306. "In Search of Decency," The Times Literary Supplement, (September 25, 1998), p. 7.

In Economic Justice, Stephen Nathanson addresses what he sees as the compelling need for a new social vision. He cites three criteria for achieving economic justice: productivity, liberty and just desert. While capitalism is by far the most powerful engine of affluence, the fact that it generates a high level of inequality, he stresses, is not a violation of the principle of desert on the face of it. Inequity might reflect the fact that some people gain more than others because they have worked harder or saved more than others. So Professor Nathanson makes a distinction between personal desert (that which one is due as reward for effort) and human desert (due to all individuals by virtue of their status as human beings). Capitalism's principal failure, he argues, lies in its inability to satisfy human desert; socialism, however, is much less productive and hence provides much less for the total well-being of people than capitalism, though it distributes more broadly that which it does produce, and hence provides more of the cherished human desert. (The socialism Professor Nathanson deals with is a philosophical abstraction rather than any actual system.)

The author envisions a third kind of society, one that would serve the total well-being of a people better than socialism, but whose distribution of resources would better meet the demands of human desert than capitalism. He describes this system as one that presumes everyone is entitled to a decent ("relatively generous minimum") standard of living, but no more. The way health care is provided in the Britain (but not in the United States) illustrates this principle: everyone is entitled to a fair measure of care, but beyond that people are free to pay for more or better services.

While Nathanson's standard of minimum decency is approximated in some areas of social service, so far no welfare state has made it its guiding philosophy, or adheres to it as a broad basis for the distribution of economic assets. To the extent that I understand Nathanson's logic, minimum decency makes it morally acceptable to reduce benefits (although down to what level is not clear), while cutting anybody off is tabooed. It rules out privatizing social security or health care, because private firms may drop off their rolls those least able to pay or most in need of service. A minimum wage would be required to pay for a decent living, but raising it beyond a generous minimum would not. Workers would not necessarily be entitled to pay rises and could legitimately even be called to scale back their wages and benefits (a measure already agreed to by labor unions in several countries), but job elimination in times of high unemployment might not be acceptable. And defending full-time, high-paying jobs at the cost of high unemployment, rather than distributing work more widely, even if it meant part-time jobs for some, would be forbidden.

The specific level of what constitutes a decent standard of living Nathanson does not try to determine, but it would presumably be subject to both political give-and-take and economic realities. He also sidesteps the question of whether providing specific goods and services is compatible with his view of human dignity, or whether it requires actually handing out cash to people. Either method, he states, would provide for the world he is envisioning, one in which people have positive liberty--the ability to act in line with their intentions--but also the right to maintain "private property, [a] market system, [which] protects people from government coercion".

Whatever one's sense of justice, Nathanson's idea has a measure of political attraction. It offers economic and psychological security, and a minimally decent standard of living provides an intermediate goal for those on the Left who aim much higher. After all, one presumably must first ensure that everyone has a basic minimum before one can offer equal shares - a goal which might very well be utopian. But conservatives will not feel at home in Nathanson's world. They may be less worried about the effects of a secure standard of living on the incentives to work and save (provided the standard is set low enough) than by the moral question of whether or not it is just to underwrite a generous minimum for the non-deserving poor.

Nathanson lives in a zero-sum world, and gives little consideration to that in which people enrich one another as family members, friends, neighbors, members of associations and communities, both by helping one another in times of need, and by enhancing each other's lives socially and spiritually. Such mutuality may not replace the basic minimum, but it could well render it considerably richer, less costly to maintain and, above all, more humane.

Minimal decency?

Unfortunately, to follow the conclusion this professor of philosophy reaches requires traversing some dry and familiar terrain, as his thin book is a road map for neophytes. The fact that I must summarize his schematic presentation does not enliven matters.

Nathanson draws on three values as his criteria for finding economic justice: productivity, liberty and that which one deserves ("desert"). While capitalism is found to be by far the most powerful engine of affluence, the fact that it generates a high level of inequality, Nathanson stresses, is not a violation of desert of the face of it. Inequity might reflect the fact that some people gain more than others because they've worked harder or saved more than others. To proceed, Nathanson builds on a distinction between personal desert (that which one is due as reward for efforts) and human desert (due to all individuals by virtue of their status as human beings). Capitalism's principle failure, he argues, is its inability to satisfy this last criterion. Socialism, to hurry on, Nathanson argues, is much less productive and hence provides much less for the total well being of people than capitalism, but distributes more broadly that which it does produce, and hence, provides more of the cherished human desert. (The socialism Nathanson deals with is a philosophical abstraction rather than an actual system like the Soviet or Scandinavian regimes).

Nathanson envisions a third kind of society, one that would serve the total well being of a people better then socialism, and whose distribution of resources would better comport with the demands of human desert than capitalism. He describes this system as one that presumes everyone is entitled to a decent ("relatively generous minimum") standard of living, but no more. The way health care is provided in the UK (but not in the USA) illustrates this principle: everyone is entitled to a fair measure of care, but beyond that people are free to pay for more or better services.

While Nathanson's minimum decency is approximated in some areas of social service, so far no welfare state has made it its guiding philosophy or adheres to it as a broad basis for the distribution of economic assets. For those who might consider Nathanson's standard as the rationale for a reconstructed social market, he provides more guidance to the perplexed than it might at first seem. To the extent that I understand Nathanson's logic, minimum decency makes it morally acceptable to reduce benefits (although down to what level is not clear), while only cutting anybody off is tabooed. It rules out privatizing social security or health care, because private firms may drop off their rolls those least able to pay or most in need of service. Minimum wage is required, to pay for a decent living, but raising it beyond a generous minimum is not. Workers are not necessarily entitled to raises, and can legitimately even be called to scale back their wages and benefits (already agreed to by labor unions in several countries), but job elimination in a high unemployment market may not be acceptable. And, defending full-time, high paying jobs at the cost of high unemployment, rather than distributing work more widely, even if it means part time jobs for some, is forbidden.

The specific level of what constitutes a decent standard of living Nathanson does not try to determine. And this notion is presumably subject to both political give and take and economic realities. Nathanson also side-steps the question of whether providing specific goods and services is compatible with his view of human dignity, or whether it requires actually handing out cash to people. Either method, he states, will provide for the world he is envisioning, one in which people have positive liberty, the ability to act in line with their intentions, but also the right to maintain "..private property, [a] market system, [which] protects people from government coercion."

Whatever one's sense of justice, Nathanson's idea has a measure of political attraction. It offers economic and psychological security, as many people prefer lower networks to shredded ones, if higher ones cannot be maintained. (Indeed, several important labor unions these days fight more for job security than for raises). And a minimum decency standard of living provides an intermediary goal for those on the left who aim much higher; after all one presumably must first ensure that everyone has a basic minimum before one can gain them an equal share, which might very well be utopian in the first place. At the same time, true conservatives will not buy into Nathanson's world. They may be less worried about the effects of a secure standard of living on the incentives to work and save (provided the standard is set low enough) than by the moral question: is it just to underwrite a generous minimum for the non-deserving poor?

I should add that from my communitarian viewpoint, Nathanson lives in a zero-sum world. Little consideration is given to a world in which people enrich one another as family members, friends, neighbors, members of associations and communities, both by helping one another in times of need, and by enhancing each others' lives socially and spiritually. Such mutuality is not to replace the basic minimum but could well render it considerably richer as well as less costly to maintain and, above all, more humane.


Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University and the author of The New Golden Rule, Basic Books paperback 1998.

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