On Global Socioeconomic Justice

When discussing contemporary theories of global socioeconomic justice we should begin with John Rawls, if only for the fact that the two other philosophers whose views I shall be examining, Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge, refer to Rawls frequently in their own arguments.  Rawls concept of “Justice as Fairness” is found in the first chapter of his book, A Theory of Justice where Rawls say that it “corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract.” [1]   In this hypothetical state behind Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” no one knows in advance what their social, political, or economic position in life will be, which serves as a strong motivation to agree that everyone should have equal opportunities, resources and rights.   In order for this to play out realistically in a society, in addition to everyone having equal access to opportunities, any inequalities that do exist should benefit the economically and socially disadvantaged.

In a later book, The Law of Peoples,[2] Rawls seems to take a more pragmatic view of the situation describing a society of “well ordered” peoples made up of “liberal” societies constructed as constitutional democracies and “decent” hierarchical states that allow for political input from their citizens while acknowledging basic human rights.  “Outlaw” societies are those which are totalitarian in nature or severely “burdened” by economic or cultural failings preventing them from operating in democratic manner.

Rather than apply the idea of equalities of opportunity and resources to a global scale, Rawls felt that nations should be considered to be equals in that they were all exhibiting the necessary resources by virtue of their statehood.   He did however believe that richer nations had a moral obligation to help outlaw and burdened societies rise to the level of decent societies.  Accordingly, resources could be given to these states until they had reached that level, when presumably they could continue to develop on their own.

Thomas Pogge rejects the idea that prosperous countries have only a positive duty to assist those economically disadvantaged.[3]  His position is that rich countries have failed in their negative duty to not cause harm to poorer nations, arguing that the present global organizations and agreements dealing with economic issues are biased against poorer nations preventing them from coming out of poverty. He takes issue with Rawls’ social contract theory which assumes that societies will have rational reasons for dealing with each other based on the assumption that such dealings will be mutually beneficial.  If this is the case Pogge argues, then such societies cannot rationally decide to deal with poor nations because there will be no benefit in their doing so.   I think that in this Pogge fails to see the opportunities for individuals in richer nations to extract raw materials and cheap labor from such transactions. Rawls suggests that impoverished nations have primarily themselves to blame because of the lack of effective forms of government and other economic and cultural institutions. Pogge arguing against this purely domestic poverty thesis (PDPT) saying that other factors must be considered.   For example, he makes the claim that world markets such as the World Trade Organization are structured to the disadvantage of poorer countries.  He also alleges that present day poverty is a result of a long history of bad acts perpetrated against poorer nations by richer ones.  His strongest arguments in my opinion center on his discussion of the “resource privilege” and the “borrowing privilege.”  Governments that take and maintain power by force have immediate access to state resources which they may sell, and to lines of international credit whereby they may finance their operations.  Though both processes they may bankrupt their countries and plunge them deeply into debt while maintaining their power.    It seems obvious that constitutional republics should refuse to do business with such governments and forbid corporations and individuals within their borders from doing so.  Unfortunately, this has not been the case and perhaps the representatives of those governments bear some responsibility for their dealings with rogue governments.  Pogge says that Rawls original position of individuals behind the veil of ignorance should be extended to states and used as a benchmark for their economic dealing with each other.

Martha Nussbaum has offered a more robust scenario than either Rawls or Pogge regarding the prerogatives that all humans should rightly enjoy in an article in The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitianism.[4]  Nussbaum’s capabilities approach restates basic human rights as descriptions of what persons should be able to accomplish or the resources to which they should have access.   Contract theory presumes that all parties negotiate from a position of equality. Nussbaum departs from Rawls’ contractarian approach because she feels too many classes are excluded; unable to enter into quid pro quo agreements such as the disabled, the very old, and very young, etc.  Instead, Nussbaum feels that we all need to think about what “human beings require to live a richly human life” and work to achieve that based on the idea of human fellowship rather than mutually beneficial contract arrangements.  Rawls idea of contract between nations is based on the idea that all nations have worked out within their own domains a set of procedures and protocols for living together as a nation and therefore negotiate as equals.  Nussbaum disagrees pointing to the many nations that do not operate in a democratic manner, and where large parts of the population are disenfranchised.  In this she seems to be echoing Pogge’s discussion of the inequity of the resource and borrowing privilege.

 Both Pogge and Nussbaum commend Rawls’ position that liberal societies should help burdened societies form stable and equitable forms of government but both feel he does not go far enough.  Nussbaum’s primary criticism of both Pogge and Rawls is that the contractarian model cannot justify the philanthropic relief of the impoverished necessary to create a just world.   Rather her claim is that it “must be human fellowship, and human respect, in a more expansive sense.”    It would seem that this type of appeal would have to be made on an individual level, but Nussbaum stresses the unpredictability and difficulty of managing aid to the poor on an individual basis.  She is committed to the idea that nation-states and multinational corporations must decide and commit their resources to the relief of the global poor and the development of capabilities in order for the process to be successful.  She also speaks of a global structure comprising an economic system and public sphere but does not elaborate on how it should be organized or controlled.  Most problematic is her idea that the family should not be considered a private sphere, but that government should have a hand in its management.  It seems to me that families precede the formation of government, and are the primary actors in the overthrow of unjust government.  The family, the church, and the magistrate have been coequal institutions of society serving to act as a check and balance of each other.   In a small group I attended with Nussbaum she remarked that she did not believe that parents should be allowed to educate their children.[5]  I took issue with her then asking her, given her strong support of religious and political freedom, how parents would be able to inculcate their children with the political and religious philosophies they held most dear if they could not educate their children.  I do not recall her answer, but I note that education is one of the ten principles she advances for the establishment of a global structure, and that she stresses that “institutions and individuals have a responsibility to support education, as key to the empowerment of currently disadvantaged people.”

Individuals (and by extension their government) have a limited amount of time and resources which in turn must be applied to a hierarchy of responsibilities and needs.  I must take steps to preserve my life if at all possible, and in turn the government must take steps to ensure its preservation.   I must provide for the well-being of my wife and children.  The government must provide for the well-being of its officers and citizens. I have both a moral responsibility and social incentives to promote the well-being of my close relatives, friends, and neighbors. Nevertheless this is limited both by time and financial constraints as well as the obligations I have previously outlined.   I exchange the limited precious hours of my life for a paltry sum in order to meet my obligations.  I exchange my life for currency and my currency for goods and services.  He who steals from me steals my life.  He who attempts to rob me attempts to take my life by force and deserves nothing but the sword in return.  Taxation is a form of taking by force, and this is why government officials do well to be careful that such taking is just. Government, being a legal entity, has no moral obligations whatsoever but it does have legal obligations to its citizens, and political and national security concerns that must be addressed within the limits of its authority.    The Constitution of the United States makes no provision for government to in any way cede the powers and authority granted to it by the states to any other government or global organization.  Therefore, the pronouncements of any international body have no legitimate authority over the people of the United States and should treaties be signed to that effect, they can have no legitimate legal standing.   The Constitution of the United States makes no provision for our government to redistribute the income of the citizens of the several states, or designate it for charitable purposes. The fact that this has been done in the past does not make it any less illegal.  Therefore our government should do as little as possible to relieve the suffering of the poor in our own nation or any other nation, providing no foreign aid whatsoever except in those situations where the national security of the United States demands it.  Thomas Pogge says that “as affluent people and countries, we surely have positive moral duties to assist persons mired in life-threatening poverty.”  I will readily admit that this is true for us individually, but maintain that our government does not have such moral duties.  Regarding the negative duties to reduce severe harms that we allegedly have caused, The United State has given approximately seventy three billion dollars in foreign aid over the past decade alone.[6]   We have given hundreds of thousands of lives in the cost of freedom.  We have send thousands of missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers into the field to help those less fortunate than us.  With a word, an unpopular American president was able to generate over ten million dollars in text-mailed contributions to aid Haiti’s earthquake victims.   It was Senator Robert Goodloe Harper who said, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”  I think that the citizens of this nation would be quick to echo, “Millions for charity, but not one cent for reparations.” Regarding the rest of the world, including those underdeveloped nations who have chosen to live in peace with us, our foreign policy should be the promotion of free trade and human rights, and the promulgation of a constitutional government as the ideal.

With the idea that the truth about such matters will prevail, global organizations should be clearing houses of scientific research, sharing and disseminating it to all nations and their citizens to bolster their technological and economic development, and to aid in decision making and legislation at the local level.  National or federal governments would do well to refrain from implementing regulations of any kind, allowing the state legislatures and court systems to sort out most matters themselves.  However as our government is tasked with the execution of foreign policy, I think it should be our policy not to deal financially with rogue governments, and agree with Thomas Pogge in this matter.

Wherever private American capital and entrepreneurship is welcome, it should go with the goal of making more profit for Americans, while at the same time providing an opportunity for the citizens of poorer nations to learn skills, raise their standard of living, and improve the quality of their culture and their lives.  This is in accordance with my earlier premise that personal and immediate well being must come first because of the obvious lack of time and resources.  As Lincoln said, we must teach men to fish. As we do so, I think it behooves us to sell them the pole, hook, line, and sinker as well.  The steady capitalization of any area results in an immediate benefit for the entrepreneur it is true, but yields a long term benefit for the communities who gain their own capital from earnings and thrift, and find an example which they may follow in order to enrich themselves and their children.  Should they wish to do, so labor unions may send missions to enlighten the working men and women in these countries about the benefits of collective bargaining.

Wherever missionaries and independently funded NGO’s are welcome, they should go in order to further their own private agendas of peace, development, and relief for the poor.  The National Association of Parliamentarians, of which I am a member is an example of such an organization.  NAP regularly sends volunteers to countries unaccustomed with the workings of democratic government to train citizens at the local level on the procedures used to set up legislatures, debate and decide issues, and how have free elections. Volunteerism should be lionized and contributions to these types of organizations encouraged, perhaps with the cooperation of the television, film, marketing and advertising industries. The private sector is the proper place for charity and relief of the poor, which should be privately funded and manned by unpaid volunteers.  But charity must never be made compulsory because at the point that it is made so, it ceases to be charity on the part of the giver and becomes robbery on the part of the recipient.


[1] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of HarvardUniversity Press, 1971.

[2] Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited”. Cambridge, Mass: HarvardUniversity Press, 2000.

[3] Pogge, Thomas Winfried Menko, and Keith Horton. Global Ethics: Seminal Essays. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2008.

[4] Nussbaum, Martha “Beyond the social contract: capabilities and global justice.” in The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism,ed Brock, Gillian, and Harry Brighouse. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2005.

[5] Colloquium attended by Martha Nussbaum, UNF faculty and graduate students of the Department of Philosophy and Ethics, University of North Florida.  February 21,2008

[6] http://www.vaughns-1-pagers.com/politics/

Originally published November 7, 2013 University of North Florida

About Louis William Rose

“I am an advocate for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a lifelong student of parliamentary procedure and political process. He has served as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004, with an additional two years of graduate work in political philosophy. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a hydroponic farmer in the panhandle of Florida, and Alexander, a successful real estate developer.
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