Point: Injustice as a Process

The first year accelerated class recently read ‘Winner-Take-All Politics’, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The students came to divergent conclusions about some of the subjects brought up in the book.  In the following piece, Ian Downie presents some of his doubts about the authors’ logic. Tomorrow, we will present a counterpoint argument.

‘Winner-Take-All Politics’ has painted itself as a mock crime novel that investigates a particular situation that it considers to be a crime. This “crime” is the recent increase in income disparities in the United States, and most specifically the disparity between the very top 1% of earners and the rest. But Hacker and Pierson have failed to address a more fundamental question: Why should the increase in income inequality be a crime to investigate in the first place?

Even the most extreme of inequalities is not evidence of foul play. For example, if I wrote the best book the world has ever seen and sold copies of it to one fifth of the world at a price of $5 each, I could achieve an income higher than most of the top 0.1% of the U.S. population. But what crime have I committed? I haven’t harmed a soul. In fact, I made every person who bought my book better off since they’d only choose to buy it if they valued it more than the price they paid.

Hacker and Pierson mistakenly assume that particular results prove that injustices have occurred.  Instead, one must establish that an unjust action has been committed. The end result need not even seem unfair or unequal to be unjust. If a poor person robs another of half of his justly earned income, then the end result will be unjust despite the perfectly equal end “income”.

For Hacker and Pierson to prove that any wealthy individual has done anything unethical they would have to specify exactly what he or she did. But then why bother with the subject of inequality at all?  It is the theft that is unjust, not the fact that the one committing the thievery happened to be wealthier than the victim.

They do attempt to show that wealthy business interests use the political process to abuse their employees by comparing  American and Canadian labor law. Relative to Canadian law, the examples they find of American labor laws certainly do favor the wealthy, but this is only a relative difference.  It could be the case that the American laws are not unjustly favoring the wealthy, but instead the Canadian laws that unjustly favor the laborers.

The two examples show the differences between American and Canadian labor laws as follows: American law makers have criminally neglected to 1) ban companies from permanently hiring replacements for striking employees and 2) “impose strong limits on employer propaganda”. If Hacker and Pierson are right and the American system is both unequal and unjust then the lack of these laws must not only contribute to inequality of incomes but they must be unjust in their own right regardless of what income allocation they result in.  This is not the case.

Take the latter law. “Propaganda” is simply a vilified term for free speech. Telling your employees what you believe does not violate their rights. On the contrary, the government coercing employers into not speaking freely is an excellent example of injustice. In the case of preventing employers from hiring and firing whom they wish (without violating voluntarily-made contracts), the government would be denying those employers their freedom of association.

It is not my intention to argue that the wealthy have not wrangled any unjust advantages by manipulating the government. The point I mean to make is that injustice is born from unjust processes, not ‘unfair’ results. Much of what the government does, in favor of a great variety of groups, is unjust and needs to be addressed.  Becoming mired in subjective arguments over what are unfair results distracts from dealing with the actual source of injustice: processes which allow some to legally initiate force and fraud against others.

Post by Ian Downie (Acc. ’13)



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