Justice, Injustice and Human Decency

Vernon Smith is a professor at Chapman University and the 2002 Nobel laurate in economics for his work in experimental economics.  He shared the prize with Daniel Kahneman, the better known among wider audiences, and who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow

One of Vernon’s Smith’s expertise regards Adam Smith’s writings.  Vernon Smith wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that bears to be paraphrased and used in understanding how we can attack upward mobility.

Here is a brief phrasing of Vernon Smith’s ideas.  Adam Smith thought society improved itself by controlling certain hurtful actions, rather than by trying to achieve some utopian benefit through collective action.  We can point to many examples where unintended consequences from utopian ideas led to poor outcomes for most people – take the grandiose experiment with Communism which was across almost 30% of the world before 1989.  The move from Communism to market economies in Central and Eastern Europe, among other places, has shown that wealth and well-being can be enhanced by creating open, yet lawful markets that provide opportunities for all.    

Adam Smith preferred to rely on people’s natural impulses to better themselves, risking only their own resources to do so.  He believed that people can and do make decisions in their own best interests, rather than central agencies doing that work for individuals. 

His policy views derived from his belief that every person’s socioeconomic achievements should depend as much as possible on merit and as little as possible on privilege.  Yet, everyone needed a fair chance to participate.

For Smith, justice was the negative image of his definition of injustice.  Intentionally hurtful actions alone deserve punishment because they cause a feeling of resentment in all the other community members.  Rules that punish in proportion to social resentment emerged naturally in early communities before the advent of central governments.

This point is not unlike that in Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present.  He points to a worldwide spread of reseentiment, an existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.  Modern individuals are being pushed to aspire to wealth, status, and self-achievement and power, yet leaving out the goal of good for others.  Commitment to family, faith, community – the tribe – if being left behind.

This point emerges in Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe. Junger points to historical tribes who tended to be exceedingly loyal because they received basic freedoms.  Loyalty and courage were promoted over other virtues.  Sharing among tribal members minimized surplus accumulation.  In modern society we created a cycle of work and financial obligation emphasizing extrinsic rewards over intrinsic rewards.

I believe our contributions to help the less fortunate and to organize society for their success is an expression of humanity – an expression that all are members of the tribe.  We should test everything against human suffering.  Only humans among living beings suffer.  We are better as a society if we get beyond this increased humiliation inflicted by arrogant and deceptive elites. 

Now if we want people to organize around these ideals, we need to create a story that people can relate to and that creates trust.  For example, we need to find ways to honor global commitments and find ways to get national citizens to care about others than themselves.  We must move beyond the divisive rhetoric of national leaders finding healthier narratives that serve all humans.

Central governments only purpose initially was to defend the innocent against real, positive evil.  Justice was a residual – the infinite set of permissible actions remaining after a finite set of actions were ruled worthy of punishment out of common experience.  Yet, those permissible actions cannot include a lack of decency towards others. 

Now, I ask that you think of how to create these stories and tell them to everyone who will engage.  What are our biggest issues?  Climate change, nuclear war, technology disruption, the disparity among rich and poor?  What do we want as best outcomes?  Are our actions leading to these outcomes?  Does social harmony become more important than absolute fact? [See the writings of Yuval Noah Harari for more on this point].    

We must not rely on experts to tell us what to do.  We must rely on a commonality of being members of the tribe and that the tribal members dictate basic values and what it wants its society to become.

Adam Smith comments in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, giving wise advice:

The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it. A man may learn to write grammatically by rule, with the most absolute infallibility; and so, perhaps, he may be taught to act justly. But there are no rules whose observance will infallibly lead us to the attainment of elegance or sublimity in writing; though there are some which may help us, in some measure, to correct and ascertain the vague ideas which we might otherwise have entertained of those perfections. And there are no rules by the knowledge of which we can infallibly be taught to act upon all occasions with prudence, with just magnanimity, or proper beneficence: though there are some which may enable us to correct and ascertain, in several respects, the imperfect ideas which we might otherwise have entertained of those virtues.

In other words, we must rely on all citizens to act as if they and others were part of humanity, deserving of respect, involvement, and basic decency. Rules and government can go just so far.  Embracing these ideas will take us a long way to addressing some of the most intractable challenges we face in society.


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