Skip to main content

Economic Justice in An Unfair World, By Ethan Kapstein (A Review)

It is usually the case that books on "distributive justice" either tend to be abstract yet detailed, or largely empirical but unsatisfactorily brief. Economic Justice in an Unfair World aims to narrow the divide by offering a model of international justice that is both theoretically credible and realistic enough to be applied by the undefined "international community".

According to Kapstein, approaches to economic justice typically falls between two extremes that influence competing nations’ attitude towards international engagement. “Communitarians” approach international relations largely from a “national perspective”. Within this framework nations prioritise domestic social and economic arrangements, engaging the international community only in line with what is purely good domestically. “Cosmopolitans” adopt a “global citizens” approach, viewing economic justice as fundamentally being about individuals. This view has tended to dominate thinking among international NGOs and works itself out through significant emphasis on poverty reduction for poor nations.

In Kapstein’s view both extremes are largely deficient on both theory and practice. Communitarians ignore that in an increasingly interdependent and politically uncertain world, the actions of nations carry significant external costs which are most efficiently internalised through greater international cooperation. Equally, cosmopolitans preoccupation with poverty reduction for the poorest is unrealistic, and might run counter to the need for allowing individual countries to determine the course of their history. A better alternative, Kapstein argues, is a view of economic justice that harnesses self interest as espoused by communitarians, whilst fulfilling the broader goals of increased social welfare globally pursued by cosmopolitans. Such an approach necessarily requires a “liberal internationalism”, that provides a secure international platform where individual states can engage each other for mutual advantage.

The challenge for the "international community" is to devise international arrangements that are “inclusive, participatory and welfare enhancing”. Crucially such arrangements necessarily must focus on the “equality of opportunity” at the nation rather than individual level if the ideas are to find international traction. Much of the book is effectively taken up illustrating the supposedly positive implications of “liberal internationalism” in areas of aid, trade, migration, labour standards and investment.

Kapstein succeeds in demonstrating that economic fairness and justice need not be polar opposites provided a coherent framework can be implemented that demonstrates mutual advantage. But that is where it ends, as the book gets caught up largely between a theoretical / academic proposal and agenda for change. In the end it achieves neither. As a theoretical exposition there’s nothing new and as an agenda setting book, it misses important areas.

A major weakness is the false dichotomy on which Kapstein’s analysis rests. The policy choices facing nations are presented as a essentially a multiple choice - you are either a cosmopolitan or communitarian or liberal. There's minimal discussion of why complementary approaches cannot work. Implicitly it's perhaps because Kapstein believes liberal internationalism is the most fair and efficient. Fair because it allows, in his view, the most people to benefit, something the book does not even begin to prove empirically. Equally problematic is the undefined concept of efficiency.

In practice, many of the problems facing developing nations should rightly continue to rely on a blend of communitarian, cosmopolitan and liberal internationalist ideals. We see positive communitarian ideas reflected in strong arguments for some degree of protectionism for emerging small industries in poor countries, as basis for developing capacity. Cosmopolitan initiatives have proved useful in directly empowering the poor where the distribution of power in society is heavily stacked against them. Finally, liberal internationalism as presented in the book remain important as nations pursue mutually beneficial arrangements in areas of trade and investment to foster global wealth and opportunities among nations.

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013


Popular posts from this blog

The Christian and Technology, A Review

The central argument of John Fresko’s  The Christian  and Technology  is that technology is a double-edged sword that requires cautious and intentional use. Continuous uncritical use of technology erodes hunger for the Word of God, makes us self-centred and turns our useful devices into idols. The book intends to promote proper use of technology by encouraging us to dig into our hearts to see whether Christ so fills us that nothing can drag us away from him. Fresko believes there is no need for us to flee from technology or become Luddites because technology is value neutral. It is not in of itself good or bad. Instead, we must focus on carefully evaluating how we think about and use technology. This necessarily requires us  not only to understand the relevant technology, but also understand ourselves. A key part of this is recognising that we struggle with technology because we lack contentment in Christ. The book explores explores six different technologies. I think the most fascina

I am what I am by Gloria Gaynor

Beverly Knight closed the opening ceremony of the Paralympics with what has been dubbed the signature tune of the Paralympics. I had no idea Ms Knight is still in the singing business. And clearly going by the raving reviews she will continue to be around. One media source says her performance was so electric that "there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen as she sang the lyrics to the song and people even watching at home felt the passion in her words" . The song was Gloria Gaynor's I am what I am . Clearly not written by Gloria Gaynor but certainly musically owned and popularized by her. It opens triumphantly: I am what I am / I am my own special creation / So come take a look / Give me the hook or the ovation / It's my world that I want to have a little pride in / My world and it's not a place I have to hide in / Life's not worth a damn till you can say I am what I am The words “I am what I am” echo over ten times in the song. A bold declaration that she

Today I Learned

The puritan John Miles (1621-1683)   founded the first Baptist Church in Wales. He then emigrated to America shortly after the Act of Uniformity (1662) when 2,000 ministers were ejected from the Established Church. With a large proportion of his church, Miles settled at a new Swansea, about ten miles from Providence in Rhode Island. The church grew in face of persistent opposition.   Once, when Miles was brought before the  magistrates on some charge, he asked for a Bible. He then quoted Job 19:28 - Ye should say, Why persecute we him, seeing the root of the matter is found in me ? (KJV). He stopped there and sat down. The court was so convicted by the content and context of the passage that their cruelty gave way to kindness. ( Source : An Introduction to the Baptists, Erroll Hulse)