Justice Versus Justice

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By David Koyzis

November 1, 2013

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ conversation with his friends over the nature of justice takes a startling turn when Thrasymachus drops a bombshell. It is more profitable, he argues, for people to be unjust than just, if they can manage to get away with it without incurring a bad reputation. Of course, no society could function on this principle for very long, as individuals would seek to exempt themselves from the rule of law and to gain at others’ expense. Criminal activity is universally condemned as an obvious violation of justice. Here justice is evidently set against injustice of the worst kind.

However, most political issues do not have such a simple dichotomy between justice and injustice. In the real world, conflict is likely to lie not between just and unjust, but between different visions of justice. Partisans everywhere often have difficulty understanding this.

A good example of this is the debate over the closed union shop, an issue that goes back to the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 which legalized collective bargaining in the workplace. Those of a more conservative mindset argue for so-called right to work laws, which would free prospective employees from the obligation to join a union if they prefer not to do so. After all, the Constitution guarantees freedom of association, which the closed union shop appears to violate unjustly.

On the other hand, those of a more liberal bent argue that the closed union shop is necessary to enhance the power of potentially disadvantaged workers against management, who would otherwise unilaterally dictate the terms of their employment. Justice in the workplace requires worker solidarity, which the union guarantees. Requiring employees to join and pay dues to the union is thus very much in accordance with justice.

The ongoing debates over raising the minimum wage bring up a similar issue. In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act set the level at which workers must be compensated for their labor at 25 cents per hour in 1938, and it has been raised sporadically since then. As of 2009, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, with some states mandating a higher rate.

Proponents of raising the minimum wage can marshal powerful, justice-based arguments. Workers deserve to be paid fairly for their labor, and Christians can cite biblical judgments against those who would withhold a worker’s just wages, including Jeremiah 22:13-14, Malachi 3:5 and James 5:4. However, others make a credible case that raising the minimum wage will only exacerbate high unemployment rates by pricing those willing to work out of the employment market. If a small shopkeeper cannot afford to pay the minimum wage, he may decide not to hire, thereby depriving a would-be employee of any wage at all. That is also seen as unjust.

So where does justice actually lie in such disputes? Is it possible to say that one side better understands the principles of justice than the other? Some, especially those who assert that a national budget is a moral document, will say yes. However, we need to keep two considerations in mind as we attempt to make sense of the demands of justice.

First, governments are called not only to resolve political issues justly, but to settle justly the claims of rival visions of justice. To do so would require governments somehow to transcend these divergent visions and to act according to an objective standard free from such visions—an impossible task. There is no such thing as a neutral justice commanding assent from all reasonable citizens. Visions of justice are inevitably grounded in worldviews conditioning the reasoning process at a basic level.

Second, even if we could agree on a single vision of justice, there will always be disagreements on how to flesh it out. The controversy over the minimum wage illustrates this especially well. If we all concur that workers must be justly compensated for their labors, prudential considerations may dictate different approaches to the issue based on changing economic circumstances and an awareness that good intentions may not necessarily lead to desired results.

The first consideration should help us to see why biblically-astute Christians need to contribute to the ongoing political process. If conservative and liberal visions of justice are incomplete at best, then a vision based on principled pluralism may deepen the debate and move it in a more positive direction. The second consideration should prevent us from portraying our opponents as contemporary embodiments of Thrasymachus and help us to retain a measure of humility as we advance policy specifics in response to the biblical call to do justice.

- David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. His award-winning Political Visions and Illusions will soon be out in a Portuguese-language edition.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.