All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1984

Greed, Envy and Justice

Mr. Daskal of Annandale, Virginia, is engaged in research program management consulting.

Most people would agree that justice is an admirable thing, something that should be guaranteed as a right to all people throughout the world. It is a term that implies reason prevailing over emotion, good over evil, and fairness over inequity. Greed and envy, on the other hand, are generally seen as undesirable traits, railed against from pulpit and rostrum throughout the world. Yet despite this near-universal praise of justice and an equally universal condemnation of greed and envy, we still seem to have little justice in the world, while having made no significant dent in the amount of greed and envy. Why is this true?

For over three millennia, organized religion and wise governments have cried for justice, worked for justice, and in some cases declared justice to be their primary goal. At the same time, most religious and secular rulers have criticized greed and envy as base emotions, likely to lead to criminality or such confusion of the mind as to prevent the attainment of enlightenment and spiritual peace. Why, then, are so many human beings still denied (or denying others) justice? Why are there so many envious, greedy people still in the world?

For a significant number of modern politico-economic thinkers, the reason for this problem is that the common conceptions of justice are wrong, and that government action (i.e., the sanction to use force) is necessary to eliminate greed and eliminate the cause of envy. The number of prominent figures supporting this notion seems to have grown alarmingly in recent years, and many nations have taken up these new conceptions. Justice was traditionally seen as the equal application of law to all citizens, regardless of status or wealth. In religious teachings, justice was linked to basic norms of desirable behavior, such as treating people with honesty, compassion, and respect in all situations. Justice did not entail equality for all citizens, but rather equal access to legal recourse in the event of an attack on their life, property, or personal freedom (however wide or limited such freedom was in that society).

Two Views of Justice

Equality was not equated with justice. Greed and envy were accepted as part of life, but it was hoped that with all citizens protected from infringement upon their physical and economic liberty, all citizens would turn that greed and envy into a productive force, a force motivating them to hard work, frugal habits, and imaginative approaches to improving their lives and their products. The American Declaration of Independence well summed this up as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Note that the pursuit was guaranteed, not happiness itself.

The new conception of justice, greed, and envy is quite different. Justice in the new conception is directly equated with equality, especially social equality. Hence, justice is often called “social justice,” and is used to signify a process of enforced equalization, the goal of which is to lessen the differences in material wealth between individuals. Greed becomes a totally irredeemable trait that is socially destructive and intolerable. Greed is what motivates people to resist social justice. Envy is considered a totally acceptable trait, on the other hand. It is expected that everyone will envy those more fortunate or successful than they are unless there is true social justice. Only social justice, which will bring equality to all, can eliminate envy.

Greed and envy as driving forces to encourage hard work, frugality and innovation are now eliminated, replaced by “social consciousness” or other terms that signify that what men once would do out of self-interest, they would now magnanimously do for the good of all, without recompense. This is quite a lot to expect of most people, and so most societies totally committed to this new conception of”social justice” call for the creation of “the new man,” or “the socialist man,” and will create him through a variety of means, including childhood education, rigid social discipline (elimination of personal freedom), and re-education of adults (either in psychiatric hospitals or “development camps”).

What of our own country, though? We are not totally committed to “social justice,” are we? We still maintain a firm desire to encourage free enterprise, hard work, frugality, and innovation through market means, after all. Or do we? We have progressive income taxes, restrictions on what can be taught and where it can be taught, and a variety of other measures that seek to bring about a certain amount of”social justice” right here in the United States of America. Many prominent political, religious, and social figures call for more “social justice”: more guaranteed rights and entitlements, more ways to eliminate “windfalls” and “excessive profits.” We aren’t as free from these “new conceptions” as we might like to think.

Demands for Equality

Some of those political figures who call for “social justice” mask their goals, by crying out for a “safety net” for those unable to fend for themselves, whether that weakness is by choice, by chance, or by necessity. These political figures claim that the “average American” wants to see everyone who earns more than he does have that “excess” taxed away to bring the “needy” up to the level of the “average” man. Is this true? I suspect not.

If you were to ask the “average” man if he wished he were wealthier, I suspect the majority would say yes. However, if the “average” man were asked if other people’s money should be taken to make him wealthier, I suspect the “average” man would say no, with considerable indignation. He might even add, “I’m no thief; I can make it on my own.” That “average” man certainly would not want to become rich if it meant that the added effort involved would only make him liable to new taxes that will reduce him back to “average” wealth. In fact, the real problem is that in such a society, that “average” man wouldn’t even try to get ahead through hard work and frugality and imagination. He would just try to get by and hope for better times . . . just as the majority of “average” men in Eastern Bloc countries do today!

If the “average” American isn’t the one calling for “social justice,” then who is? It might be those at the bottom of the economic ladder, those unfortunates who are unable or unwilling to get up out of the poverty trap. However, many of these poor individuals are doing their best to get ahead on their own. They wish that their taxes were lower, and that their dollars would go further, and that they could get a raise . . . just like the “average” guy. Others wish that they had more money for “big ticket” items such as homes, cars, and medical care . . . items whose prices have been pushed up by the cost of a variety of measures trying to promote “social justice” beyond their reach. In frustration, these people ask for government help, not aware that the government was a major cause of their plight in the first place.

Finally, there are those poor people who seek to live off the wealth of others. They feel “entitled” to “social justice,” and feel no obligation to seek work. At one time, they may have tried to work, but found that union seniority rules, limited education, and minimum wage laws (to name a few causes) conspired to deny them access to a job. Or, they may be physically unable to work due to handicaps beyond their control. Yet, it is questionable that this group of beneficiaries of “social justice” have the influence or ability to propose and carry out such a plan. They are poorly educated, they are psychologically depressed, and they tend not to vote or write their political representatives for assistance. There must be some other group responsible for the big push for “social justice” and equality.

Pressure from Intellectuals

My suspicion is that another group is really responsible for pressing for “social justice” throughout the world. They are a very sophisticated group, influential at all levels of society, and generally very unhappy with the way they feel they are mistreated by, and undervalued by, society as a whole. They are the people who led the original Bolsheviks, the original Chinese Communist Parties, and the majority of leftist organizations found in the Western World today. They are educators, professional academics, and social workers. They are frustrated students who never found professions worthy of them, and petty bureaucrats who felt the existing governments denied them the power they “needed” to perform their duties “efficiently.” These people tend to consider themselves superior to the “lazy bankers,” “rich capitalists,” and “wealthy landowners” who are economically better off than they are. These same individuals use their positions in government, in schools, and in the media, to influence the “average” man to agree with them, and to encourage the wealthy to support them out of guilt and a sense of duty. They have succeeded all too well.

What about the “average” man? Does he think that he is worth as much as the wealthy person? He very well might, because he equates effort with product. To the average man, his thirty-seven hours building machines on an assembly line is worth at ]east as much as a banker’s thirty-seven hours behind a desk. The workman can say he helped build three hundred hydraulic presses or twenty-five trucks, but to his way of looking at it, the banker built nothing. There is no visible product coming out of the banker’s effort.

This common sense approach, while honest, is incorrect. Yet it is played upon by the “social justice” promoters, despite the fact that they know that the banker’s ability to pool and manage scarce resources (capital) creates products that are just as critical as those built by the assembly workers. The average bureaucrat or educator certainly uses that argument on his own behalf . . . “our product is ideas,” they might say, or “we keep society running,” or perhaps even “our product is the human mind.” Yet, these products are just as intangible as the capital produced and managed by the banker, if not more so. The ingenuousness of the “social justice” concept begins to become apparent.

Yes, it is regrettable that there is far too little justice in the world, and that many people allow greed and envy to dominate their lives. Unfortunately, the “social justice” concept cannot bring justice. Justice must treat all people equally, regardless of their wealth or status. It is just as wrong to allow bias against the wealthy in the law as to allow bias against the poor. To allow either sort of bias is to eliminate equal access, and to deny equal treatment. This is the basic, inherent contradiction in “social justice”: it is not true justice at all.

Governments created by men, and composed of men, cannot miraculously legislate justice or equality due to the contradiction involved in allowing governments to steal from some men to enrich others, but calling such action by private individuals criminal. Attempting to create equality through such injustice will lead to both economic collapse and to despotism. Ultimately, greed and envy may be undesirable traits, but the free market system turns them to society’s benefit in most cases. “Social justice,” on the other hand, will only benefit the small minority who will gain ultimate power to decide what is “just.”