December 2, 2013

And Justice for All

Big concept, and integral to so many conversations we are having in the world right now.
And no small issue with so many of these conversations is that the Justice that is being argued is based on very different definitions.
Almost universally, allegories of Justice feature a scale and a sword. The blindfold that we are familiar with in the US seems to be a more recent elaboration. And what the sword and the scale represent is very different depending upon the viewer.
For many, Justice is about punishment of the wicked and reward of the good. For others it is about fairness and equity. The wikipedia page offers many definitions and a lot of insight into the varying ideals and history of the concept.
So why is this important? Because it informs our outlook on the roles of government, society, and delegation of resources. Because when we are having a discussion about issues related to Justice with someone who has a different definition, any sort of consensus becomes well-nigh impossible.

So besides cogitating on the role of Justice in a free society, where am I going?
In the US, where I live, we are embroiled in an ongoing battle over what our government should provide to it's citizens - what role the government has in Justice for all.

One group believes (many quite fervently) that Justice is determined by the individual and the outcomes of their actions/accomplishments/deficiencies. They believe that hard work and following the rules will result in well-deserved prosperity and well being. It follows, then, that if one is successful or prosperous it is deserved and therefore just. And if one is unsuccessful or poor it is almost certainly due to personal failures and therefore also just. Most people who adhere to this do actually acknowledge that injustices happen and people are elevated or devastated by circumstances beyond their control - but each case that is personally encountered is typically seen as an exception rather than being a rebuttal of the overall world view.

My own personal ideals of Justice in this model are summed up by a character in Bablyon 5:
 "Babylon 5: A Late Delivery from Avalon (#3.13)" (1996)
Marcus Cole: I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, 'wouldn't it be much worse if life *were* fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?' So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.

Another group sees Justice from the perspective of social justice. The ideal that Justice is linked to Equity and that inequity demonstrates injustice. Perceptions of the role of government in enforcing equity and the degree of enforcement also vary greatly. The idea that existing social, bureaucratic and cultural parameters all contribute to inequity and reinforce and support the agendas and goals of the successful/powerful/prosperous to the detriment of the worker/middle-class/poor/etc. is a common feature of this worldview. In this view, those who violate the social contract and abuse the systems put in place to help the truly needy are the exception rather than a rebuttal to the overall structure.
Elizabeth Warren sums this up very well:
"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. ... You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

In discussions of Justice, studies showing inequity aversion in animals are sometimes cited as evidence of an innate "need for Justice" and that equity is therefore demonstrated as a basic need. While I sympathize with the sentiment, I think that inequity aversion is being conflated with altruism by those who do not look carefully at the conditions of these tests. Anyone who has been around a toddler or multiple pets has seen ample evidence of innate inequity aversion. But it is much more infrequent to see evidence that toddler A, or Fluffy, or Simba will object to being the beneficiary of largesse at the expense of the competition. In fact, most pack or troop social structures involve top monkey getting more than bottom monkeys - but the bottom monkeys do not agree with this and spend a lot of time trying to either elevate their status or simply steal the top monkey's goodies. Insert pet/toddler/etc in previous as appropriate.
So why spend so much time thinking about this? Because how we think about Justice and what it means has a real and lasting effect on the lives of so many people.

As a nurse, I have spent a lot of time explaining what our current concepts of Justice, the Social Contract and the "safety net" mean in real terms to people who suddenly find themselves needing to utilize these systems. There are so many common misconceptions about what help is available, about what the system fails to provide (a LOT) and about what the individual or their family must shoulder (a LOT). A sense of Justice that has created the belief that because someone played by the rules, paid their taxes, filled out all the paperwork, is REALLY sick, had a TRUE catastrophic issue - then of course they will have the help they not questioned until that time actually comes.
And then the discovery is made that FMLA means you can take up to a year off your job to care for a family member - without pay. And that no government program will send someone to take care of that family member at home.
Or that the COBRA coverage that was going to provide healthcare to you and your family when your job gets sent overseas will cost you a huge amount of money each month. (Our quote was $600 for just the laid-off employee and $1200 for both of us - per month).

These are two examples of programs that are presented as justice-based programs for those truly in need, which are not really affordable for those same people.
The current tug-of-war is between a President who feels that Justice should include the provision of healthcare for all citizens and a small political caucus who feel that Justice is a reward for hard work and that universal healthcare violates this by rewarding even those who do not contribute.
The economic arguments of lack of sufficient funds to provide this care vs need to overhaul the existing delegation of revenue to fund the care is definitely fodder for another time!

Personally, I am not even slightly unbiased. I have been a professional in the healthcare field, often tasked with explaining to families of dying patients how much of the burden of care was on them.
I am also now a member of that "entitled" group of souls blessed with a disability that gets us off the hook of making a living in our chosen field. I get to sit around all day, filling out paperwork and hiring lawyers in an attempt to get disability pay that is a small fraction of what I used to earn. I have now been doing that for 3 years. I am breaking all my pills in half this month since my husband who supported me just had his job sent to India, and we cannot possibly afford COBRA coverage for prescriptions.
If we don't wind up qualifying for Medicaid coverage, we now have the assurance that we can both get healthcare after Jan 1st thanks to the Affordable Care act. The idea that some wealthy ideologues may take this away from us as a game play for status or power both nauseates and infuriates me.
And guess what...I am NOT an exception. I am just one of the many Americans who have been impoverished or bankrupted by illness and healthcare costs. And the kicker here is that this is not about skin color, sexual orientation, language - about 99% of Americans are going to have to deal with these issues on behalf of themselves or a family member.

So I am working towards Compassion, rather than Justice.