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Sacrificed for hope?

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.”

Adam Przeworski

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?

Currently postdoc at KU Leuven, I hold a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Louvain (Belgium). My main research interests are democratic theory, theories of justice, and civic education.


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  1. A very interesting question, Pierre-Etienne. One concern that seems important in this area is how we think about using people as means. For example, it might be argued that sacrificing the welfare of today’s worst-off for the benefit of future people is that the former are, thereby, being used as a means to benefit the latter. This worry might be particularly pressing if the potential gains were only speculative. Do you think this concern should set some constraint on the ways in which we can pursue just transitions?

  2. Lisa Herzog

    Thanks for this interesting post. I wish I had a good answer! Here are two preliminary (and probably pretty obvious) thoughts. The first is that expected utility theory, while probably overly optimistic about the possibilities of knowing risk distributions, seems to be right in holding that both the size or weight of what is at stake and the likelihood of reaching it play some role in the evaluation. The second is that we can think about extreme cases in which our intuitions would be pretty clear. To construct an example: assume that there is a good chance that if the current generation worked one hour more per week for the rest of their working lives, there were a reasonable (but not certain) hope that all generations after it would have substantively better lives. In that case it seems reasonable to require that sacrifice, even if there is no certainty. Would you agree? If so, we could tinker with that example to bring it closer to real-life situations to see which factors might play a role for what we consider legitimate…

  3. Jesper L Pedersen

    This is a very interesting thought, and I think one that applies just as well to the right side of the political spectrum. (Not all of it, obviously – in the British context I’m thinking the kind of One Nation Toryism Cameron used to stand for, or the people associated with projects like The Good Right.) Suppose you believe deregulation, lower taxes and a smaller state will lead to better social justice outcomes. Suppose that you have the political power to do so (as they in fact do). But suppose you also realise that in the short term some members of society are going to be hit extremely hard by your proposed policies. Does this make the policy unethical (assuming you believe the first proposition, of course)? Whatever the answer is, our intuition should be the same for both cases.

  4. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you all for your comments!

    First, I do agree with Jesper: the dilemma applies as well at the other side of the political spectrum. Thanks for your good example! This is why I opted for the title “Economic transition” rather than “Transition to socialism”. I just illustrated my point using socialism as the question came to my mind reading Przeworski’s book.

    Now, what principles should guide our decision? Certainly, as mentioned by Andrew, we should be reluctant to use some people as mere means. Yet this deontological attitude is a bit radical if it is not supplemented by a consequentialist principle along the lines given by Lisa. If the potential progress is important and the uncertainty not too high – thanks to past experiments or similar experiments in other countries – I would say that the sacrifice can be justifiable.

  5. Pierre Etienne, thanks for this! I’m actually working on a paper on a very similar question right now. And to be honest, I still don’t know what the right thing would be. I’m very troubled by the consequentialist path of sacrifice, but I can also see that a deontological path can be paralysing. What I thought might be permissible (although perhaps not required) is opting for the transitional route but applying constraints to it, in that the policies which promise to lead us to a better future cannot bring anyone below a level of sufficiency (which is decent enough to lead a meaningful life). Or do you still think that would be too high a requirement?

    • Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

      Thanks Siba! The sufficiency constraint is interesting. Yet in practice people press for a transition when sufficiency for all is not available, when people feel they have more to win than to loose. The Greek example is illustrative. When people have enough, they become more conservative and economic transition is feared. So in this sense, the sufficiency constraint is too high.

      What we could have is a floor constraint. A minimum under which no one can be brought by an economic transition. This is convincing, although the level will be more arbitrary than in the case of sufficiency.

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