Alright, Already: Forget ‘Justice’

Perhaps we can just consider (philosophically) a fresh approach to governing governance.

Stephen Yearwood
19 min readOct 8, 2023
Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

I have written many an essay about a new and better approach to justice. It finally dawned on me that people don’t respond well to that. Obviously, there is something about suggesting such a thing that just causes people to turn away.

So let’s forget about ‘justice’. Let’s just think in terms of this fresh approach to governing governance. For citizens of Liberal* nations the structure of society would not change. Liberty would be maximized. There would be a democratic political process. The economic system would not have to be changed — its basic institutional structure or its ‘nature’ (i.e., as much as possible leaving supply and demand alone to determine prices, in turn determining the allocation of capital) — yet the outcomes for society as a whole would be transformed (including eliminating unemployment and poverty as well as all taxation while yet maintaining current levels of total government funding) [see below]. To be clear, the democratic political process would still allow for further matters of governance related to the economy (i.e., the process of producing/acquiring goods/services).

In short, the ideal of Liberal society would be more fully realized than it has ever been. We’re not talking about creating a Utopia here, but we are talking about something way better than anything that has ever existed in the history of civilization.

Now, governance is imposed on us humans by our nature as social beings, is it not? We do tend to live together in geopolitically organized groups we call (in my native tongue) ‘societies’. So we simply cannot avoid governing ourselves as individuals and governing relations among people within society. As well, we have no choice but to take into account outcomes affecting the members of society that result from those relations in all the myriad forms they can take, to include the political process and the economy. Wherever a human society exists, governance — and how that is to be governed — is at issue.

At the same time, we humans exist as separate and independent beings with respect to one another. We all are interdependent with respect to other people — we all depend on others and are depended on by others in various ways, both material and immaterial — but from the day of birth to the day of death we are each of us our own being.

In short, then, governance is dealing with the inevitable inputs and outputs of our social existence as separate and independent individuals. Both of those are intrinsic aspects of our being as humans.

Let’s skip ancient history and prehistory. Let’s go directly to contemporary times (say, since WWII) to look at the governance of governance in seeing how we might do better.

Looking at the nation-state, contemporary governance has one of three bases: personal dictatorships, ideology, or theology. Dictators have sometimes used ideology or theology to gain power or to justify their rulership and ideologies and theologies have been used to dictate how people are to live their lives via some ruling group. What matters is not the distinction between those bases of governance, but the difference between any authoritarian form of governance and Liberal governance.

Liberalism at least attempts honor both aspects of our nature as humans, the social and the individual. Individualism entails self-governance. That refers ‘the people’ having the final authority in governance (‘democracy’) as well as people governing themselves as individuals.

In any authoritarian system self-governance is anathema. In authoritarian nations the only way for people to act is however the authorities tell them it is alright to act. So any sense of individualism is out the window right there. Even if those in authority might be concerned with the well-being of the citizenry as a whole, there is no such thing in any authoritarian regime as honoring the existence of the individual.

At the same time, the extent to which the individual is to be honored is a problem within Liberalism as an approach to governing governance. The interests of the community as a whole must constantly be balanced against the principle of honoring the individual, i.e., as much as possible, leaving it to individuals to govern themselves and allowing people to realize the separateness and independence any given individual might seek to attain.

That in turn raises questions regarding the legitimate interests of society as a whole as well as what the community as a whole owes each member of it. Of late authoritarians of all stripes have touted that approach to governance as superior to ‘Liberal’ governance (‘democracy’) because it is better at tending to the needs of the nation-state as a singular unit. Meanwhile, it cannot be denied that Liberalism has become more and more muddled in the issues related to individualism versus interests of the community as a whole.

So why not consider a new approach to governing governance? The one to be proffered here would be very much like Liberalism, but without the confusion. Again, it would maximize the liberty that coexisting people can share simultaneously, it would ensure a democratic political process, and it could be applied to the existing economic system yet transform the outcomes for society as a whole that the system produces — without compromising liberty one whit. Indeed, liberty would be expanded (which by itself ending taxation would accomplish).

Most importantly, this new approach to governing governance emerges from both both the socialistic and the individualistic aspects of our nature as humans simultaneously. It therefore avoids privileging either over the other in the matter of governing governance.

Still, it is all about respecting the individual. Indeed, the one thing that it requires of people in our personal conduct is that we would all respect all other individuals all the time. It is obvious how that would produce the maximum liberty that coexisting people can share simultaneously, i.e., without the problem of one person’s claim to liberty supplanting any such claim of any other person. Not to say that society would completely be free of such friction, but the onus would be on everyone to respect others. It would be an obvious violation of such respect for others for any person to seek in a self-centered way to do whatever anyone might want, without due regard for other persons.

Hence, we can call this approach to governing governance ‘other-centered individualism’. [remainder of this paragraph added 3/9/24] It is of the utmost importance for ethics that “other-centered individualism” is an outcome of this approach to governing governance, not an arbitrarily conceived starting point regarding how the governance of society ought to be governed. Any approach to an ethic for governing governance that starts with some arbitrarily conceived point is wholly misguided at the outset.

As for the other pillar of Liberalism, equality, it is rendered an unnecessary complication. All that matters in this approach to governing governance is that the beings involved at any point are humans.

It all begins with the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices, i.e., choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition. Those choices can range from the most trivial to life-altering — for oneself and others. If a human being is alive, conscious, and awake that person is at all times effecting one choice or another. Both immediately and ‘with our lives’ we are always doing one thing rather than any other thing we could be doing. To be sure, there are times when we are constrained from changing what we are doing, such as by obligations we acknowledge (e.g. family, friendship, formal — legal — and informal contracts, etc.). The range of choices available to us can vary greatly. Our capacities vary greatly. Still, as human beings have no choice but to be, indisputably, whether we like it or not, choice-effecting beings.

That is one of those insights that is perfectly obvious once a person has become aware of it. It is available in “Welfare Economics, Property, and Power” by Warren J. Samuels [in Perspectives of Property, Gene Wunderlich and W. L. Gibson, eds. (1972)]. There he all but defines “social power” as the ability to effect choices.

Samuels was primarily concerned with the process of effecting choices at the individual level. To that end, he came up with the idea of “opportunity sets.” Those are the ad hoc combinations of the resources we have at our disposal that we employ in trying to effect one choice or another.

The relation of all aspects of effecting choices, including the sources of our resources, to all manner of broader social factors, to include the inevitable context in which that process transpires, is the reason Samuels referred to the ability to effect choices as “social power.” He thus called those resources “sources of social power.”

A strong ethical element does arise from Samuels’s analysis: competitions to effect the same choice, such as getting a particular job, should only be decided by relevant sources of social power. The process of effecting choices is corrupted when irrelevant factors (such as, for example, gender or ‘race’) influence the outcomes of competitions to effect choices. At the same time, societal factors influencing the distribution of sources of social power do become an issue.

So Samuels’s conceptual device does provide an ethical construct for judging competitions for ends among people at the individual level while suggesting societal-level issues impacting the process. Those latter issues go to the governance of society as a unit, i.e., the structure and sanctioned functioning its political process and its economy.

What is of utmost importance for this approach to governance, which encompasses all of that, governing our actions as individuals as well as society as a unit, is that human beings have no choice but to effect choices. That makes choosing integral to being human.

That makes respecting one another’s capacity to choose necessary for us to engage one another as fellow human beings. To do that is to recognize one another as fellow human beings. To act otherwise is to assert by one’s actions some contrary position, to deny other beings’ status as human — or at least to deny that the other is as fully human as oneself.

That might look like a rationale for ‘equality’, but that is an unnecessary complication. All that matters is that the beings involved are humans.

So what must be respected in other-centered individualism is each other’s capacity to choose. Thus, other-centered individualism can be formulated into a specific rule governing governance, an ethic of governance: mutual respect in effecting choices.

[The two following paragraphs added 5/22/2024.]

Even if, ultimately, our choices are in some way preordained (which, so far, can’t be definitively proven materially), this ethic is still viable because it is concerned with actions undertaken in effecting choices. To take any action of any kind is itself a choice being effected, whether as an end in itself or in the furtherance of some larger goal. People can act without affecting any other person(s), but no one can affect any other person without undertaking an action of some kind.

Even if those actions are preordained, there is still no justification for anyone to suffer death, coercion, etc. at the hands anyone effecting any (perceived) choice (which preserves this approach to justice from all matters related to a ‘will’, and especially whether it would be free or not). The focus of this ethic has nothing to do with the motivations/intentions of the actor. Its concern is other people who become involved when people undertake actions to effect a choice: at bottom, whether their involvement was sufficiently informed and voluntary (i.e., not the result of coercion or manipulation). Motivations, intentions, etc. can legitimately enter into laws and their enforcement in a just society (especially in determining punishment), but in that regard the function of an ethic for governing the governance of society is to establish a standard on which laws and their enforcement can be based.

Outside the domain of this ethic — actions undertaken in effecting a choice that involve other human beings — personal beliefs do become the ethical/moral determinant. Within this ethic’s domain all people must be governed by it, but outside it only personal beliefs exist for self-governing conduct. [In the context of societal existence there are also constraints on conduct in the form of laws; the legitimacy of those constraints (as part of the political process) is also always at issue.]

With the existence of that specific ethical domain the whole of this ethical construct — its determinant (the observation with which we started) and its referents (those actions) — is located within material existence. That does legitimately de-legitimate going outside or beyond material existence, to any belief or other immaterial truth, to seek to deny the applicability of this ethic — its protections or its obligations — to any person(s). Examples of such claims would be the existence of ‘natural’ or ‘God-given’ hierarchies based on gender, ‘race’, national origin, etc. that must be taken into account.

[As well, a specific ethical domain also prevents any ‘totalizing’ impetus for this approach to governing governance in itself. One criticism from both Critical Theory and Postmodernism that is levelled at ideology (and theology, as a source for governing the governance of society as a whole) is that all ideologies (and theologies) do contain such an impetus: as a means of governing governance they have an inherent tendency to become a form of totalitarianism. It could be argued that in the U.S., at least, Liberalism is devolving into a fight to a totalitarian finish between (extremist, ‘cancel-culture’) liberalism and (this new form of) conservatism — with the latter being the way more probable victors.]

Still, what does respecting one another’s capacity to choose actually entail?

Most generally, it means taking one another into account as we live our separate lives together in this world. It means being aware of other people and their interests and the effects of our actions on them.

More rigorously, we must respect people’s capacity to choose whether/how/to what extent to be involved whenever any choice is being effected. Others might be involved in the attempt to bring a choice to fruition or they might be affected in some way by actions undertaken to effect a choice or they might be affected by the choice itself, if successfully effected. Others can be affected directly or indirectly, intentionally or not. The onus is always on every person to be aware as much as possible whether/how/to what extent one is involving others in effecting any choice and to take them and their interests into account — preferably by engaging them and gaining their voluntary assent. (Though this is a topic beyond the scope of the present effort, unavoidable hierarchies arising from inherent dependencies, including but not limited to parent-child, work, and school, are easily taken into account.)

That is the definitive, sufficient, prescriptive ethical condition of mutual respect in effecting choices. It tells how we must act to act ethically. As anyone can see, there is no limit on how respectful of others’ capacity to choose for themselves we can be.

That might seem like an impossible ethical burden, but there is in mutual respect in effecting choices a distinct line between ethically acceptable and unacceptable acts. It tells us what we must refrain from doing to keep from acting unethically, i.e., to fail utterly to respect the capacity to choose of any other human being. That line is drawn by the minimum, necessary, proscriptive ethical condition in mutual respect in effecting choices.

While respecting others’ capacity to choose can be legitimately difficult to sustain, there are actions we can take in effecting a choice that indisputably disrespect the capacity of other people to choose for themselves. That happens if we co-opt or otherwise preempt another person’s capacity to choose.

So the minimum, necessary, proscriptive ethical condition of mutual respect in effecting choices is to refrain from co-opting or otherwise preempting the capacity of any other person to choose to be involved whenever any choice is being effected. That reduces to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, etc.) in effecting any choice. All of those prohibitions are generalized forms of co-opting or otherwise preempting another person’s capacity to choose. Anyone who is refraining from any such conduct is being ethical enough. That makes this ethical construct as easy as pie to abide by — or at least to know.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the minimum ethical condition of mutual respect in effecting choices applies to any and all choices anyone might be involved in effecting. It applies to choices being effected for oneself but also choices being effected on behalf of any other entity, whether another individual, or a business, or an office of government, or any other organization. It applies to any activity undertaken to effect a choice within the economy or the political process — to include implementing mutual respect in effecting choices for governing the governance of society (as well as, to be clear, any choices anyone might seek to effect for oneself in the context of aforementioned inherent dependencies). The minimum, necessary, proscriptive ethical condition in mutual respect in effecting choices eliminates any possible trace of ‘moral relativism’ in this approach to governing governance.

In short, there is no action any individual can undertake in the process of effecting any choice (to be clear, to include speech acts) that is beyond or outside that minimum ethical condition. It is the heart of ethical self-governance that must form the nickel-and-iron core of an ethical society. It is worth mentioning that, unlike any of the key words in Liberalism, this ethic could even be applied to relations among nations.

“Harming” is in one sense or another a part of all of those prohibitions. Moreover, it is the one that is hardest to gauge or even to be aware that it is being done. For those reasons, “harming” is the legitimate focus of a society’s system of criminal and civil justice. Defining, discerning, and adjudicating harm is the (legitimate) purpose of a system of laws and their enforcement, with civil (non-criminal) adjudication of harm also a part of any such system.

That brings us to the political process. It can be recognized as the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole — one inevitable choice being a system of criminal and civil justice. A community as an entity must effect choices as certainly as all individuals must.

So a political process is integral to the existence of a human society. No society can exist without one. The act of getting formally organized is itself a choice effected for the community as a whole.

Only a democratic political process takes all members of a community into account. Therefore only a democratic political process is compatible with mutual respect in effecting choices. For present purposes, given the familiarity of political democracy, it can perhaps be sufficient to note the two ethical conditions that must govern the political process per se in mutual respect in effecting choices: freedom of political speech and a ‘democratic’ distribution of the rights pursuant to other forms of participation in the process.

Freedom of political speech allows all members of the community to participate in the political process. Political speech transcends the political system. Hence, a requirement of freedom of political speech exists prior to the establishment of any political system, and provides the means for establishing an ethical one.

The political system is the set of institutions via which the rest of the political process proceeds. The offices of government form its functional core. The political system includes formally recognized political rights — the formal recognition of the capacities to act, other than political speech, that individuals possess that are relevant to participation in the political process: assembling, petitioning, running for office, voting. Political rights are necessary for participating in the political system, as opposed to acting politically outside it.

That second ethical condition means that those rights are recognized to accrue to all members of the community, except for legitimate restrictions. To be legitimate, a restriction on any political right must be universally applicable and universally applied. A distribution of those rights with only such restrictions can be called a ‘democratic’ distribution. Liberal societies have already learned that the only indisputably valid restriction on political rights is age, as a proxy for sufficient knowledge and maturity; gender, ‘race’, national origin, creed, and property have all been correctly rejected as discriminators. [more on democracy in, well, “Democracy”]

Determining the structure and sanctioned functioning of the economy is also a choice to be effected in the political process. It is transcendent with respect to the economy.

The economy is the process of producing/acquiring goods/services. It is nothing but choices being effected. Every human society will have one. No member of any society has any choice but to participate in its economy.

That is why mutual respect in effecting choices would apply to the economy. It can be applied to the economy through money.

Money is to the economy as political rights are to the political process; it is necessary for participation in the economic system. The economic system is the set of institutions via which the process of producing/acquiring goods/services proceeds. Those institutions include the laws, rules, and regulations governing participation in the economic process that emanate from the political process. Another institution integral to the economic system of every nation on the planet today is money. (We can only talk about economic systems in terms of nations.)

While there are obvious differences between rights and money, for present purposes we can skip over those to state that mutual respect in effecting choices requires the existence of a democratically distributed income (DDI) for the same reason that it requires a democratic distribution of political rights. A DDI would be an income available for every adult citizen of the nation.

Presumably, such an income could be achieved through taxation. An alternative monetary paradigm provides money for such an income by creating it as needed. There are built-in protections against inflation, beginning with an absolute limit on how much money would be created at any time (determined solely by demographics) and ‘closing the monetary loop’.

This monetary paradigm has been fully developed and thoroughly thought through. All questions that can be answered prior to actually implementing it in any nation have been answered — and those other questions identified. To begin to relate it, though, leads immediately to questions regarding every aspect of the economy. That said, a sketch of it will be related here — with the caveat that a question unanswered here is not a question lacking a sufficient answer.

A DDI could originate with a central bank. Alternatively, a new agency could be created to administer the income. (Either way, the banking system would continue as at present, still overseen by the central bank.)

There is no particular amount that a DDI must be. There is no reason to make it less than a person would need to live a ‘decent’ life materially. The current median personal income of a nation would surely be the minimum amount.

This income would be available for any adult citizen if it were to be paid to all people of retirement age and adults unable to work and were to be the minimum income for anyone employed in any business or government. In addition, it could be paid as easily as not to one parent (or legal guardian) in a household with at least one (legally recognized) dependent living there.

So the pay for people in those minimum-pay positions would not come from their employers, but would be the DDI. An employer could designate any position to be a minimum-pay position. In a free labor market employers would find themselves using benefits to compete for employees to fill minimum-pay positions. Benefits would be limited to in-kind inducements, not monetary allowances or other financial incentives such as stocks. An individual could choose to work in a given minimum-pay position for the DDI plus negotiated benefits or not. The amount of the DDI would be the same for everyone receiving it; benefits would reflect conditions in particular labor markets.

All employees making more than the DDI would continue to be compensated as at present, except that bonuses, monetary or using stocks, etc., would be disallowed. To be clear, there would be no limit on regular income.

The DDI could be expanded to be paid to every employee of any business or government. Differing packages of (in-kind) benefits accruing to different positions could still be allowed or not. If not, that would put an end to economic exploitation, making the economic system fully ethical.

The same process could also be used to fund all government, equal forevermore to the current amount of per capita total government spending. Its allocation is TBD.

That would eliminate using taxes/public debt (requiring taxes for repayment) to fund government as long as government anywhere did not exceed its allotted funding. (To be clear, all existing public debt would be regularly retired using the allotted funding.) If taxes were to be reinstated anywhere, at least they would start at zero.

With government serving as an employer of last resort, by providing minimum-pay jobs that would not include any benefits, unemployment and poverty would be eliminated. Without benefits, such jobs would not create competition for other employers.

There would be no unemployment or poverty at any level of total output. The political imperative that now exists in every nation to maximize total output in order to maximize employment, total income, and the collection of taxes would no longer exist. Environmental sustainability would thereby be systemically enhanced — further enhanced with an expanded DDI.

Whether the DDI were expanded or not and whether or not this paradigm were used to fund government, the flow of money into the economy would have to become a closed loop: money would have to be returned the originator of that money. In this paradigm, though, individuals and businesses could retain plentiful pools of money (based on income) and no money would be collected from any individual or business before it could be used for purchases/investment. Businesses would be further limited in how much they could invest in assets outside the business (such as stocks and bonds of other businesses) — some multiple of money retained — but there would be no such limit on individuals. The latter would be free to purchase assets from any entity, but would be restricted to selling assets to other individuals.

Again, the flow of this money into the economy would be determined solely by demographics. The amount of money returned to its point of origin would be determined solely by the choices effected in the process of producing/acquiring goods/services. The economic system would become fully self-regulating.

No matter what, with this paradigm in place there would be other ways of making money. Not-for-profit organizations would still exist — with all employees paid out of contributions (which would be limited in all instances to coming from individuals, not businesses). There would also be a category of singularly self-employed people, who were neither the employee nor the employer of any other person. They could sell any (legal) product or service they could produce, for whatever they could get for it. They could be paid commissions from sales and royalties from intellectual properties, such as books and songs and inventions. Other than those exceptions, singularly self-employed people would be barred from selling their products/services to businesses or government. Partnerships of self-employed people, in which all had an equal say in how profits would be shared, could also exist, subject to the same restrictions. [This paradigm is put in a historical context in “Neutral Money” (here in Medium but not behind the paywall).]

So other-centered individualism, entailing the ethic of mutual respect in effecting choices, is an option for a new and different approach to governing governance. That ethic is not based on anything anybody believes, but follows from an observation within material existence. That observation defines a domain of human activity to which it applies. That domain includes, but is internally limited to, actions of individuals involving other individuals as well as the structure and sanctioned functioning of a society’s political process and its economy. Structurally, it would be as comfortable as an old pair of jeans for citizens of a liberal nation, but it would transform life within it. The ethic of mutual respect in effecting choices can even govern relations among nations.

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*Capitalized, Liberalism refers to one of the three meta-ideologies that have been developed for governing governance (the other two being Marxism and Fascism). Each has spawned particular offspring ideologies (such as libertarianism, conservatism, liberalism, and democratic — non-Marxist — socialism in the case of Liberalism), related to but different from the parent ideology. The keywords of Liberalism are equality, liberty, individualism, and self-governance — which includes political democracy.

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice