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Justice among Nations

How are we to live justly and peaceably with the other nations in the world?

Nic Tideman:  Global Economic Justice, followed by Creating Global Economic Justice

Humanity is emerging from eons of development during which survival has been promoted both by the ability to grab resources from others and by the ability of groups to cooperate and share natural resources within communities that occupied territorial homelands. In recent centuries we have been developing a consensus that taking from the weak is wrong, and that we ought to have a social order that prevents all such behavior. But we have not yet worked out how to do it.

Some people think of preventing grabbing in terms of preserving the status quo. There are two difficulties with this.

  • First, the status quo incorporates extensive holdings that were acquired by indefensible means. A decision to preserve the status quo commits us to defending the indefensible.
  • Second, there is no magic to any particular date, before which unjust appropriations are incorporated into the status quo and after which they are reversed.

A practice of allowing an appropriation to be treated as just if it has survived long enough gives aggressors an incentive to see if they can grab and hold on long enough. The result is actions like Indonesia's seizure of East Timor and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Only if we have a standard of justice that is independent of history can we expect to end such actions.

Henry George's theory of economic justice--that every person has a right to his or her productive powers, and that all persons have equal rights to all natural opportunities--provides a simple formula around which opinion about the shape of a peaceful world can coalesce.

This may seem hopelessly optimistic. But no other theory that I have seen has anything like the clarity, coherence and power of this theory.

I. The Functions of a Theory of Justice

What is the use of a theory of justice? A theory is an abstraction. By itself, it can't make anything happen. But when a theory of justice takes root in us, it modulates our emotional responses to distributive outcomes. If you should come to realize that the theory of justice to which you subscribe says that something you thought you wanted to do is unjust, you will find that course of action no longer so appealing. If you come to a new realization that justice is on your side, you are likely to feel emboldened and ready to persist despite obstructions.

If you should come to the realization that justice requires of you a course of action that you had not planned on, you will feel a pull in that direction, and if you do not follow through, you are likely to feel guilty. If your theory of justice informs you that another person is treated unjustly, even a stranger, you are likely to feel compassion for that person, and you may also feel a chivalrous impulse to take up that person's cause and seek redress of the injustice. It was because of feelings of injustice that slavery was abolished and women were granted the right to vote.

As the world shrinks, nations impinge upon one another in more and more ways, providing applications for a theory of justice among nations. The fishing that one nation does leaves fewer fish in the oceans for others. When a river flows from one nation into another, the removal of water by the upstream nation leaves less water for the downstream nation. Near the borders of nations, the use of a frequency by one nation for radio or TV broadcasting precludes its use by the other. Geo-synchronous parking spaces for communications satellites are scarce. Air-borne and water-borne pollutants cross international borders and cause harm. The burning of fossil fuel produces global warming at rates and with consequences that are not yet understood. Chlorofluorocarbons emitted in the Northern Hemisphere enlarge the Antarctic ozone hole and cause skin cancer in Australia.

In most of these areas, the awareness of our global interdependence has led to some agreements among nations. But agreement is not always reached. Negotiations are intricate and time-consuming. Sometimes key participants refuse to accept what is agreeable to others. A shared theory of justice among nations would point the way to agreement and shame those who refused to accept the result. I will argue that a theory of justice inspired by Henry George provides a simple and far-reaching framework for specifying the requirements of justice among nations and within nations.  ...

Applying the Theory of Justice to Land Rights Among Nations

In connecting his proposals for reform to his theory of justice, George made the implicit assumption that all of the people to whom the theory applies are citizens of the same nation. But it is interesting to ask, as George did not, what his theory of justice implies for relations among sovereign nations.

To rearrange and condense George's axiom about natural opportunities:

The equal right of every human being to the use of all that nature offers is natural, inalienable and limited only by the equal rights of others.

How would acceptance of this axiom affect relations among nations? ...

Differences in Ability and in Wealth
Suppose that a nation appropriates only its share of natural opportunities but is richer than other nations because its citizens are on average harder working or more highly talented than the citizens of other nations are. Does justice require the richer nation to compensate the others? By this theory of social justice, definitely not! Each person has an exclusive right to his or her productive powers. Therefore the nation as a whole has a right to the product of its citizens' talents, no matter how greatly this product exceeds that of the citizens of other nations. The citizens of a rich nation may feel compassion for those who are poorer than themselves, and therefore contribute to poor nations as a matter of charity, but justice does not compel them to do so.

What about greater incomes that arise from greater wealth? These require more elaborate analysis. When greater wealth is the result of greater saving from the product of talent or from the product of a nation's share of natural opportunities, then a nation with greater wealth is fully entitled to the greater income that comes from it. However, when greater wealth is the result of a history of theft or of unjustifiably large appropriations from the natural opportunities that are everyone's common heritage, then the nation that possesses that wealth cannot rightly claim either the income from the wealth or the wealth itself. To achieve justice, the wrongful appropriations must be rectified. The unjustly acquired wealth must be restored from those from whom it was taken, or if that is not possible, shared among all nations. To the extent that persons who are still alive received past income from this wealth, that income must be disgorged. ...  Read the whole article

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