Help yourself

Malcolm Bull

  • On Global Justice by Mathias Risse
    Princeton, 465 pp, £27.95, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 691 14269 2

Global inequality has become one of the forms of the statistical sublime. There is a strange pleasure to be had from discovering that the top 0.5 per cent of the world population owns 35.6 per cent of global wealth, while the bottom 68.4 per cent controls a mere 4.2 per cent; or that the richest thousand or so billionaires are worth more than one and a half billion of the world’s poorest people; or that the wealth of the world’s three richest people is equal to the combined GDP of the 48 poorest countries. It’s like being able to look up at the world’s highest mountain and then straight down into the deepest trench of the ocean. Nature deprived us of this experience by covering half the world with water, and for a long time the true extent of global inequality was difficult to visualise too. But globalisation has brought the highest and lowest points of the world economy into closer proximity, and with more reliable statistics and electronic communication the chasm is there for all who dare to look. Yet once the vertiginous sensation has worn off, what is there to say?

Until recently, not much, at least as far as political theorists were concerned. Preoccupied either with the state, or with the relations between states, they were slow to think beyond the traditional boundaries of their subject. If global inequality was addressed at all, it was assumed that world revolution, anti-colonial nationalism or development economics would deal with it in the course of time. And in varying ways they did, stabilising global inequality from the 1950s to the 1970s, following its long rise since the industrial revolution. But with neoliberal globalisation, inequality resumed its upward course, until checked by the growth of China and India during the past decade.

In terms of the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality on a scale between 0 and 100, global inequality is higher than inequality within any individual country, and double that in the UK. According to the World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, that is because now, in contrast to the 19th century, most differences in income can be attributed to someone’s country of citizenship rather than their position within their own society. In a striking illustration of the point, he calculates that even if individual incomes within countries were equalised, global inequality would be reduced only marginally (from a Gini coefficient of 69.7 to 61.5), far less than if the mean incomes of all countries converged while leaving income inequality within every country unchanged.

This makes global inequality an awkward topic for anyone coming from the traditional left in European societies. Given that the poorest 5 per cent of the population in a Western country may be better off than the richest 5 per cent in Africa or India, it is always going to be difficult to establish a popular platform for the discussion of global redistribution. Perhaps for this reason, over the past decade the debate about global inequality has been advanced primarily by liberals in the United States who are wedded to less egalitarian premises. Confident of the obvious fairness of John Rawls’s ‘difference principle’, which states that inequalities are not to be abolished but arranged so that they are of the greatest benefit to the least advantaged, philosophers like Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge have sought to apply Rawls’s theory of justice to the whole world.

However, they have a dissenter within their ranks, and in a series of articles Mathias Risse has proved an articulate critic of those who seek to exploit the redistributive potential of global Rawlsianism. Now he offers his own ‘systematic theory of global justice’, which he calls ‘pluralist internationalism’. Equally opposed to those who argue that justice applies only within states, and to those who argue that the same principles of justice apply to all, Risse charts a middle course, arguing that principles of justice have more than one ground, and that ‘some grounds apply only among those who share a state, while others apply universally.’

Grounds of justice are the conditions based on which individuals will or will not fall within the scope of particular principles. One such ground is membership in a state, for which Risse is happy to adopt Rawls’s principles of justice wholesale, including the ‘difference principle’. Within a state, membership is non-voluntary, subject to ‘unmediated law enforcement’ – and reciprocal, in that it involves collective participation in the maintenance and reproduction of the state itself. These features constitute ‘a set of jointly sufficient conditions to render particular principles of justice applicable’. Because egalitarian principles are ‘concerned with the relative socioeconomic status of the individuals’, those individuals must be sufficiently related for their relative status to matter – as they are in a state. Beyond the state’s ‘dense relationships of coerciveness and co-operativeness’ other principles will apply.

This does not mean that foreigners are excluded from justice. All should, of course, have had the benefit of Rawls as the lawgiver of their own states, but even if they did not, they can claim justice on other grounds: namely, common humanity, collective ownership of the earth, membership of the global order and subjection to the global trading system. Of these, common ownership of the earth is the most central to Risse’s account. The idea is taken from the writings of the 17th-century jurist Hugo Grotius, who argued that God originally gave dominion to all mankind, and that individual property rights emerged through legitimate use. Because it was divinely ordained that humans should acquire the necessities of life for themselves, no one could justly take from others what they had acquired for their own needs.

The standard example of the way this works is a theatre with unreserved seating, where, as Cicero put it, ‘the Theatre is common for any Body that comes, yet the Place that every one sits in is properly his own.’ Risse articulates his own version of the ‘common’ or ‘co-ownership’ of the earth along the same lines:

First, each person, independent of her actions, has a natural right to use original resources and spaces to satisfy her basic needs, and second, in conflicts with any future entitlements … this natural right has priority. The realisation of common ownership rights may involve either the right to use original resources and spaces of the earth or else the right to live in a society that does not deny one the opportunity to satisfy one’s basic needs.

In a world far removed from the state of nature, the last of these is of particular importance. It is a contingent fact that a global order has emerged based on an interlocking system of states and international organisations. Nevertheless, we are all members of that order if we live in the territory covered by it, and find ourselves subject to its jurisdiction. In this situation, co-ownership of the earth must be translated into membership rights in the global order – a requirement that can itself only be realised within a somewhat broader framework of human rights grounded not just in co-ownership but in common humanity.

On this basis, Risse turns his attention to a variety of contemporary issues including climate change and obligations to future generations, labour rights, the availability of pharmaceuticals and the functioning of the WTO. In each case the objective is to ‘neutralise the dangers imposed on the co-ownership status by the global order’. This means guaranteeing the basic needs of everyone on the planet; resource rights for future generations; open access to employment; and closer regulation of the atmosphere, essential pharmaceuticals and world trade in general.

However, the scope of global justice as Risse conceives it also has well-defined limits. People’s ‘basic needs’ are ‘physical health and a mental competence to choose and deliberate’, and their right to meet those needs relates to the natural resources of the earth. With regard to these, nobody’s claims can be constrained by the accomplishments of others, and neither can they have claims to ‘resources that draw on accomplishments of others’. In other words, nothing anyone else has ever done can deprive you of your right to a share of the Gross World Product as it was back in the state of nature, but you are not necessarily entitled to a share of what other people have done with those resources since then (which, since industrialisation, has been quite a lot).

Co-ownership of the earth might not seem to entitle people to very much, so Risse buttresses his central argument with principles of justice derived from other grounds, and also ‘demands of reasonable conduct’ arising from common ownership itself. Thus, while it is an obligation of justice that future generations should be able to satisfy basic needs, it is also a reasonable demand that each generation should pass on a non-declining stock of natural capital. And although co-ownership might not entitle people to essential pharmaceuticals, the right to a ‘distinctively human life’ requires that they should not encounter excessive legal impediments to obtaining them.

*

This is a long, rather fussily written book with so much scaffolding around the arguments that it is often difficult to assess whether they can stand up by themselves. For a start, how do you move from the idea that it is OK for individual humans to breathe air and drink from streams to the claim that ‘humanity as a whole owns the earth’? Grotius’s original argument here is itself a bricolage of incompatible materials. On the one hand, he claims that God gave all things to mankind to hold in common, which suggests that mankind owns the earth in much the same way that villagers jointly own the village green. Risse’s constant references to co-ownership carry a similar implication. Nevertheless, he, like Grotius, claims to be talking about a non-exclusive form of commonality, in which things belong to no one at all but are there for anyone to use – what Samuel von Pufendorf described in the 17th century as negative (rather than positive) community. But the problem with negative community is, as Pufendorf emphasised, that without some sort of pact between human beings it doesn’t give rise to any form of ownership. Anyone or anything can just help themselves to whatever they want, including the piece of fruit that you just picked and were about to put into your mouth.

In Grotius’s argument, it is on account of God’s gift to humanity that humans make use of the earth legitimately. Risse seems to suppose that affirming the simple fact of human use will generate a secular version of common ownership. But it isn’t that easy, for as Pufendorf pointed out, ‘brute creatures use and consume things as if it were God’s will, although no dominion is recognised among them.’ And although Risse briefly entertains the idea that ‘some animals’, and indeed extra-terrestrials, might qualify as co-owners, he promptly puts it aside. In his account, common ownership is exclusive to humanity as a species, and ‘the satisfaction of basic human needs matters morally, and matters more than any environmental value.’

Outside the theological context, the idea that any particular species ‘owns’ all the earth’s resources to the exclusion of others seems a bit odd. Human domination of the earth, like the existence of the global order, is a contingent fact. According to some scientists, there was a genetic bottleneck as recently as the Toba super-eruption seventy thousand years ago, when the long volcanic winter dramatically reduced the human population. To attribute collective ownership of the earth to what were then a few thousand breeding couples in Africa would be arbitrary. The eventual beneficiaries of the catastrophe might just as easily have been other contemporary hominids like the Neanderthals or the hobbit-like Homo floresiensis, and Homo sapiens could have become extinct. Would the world then have been unowned? Or if not, to whom would ownership have passed?

Counterfactuals like this matter because the defence of arbitrary exclusivity is the key to Risse’s argument. Just as ‘humans stand in moral relations to each other that differ from their relations to animals,’ so other forms of exclusivity may be justified on the basis of the relationships that the excluders have with each other. Human beings ‘who share a state owe to each other more than those who do not’, and people can be excluded from ‘communities that would not function properly without excluding people’. In Risse’s view, it is therefore ‘unproblematic that a state system provides opportunities for morally arbitrary behaviour as long as that behaviour tracks what is morally relevant. Border controls do so.’

When so much depends on which side of a border you happen to find yourself, the question of immigration is fundamental. This is where the claim to common ownership of the earth comes into play. According to Risse, ‘co-owners’ have a legitimate claim to immigration if the host country is underusing its resources. This can be precisely calculated as follows: for any state S, if Vs is the value of the collectively owned resources on S’s territory, including the biophysical conditions (climate, vegetation and so on) but not the products of culture and technological development (unless commonly available elsewhere), and Ps is the number of people on S’s territory, then ‘Vs/Ps is the per capita use-rate of commonly owned resources.’ A country is underusing if Vs/Ps is higher than the average of these values across states, but ‘if a country is not underusing, others can be reasonably expected to accept its immigration policies.’ Following this formula, ‘immigration will be permissible until the values of Vs/Ps are rather close to each other across all states.’

There you have it: very neat and obviously fair. But if you think about it for a moment, the proposal is half-baked. What sort of average are we talking about, given that any simple average will be skewed by densely populated small island states? Why should the average be more significant than the relative use-rate between countries? And what if there were eventually only one country above the average? Would there then be only one legitimate destination for all the world’s immigrants, even if, blighted by the resource curse (the paradoxical underdevelopment of countries with abundant natural resources), that country were one of the world’s poorest nations?

However you calculate it, per capita use-rate is going to be very low not just in North America, but also in places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and the Congo, and very high in small wealthy countries like Singapore, the Netherlands and, arguably, the UK. Currently, net migration to many of the countries in the former category is almost zero, while immigrants pour into the latter. Migrants today aren’t usually looking to stake out a fertile parcel of land. Most are seeking to share the benefits of recent technological and cultural innovations made in other countries – resources specifically excluded from Risse’s calculations. So although his proposal might challenge current immigration policies in North America, it would also permit more restrictive ones in many of the world’s other advanced economies, and eventually channel migrants towards the wastes of Siberia and the jungles of the Congo.

Even then, immigrants would not necessarily be able to enter the country; it is merely ‘a demand of reasonable conduct’ that the host country let them in.[*] This would still be the case if, for example, the population of the US shrank to two people able to maintain border controls with electronic equipment. According to Risse, who returns repeatedly to this scenario, would-be immigrants would not be doing anything unjust if they tried to dismantle the surveillance to enter the country, but neither would the two Americans if they redoubled their efforts to keep the immigrants out. So, if there were a famine in the rest of the world, and everyone sought entry to the United States, the two Americans would be entitled to use their robotic guards to detain the rest of the world’s population at the border and feed them their ration of natural resources there – an arrangement not unlike the one currently enjoyed by the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. It would be unreasonable, but it would not be unjust.

The disconcerting thing about the two Americans problem is that it sounds uncannily like a description of the world as it already is – a world in which the earth’s resources have already been appropriated by a tiny number of individuals. What claim does anyone else have on those assets? Rawls’s difference principle allows for claims within states, but if Milanovic is correct, even simple equality within states – a far more radical proposal than any made by Rawls – would make very little difference to global inequality. And in any case, a high proportion of the assets of the super-rich are now held in micro-plutocracies where the difference principle is ignored. Risse does not have a problem with this, and freely acknowledges that ‘a just world could plainly be as unequal as ours.’ That is an understatement. Provided the worst-off did not fall below a minimum threshold and human rights were respected, there is no limit to how unequal Risse’s just world could be.

To have derived a justification for limitless global inequality from the common ownership of the earth is in some ways an impressive feat. But it is not entirely surprising, given that Risse deploys a theory of privatisation originally designed to undermine the theory of negative community itself. In opposition to radical Franciscans who thought they could live in a state of innocence and, like horses grazing in a field, consume without taking possession, Pope John XXII argued that since use amounts to abuse (you wouldn’t fancy eating the apple that I’ve just eaten), it inevitably constitutes a form of property. This became the basis of Grotius’s view that private ownership arises through natural extensions of use, and it is echoed in Risse’s acceptance that privatisation is appropriate where use subtracts from value or excludes use by others. What Risse takes from Grotius therefore is a consumption-driven account of private property, and a needs-based account of common ownership. If everyone consumed only what they needed, the two would be in balance. In consumer capitalism, the differential between the two is limitless.

In returning to negative community to establish the grounds of global justice, Risse, like Grotius, misses its potential interest. As a thought experiment, negative community isn’t particularly good at showing how property is distributed according to natural law, for as Proudhon pointed out, the justice that emerges from negative community is inevitably the right of the strongest. It is, however, a useful way to think about how effectively property might be redistributed in a world with no borders, simply by being accessible to more people. Considered in this light, the horizon that negative community describes is not the state of nature from which the world began, but rather the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in which it might end.

Garrett Hardin, who first explored the potentially tragic consequences of the overgrazing of common land, concluded that ‘injustice is preferable to total ruin.’ As maxims go, that’s quite persuasive, but it doesn’t tell us whether injustice is preferable to partial ruin, or whose preferences count. How much ruin might justice entail, and how much could the world sustain? Anyone who writes about global justice addresses these questions, if only by default. And in this respect, it is clear that Risse’s theory threatens to ruin no one. Neither the world’s richest states, nor the global order in which they are dominant, encounter any serious challenge. Though he remains resolutely agnostic about the justification of the current state system, he concludes that the system ‘ought not to be abandoned now’.

This unwillingness to disturb the global order, combined with the insistence that many principles of justice apply only within states, has implications for the theory as a whole. Although Risse provides no means of comparing the principles afforded by differing grounds, or of evaluating their aggregate significance, someone living in the world he describes might make their own comparisons and notice that some states are more Rawlsian than others, and that globally grounded principles are less redistributive than those within states. They might then conclude that there really ought to be a global state to ensure that Rawlsian principles are uniformly applied, or else that individuals should be permitted to move from less to more Rawlsian states in search of a greater measure of justice. Risse would accept neither demand, for within his framework it does not really make sense to talk about making the world as a whole more just.

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ Martin Luther King said. Although he uses the quotation, Risse can’t possibly agree, for in his view ‘domestic justice and global justice have different standards’: what is unjust on one ground may be just on another, and anyone who thinks that that itself is an injustice simply lacks a ground for the claim. Amartya Sen, echoing Judith Shklar, has recently emphasised that the sense of injustice itself merits public respect and, if nothing else, investigation. But in Risse’s theory the sense of injustice has no special claim on our attention, because justice is not primarily a remedy for injustice but a set of principles generated by a particular ground. Although there is some form of justice everywhere, there is, strictly speaking, no global justice, and hence no global injustice either.

Were that true, it would take a lot of the thrill out of thinking about global inequality. Discovering that Goldman Sachs’s annual bonus payments are equal to the income of 200 million of the world’s poorest people would be no more shocking than finding out how many inches there are in a mile. What is staggering about global inequality is not the numbers but the magnitude of the injustice they seem to represent. This is not an experience Risse’s theory would allow us to have. However, On Global Justice isn’t a belated apology for the excesses of global capitalism. Risse is a very cautious economic liberal, whose concrete proposals are, in every area, mildly redistributive. When he writes about global problems with genuine concern while simultaneously promising to leave the world very much as it already is, he merely reflects the temper of our timid, muddled times.

[*] Risse explains that it is ‘a demand of reasonable conduct on person P to perform action A if and only if it would be unreasonable for P not to do A, and if and only if P can reasonably be expected to do A’. However, this is not a demand in the normal sense of the word, for the conjunction of its being unreasonable not to do something, and its being a reasonable expectation that you do it, does not in itself constitute a demand that it be done.