Tuesday, January 20, 2015

EE and Distributive Justice

There are, broadly speaking, two types of justice in the Western canon. Commutative justice is concerned with the nature of transactions, of fair dealings, of proper recompense for injury. Commutative justice is justice in action, of change. Distributive justice is concerned with the nature of endowments, of wealth, of access to opportunity. Distributive justice is justice at rest, in cross-section.

Much moral miscommunication arises because of either the conflation of these two or a stubborn refusal to consider anything more than one at once. You might say that part of the EE project is to encourage Distributive Justice types to consider that their favored interventions have commutative justice implications, which may over time worsen distributive consequences.

It's probably fair to say that, at least compared to other social science disciplines, economics is concerned overmuch with commutative justice. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that economics is relatively silent on distributive justice. There's something near-cultlike about the Paretian criteria embedded in our foundational theorems, and when you make value-free, true claims such as "at the Pareto frontier, you can't make anyone better off without making someone else worse off" you risk sounding like a champion of injustice to someone who believes in a commanded-by-providence duty of charity.

I generally attempt to square the circle by harping on the "mutually" part of "mutually beneficial trade." It's hard to make folks better off by denying them opportunities for exchange. I think I should also expand that by saying it's hard to make folks better off by denying them opportunities for charity.

Charity begins at home, always and everywhere. Part of the problem of everything-as-politics is that it shifts folks' attention on the margin away from the home, away from the community, away from the comfortable Dunbar's Number sphere towards the affairs of a nation of over 300 million souls. Do you know where your state-managed charitable donations go? Do you care? Or if you're on the other side, do you know who signed your checks? Do you have fellow-feeling? Gratitude?

Adam Smith was wise enough to point out that we can still get our daily bread without the benevolence (or, indeed, the beneficence) of the baker, but he was also careful enough to make this a de minimis observation: malevolent or indifferent bread will keep you alive, but it will sicken the soul.

What do we gain by foisting every little calculation on the petty bureaucrats in DC? What do we lose by ignoring the neighbors on our streets? Is this a fair trade? Is this a euvoluntary exchange?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?