The idea of social justice
Amartya Sen is all over Indian TV channels promoting his new book titled “The Idea of Justice“. I am just writing this post from observing the various interviews he has given to TV channels like IBN and NDTV.
In the true spirit of the “Argumentative Indian”, it is hard to really get to the core of what he is trying to say. He is like a dragonfly, you approach it with great stealth, your fingers ready to snap it, you are almost certain you have it but it flies off to land a feet away.
Take the following example :
Three children — Anne, Bob and Carla — are quarrelling over a flute: Anne claims the flute on the ground that she is the only one of the three who knows how to play it; Bob demands it on the basis that he is so poor that — unlike others — he has no other toys to play with and it would therefore mean a lot to him if the flute were given to him; and Carla says that it belongs to her because she has made it with her own labour.
The important thing to note here is that none of the claimants questions their rival’s argument but claims that his or hers is the most persuasive. So, who deserves the flute?
Should it go to the child for whom it represents the only source of entertainment as he has no other toys to play with? Or to the one who can actually make practical use of it; or to the child to whom it must belong by virtue of her “right” to the fruits of her labour?
To the common man, the question of who should have the flute can be easily adjudicated. It is as simple as this. Who has current ownership of the flute. We have evolved to a point where the words ‘current’ and ‘ownership’ are fairly clear. Dissent at this basic level will be met with, ‘What the f— is he thinking’. If you find something unclaimed first, you have a ownership right over those who only found it in your possession.
If Carla (the child who made the flute) has not yet traded her ownership rights (i.e sold it ) she owns it. Bob (the poor child) has no rights unless he found the unclaimed flute first. Similarly, Anne (the child who knows to play it) has no rights unless she too found the unclaimed flute first.
I do not think any reasonable person, including die hard socialists really dispute the simple ownership scenario described above. It is helpful to remember that socialism never promises an absolute equality, it only promises an undefined greater equality. The soup called ‘something better’ can easily be sold to the masses under various brands.
The scenario described by Amartya Sen is not about justice but about social justice. It could be better phrased as the following.
Imagine that a government had resources to produce exactly one flute, and it was decided that it had no choice but to produce a flute. Who among Bob, Anne, Carla should get that flute ?
See how smoothly we are able to transpose a scenario of ownership into a scenario justifying a central power deciding competing claims.Mr Sen is simply saying that this central deciding power must be compassionate and hold judgement in favour of eliminating the most obvious forms of injustice. Mughal emperor Akbar is portrayed as the ideal here. It is hard to argue with this theme because we are instantly presented with an example of how hard it is to teach a starving student. The real problem in the Indian context is that there are multiple such ‘obvious forms of injustice’ so the problem comes down to assigning weights and evaluating claims of being a victim of an ‘obvious injustice’.
This is the well tread social justice trail.
The book should have been called the ‘The Idea of Social Justice’.