There is No Justice

roy“If You Want Peace, Work for Justice”

So read the bumper sticker on the car on the highway ahead of me today. It has a nice ring to it, and it does make sense on the surface: When they are constantly treated unjustly, how can we expect the oppressed to follow a peaceful path? The poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless, and minorities are treated appallingly all over the world. The only surprise is that there are not more violent uprisings among the billions who have never experienced our world as a just place.

Arundhati Roy, acclaimed author and advocate of both peace and justice, has made this point on many occasions, most recently when she gave her speech last month as spokesperson for the World Tribunal on Iraq, a group opposed to the political and economic oppression of the Iraqi people by criminals of every stripe, from the religious fanatics and despots past and present who brutalize, steal, terrorize and deprive citizens of their rights, to the Halliburtons and other war profiteers who cheat and steal from the country and its people out of bald greed, to the warmongers and imperialists who have used and continue to use lies and deception to justify atrocious actions, and to use that country as a whipping boy to advance their cynical partisan political agenda. None of these groups is interested in peace or justice for the people of Iraq or anyone else — injustice and war are far more profitable, politically useful and expedient.

Here are some of the points she made in an earlier speech, when she was awarded the 2004 Sydney Peace Prize:

The Iraq war is a sign that the world has lost the will to fight for true justice. Sometimes there’s truth in old clichÈs. There can be no real peace without justice. And without resistance there will be no justice. Today, it is not merely justice itself, but the idea of justice that is under attack. The assault on vulnerable, fragile sections of society is so complete, so cruel and so clever that its sheer audacity has eroded our definition of justice. It has forced us to lower our sights, and curtail our expectations. Even among the well-intentioned, the magnificent concept of justice is gradually being substituted with the reduced, far more fragile discourse of “human rights”.

War mongering is criminal. But talking of peace without talking of justice could easily become advocacy for a kind of capitulation. And talking of justice without unmasking the institutions and the systems that perpetrate injustice is beyond hypocritical. It’s easy to blame the poor for being poor. It’s easy to believe that the world is being caught up in an escalating spiral of terrorism and war. That’s what allows George Bush to say, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.” But that’s a spurious choice. Terrorism is only the privatisation of war. Terrorists are the free marketeers of war. They believe that the legitimate use of violence is not the sole prerogative of the state.

The group No Peace Without Justice identifies four elements of a just society: human rights, democracy, the rule of law and international justice (recourse outside the country when the first three elements cannot be found within). In his book The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria argues there can be no democracy, and hence no justice, without first having constitutional and economic liberalism, which he defines as including the rule of law, the separation of church and state, earned and reasonably distributed wealth (as calculated by the Gini index), defensible civil liberties and a balance of power (a system of check and balances to ensure no group accumulates enough power to be able to ignore the will of the majority). So all told justice has seven elements:

  • defensible human rights and civil liberties (freedoms)
  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • the separation of church and state
  • earned and reasonably distributed wealth
  • checks and balances to prevent concentration of power that could subvert the popular will
  • international recourse when the other six elements cannot be found within

This is a tall order. History tells us that rights and freedoms are hard-won, and must be won again and again when despots come to power to curtail or eliminate them. Democracy and church/state separation are both fragile, and few countries have achieved either without a prolonged and violent period of popular unrest. The rule of law is ephemeral — not only do the laws need to exist and make sense to the people, they have to be enforceable and enforced, a situation that exists in few countries on the planet (many Latin American countries, for example, have strong environmental laws, but no money to enforce them and a high level of corruption and indifference among the few who are employed to enforce these laws). As measured by the Gini Index, only a handful of Northern European countries can reasonably claim that their wealth is earned and reasonably distributed — in many countries it is acquired by force, inherited for centuries, or claimed as a divine right, and in many others, including the US, its distribution is grotesquely skewed. And in even more countries one small group has an untrammeled monopoly on power.

The position of the US is particularly notable. Laws like the Patriot Act have seriously undermined human rights and civil liberties. Gerrymandering, unregulated campaign financing and a completely unreliable electoral system make the country’s claim to be a democracy highly dubious. There is no rule of law when overzealous, under-regulated and power-crazed enforcement agencies have the personal discretion to imprison people they don’t like without recourse to legal counsel and without limit, and to deport people to barbaric countries in order to outsource their torture and murder. There is no rule of law when the president, who has no respect for the concept or its importance, simply instructs federal employees not to enforce laws he and his corporate cronies don’t like. The separation of church and state in the US is unappreciated and under siege. The distribution of US wealth is among the most skewed on the planet, and a majority of the country’s rich elite inherited that wealth (and are working furiously to repeal the estate tax so that will continue). The checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judiciary (and the ‘fourth estate’, the media) are now extremely fragile and in danger of unraveling, and unelected corporations wield staggering and ever-growing power. And the US is one of the only first-world nations to have not only not ratified, but openly repudiated the International Criminal Court of Justice, and are now routinely using their veto power to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the UN. The current administration even believes it can ignore the Geneva Convention on torture of prisoners of war.

So on all seven scores, the US fails to live up to the standards of a ‘just’ society. Yet while this gun-crazed nation has a huge rate of violent crime*, it is politically a remarkably peaceful nation. If there is ‘no peace without justice’ how can this be?

I would argue that justice is a political and economic construct, while peace is essentially a social construct. Political and economic systems and dynasties are self-perpetuating — they are, after all, in control of the law, and they use it to hold on to the wealth and power they have become accustomed to. I have argued before that if we want to change — or save — the world, we are unlikely to do so by political and economic means — there is just too much of a vested interest in the status quo by those with all the political and economic clout.

By contrast, social change can occur quickly. Change to social systems is powered by information and education, not by laws and economic transactions. Information travels fast, and new technologies like the Internet allow it to travel much faster and more effectively than ever before. Information is, in its own way, power. Those with wealth and political power can sustain that wealth and power for a long time, but not indefinitely. Just as our remedy for an economic system that is ruinous and unsustainable is to use our social power to walk away from it, persuade others to join us, and starve that system to death as we set up a new, responsible one, so our remedy for a political system that is unjust is to use our social power to disassociate ourselves from it, persuade others to join us, and starve that system of legitimacy. Gandhi showed us how to do this, with non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, organization, and the establishment of a new responsible, responsive, community-based politic. It will take much longer to undermine the unjust political systems of this world by creating new political systems that work better — and we can expect a lot of angry backlash from those who find their power and authority and legitimacy undermined by our actions. But ultimately, now that the world is so crowded that there are no new frontiers, no refuges from political repression and injustice and outrage, this is the only answer.

There is no justice. With what we know about human nature and human history we should not be foolish enough to expect it in large, conservative, unwieldy governments, corporations and nation-states. And the road to peace, in the absence of justice, is a social one, not a political one. It’s a hard road, but we can have it, now, if we want it.

* a number of recent studies have indicated that it is the fifth of these elements of justice — earned and reasonably distributed wealth — that correlates most closely with the level of domestic peacefulness

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to There is No Justice

  1. Devin says:

    I have come to the conclusion that neither peace nor justice are ever going to come about on the global scale. The rigid, corrupt, and self-perpetuating hierarchy does not only exist within the nations, it exists outside of the nations as well. The First World is extremely oppressive to the Third World just as the elite are extremely oppressive to the poor.The logical conclusion of such an argument is interesting. In my own explorations, I’ve come to understand the root cause of such injustice as civilization. As civilization is an ambiguously defined term, I’ve provided a link for what I feel is an accurate description. Interestingly, this essay explores the meaning of justice: “The essence of “law” is the abridgement of justice–to resolve cases more quickly, by compromising fairness. Most legal systems attempt to abrogate this essential fact, but it remains the basic truth of law. Justice is a luxury only the sparsely populated can afford.”At this point, it becomes useful to examine methods of decentralization, which will effectively abolish the hierarchy. This so-called “relocalization” movement is in line with a number of the critiques of society as a whole, as many of the problems seem to be generated by the massive centralized systems.Interestingly, there seems to be a fairly good-sized number of people who understand this already. Those who were inspired by the works of Daniel Quinn (I can count myself among that number), those who are already living in decentralized ecovillages, those in the voluntary simplicity movement, and various authors who understand the issues we are facing and who have come to similar conclusions.At any rate, keep up the good work. I always enjoy reading your blogs and your essays (I’m not finished with everything you’ve written yet, but I’m getting there). Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. Toni says:

    Regarding the statement:”The distribution of US wealth is among the most skewed on the planet, and a majority of the country’s rich elite inherited that wealth (and are working furiously to repeal the estate tax so that will continue).”Distributing wealth in a self stated “capitalist” country is not an option nor was it ever an option. Those who have risked everything over the past two centuries to come to America did so to create a better life for their children. Not to find another way to support societies that oppressed their freedoms in the past. Rewards come to those who took risks. Lives were lost, families never to see one another again and a pioneer spirit. Why does the remainder of the world feel that they must wait for the US to come and save them. The formula for this society is evident in its success. Its failure’s are not rewarded. I’ll add that I doubt the world would be willing to assist Americans when we fail because of a lack action. Do you feel owed a percentage of a winning lottery ticket if you did not bet your last dollar and someone else did?As for Capital gains. My family has lived in America for nearly 200 years. We have had good times and bad times. Become rich, poor and then satisified with upper middle class. A piece of property that is handed down and taxes have been paid during the great depression (which was no doubt difficult to do) should not be taxed over 35% to justify paying for others that have not sacrificed. This inherited wealth you refer to, may sustain the family in another depression (and often friends and neighbors too). That is what the risk was for in the first place. A better life for your children and theirs to follow. If you don’t like it, oh well, America is a free country of opportunity, it has its rewards and it pains, but NOT without risk.

  3. Randall says:

    I’d like to see the facts. What percentage of wealth was inherited? What percentage of people in the USA control what percentage of the wealth, regardless of how it was “earned”. Any links?

  4. Kate says:

    Toni, I’m confused. You seem to equate capital gains tax with the estate tax. These are not the same thing. Capital gains is a tax you pay on non-work earned income, meaning income from investments. The estate tax is a tax on money you didn’t earn through work either, but as a beneficiary of the money your ancestors earned, often by non-work investments but also work-earned income. I don’t understand the dislike of taxes here. Taxes are what separates the first world from the third. Income tax in particular, income generated by work and by investment (and by inheritance). We do not pay excessive taxes here in the states. We get a lot back from what we do pay, like potable drinking water, paved roads, some semblance of a public education system, a military, police forces, etc. etc. Clearly we aren’t paying enough tax right now; our deficit is out of control because our “conservative” government is spending more than it’s bringing in.Dave, I appreciate your post. I need to read it again to see what I agree with and what I don’t. On the surface, I’d say that I think peace and justice are things we should strive for during our lifetimes, knowing that we may not find or create either before we die. We should try to leave the world at least a little better than we found it. Here in the US it’s getting harder to do that because we’ve become a society driven by greed. It makes me sad.

  5. zach says:

    Huh? So your ‘argument’ is that “there is no justice?” Not convincing, but entertaining. You really think “peace is essentially a social construct?” Well it’s obvious you, personally, are not very peaceful. What do you think the the world would be like if every single individual was at peace?

  6. Toni says:

    I meant only tag! Sorry

  7. Toni says:

    One more thought! If we had the same tax rate, created a health care system, a welfare system like let us say France, Britain or any other western European County, permitted each person a 6-8 week vacation yearly; would we be considered wealthy? If we followed the path of many Middle Eastern countries and did not permit many women to work, what would our GNP look like?

  8. Toni says:

    Oh….would we be as likely to forgive loans and debts?

  9. Kate says:

    Toni, if our system was like France’s I would consider us wealthy, but I suspect I would be in the minority. I’m not sure what you are getting at regarding the GNP and women working in the middle east, but I assume we are on the same page here. I’m still confused by your argument, but perhaps that’s because you’re not arguing at all but rather just explaining something.I guess we were talking about two different things. Property is often attached to assets that are inherited. Your example is not about inherited investment property because your family was using the property when they sold it. If my husband and I sold our condo, which we live in, and made a profit, we would have to pay tax on the profit. I can imagine that your tax was hefty if the house was bought 100 years ago. But I would imagine your profit was too. I lived in New Orleans for a few years. They had a crazy property tax system that assessed a house’s value based on what the owners’ families had paid for the house, regardless of whether or not the house had been passed down to multiple generations over hundreds of years. Since there was a $75,000 exemption, people with multi-million dollar homes that had been in their families for generations didn’t pay tax, while people with modest homes that weren’t inherited did. They recently changed the law and now everyone pays tax on their house’s current assessed value. A number of wealthy New Orleanians moved out of town to avoid paying property taxes, including Anne Rice. She moved to Metairie just to avoid paying her fair share. Crazy given how much she had earned from the city. Imagine her books without New Orleans as their subject! And I’d say the old property tax code has something to do with the fact that New Orleans has one of the very worst public school systems in the nation.But I guess my confusion comes over what your point is regarding Dave’s post. Do you think it would be better if we did not tax non-work income at all? Or just in the instance of property sales? What about other kinds of investments, like stocks and bonds? Should they not be taxed either? And how would this impact on peace and justice? What role do taxes play in creating economic parity, let alone justice?The capital gains tax rate has been lowered by Bush at the expense of the middle and working classes. I don’t think our income tax system is inherently unfair, because it strives to be a progressive tax, but it does put an unfair burden on the middle and working classes. What is unfair, though, is how unprogressive most of our taxes are. Here in Chicago we all pay 8.75% sales tax, regardless of how much we earn. This means that someone living in public housing pays the same tax as me, a homeowner, on a whole mess of things. The progressive income tax was meant to fix this disparity, but now that we are making the tax code more favorable to the richest, we’re creating a growing gap between the rich and the middle class, let alone between the rich and the poor. Here in Illinois we do not have a progressive state income tax. We are taxed a flat rate, which further adds to the injustice of our tax system.I completely agree with you that the idea of what is wealth is subjective. I hate that we assume “wealth” is only about money. I wrote about this on my blog awhile ago in response to an interview with the 9/11 fund distributor, Kenneth Feinberg, on Terry Gross. He was given very strict guidelines by the congress that the funds had to be distributed on a scale that adjusted for “future earnings potential.” It seemed positively crazy on so many levels. First the assumption that a person would have continued to earn what they had earned in the past — how is that guaranteed and how can that be assumed? Second, and most important, was the definition of “wealth” and “value” in purely monetary terms. It seemed to me that it was easy to argue that a fireman added more “value” and “worth” to the larger community of New York City than a stockbroker. Feinberg was distressed that he had to assign a sliding scale value to the lives lost, though he pointed out that this was unquestionably “American” since that is how our juries award compensation. What a long response. I’m not even sure what I’m responding to! Isn’t that silly.

  10. Toni says:

    Kate,The issue with the piece of property was that it came down to chain through quit claims as many older pieces of property do. I was given the property by my Grandfather who had all of the quit claims and the original seperation of relatives happened in 1850 or around there. My side of the family stayed on the property, and then we continued to pay taxes on it throughout the generations without actually going through modern day probate. .05% of the property was (maybe) still owned by distant family members in upstate NY. I contacted them and we paid the $10,000 to let there claim go. Now this property, we actually started to use as storage as the house was VERY old and could not be saved. The government considered it a winfall for me even though I had lived on it for awhile. It angered all of us for all of the reasons I had mentioned above. As for 9/11, I know it is very upsetting and it is what makes the world see us as so darn greedy. Must we always attach a price tag to everything. When a hurricane is zeroing in on Miami, why is it we first mention the $ value of the destruction of property? Are we so out of touch with our humanity? Or…is it that our media is so out of tune with the American people, it can not see what we value? This is a big question. Our last election was a perfect example of the highly educated left wing journalists attempting to convice everyone that the election was in the bag. By continually saturaing the public with their “propaganda” the lost site of the fact that many Americans are capable of making up their minds without the media…much less Hollywood. Just some thoughts!!As for the taxes, I was given this email. Tell me what your thought are on this. And thank you for sharing your opinions thus far.THE STUPIDITY OF GREEDHere is the real story to lighten the Budget discussion! You’ve heard thecry in the last few months from across America: “It’s just a taxcut for the rich!”, and it is acceptedas fact. But what does that reallymean?The following explanation may help…..Suppose that every night, 10 men go out for dinner at La Porchetta’s.Thebill for all 10 comes to $100.They decided to pay their bill the way wepay our taxes, and it went like this:* The first four men (the poorest) paid nothing.* The fifth paid $1.* The sixth $3.* The seventh $7.* The eighth $12.* The ninth $18.* The tenth man (the richest) paid $59.All 10 were quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner said:”Since you are all such good customers, I’m going to reduce the cost ofyour daily meal by $20.”So now dinner for the 10 only cost $80.The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes.The first four men were unaffected. They would still eat for free.But how should the other six, the paying customers, divvy up the $20windfall so that everyone would get his “fair share”?They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtractedthat from everybody’s share, then the fifth and sixth men would each endup being paid to eat. The restaurateur suggested reducing each man’s billby roughly the same percentage, thus:* The fifth man paid nothing (like the first four) instead of $1(100%saving).* The sixth paid $2 instead of $3 (33% saving).* The seventh paid $5 instead of $7 (28% saving).* The eighth paid $9 instead of $12 (25% saving).* The ninth paid $14 instead of $18 (22% saving).* The tenth paid $49 instead of $59 (16% saving).Each of the six was better off, and the first four continued to eat forfree, as now did the fifth – but outside the restaurant, the men began tocompare their savings.”I only got a dollar out of the $20,” declared the sixth man. He pointedto the tenth man “but he got $10!””That’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a dollar too. It’sunfair that he got ten times more than me!””That’s true!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back when Igot only $2? The wealthy get all the breaks!””Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison. “We didn’t getanything at all. The system exploits the poor!”The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for dinner. The nine sat downand ate without him, but when they came to pay the bill, they discoveredthat they didn’t have enough money between all of them to meet even halfof the bill!That, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our taxsystem works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefitfrom a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy,and they just may not show up at the table anymore.There are lots of good restaurants in Phuket and the Belize.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Interesting dialogue on this between Kate and Toni. I don’t think you need to ask which POV is closer to mine. John & Devin, great links, thanks. I’m going to blogroll the Anthropik site. The challenge to decentralization, Devin (besides the violent opposition of the existing power elite) will be getting there without allowing new power cliques and tin pot dictators from cropping up in the power vacuum — we need to relearn how to share power equally. Randall, I’ve written about the income skew here, with references to the data. I haven’t looked at hard data on inherited wealth, other than that in the Pareto curve above, but if you look at any of the 100-wealthiest lists you will find repeats of the same surnames, and most of those people are children of the previous generation’s wealthiest.

  12. Toni says:

    I’ll ask another question, If all of that wealth was redistributed would it help our current situation? Also, what would the incentive be for creating a business etc. if it could be taken away at a whim. I don’t think I would be willing to be overly creative.

Comments are closed.