Published in ‘Southern Wind’ (2012, issue 25)
I recently published a few articles reflecting on market liberalism which caused quite a bit of controversy. My point is simple: in our society, the poor have less freedom than the rich. The poor not only lack in material goods, they also lack in freedom. This means that in a society where the gap between poor and rich is increasingly growing, people do not enjoy the same level of freedom. This conclusion caused many people to worry, and question whether in the name of equal freedom, I would advocate wealth redistribution. This is not what I propose. So far, I have always stressed that, if my analysis is true, then a widely accepted proposition of market liberalism is wrong, namely that competitive markets based on absolute private property rights will not, to the largest extent, guarantee that citizens will enjoy equal economic freedom.
But many people will continue to ask: even if this is the case, so what? If the rich deserve the wealth that they obtained, then is this not all very reasonable? If the government should transfer wealth in the name of freedom, then why not bring along Robin Hood? These are important questions to ask. I believe no one will say that poverty is a good thing, but discussing how we should deal with poverty is an extremely difficult question, and will bring us to the core of discussions on social justice.
In my view, the way Chinese liberalism deals with the question of social justice will directly affect its moral vitality. The reason liberalism is currently the most criticized doctrine the world over is because those who refer to it in the name of freedom and individual property rights, and unconditionally embrace the market, also ignore the iniquitous fact that wealth is monopolized by a minority of people, while most people live in poverty. Chinese proponents of liberalism cannot say that the problem of poverty in contemporary China is due to incomplete market orientation. But if the only change is that one day the country will be entirely market oriented, and government intervention will be minimised, this will not solve the problem. The road traveled by Western capitalism has shown this. Liberalism needs the market, but it does not need to have blind faith in the market; or that laissez-faire capitalism can automatically bring about freedom and justice. Liberalism opposes despotism, but we shouldn’t necessarily believe that a total absence of government is utopia, because only a democratic country with the rule of law will fully protect our freedom and rights.
Liberals also cannot say that, at the present stage, at least strategically, we should preach for the market against tyranny, and we should wait until China has a constitutional democracy before talking about social justice. This position, of thinking ‘in stages’, is very popular, but untenable. First, this way of thinking is morally objectionable. Because this amounts to saying, I know that the distribution of wealth today is very unfair, but for the sake of a longer term and loftier goal, those who suffer under the current system should be sacrificed. But why should they be sacrificed? Isn’t liberalism about respecting everyone’s individual pursuits, and giving them equal value and respect? Second, when the common people feel that they are oppressed by the market as a group, they will ask, if the future promised by liberalism is not a safer and more equitable society where we can live with more dignity, but instead is a purer and more brutal market, then what is the point of that so-called constitutional democracy? Why should I support liberalism rather than other theories? Third, many people consider that, as long as there is the market, power is naturally constrained, and freedom, democracy and other good things will naturally follow. But from historical developments until today, we all know this is just wishful thinking. Many people describe today’s China as ‘crony capitalism’ or ‘State capitalism’, to describe the combination of power and capital, as a finer and more elegant way to maintain the existing ruling system – a system which brought even greater oppression. For China to move towards constitutional democracy, more social forces and moral resources will be required, and many of these forces and resources not only cannot be provided by the market only, but might even conflict with the interests of the market.
Therefore, whether at a philosophical or strategic level, Chinese liberalism must pay attention to social justice, and solidly construct its own theory of justice. Such a theory not only must criticize despotism, but it must also criticize capitalism, and even more, criticize all sorts of injustices in social life; not only should it pay attention to freedom, but it should attach importance to equality; not only can it study and understand the pressures and oppression suffered by the people, but it can also provide the direction for a reform worthy of our common efforts. It is in this context that I am expanding my reflection on liberalism, and defending my position.
Now let me return to the initial problem, that is, from the point of view of social justice, what does poverty mean? Let us imagine this person, Mr Zhang: he’s fifty years old, the factory that he’s worked in for decades has closed, and he has been unemployed for years. He has a daughter who wants to go to school, a sick mother to take care of, he’s used up all of his savings, and because he’s no longer young and doesn’t have the right skills, his only way to make a living is through casual work; he lives in extreme poverty. There are many people like this in China. I think nobody would deny that Mr. Zhang is currently suffering. But what is the nature of this suffering? And why is it something worthy of our attention?
First, Mr Zhang’s family is suffering from material deprivation. Because of poverty, they lack proper food, clothing and housing, the whole family is undernourished and weak. Two, Mr Zhang’s daughter, although she works hard and has good results, because she doesn’t have money to pay for tuition and various other fees, she is forced to drop out of school. This means that from early on in her life, she lags far behind other children, and many skills won’t be developed through education. Three, Mr Zhang’s mother, because there is no money for the doctor, suffers considerable ongoing pain. Four, since he’s been laid off, Mr Zhang has had fewer and fewer social interactions, because he has extremely low self-esteem. He is increasingly alienated from the world, his self-esteem is dropping, and it is increasingly difficult for him to assert the value of his own life. In a society that laughs at poverty but not prostitution, Mr Zhang experiences tangible and intangible discrimination. Despair, jealousy, resentment, rancour, regret and other negative emotions are beginning to corrode his life.
Five, Mr Zhang also feels like he is not free. He finally understands what it means to say that without money, you can’t take a step forward. Some people would say that Mr Zhang actually enjoys the same freedom as others, for example, the government will not, because he was laid off, refuse his daughter admission to school, or his mother admission to hospital. Mr Zhang certainly knows that, in these areas, he is not restricted by law. But at the same time, he also understands that if he wants to send his daughter to school or his mother to hospital, he must meet another necessary condition, that is, he needs to have money. Without money, these institutions will use legal means to restrict his access to their services. This is the reason why Mr Zhang is not free. As an agent with a sense of his own freedom, and in his life, Mr Zhang has seen many important doors which, because of his poverty, have been closed to him; and because of that, he feels powerless and helpless.
The description above itruly depicts the life of many poor people. There are volumes of empirical studies on this domain, and my description remained on the surface, but it is already sufficient to show that, because of poverty, Mr Zhang’s family experiences a lot of suffering at the physical, spiritual and social levels. Mr Zhang is not an abstraction, but a real individual. There are countless individuals like him, all around us, struggling with the suffering brought about by poverty. If we are willing to admit that this suffering really exists, and also agree that, objectively speaking, pain is a bad thing – no matter who suffers – then, we can come to one preliminary conclusion: that the state has a responsibility to strive to reduce the suffering of its citizens.
A conclusion so seemingly uncontroversial will still be challenged right away. For instance, some people will say that Mr Zhang’s poverty is the result of market competition, and no-one needs to be responsible for this. If the government takes care of Mr Zhang, for instance by providing free education to his children or medical assistance to his mother, this is in fact using taxpayers’ money, and this is not fair, because the taxpayers (who dominate the competition) should be under no obligation to do so. If the government acts in this fashion, it takes on a Robin Hood role, and oversteps the boundaries of its role.
Let me first clarify one concept. We should not look at the experience of Mr Zhang as one entirely self-inflicted. We live within a system. The plight of each of us, from the beginning of our lives, is deeply influenced by the system. The system always, in different ways, determines how much resources, opportunities and freedom each of us can receive. For instance, if Mr Zhang was living in Hong Kong, his situation would be vastly different; his children could receive twelve years of public education, his mother could benefit from free health care at a public hospital, and he could also apply for social benefits. Such a system may still be insufficient, but Mr Zhang’s suffering would be greatly alleviated. The situation of Mr Zhang today is also the result of a specific allocation system. If someone believes that the market should be omnipotent, and is against the government doing anything to help people like Mr Zhang, then they must raise ethical reasons to defend their position, and not claim that the market is a spontaneously generated economic order, and therefore, that there should be no intervention against it.
Some people will say that the market is indeed part of the State system, but the ‘survival of the fittest’ embodied in market competition is reasonable, because it is the only way for society to progress. Therefore, the State should do nothing about it, except maintain a fully competitive environment. According to this way of thinking, all those who are weak should be sacrificed. I believe that all contemporary political theory, including liberalism will not accept such a restrictive form of social Darwinism.
Some will say it in another way, saying that the results of the market are reasonable, because it gives each competitor what they deserve. But what does it mean, what they deserve? For instance, in the university entrance exam, if you work hard and get good results, we will say that getting into a good college is what you deserve. If you get poor results, but still manage to get into that same college through the backdoor, we will say you do not deserve to be there. This concept of ‘deserving’ means that, if you actually did something, then you are responsible for the consequences of that thing, and should get the corresponding reward and punishment. Many people will say accordingly that, if Mr Zhang is poor, it is entirely due to his own laziness, and he therefore deserves it. But what if this isn’t the case? What if Mr Zhang worked hard throughout his life, and yet he still was laid off, can you still say that he deserves to be in this situation? And as for Zhang’s daughter, when she was born into a poor family, and couldn’t grow up as healthy as other children, was that also deserved? I am not denying here that some people are poor because of their own laziness, however, if we systematically blame poverty on laziness, and so claim that all the sufferings of the poor are deserved, that is entirely unjustified, and very unfair.
Some people will say that, at least, there is no problem with market competition as long as everyone starts from an equal starting point. Well, so what is a fair starting point? Mr Zhang’s daughter and the children of wealthy families, do they share the same starting point? They do not. In China’s rural areas, countless numbers of children are left behind: do they have equal opportunities with the children of urban households? They do not. Today, the favourite slogan of many middle class parents is: “win at the starting line”. They all understand that the market does not provide equal opportunity to all. This also means that, if we really want each citizen to compete on the same starting line (or at least one not so unequal), and determine income levels only through their choice and performance, we cannot hope to achieve this goal through the market itself, but we must rely on other methods, for instance the government providing equal educational opportunities for all children.
The goal of the discussion above is to point out that if liberalism really pays attention to social justice, then it is impossible to judge that every consequence of the market is fair, and therefore ignore the suffering of Mr Zhang. But the reader must also understand that the criticisms of the market I am expressing here do not mean that I want to abolish the market, and even less that I agree with the many interventions and abuses of power by the government into the market to create irrational monopoly positions, and the resulting corruption and unfair competition. There is no contradiction between demanding a perfect market system, and demanding to limit the injustice caused by the market. The market is part of the social system, and the primary virtue of the system is justice, therefore the role of the market and its boundaries should be envisaged within the conceptual framework of social justice.
The reader at this point will ask, what is the theory of justice that liberalism should hold? This is a big problem, which I will later return to. To put it simply, I believe the liberal idea of justice depends on the independent rationality of the free individual, and is based on equality and fair social cooperation, so that every citizen has the opportunity to develop and experience human freedom, in order to live independent and dignified lives. Based on this, we therefore have every reason to say that the suffering experienced by Mr Zhang and his family is unfair.