Government as the Champion of Justice, Equality, Freedom, and Security
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Social and Economic Justice
It is important to see that the government is not only the sole source of legal justice, it is also where people usually go to promote social and economic justice as well. Americans have a strong moral sense that people should be treated fairly and that people should get what they deserve – irrespective of their class, race, gender or age. And again, the mechanism of government is usually the only way that this kind of social fairness and justice can be effectively promoted. Many government policies – from minimum wage laws to anti-discrimination rules– exist primarily to ensure that Americans are treated fairly.
There is little in the private market that promotes economic or social justice. For example, the market does not ensure that people will be treated fairly as employees or as consumers. Some businesses will treat their employees and customers fairly, but some will not. Some will exploit their workers and hire and fire them arbitrarily. Some will not give their customers a fair value for their money. You can complain to the Better Business Bureau, but it is unlikely to have any real effect. So most people turn to the government and the government has responded with a variety of laws that are designed to ensure that people are treated fairly by businesses. One of the most obvious manifestations of this is anti-discrimination laws. Firms cannot hire and fire people based on their race, gender, or age. Nor can they deny a service or product to someone on the same unfair basis. We also have a variety of consumer protection laws – like lemon laws – that work to ensure that consumers get a fair shake from businesses. We also have anti-trust laws to prevent companies from creating monopolies and oligopolies that can then use price-fixing to charge consumers unfair prices. Since fairness is not an inherent attribute of markets, government is needed to inject that value into economic relationships.
Interestingly, however, businesses also rely on government to ensure that they are treated fairly. “Fair competition” between companies is a basic requirement of an efficient and productive market economy. But fair competition does not come naturally to the marketplace; it must be created and enforced by a variety of government policies. Left to themselves, many businesses would not treat their competition fairly. They would dump goods on the market at below cost to drive their competition out of business. They would try to restrict their competitors’ access to vital goods and services. And then there are the blatantly criminal activities that some businesses would use to eliminate fair competition. In countries like Russia, with poorly funded and poorly functioning public sectors, organized crime plays a significant role in the economy and stifles competition with threats, beatings, kidnappings, and murder. Far from wanting to be left alone by government, most corporations rely on various government agencies and regulations to ensure that their competitors do not have an unfair advantage over them.
The government has also intervened to ensure economic fairness in other ways. Most people would probably agree that it is unfair for businesses to exploit workers and pay them slave wages that nobody could possible live on. People deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That is exactly why we have minimum wage laws – to ensure that everyone gets a semblance of fair pay for the work they do. This kind of commitment to economic fairness also underlies the Earned Income Tax Credit program of the federal government. Supporters of this law – both Republicans and Democrats – believe that if people are willing to work hard and not rely on welfare, then it is not fair for them to live in poverty. So the EITC utilizes tax credits to subsidize the income of low-income families by several thousand dollars a year. This program has proved to be one of the most successful policies in lifting families out of poverty in the U.S.
Many other government policies are necessary to ensure that life is fairer and that people actually get what they deserve out of life. The whole idea of Social Security is that it would be intolerably unfair for people to work hard all their lives and then be forced to either not retire at all or to live in destitution in their old age. There will always be, of course, some unfairness in life. But this doesn’t mean we must accept it or not try to eradicate it whenever we can – that is part of our moral responsibility. We can make life much fairer than it naturally is, but we must usually employ the institutions of government to make it so. So while conservatives are right that “Life isn’t fair,” it would be more accurate to change that saying to “Life, without government, isn’t fair.”