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Is there such thing as a ‘just’ society?

"just" society

Roar writer Elsie Todd analyses theories of justice, using World Population Review 2020 to find the most “just” modern society.

The question of justice has been reflected on throughout history from, Plato’s Republic to Karl Marx’s proposition, “from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs” and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, to the conflicting modern-day thinkers – John Rawls and Robert Nozick – arguing for justice as fairness, and justice in favour of the minimal state. This article will explore different approaches, then come to a personal judgment, on whether there is such a thing as a “just” society and what is the closest model of it that we see today.

John Rawls, the American political philosopher best known for his basis of liberal egalitarianism, viewed justice as that of fairness. He put forward his theory of justice that “set out standards for a just society in the form of two principles. First, a just society would protect the strongest set of civil liberties and personal rights compatible with everyone else having the same rights. Second, it would tolerate economic inequalities only if they improved the situation of the poorest and most marginalised.”

To put forward a thought experiment to model fair conditions of agreement about social cooperation, imagining a society whereby people must come together to choose the rules and laws that shape that society, whereby you are behind the veil of ignorance such that you are unaware of your race, ethnicity, talents, social position etc. Rawls concluded that each person behind the veil would decide that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive system of basic liberties.

In opposition to Rawls’s justice as fairness, Robert Nozick sees a “just” society as one which reflects something of a “minimal state”, by which the state has limited powers such as protecting people’s property, state and contracts. Any more extensive state will violate a person’s rights. The state may not use its coercive apparatus to get citizens to aid others and gifts given to others must be voluntary exchanges.

He offers a right-libertarian view, as the hands of the market are left to operate without government interference and he sees wealth distribution and taxation as a rights violation. Nozick emphasises the point that individuals should be treated as ends in themselves and not merely as means to the ends of others.

Both arguments are nowhere near perfect. However, they have been heavily influential on global leaders.

Many politicians strive towards creating a fairer, more “just” society and use this as a base for their manifestos. Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the UK Labour Party, emphasised his aim to create “a social security system with dignity, justice and compassion at its heart”. He believes that “a just society gives everyone the right to healthcare, education and social security, free at the point of need.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an American politician, believes that America must create a just society “to protect our communities and uplift our neighbours. A just society legislation aims to combat one of the greatest threats to our country, our democracy, and our freedom: economic inequality.” 

Gordon Brown, the Labour UK Prime Minister from 2007-2010, stressed the importance of building a “just” society in his manifesto. Throughout his speech he references the “fair society” he wishes to create and closes off stating, “together we are building the fair society in this place and in this generation. The mission of our times- the fair society, the cause that drives us on – and we will win, not for the sake of our party, together we will win for the future of our country.” He details how the “modern role of government is not to provide everything, but it must enable everyone.” 

Each of these leaders believe that a “just” society is one which provides a universal right to healthcare, education and social security to enable all peoples. Alexandria Cortez further emphasises the point that a “just” society is centred around one which combats economic inequality. My perception of a “just” society is one where everyone is provided with the freedom and opportunities to become whoever they want to be: universal healthcare and education, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, political freedom, and a fair electoral process.

I have tried to find whether there is such a thing as a “just” society, or the closest thing to it, using three deciding factors: a country’s wealth equality, democracy, and happiness of the population.  I looked at the Gini coefficient (minusing it from 10 to match it up to the Happiness Index and the Democratic Index). The Gini coefficient is a measure of the wealth inequality in a country – 0 being the most unequal and 10 being the most equal. Then I looked at the Democratic Index – 10 most undemocratic and 0 most democratic – and the Happiness Index.

Wealth inequality is calculated based on the distribution of assets among residents of that country, including the value of cars, homes, savings, investments and personal valuables. The Democratic Index is based on 60 indicator groups in 5 different categories. These include: the electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. Finally, the Happiness Index was based on 6 variables from GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make your own life choices, generosity of the general population and finally perceptions of internal and external corruption levels.

I assessed the 50 most democratic countries then assessed their Democratic Index against their Gini coefficient and their Happiness Index. I calculated the mean of all three scores for each country and the county closest to ten – the most democratic, least unequal and happiest was Norway. The top 5 were Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and New Zealand (then Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, Australia and Ireland). Therefore, following data from the World Population Review 2020, I determined that Norway is the closest to a “just” society. Norway boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world, the highest life expectancy, lowest levels of inequality, low OECD index and great worker protections.

However, despite being the fairest society by these measures, it is important to note that Norway has not always been prosperous. In the 60s and 70s, the Norwegians found large amounts of oil in the surrounding sea, of which the profits went to the Norwegian government. The government then invested the money into the Sovereign Wealth Fund which belongs to the people of Norway. Despite their immense luck, it was the government’s tactical investment decisions that allows Norway to be as prosperous as it is today.

Costa Rica is interesting, as it is the only country in the top 20 list that is an LMIC (low or middle-income country). However, Costa Rica is a great example of a very “just” society without a comparatively prosperous economy. It has such a high position as it has one of the most stable and democratic governments in Central America, with a constitution that provides a unicameral legislature, a fair judicial system and an independent electoral body. It also provides social-economic educational guarantees for all its citizens and has one of the highest literacy rates in the Western Hemisphere. 

This is not an exhaustive list of conceptions of what makes a “just” society – from Nozick’s conception of the “just” society as having a minimal state to Rawls’ conception of justice as fairness. I proposed this question as I believe that, as citizens and governments, we must constantly reflect on whether we believe we are living in a “just” society – a society where each citizen has equal rights and opportunities. Finally, I am in no way saying that Norway is a utopian society and I am aware of their abundant natural resources and prime global positioning. Regardless, we can all strive and learn some key lessons from our Scandinavian neighbours.

 

BA Philosophy and French / elsietodd107.medium.com

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