Social justice and equality are contested terrains as much among ordinary people as among philosophers. In the absence of divine or natural justice, and of an objective definition of socially fair outcomes, post-enlightenment thinkers have in recent decades focused more on just institutions and fair processes than on a substantive definition of justice. Unfairly simplifying this debate, justice should be based on a rational, democratic and transparent public discourse that defines a set of rules and institutions that provide genuinely equal opportunities. Unequal outcomes would be accepted as fair, by and large, if these conditions are met.
While the concept of equal opportunity sounds rather liberal at first glance, taking it seriously requires comprehensive policy initiatives to correct the inequality continuously generated in market economies. This raises many complicated questions, such as: Should society compensate for the unequal distribution of beauty or talent? How much more does a disabled person need to enjoy equal opportunities? And how much inequality is a legitimate price to pay for innovation and productivity growth?
In the latter case, the billions of Bill Gates might be justified, while it seems more of a challenge to justify those of Paris Hilton.
Even more difficult and more fundamental is the question of whether the precondition for “perfect justice” – a public discourse free of power, vested interest, xenophobia and prejudice – is realistic in today’s world. It is theoretically fascinating and of undeniable intellectual value to debate institutions and procedural rules for a fair society, but there is a risk that the best is the enemy of the good. In other words, since the conditions for rational discourse cannot be met, we cannot reach consensus on a set of universally accepted rules and institutions for achieving social justice.
There can be no doubt in today’s world, however, that success does not depend mainly on merit or individual effort. It is rather colour, gender, class and place of birth that matters. Middle-class girls in western societies are the most likely to go to university. The chances of working-class children going to university are much higher in Sweden than in the US, and a hairdresser in Luxembourg makes easily 50 times the income of an hairdresser in Mumbai doing exactly the same job. A black boy in the US has a 50% chance of being in prison at least once in his life, and 50–100 million girls in the developing world never see the light of the day because the parents wanted a boy and opted for abortion.
Given the difficulties of defining social justice and creating the necessary institutions that would possibly generate universally accepted fair outcomes, I am arguing for policy purposes related to the rather pragmatic recent proposal of Amartya Sen. We might fail to agree on an ideal world of social justice, but it should be easy to identify situations and circumstances that by any public reasoning are extremely unjust.
For instance, who would deny that the fact of 5 million children dying of malnutrition and hunger every year severely violates any concept of justice? Or that it is unfair that the educational achievements of children are largely determined by the wealth of their parents? Who would deny that wages below the poverty line are unacceptable, that freeing the rich from contributing to social security is unfair, or that tax havens and other means of tax evasion are incompatible with a concept of social justice? Likewise, who would argue that we can ask the poor to protect the rainforest while we are booking our Easyjet flight for a fun weekend in Paris, that the productivity gains of society should nearly exclusively be pocketed by a tiny rich minority, or that abusing economic power and shifting entrepreneurial risk to underpaid and precariously employed workers is fair and just? Who would argue that for the sake of intellectual property the poor are denied access to cheap, live-saving pharmaceuticals, or that the persistent gender pay gap is fair?
Instead of debating what would be an ideal and just society, let’s fix what is deeply and undisputable unfair today. Here is my short list:
- Free education for all. Schools with more than 50% children from migrant and working class background get 50% more resources than average schools to reduce the educational gap.
- Contributions to the social security systems are based on all sources of income and not just wages.
- Poor countries are exempted from payments related to intellectual property rights on pharmaceuticals or can freely use cheaper generic products.
- A legal minimum wage is established that guarantees an income above the poverty line.
- Closure of all tax havens. Any bank or other financial institution operating in a tax haven is banned from doing business in Europe.
- Creation of a European tax floor to stop tax arbitrage and of a unitary tax on multinational companies, reflecting their size, turnover and employment in the different countries.
- Support for collective bargaining agreements and their legal extension in order to avoid a race to the bottom with regard to wages and working conditions.
- Combating precarious and atypical employment, through protective national and international labour standards.
- A contribution of 1% of GDP by every country to a global UN fund, to secure a basic social floor to put an end to malnutrition, preventable diseases and extreme poverty.
- Wealth and heritage taxes that generate at least 6% of GDP annually.
This would not solve all the questions of social justice, but it would reduce some of the most obvious scandals of inequality both in society and at the global level.