Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Seeking Economic Prosperity and Social Justice: Getting Out of Our Own Way

The political discourse of this election cycle, and the respective postures of the two main political parties, suggest that social justice and economic prosperity are in opposition to one another. At times, it seems that some believe pursuing racial and gender equality are (at best) distractions from “real problems” like jobs and the economy. Others seem to think any form of business or industrial development is essentially sanctioning the destruction of the Earth and its people. Both are wrong.

Equity and fairness are not anathema to economic progress. In fact, in the big picture, they are essential. There is nothing inconsistent about being pro-business and supporting social justice. One can believe in social justice and still think there are too many regulations that hamper businesses. There are, for example, regulations that disproportionately keep women and minorities from opening their own businesses. And there are laws and regulations that create barriers to entry and help maintain market power businesses where competition is both warranted and necessary..

My colleague, Haskell Murray recently posted Faith and Work in Universities, which lists some resources related to religion and scholarly activity, particularly as it related to business. This is a worthwhile discussion, and far too often we see discussions of business and morality as separate areas – silos related to separate and competing goals. 

This is not unlike the separation in environmental law and energy law I discussed in a recent short piece about the changing role of natural gas in the clean energy movement where I noted:

Electricity generation for industrial and residential consumers was one of the major drivers behind environmental regulation, but despite this long-standing connection, environmental law and energy law have often operated in separate silos. This fact has led to disjointed and ineffective policy and a poor understanding of the full scope of legal, regulatory, and business issues in the energy sector. (footnote omitted)

This is true in the broader business and social justice realm, as well. As Haskell’s compilation shows, though, that business and social justice (including, but not limited to, religion) are interrelated is hardly novel.  When Pope Francis visited the U.S. Congress, he explained:

The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. "Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good" (Laudato Si', 129). 

Social justice and economic development are not either-or propositions, despite what recent election choices may have implied. There is, I think, a vast underrepresented center in America that cares both about pragmatic economic decisions and basic fairness and equity. This past election, I hope and believe, demonstrated more about the priorities of various voters rather than clear divides about the issues themselves.  To be sure, there are large numbers of people for whom this is not true -- there is some fundamental disagreement out there -- but I think the vast majority of people are decent caring people who have different ideas about the hierarchy of what is most important to move the country forward. 

This is not to ignore the repugnant behavior, language and acts, from some people before and since the election. There have been outrageous acts of violence and intimidation.  Shortly after the election, some of our law students were victims of such acts. As examples, one student was spit upon and racial epithets were shouted at another. There is no place hateful behavior, and it is unacceptable. A recent speaker invited to our campus said hateful and hurtful things about a valued faculty member. Free speech is a virtue, but this is simply not how we should treat each other, and it is shameful. And although racism, misogyny, anti-LGBT and anti-religious sentiment, and xenophobia have been part of virtually every government at some point, no government has found lasting peace or prosperity based on any of those things.

My point is not intended to suggest a Pollyanna-esque view of the world. I am not blindly asking, “Can’t we all just get along?”  I am asking whether we can agree to try.

It's going to take a lot of work, and there are no simple answers. But we must start somewhere. Here are three modest principles to get started moving forward together:

  1. Stop succumbing to base and visceral reactions. We need to stop assuming everyone is lying and cheating and taking something from us so that we notice those who really are lying and cheating and taking something from us.
  1. Be skeptical of uncompromising absolutists. There are some absolutes in this world, to sure, but not nearly as many as we have been led to believe. And this is not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s an issue. Anyone who thinks they are right all the time is wrong. 
  1. Reaffirm our nation’s founding principles and self-evident truths, that all people are “created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I think it is right to say we have evolved from knowing such rights belong to men to know such rights belong to us all.

These principles require seeing compromise as valuable. Virtually all of us agree about that, because most of us have jobs and friends and loved ones. Compromise is a big reason why or we wouldn’t have those people in our lives. Compromise does not mean sacrificing one’s beliefs or values.  It means recognizing the value and autonomy of others. It means seeing the mutual value of others in the world around us.  But also, to be clear, compromise is not one side listening and being nice while the other side sits obstinately waiting to get what they want.  Compromise requires that both sides work and give up something. Compromise is not, and cannot be, unilateral disarmament.   

Let’s debate vigorously the best way to achieve economic prosperity.  Let’s argue respectfully about how best to care for the nation’s poor and elderly.  But let’s value and respect each other. In short, let’s get out of our own way. We have work to do. 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2016/12/seeking-economic-prosperity-and-social-justice-getting-out-of-our-own-way.html

Current Affairs, Jobs, Joshua P. Fershee, Religion | Permalink

Comments

The question isn’t whether “social justice” and “economic prosperity” are in opposition to each other. It’s whether government-dictated “social justice” norms imposed on unwilling businesses, which thereby reduce the profits of those businesses, reduce economic prosperity. Every business regulation is necessarily a tradeoff between the public benefits of the regulation and the economic costs, which ultimately are also borne by the public The question is how much prosperity do you sacrifice in pursuit of the privileged social justice norms that the government has adopted? Some people think we should focus more on prosperity, which lifts more boats, while others think we should focus more on social justice, which puts more boats on the same level. There will always be compromises.

Posted by: Frank Snyder | Dec 7, 2016 10:42:05 AM

Well, too many people think social justice and economic prosperity are opposites, so it's a question for some.

Social justice does not always require government intervention. It can, but it is not always necessary. I agree that where we put our priorities should be the discussion. Part of my point, though, is that those acting as though one can't pursue social justice without it being government dictated, is part of the problem.

And you are right there should always be compromises, but not enough people from either side seem to understand that, either.

Posted by: Joshua Fershee | Dec 7, 2016 10:52:30 AM

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