Notes on Economic Justice and the American Dream

Prepared Remarks for the Roosevelt Alumni Panel discussion of Economic Justice session at the American Dream Reconsidered Conference, Roosevelt University, 12th September 2017. (See video of the whole panel here.)

It is said that the essence of the American Dream is the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. Leaders on both sides of our partisan political divide have endorsed this view. It is simple, straightforward, and yet utterly ambiguous. In more than a decade working in restaurants I knew many who certainly worked very hard, and at least appeared to play by the rules – and yet seemed left behind by the economy. Many Americans find themselves stuck, year after year, on the margin between prosperity and poverty.

On the one hand, you might say the American Dream is economic justice. On the other, economic justice seems to be little more than a dream in the United States. The recent work on income inequality by the MIT trained economist Thomas Piketty, indeed, appears to confirm the view that, once upon a time, economic growth benefitted a broad majority of those living in industrialized countries. Income growth occurred across a broad spectrum of society, a trend that has reversed in more recent history, as gains in nation income have gone increasingly to the top. For some, the three decades following the Second World War brought unprecedented prosperity. For others, the developments of those years possessed a nightmarish quality, as economic growth disturbed traditional social structures. Near the end of that period the Harvard political philosopher John Rawls published his landmark work, A Theory of Justice, an ideological apotheosis of sorts. In the years since, it is the response to Rawlsian liberalism, libertarianism, which has come to dominate the discourse on justice, economic and otherwise.

Libertarian thought emphasizes the priority of the individual and individual rights over society. In the libertarian formulation, economic justice is considered a subjective matter. The institutions of private property, contract law, and free enterprise are considered sacrosanct – the role of government is merely to facilitate institutions of free market enterprise, which is proclaimed the greatest benefactor of society at large.

Of course, there have been many responses to the libertarian challenge, but I wish to focus here on the work of economist Amartya Sen and political philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Together they have advanced what they have called “the capability approach” to social justice. The starting point of the approach emerges from Sen’s critique of Rawls. Sen contrasts the transcendental framework of Rawlsian justice with the comparative approach taken by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He points out two fundamental weaknesses in the Rawlsian conception – the impossibility of working out a functional model of social justice applicable in a world of more than one social frame (let alone the vast diversity confronting any theorist of justice); and that the Rawlsian focus on human rights and the priority of liberty, part of the core of the liberal tradition in which Rawls operates, leads to the prioritization of negative rights and prohibitions on activities rather than prescriptions for the mitigation of existing injustices. In the interest of moving towards a more just world, Sen suggest various categories of human capability which we might use to consider and compare existing social and economic conditions. Nussbaum further develops Sen’s idea of human capability, providing a tentative list including: Life; Bodily Health; Bodily Integrity; Senses, Imagination, and Thought; Emotions; Practical Reason; Affiliation; Other Species; Play; and Control Over One’s Environment.

In her account of the capability approach, Nussbaum notes that Sen, while having clearly advanced the capability approach through his role in authoring and advocating for the United Nations’ Human Development Report, among many other works, has not explicitly endorsed it as a methodology for advancing social or economic justice. Responding to this tension in the capability approach, Nussbaum writes that “social justice has always been a profoundly normative concept, and its role is typically critical.”

For me, this is a satisfying response to the aggressive individualism of libertarian thought. The United States’ founding document is the Constitution, which establishes a Federal representative democracy to furnish the supreme law of the land, and of the American people. Any ideal conception of justice, economic or otherwise, cannot be characterized as American without being faithful to the language of our Constitution. Libertarianism, in its emphasis on individual rights, tends to minimize the role of democratic rule. The capability approach, in my view, rectifies this bias by placing justice in its proper role as the critical faculty within the democratic process.

Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at

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