Thursday, July 2, 2009

On Efficiency, Justice, Liberty

Keynes* wrote in 1926: 'the political problem of mankind is to combine three things: Economic Efficiency, Social Justice and Individual Liberty. The first needs criticism, precaution and technical knowledge; the second, an unselfish and enthousiastic spirit which loves the ordinary man; the third, tolerance, breadth, appreciation of the excellencies of variety and independence, which prefers to give unhindered opportunities to the exceptional and to the aspiring..."

Today we need to bring the institutions that foster this triad of efficiency, justice and liberty up to date.

Given the increase in productive capacity in the past fifty years, we can compromise on the goal of economic efficiency. We - in Europe- are rich. This means we can afford to sacrify some output to achieve social justice and individual liberty. This objective is well served by an economic order, involving State interventions that affect effectively the results of decentralized market processes. Huge centers of private power and inequalities in income compromise the goals of efficiency, justice and liberty. A policy that is willing to forgo the advantages of giant corporations and vast financial organisations seems highly desirable. In the light of recent experience, where the difficulties encountered by these large centers of economic power are central to the instability that affects the economy, they should, in the interest of efficiency and stability, be reduced to more manageable dimensions.

Social justice rests on individual dignity and independence from both private and political powers. Dignity and independence are best served by an economic order in which income is received either by right or through a fair remuneration. Dependance on expanding systems of transfer payments that have not been earned is alienating to the recipient and destructive of the social fabric. Social justice and individual liberty demand interventions to create an economy of opportunity in which everyone, except certain categories of the population, e.g. the handicapped, earns his or her life through the exchange of income for work. Full employment is a social as well as an economic goal.

It would be naive to think that all stated social and economic goals are mutually consistent. Emphasis on one objective may decrease the ability to achieve other goals, so priorities must be set. However, we should favour as an overriding goal personal freedom and democratic rights which serve the promotion of social justice.

In times of crisis, economic policy must reflect a vision inspired by the ideals of a good society. And it is evident that we are faced with a failure of vision, with a crisis in the aims and the objectives that economic policy should serve.

* Essays in persuasion" Norton& Company 1963. The essay was titled 'Liberalism and Labour' (1926)

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