A meditation on justice

Lloyd Blankfein’s claim that he’s doing “God’s work” stimulated a post over at Naked Capitalism on calls for justice in the Bible.  Reading those quotes made me think about what we have gained and what we have lost by formalizing justice in legal, judicial and police institutions.

Those who live in countries without effective institutions can assure you that life with such institutions is generally better than life without them.  What is often termed economic immigration could very easily be redefined immigration to take advantage of a superior institutional environment — without misrepresenting the motivations of the immigrants.  (Belief in the effectiveness of certain institutional structures is one of the reasons that I think concerns over excessive immigration like this my be misguided.)

There is, however, something that is lost in an environment where third-party institutions are relied upon to provide justice.  Culturally many societies with a history of weak institutions have instead an ethic that says that it is the responsibility of those who witness petty injustice to intervene.  Because there is no third-party enforcement of justice that burden falls much more heavily on each individual.  Such cultures are rarely capable of standing up to abusive powerful individuals (although righteous revolutions are as old as history).  A culture of interventionism in small scale injustices does, however, lead to a healthy ability to discuss injustice and to discipline those with a tendency to misbehave, while at the same time treating them as members of the community.  Village cultures are far from perfect, but they can (in the absence of individuals with excessive power) generate a very healthy environment based on mutual respect — where individual failings are both acknowledged and controlled.

The quotes from the Bible on justice seem to me to refer to the village culture of intervention. With our centuries of reliance on institutions to administer justice, I think that over time the culture of intervention has been lost to Western society.  And I begin to wonder whether our judicial institutions can actually survive in a world where individuals no longer feel responsible for preventing injustice.  Maybe immigration is what we need to revitalize our institutions and make them strong enough to last for another century.

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