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 guarantee that citizens will enjoy equal economic freedom to the largest extent.
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 vital morality. The reason liberalism is currently the most cirticized 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 all 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 reduced to a minimum, this will not solve the problem. The road travelled 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 superstitiously 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.
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 worth of our common efforts. It is in this context that I am expanding my reflection on liberalism, and defend 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, and he lives in extreme poverty. There are many people like this in China. And 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 frail as a result. 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, was forced to drop out of school. This means that from the beginning of 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 great and sustained pain in her body. Four, since after 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 lower and lower, 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 discriminations. Despair, jealousy, resentment, rancour, regret and other negative emotions are beginning to corrode his life.
Five, Mr Zhang also experiences that he is not free. He’s finally understood 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, 例如政府不会因为他是下岗工人而不容许他送女儿去学校或限制他妈妈入住医院。张先生当然知道，他在这些方面并没受到法律限制。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 upon 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 the citizens.
A conclusion apparently so uncontroversial will still be challenged rightaway. For instance, some people will say the Mr Zhang’s poverty is the result of market competition, and noone needs to be responsible for this. 政府如果要照顾张先生，例如提供义务教育给他的孩子或医疗津贴给他的妈妈，那其实是在用纳税人的钱，而这并不公平，因为纳税人（在竞争中占优者）没有义务这样做。政府这么做，是在劫富济贫，逾越了其应有的角色。
Let me first clarify one concept. 我们不应将张先生一家的遭遇，简单地视为个人的自作自受。We live within a system. The situation of each of us, from the beginning of our lives, is deeply influenced by the system. 制度总在以不同方式，决定我们每个人可以得到多少资源、机会和自由。For instance, if Mr Zhang was living in Hong Kong, his situation would be widely 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. 如果有人相信市场万能，反对政府做任何事帮助像张先生这样的人，那么他必须提出道德理由来为之辩护，而不能声称市场是个自生自发的经济秩序，因此任何干预都不应该。
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. But if you get poor results at the test, and still manage to get into that same college through the backdoor, we will say you do not deserve to be there. 也就是说，“应得”这个概念意味着你实际上做了一些事情，因而你对这些事情的后果负责，并得到相应的奖罚。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 that he deserves to be in this situation? 张先生的女儿一出生就因为家境贫穷而无法像其他家庭的小孩那样健康成长，难道也是她应得的？I am not denying here that some people are poor because of their own laziness, 我这里并不是否认有人真的会因为好吃懒做而穷，但如果将贫穷问题全归咎于懒惰，并由此声称所有穷人承受的苦难都是他们应得的，那绝无道理，且极不公道。
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’re 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 don’t. Today, the favourite slogan of many middle class parents is: “win at the starting line”. 他们较谁都明白，市场没有机会平等可言。也就是说，如果我们真的希望每个公民都能在相同（或最少不那么不平等）的起跑线竞争，并只由他们的选择和表现来决定收入高低，我们就不可能寄望市场自己能实现这个目标，而必须靠其他方法，例如由政府提供平等的教育机会给每个小孩。
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 cancel the market, 更不表示我认同今天政府对市场所做的许多不合理的垄断干预和权力滥用，以及由此导致的腐败与竞争不公。要求完善市场制度，和要求限制市场所导致的不公正，两者并无冲突。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 自由主义的正义理念，是视人为独立理性自主的自由人，并在平等的基础上进行公平社会合作，以求每个公民都有机会发展和实现人的自由，从而过上自主而有尊严的生活。Based on this, we therefore have every reason to say that the suffering experienced by Mr Zhang and his family is unfair.
- 25 April, 2013 @ 8:36 [Current Revision] by julien.leyre
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