By ERF Press Office
Ideas about social justice have been around for a long time, yet there is no consensus as to what exactly social justice means.
“It’s been shortened into minimum and maximum wage but there is so much more to it than that,” said Ahmed Galal, managing director of the Economic Research Forum.
In an attempt to examine what social justice is all about, the Economic Research Forum organised a breakout session on the first day of its 20th Annual Conference evaluating how it has evolved over time.
The first speaker, François Bourguignon, of the Paris School of Economics, contrasted the patterns of inequality visible in the developed world with trends within three developing continents. While two-thirds of developed nations show increasing inequality in the two decades between 1980 and 2000, including Sweden and the Netherlands, countries in Africa, Latin America in the same period show increasing equality. It is only the Middle East and North Africa region that “shows surprising stability.”
Yet, Bourguignon warned that there is no uniform definition of inequality, and that income distribution data is not always fully comparable across countries or even over time. He also pointed out that data is less available and reliable in the developing world.
Bourguignon argued both that one of the causes of increasing inequality lies in the fact that the rich are getting richer, and that putting an exact figure on the incomes of a country’s wealthiest 1-5% is enormously difficult. In the discussions following the plenary, Ragui Assaad of Minnesota University concurred with this in the case of Egypt, saying that the rich are very difficult to reach in household surveys and going as far as to propose that ‘the top 10% in the country are totally invisible’. This means that inequality is even worse than the current figures imply.
The speaker finished by asking the question: “Why do the common unequalising forces that seem to be present in developed countries not produce the same effect in most developing and emerging countries?” He proposed the answer lay in first, common globalisation forces playing out in different ways in each country; second, factors specific to each country context, such as changes in the economic environments and policies affecting income, wealth and the markets; and third, a combination of both.
Marc Fleurbaey, a professor of economics and humanistic studies at Princeton University challenged participants to reconsider the validity of using opportunity as the yardstick of social justice. Instead, Fleurbaey proposed focusing on the relationship between income levels and quality of life. He opted for examining people’s preferences in life, their values and wellbeing. Fleurbaey argued that looking at these factors would achieve a more comprehensive measurement of their situation than could be attained by focusing on opportunity alone. However, he stressed the importance of the availability of quality data to the success of this research approach.
The third speaker of the session, John Roemer, a professor of political science and economics at Yale University, argued in his presentation that the way to measure economic development was not by looking at GDP per capita increases, but instead at the degree to which a country has equalised opportunities and allowed access to service for all its citizens.
The family to which a person is born is outside of his or her control, he said, but just because one inherited a bad score card, does not mean they should be denied their right to have the same access to opportunity as others.
In reality, however, if one lives in a rural area, he has a lower chance of improving his situation, he said. Meanwhile, those who are well off already have a leg up.
To compensate, Roemer supports taxing the rich and directing the revenue towards improving public services, such as primary education and health, particularly for the disadvantaged.