Sacrificed for hope?
Economic transition and intergenerational justice
« Poverty and oppression are here, and they will not
be alleviated by the possibility of a better future.”
Suppose you believe that the nationalization of the means of production is necessary for the achievement of justice. Suppose, besides, that your political party enjoys enough popular support (an absolute majority) for this radical reform. Yet you know from experiences in other countries that such radical reforms engender an economic crisis, with higher unemployment and lower incomes. What you do not know is how the economy is going to fare in the future and how long the crisis can last.
These are a lot of assumptions, certainly, but please accept them for the sake of the argument. What I am asking you is to put yourselves into the shoes of western European socialist leaders from the first half of the 20th century. They faced both a strategic and an ethical dilemma.
The strategic dilemma is the following: either they opt for their radical reforms but loose electoral support because of the resulting crisis, or they cooperate with capitalists to improve the material condition of their electoral basis but reinforce capitalism’s stability (Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy, 1985). Social democracy is the result of the second option. Radical left is the legacy of the first.
Beyond this strategic dilemma, there is an interesting ethical question: is it legitimate to “sacrifice” the least well-off of one generation in order to improve the expectations of the least well-off in the future? The transition to a socialist society freed from exploitation might be in the future interest of all the exploited, but it is not in their immediate interest and it could be very harmful to the currently most vulnerable. The transition might take time, and we cannot even be certain that it will succeed in improving the expectations of the least well-off. So what should we do?
If we have prioritarian concerns, the central question is “who is likely to be the intergenerational least well-off?” (Leave aside past generations because their expectations cannot be improved.) Under capitalism, one trend is the general increase of material conditions, but another, more recent, is the growth of inequalities. On this basis, we can doubt that the least well-off of coming generations will be better-off than ours. The contrary is more plausible. Our first aim should therefore be to improve the expectations of the future worst-off, even if it is costly to the current worst-off – provided it is not too costly.
This could provide an argument for the economic transition to socialism if we were confident that the socialization of the means of production would be an improvement. Yet this is only a conviction for socialists. They cannot be certain about it. So the ethical question becomes: is it legitimate to “sacrifice” the least well-off of one generation in the hope of uncertain social improvements?
This ethical issue is still relevant and pressing nowadays. Consider the dilemma faced by Syriza in recent months. Some were convinced that a Grexit would be an improvement in the long run, which is a matter of debate. What seemed more certain was a crisis in the short term as a result of it. In these conditions of uncertainty, can you take the risk?
I am not sure there is a right answer to this question. It might fall back to a matter of strategy. Anyway, this is where I need your help. What would you say?