Posts Tagged 'Justice'



Crossroads – The Consequences of Inequality

May 6, 2013

Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay, “Tragedy of the Commons,” inspired a stream of writing by all manner of scholars, particularly economists. The essence of Hardin’s thesis is actually a common-sense observation that limited resources can tragically be depleted or destroyed when thoughtless, unlimited use is made of them. When people disregard the consequences of their use and abuse of limited resources, those actions invariably affect others who need or use those same goods. In other words, when people behave selfishly it is essentially anti-social.

Selfish behavior is a moral issue, contrary to what two well-known University of Chicago economists, S.D. Levitt and S.J. Dunbar, claim. Their blunt appraisal is, “… economics simply doesn’t traffic in morality.” In their opinion, it seems, any resulting inequality from over-use of the commons has no moral dimension, an attitude which, in one form or another, seems to have become pervasive in our society and around the world. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the Board of Directors of Nestle, the largest food producing and water bottling company in the world, recently stated: “Human beings have no right to water.” If people want water they must buy it – preferably from him, of course. I suppose it is only fair to ask if air is next? We are living, it seems, in a time of unprecedented venality, an era of social behavior separated from moral consideration and consequence.

I believe the commons and the social contract are interchangeable. In a just society there is a relationship between the equitable distribution of wealth, justice and economic opportunity as essential goods of the commons. Truthfulness and belief are also vital parts of that equation. A healthy, functioning social contract cannot be a Potemkin Village of lies, injustice and public relations flack. The two most corrosive recent Supreme Court decisions, the 2000 coronation of George W. Bush and granting corporations human status in 2010, were poisonous to the commons, to the social contract. As a result of the latter we have a Congress controlled by business lobbyists and not by any measure a Congress of the people. A society in which the wealth of six people in one family is equal to the entire bottom 30% of Americans is not a healthy society. A “let-them-eat-cake” mindset didn’t work for Marie Antoinette; ultimately, it isn’t going to work for today’s 1% either. Something is going to have to give, either as a result of increased political consciousness or other less civil means. If the history of civilization is any guide, a tipping point will be reached sooner or later.

What demagogues of all stripes fail to remember is that there has always been a price to be paid when a critical mass of disbelief and inequality is reached. Lies have lasting effect and are inevitably found out, either by disclosure or by turn of events.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently stated that voting rights are “entitlements.” Either he is ignorant of the Constitution, he doesn’t grasp the Constitution, or he is a baldfaced liar. There are no further possibilities, and lying seems the most likely, based on his presumption of stupidity on the part of the rest of us, or, in other words, his obvious arrogance.

“The most irreducibly bad thing about lies is that they contrive to interfere with, and impair, our natural effort to apprehend the real state of affairs.” is how Harry G. Frankfurt puts it in his charming and insightful book, On Truth. Lies from the Supreme Court bench indisputably distort the “real state of affairs.”

What is the “real” state of affairs in this case? Here is the definitive statement of voting rights, which Scalia and John Roberts want us to believe they don’t get:

15TH AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION

[Ratified February 3, 1870]

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. 

The Massachusetts Secretary of State, William Galvin, in response to Roberts’ assertion during the trial that Massachusetts had the worst white-to-black voter ratio turnout in the U.S., gets to the heart of this discussion:  “I’m disturbed, first of all, that he is distorting information. You would expect better conduct from the Chief Justice of the United States. I’m a lawyer, he’s a lawyer, lawyers are not supposed to provide disinformation in the course of a case. It’s supposed to be based on truth.”

Of course, you would have to be new to the planet if you thought lawyers have a universal commitment to the truth. You might notice in a court proceeding that everyone must take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Everyone, that is, except the lawyers. I once questioned an officer of the Lawyers Disciplinary Board, a group that is charged with overseeing the conduct of lawyers, about this anomaly. I was told that lawyers may “interpret” in their speech to a jury. This assertion flies in the face of what is called the “Duty of Candor Before the Tribunal,” to which all lawyers are required to adhere. Nowhere in the literature of the American Bar Association will you find an exception to this duty. In practice, however, lying is sanctioned in a Kafka-worthy “interpretation” by regulators. If truth is not the absolute coin of the realm in court, where could it ever be? How could there be justice?

I agree with the social philosopher, Philippa Foot, who said, “… it makes sense to speak of those who are lovers of justice – as of those who are lovers of truth.” We must then conclude that the lawyering business has a questionable relationship with both truth and justice if their standard for truth is a moveable feast, fabrication in the guise of “interpretation” to suit their needs. As Mr. Galvin cast it, “… lawyers are not supposed to provide disinformation in the course of a case. It’s supposed to be based on truth.” I once conducted a simple survey of lawyers, asking the question: “Is your duty before the court to seek justice or to win?” I never did get a straight answer. If the motto is, “Winning is everything,” the corollary must inevitably be, “Society and Justice be damned.” It follows from this that not all people are equal before the law, but rather it depends upon who has the lawyer most willing to “interpret” the “facts” in a manner favorable to the client.

A society cannot long exist without truth, which is the bedrock of justice; it cannot long live a lie. In the final analysis, the Social Contract is both a perception and a belief. When the substance of life in a society as it is lived is perceived to fail, our natural expectations of truth and justice, our belief in the social contract is betrayed and cynicism follows. With that, the commitment to the commons is destroyed. When there is no social contract, it becomes everyone for themselves, with all which that entails.

Civil Society at a Crossroads—Truth and Justice

 I have always believed truth to be the basis of justice, for how can you have justice without truth? So far so good perhaps, but then the questions inevitably arise—which truth, whose truth? There are at least 11 theories of truth, plus a few including mathematical truth. Just for the sake of illustrating the difficulty of defining truth, the major theories are: Correspondence, Coherence, Constructivist, Consensus, Pragmatic or Minimalist, Deflationary, Performative, Redundancy, Disquotational, Pluralist and Semantic. There are others as well, but these are the biggies. You could spend a lot of time working your way through these ideas and still, in my opinion, not come up with a better everyday working definition than “conforming to reality.” As Aquinas said: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to reality.”  This is the definition I would suppose and hope parents teach their children.

I’ve put the following question to lawyers: “Is it winning or justice you seek in court?” So far I haven’t received a take-away answer. This leads me to believe we are dealing with a conundrum, a question for which I had naively expected there would be a ready or, at the least, facile answer. After all lawyers are professionals who appear before judges and juries to represent … what? Are lawyers merely hired guns who do or say whatever it takes to win their case? If so, what does this say about the very idea of justice? How does the society arrive at justice if everyone is telling a truth designed to serve their own purposes? How can a society believe in justice when there is no truth serving justice? From the most primitive to the most sophisticated societies, social contracts are underwritten by truth and justice. These are the foundation stones of the social contract. Consequently, when the contest is between winning and justice, the ultimate victim is the social contract.

In addition to the many truths posited, philosophers also argue there are many realities. Obviously, this makes getting to an absolute truth even more of a crap-shoot. If that doesn’t make for a shaky social contract what does? We have my truth, your truth, the Supreme Court’s truth, a billionaire’s truth, a plaintiff’s truth, a defendant’s truth, and of course, an insurance company’s lawyer’s truth. Whoa! “Did you throw a stone through the neighbor’s window?” Yes or No? That’s easy, isn’t it? When a man spends 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, was the prosecutor seeking justice or a conviction? Of course if truth is as fungible as indicated by the lack of one definitive statement of it, that would, I believe, indicate there can be no absolute justice either, could there? So, it would seem then that the multiplicity of these realities gives rise to many possibilities and a great many of them troubling.

If there is no absolute truth and thus no absolute justice, what do we mean when we talk about a just society, a just social contract? What if justice is merely an illusion promoted for purposes of one form of social control or another? What happens when people wake up to the charade? How do they manage? In Central Europe, when the illusion of Communism’s truths dissolved, so too did the social contract, and it is now wearing thin in China. Religion and democracy have the same problem as politics in matching promise to actuality. Consensual truth has led to all manner of belief systems, from religious to social, but when experience didn’t add up to the promise, consensus had a limited life span, as did the social contract. When life as it is lived doesn’t add up to the promise, change is inevitable.

It is said all men are created equal before the law. If you take that statement at face value then you must also believe in the Easter bunny. We all know that in life, as it is lived, not all people are treated equally before the law, but we choose to believe otherwise—we live with the contradiction, indeed we need to live with it. The statement is patently and demonstrably not true but is repeated mantra-like as though it were, and why is that? One reason is that as a society we need it to believe it true—we need to believe it is true because if it isn’t true the believed social contract is on shaky ground.

All societies are built on a foundation of “truths” and beliefs, many of which are illusory. Equal justice is, as we have seen, questionable, so too are equality of economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and others as well. Each illusion serves a particular purpose and polity. Each has its own dynamic, and each needs to be publicly examined and discussed. This I believe; while philosophers chew on these questions the rest of us need workaday answers, otherwise the social contract cannot otherwise function. Illusory or not, ultimately the social contract becomes no longer viable—destroyed by those sworn to uphold it, and those who profit from it in one way or another, but in every case a betrayal of unimaginable proportions.

Worlds of Belief

In an odd paradox we live in a world which is simultaneously propelled and constrained by belief. More often than not, believing also means not seeing what is actually there. While it is said that “seeing is believing” that  isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, what is believed is taken to be true. True believers and other zealots of every stripe “see” the world in terms coinciding with their beliefs, refusing as unnecessary and irrelevant, any facts contradictory to what they believe; cognitive dissonance be damned. This conundrum is true across human experience whether about food, sexuality, education, race, religion, or politics; it’s a very long list, sometimes benign and sometimes dangerously destructive. Consequently this equation factors to what you believe is what you get and, perforce, what the rest of us get as well. This aspect of the human condition makes social progress, among other things, excruciatingly difficult and has been doing damage to social justice for millennia.

Belief systems are powerful and their effect on the social contract is both a phenomenon and a constant. Consider the common clichés in the pledge of allegiance mouthed by nearly everyone as they grow up in the United States, “ … one nation …, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Just what does that mean in light of the social behaviors we witness today and, for that matter, throughout the history of the United States? Is the declaration of justice for all merely a slogan and not a shared belief? Where does belief in justice for all fit into comparing women to pigs and cows or caterpillars? What does an seemingly senile congressman believe when he publicly declares the president “stupid”?

If President Obama were a white Caucasian, would Congressman Grassley of Iowa believe he could make such a remark publicly? In the case of the recent fatal shooting of a young black man, Trayvon Martin, in Florida by a self-ordained vigilante who was up to his ears in beliefs about wardrobe, black people, and his own role in society. would we have had the same scenario if the roles been reversed or would a lynch mob have been quickly formed?

As an example of political belief betrayed, voters in New Mexico, particularly business people, believed the Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez would be pro-New Mexico business. Yet as governor, she vetoed Senate Bill 9, the “Corporate Fair Tax Act”, a truly pro-New Mexico business law. Looking at the roster of donors to Republican political campaigns you will find out-of-state corporations such as Wal-Mart that will now continue to enjoy paying low wages and no taxes on their New Mexico income at the expense of New Mexico businesses. Obviously the belief that their campaign contributions would protect their profits was well founded.

Do you believe, as apparently the majority of US Supreme Court justices claim they do, that corporations are “people”? Are corporations called to jury duty? Of what gender are they? Can a corporation marry a woman or a man? Can corporations be drafted into military service? Do you believe the justices truly believe corporations are people? Of course they don’t, but they did believe they could get away with the outrageous ruling.

US Senate Republicans recently blocked what was called the “Buffett Rule” which would have disallowed loopholes permitting lower tax rates for the wealthy than those imposed on middle and lower class taxpayers. Why would they betray the majority of American taxpayers in such a blatant manner? Because they believe they can get away with it, that’s why. In Michigan, using a questionable and now legally challenged tactic to circumvent hearings on bills before passage, the Republican legislature repealed a law which provided health care for domestic partners. There is obviously an underlying autocratic belief system that emboldens these guys.

My favorite belief canard of late was when the Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives, sounding a bit like a peeved Marie Antoinette, whined about “class warfare”. It was rather revolting to witness one of the leaders of, arguably, the most corrupt legislative body in the history of civilization complain to the press that the #occupywallstreet demonstrators were engaging in class warfare. Well, of course they are and why not? Class warfare has been going since time immemorial, Mr. Speaker, except it has been working in yours and your sponsors’ favor, which is why you wish the unwashed masses would’t notice and call attention to it. And you did believe you could get away with such a declaration, didn’t you?

When people’s beliefs and experience don’t add up they have nothing left to lose. As with any social revolution in history the populace becomes problematic for the status quo and consequently for the extant social contract. The #occupy activists apparently continue to believe in something resembling the propaganda of equal opportunity and justice for all and refuse to accept being drafted into a society of drones serving the 1%. Young people are refusing the status quo because they perceive they have nothing to lose but are defending their dignity as human beings by objecting, demonstrating, and forcing change. In their perception everything, including the future, is being gobbled up by greedy sponsors and politicians of the 1%. The propaganda of equal opportunity and equal social justice isn’t working because opportunity is perceived to be already owned, patented, and monopolized; reality and the promise don’t add up.

No social contract has ever been viable except when the beliefs and the experience of the society and individuals have been in accord. That’s a belief to live by.

This essay first appeared at: The Light of New Mexico


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