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.

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[*] 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.