David Schmidtz - Elements of Justice Afterword

CEVRO Institute Academic Press and Dokořán Publishing has just published the Czech translation of David Schmidtz's great book The Elements of Justice. Here is an English afterword - a few new thoughts on the topic of justice, self-ownership and entitlement.

Schmidtz - Prvky spravedlnostiIt has been a decade since I finished writing Elements of Justice. One of the most striking reactions has been curiosity regarding why the idea of entitlement was not one of my four (or five) elements.

It is a good question. I certainly believe that an entitlement system is the foundation of a functional society. A free society starts with people having a right to say no. Capitalism does not work without such a right. No political or economic system does. When politicians can transfer money to crony capitalists without consent of taxpayers, we can call it capitalism, crony capitalism, market socialism or whatever we want, but one thing for sure: the system no longer is working. The closest we can come to a guarantee of mutual advantage is by starting with mutual consent.

Self-ownership is not some crazy neoliberal idea. When a woman says no, self-ownership is what she is asserting. If a rapist claims to have a right to treat no as meaning yes, then self-ownership is what the rapist is denying. Self-ownership is not a crazy ideology. It is the core of human dignity and of basic decency. And capitalism cannot work without it. Without it, capitalism is just like any other social system, and indistinguishable in practice from feudalism or communism. That is the fundamental challenge of our time—to make the right to say no count as the ultimate foundation of any community that treats citizens as commanding respect. 

That does not settle whether self-ownership or any theory of entitlement should be regarded as the foundation of a theory of justice. I tend to think that the case for building a society around a system of simple entitlements is a powerful case indeed. If a system of entitlements helps people see both how to stay out of each other’s way and, more positively, how to make a living by being of service to each other, then it is a framework for prosperity. Beyond this, we can say that it puts people in a position to provide the kind of service that the people around them need. It puts people in a position to treat people as equals, needing to manage traffic but not needing to decide who is upper class and who is not. It puts people in a position where it is possible to reciprocate, and also where it pays to reciprocate. It puts people in a position of being able to earn the esteem of others and of themselves. It gives people opportunities for which they rightfully feel grateful, and to which they can dedicate their lives to deserving. All of these things can potentially be said on behalf of an entitlement system. When these things can be said on behalf of how a particular entitlement system is actually working in context, then that is a powerful statement on behalf of that entitlement system. To be able to say that is to be able to provide a foundational justification for that system. To be unable to say that is for the system in question to be on shaky moral ground. 

But then, all this is to say that there are elements of justice out of which a society’s most important moral molecule, it’s entitlement system, is built. I do not think that kind of argument decisively settles whether it would be better to treat entitlements as fundamental or as derivative. In any case, for whatever it is worth as a biographical observation, considerations such as those are what led me to leave entitlements off my list of basic elements of justice.

The book got published by CEVRO Institute Academic Press and Dokoran. You can buy it here.

Professor Schmidtz belongs among international faculty of a new master's PPE program offered by CEVRO Institute.