April 14, 2012

Since You Asked . . .

I received a question on Twitter today, the answer to which was certainly going to be way, way, way more than 140 characters.  Thus today's blog. 

The question was essentially . . .

What is social justice, and how much does it cost to achieve it?

Social justice isn’t something you “achieve”, like reaching the top of Mt. Everest.  Rather, social justice is more akin to a perspective or a framework for decision making and behaviour.  In this regard, social justice should be seen in the same light as environmentalism or morality.  It’s more about how you approach the summit.
The objective of social justice is the same and equal rights for all people everywhere.  For me, an important document in defining rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights produced by the United Nations.  Amongst these rights are the right to food, clean water, shelter, education, health care, earning a living, etc.  Just like justice, social justice is often more clearly defined in the breach.  Oppression, discrimination, denial of necessities, actual or de facto slavery, taking advantage of others . . . all of these are blatant contraventions of social justice.
Given the nature of social justice, one cannot quantify the cost to achieve it for three reasons.  First, as stated, it is not something that is once and for always “achieved”.  Second, it is not an end as much as it is an ongoing process.  Third, to frame the question in this manner is to forget that through social justice many benefits are achieved, which I would argue greatly outweigh any costs associated with pursuing social justice.  However, if forced to answer the question, I would say that benefits of freeing people from abuses, oppression, and denial of rights is worthy of any cost; but the increased economic productivity of people who benefit from social justice initiatives offsets any and all costs along the way.
Turning Specifically to Poverty Eradication
Now, if one were to look at particular endeavours that fall under the social justice umbrella, such as poverty eradication, then one could start to put a price tag on achieving such.  Many studies looking at poverty in the developed world indicate that poverty eradication would actually SAVE money. Given that the high cost of servicing poverty and the huge indirect costs of poverty to health systems, legal systems, and lost productivity; it actually costs LESS to eradicate poverty.  It’s not a matter of spending more, but a matter of spending better. 
With respect to poverty in the developing world, the cost to eradicate the biggest elements of poverty have been determined to be only a fraction of what the world spends on other things, such as military.  For example, at the turn of the millennium it was estimated that the additional cost to ensure everyone everywhere had education, clean water and sanitation, basic health, sufficient nutrition, and safe reproductive health for all women would be $40 Billion.   However, at the same time, the world spent $780 Billion on military.  (these cost estimates come from The State of Human Development, UN Human Development Report 1998)
In other words, whether in the developed or developing world, poverty eradication is within our grasp . . . and within our budget.

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