only sell particular types of goods or services when they were in situations of such dire economic necessity that it constitutes cheap nfl jerseys a kind of coercion. Michael Sandel sums up this position well, he writes ‘a peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea in order to feed his starving family, but his Proudly agreement is not truly voluntary. He is coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.’ I suspect this is why most people, me included, may want the state to step and stop these Jerseys kinds of transactions. But people who are sympathetic to this view might want to consider a couple of problems with the argument.  The first thing to note about this argument is that it is not an objection to markets per se, rather it is an objection to markets which operate under highly asymmetrical Jerseys background conditions. Therefore, it Jerseys could not provide a reason to prevent a wealthy person selling their kidney. Another potential problem is that the Age transaction is paternalistic – it says that people who are in poverty are incapable of making a choice which they perceive as increasing their well-being simply cheap nfl jerseys because they have few resources.

An Age Old Old Age Question

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the UK population is ageing. To be precise, by 2050 there will be 19million people aged over 65. What is more rarely acknowledged is the scale of the problem this poses. Old age is the price any society pays for improved health care; the trouble is our society simply cannot afford to pay it. In an ideal world of unlimited resources the just solution may be for the state to cover the costs of everyone’s social care. Alas we do not live in such a world. A years stay in an older people’s residential home can cost upwards of £30000. Multiply that by 950 000 (around 5% of older people currently require care) and the bill is staggering.


I intend outline three practically feasible alternative payment mechanisms and consider some of the potential injustices these systems may pose. There will be no 500 word dash to the most plausible/least objectionable/insert-political theory-phraseology here solution. I simply wish to generate some debate around one of the least fashionable, but most pressing, policy issues of our generation. Additionally, I would like to implore political theorists to consider justice through the lens of a real world policy problem. We do not only ourselves but our society a disservice if we are unwilling to be stirred from our ivory towers to get down and dirty in the dilemmas of real world policy making. And in any case, in 50 years time we will all be reaping the life that we sow now.


So, possible solution one: make individuals pay, but provide a safety net for those who cannot. This is pretty much how the system operates in the UK at present. There are two main problems with this. First, the safety net care paid for by the state is inadequate. State funded care is poor in quality and choice and, with the pressure on it increasing, is only likely to get worse. The NHS is based around the intuition that people should not receive inferior care because they cannot afford to pay – why should this be any different in older people’s care? Second, it is highly debateable whether it is fair to ask people to pay for their own care. Not everyone who gets old will need social care. Is it fair to ask an old person who is unlucky enough to need care to pay, often exhausting all their assets in the process, when their neighbour of good health will not part with a penny?


Solution two: up taxes such that all care can be funded. Putting to one side the usual questions that surround high taxes (will it destroy the UK economy, will the super rich move abroad and so on) this seems to be unfair because it places the bulk of the burden on the younger generation. Those who are already retired will avoid having to pay for their care without ever paying any form of punishing tax for it. Given the youth of the UK are already facing greater economic hardships and fewer opportunities than their parent’s generation, is it fair to disadvantage them further by levying a new tax? Or is this one off disadvantage one society must accept for a better care system for future generations? Further, is such a tax sustainable? The latter is an empirical question which depends on economic recovery and projections. In any case, any tax that would be sufficient to cover the scale of the problem would need to be substantial.


Solution three: people are left to insure themselves against the risk of expensive social care. There are already companies that provide services akin to this, but premiums are so high that few people choose to opt for them. This may be more palatable than high taxes because people choose whether or not to insure themselves against the risk of high costs, meaning it is less financially punishing and less paternalistic. Unfortunately, the flip side of an absence of paternalism if that people may fail to insure themselves altogether, meaning people could be forced to pay high costs for their bad decisions in later life. It is my opinion that some form of compulsory insurance system may be the least unpalatable option, not least because old people insuring themselves now would pay significantly more than young people, and pay this equally, thus baring the cost of their generation’s care themselves. However, additional to the problem of paternalism this measure would also be highly inconsistent. There are many things it may be beneficial for people to insure themselves against that are not compulsory. How could this inconsistency be justified? Ultimately, my answer to that is that consistency should be an aid to justice, and not an end in itself. I for one would rather live in an inconsistent society with more just outcomes than one where consistency is pursued above all else.

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Institutionalised Truth

I believe that Democracy has some form of intrinsic value. The concept that each individual within a country has an input into the systems that govern their lives has a powerful allure. However in order to maximise this value, a democratic state must ensure that the information required to make informed decisions is Union? readily available to its members.
By casting my vote I am making a choice which Labour I believe will most likely bring about the state of affairs that I wish to see in the world. This requires a degree of information which allows me to predict, of the choices available to me, which will most likely result in the sorts of outcomes I wish to see occur. As our information becomes poorer, there is a substantial risk that our choices become less related to the outcomes we wish to see – as this disparity grows, the value that democracy provides to us diminishes.
Information within our society is currently too expensive, in terms of both time and resources, and consequently damages our democracy. It is expensive because, while it is easy to obtain thanks to the internet and 24/7 news channels, it has become increasingly difficult to verify. The sheer number of news sources available means that for all but the most basic questions, you will be able to find at least a semi credible source to support most sides of an argument. In the face of information overload, with limited realistic ability to discern what is true and what isn’t, it is hard to believe that one’s ability to vote according to their outcome preferences are not harmed.
My proposal is that the state set up a series of independent, wholesale jerseys highly specialised institutions, each of which have a narrow remit of either producing, or assessing the veracity of, certain information. The value of these institutions would lie in creating a clear authority on certain questions, allowing the media and general public to be better informed.
The institutions must be specialised, otherwise they risk losing the knowledge which makes them an authority on the issues they talk about. They must also be funded by the state, firstly to ensure they receive sufficient funding, but more importantly so that their neutrality is ensured and they are seen as a credible source of information (compared to say news channels and think tanks). The state has a successful track record in creating respected neutral institutions (for example central banks).
I admit at this stage my argument sounds a bit like a naïve wholesale NFL jerseys rant by a Customized liberal (semi) intellectual who is frustrated at the state of political decision making in the west. However, while this may all be perfectly true (it is), it should not remove from the important point that this would produce clear value to society.
What I am proposing has already successfully been done in some countries to a limited extent. Fiscal councils around the world, such as the OBR in the UK, provide independent projections of government budgets. In the US and the Netherlands, fiscal councils also evaluate the proposed spending plans of opposition parties so that voters may know whether they are credible options. Politifact in the US assess the degree of veracity Jerseys in the statements of politicians (however as it is a non-public institution it comes under attack for lack of neutrality – ironically by both sides of the political spectrum).
My area of knowledge is primarily economic – hence the examples given above, but I could easily see room for institutions in the areas of environmental science, medicine and law among others.
There are some obvious drawbacks of this proposal. Firstly there must be a limit of some kind imposed to the number of institutions and to their scope. What kind of questions are appropriately addressed by such institutions? How much information must the state provide the public with before it has absolved its duty? We clearly couldn’t have a thousand government owned and operated think tanks.
On a more fundamental level, I worry about the impact of having a state line on “the truth”. Many of the questions I would hope are assessed by such entities, are difficult and complex. A state line might stifle discussion on these Date areas and be a way to control debate in a country. It goes strongly against the Millian ideal of discovering truth through extensive public argument. However while this risk exists in the extreme, I do not feel it undermines a cautious move in the direction I advocate.
So wholesale NBA jerseys in summary, my argument:

1) Democracy has intrinsic value.

2) This value is linked to the information citizens have access to.

3) Currently information is too expensive in our society and the state has an obligation to  lower this cost.
This cost is due to the difficulty in verifying the validity of arguments.

4) The state should set up focused independent institutions which seek to provide clear  guidance on issues of import to the public.

5) Institutions of this kind do exist to a limited extent currently, do work and are a positive  impact on society. We should expand on these.
Open questions:1) How much information does the state need to provide to absolve its obligation to its  citizens?

2) What is the limit to the kind of questions we are comfortable providing a state researched  view on?

3) Why does publicly funded media fail to provide the information the public requires? / Does  it fail?

4) What are the precise questions we would ask these institutions to answer?

I’m sure there are many more beyond this initial list.

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