I think we can all agree (of course we can’t, but let me dream) that a fair and economically just society would look something like this:
Where work is considered the time, energy, creativity, brain and body power that you emit each day in order to create something meaningful for society. In exchange you get money, benefits, status, respect, security, and protection. In our ideal society the more you work the more you are compensated. And no one is too far from that direct relationship line.
Now, I am an optimist, so I believe two things. First, that for the most part the trend holds. Second, that most citizens want to be somewhere near this ideal.
I think society breaks down as we get closer and closer to this:
Conservatives get upset with people who do very little work and still get compensation. Progressives get upset with people who get extremely well compensated for very little work. To illustrate this I am going to rely on a little absurdity from comedian Doug Stanhope.
Starting at around the two minute mark Stanhope points out one aspect of society where injustice plays out, ugly people and beautiful people. Ugly people can work harder and harder, but will never be as well compensated as beautiful people. He explains this better than I do.
Now, could an ugly person work hard enough to earn tons of respect, money, and security? Sure, Steven Tyler. Could a beautiful person go through their whole life poorly compensated for their harder and harder work? I’m sure.
Consider, there could be, theoretically, one type of economically just society shaped like the second graph, though not one that most of us would want to live in. If the second graph occurred randomly across all demographic categories, if your success economically was essentially a result of chance, it would be fair. Although I don’t think we want to live in that random place.
Where a society becomes economically unjust is when those two divergent lines mirror demographics groups. I will give you an example. There are two groups on our country that receive significant compensation with very little productive work. The very old, and the very young. Essentially, for the first and last ten to fifteen years of your life you receive compensation while giving very little back. In this case, it is either because of your promise of future work, or as a reward for your past years of service. We agree these are reasonable outlier categories. But what of gender, race, religion, creed, association?
When work is not justly rewarded, when one is compensated well beyond their contribution or when one works tirelessly and is unrewarded, anytime there is a disconnect between that direct relationship, society unravels. What do you call someone who works endlessly and receives zero compensation? A slave. What do you call someone who needs to do no productive work for society, yet can have anything they want? Royalty.
We are not a society of slaves and royals. We never should be. We should nudge folks towards that center line. Never giving up on the idea that you should work for what you want in life, and never giving up on the idea that you should be fairly compensated for the work you do. You should not be exalted toward the top of the graph by lineage, or gender, or birthright (or really even beauty). You should not be oppressed in the bottom of the graph by lineage, gender or birthright. That would be… ugly.
We can agree to strive for this unified center… right?