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World Day of Social Justice

“We are living at the expense of future generations”

Munich, 02/18/2013

LMU‘s Markus Vogt on social justice in Germany and the rest of the world, and the individual‘s need for the respect of his peers.

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Shanghai (Photo: Alex Nikada / istockphoto.com)

Surveys indicate that many people feel that Germany is not a just society. Is this an accurate perception?
Markus Vogt: It is certainly true to say that there are significant elements of inequity in our society. Average disposable income at the lower end of the scale has fallen in real terms over the past decade, and taken in conjunction with the rise in the overall degree of job insecurity, this is a very serious problem. Moreover, levels of remuneration in the upper income bracket have not fallen and, in some cases, personal earnings are extremely high. So in terms of the spread in income levels, the extent of inequality has undoubtedly increased.

What level of equality can one expect in a performance-oriented society like ours?
Fair recompense for a job well done is an indispensable component of social justice. Equal levels of performance deserve equal levels of reward. Indeed, the normative sense of the term ‘equality’ does not imply the leveling of differences, but the facilitation of fair interactions.

Inequality itself can be productive in many ways. It can act as a stimulus to betterment. But one must remember that the prospect of higher earnings is by no means the only conceivable form of an effective stimulus. What every individual longs for most is the respect of the people around him. The mutual acknowledgement of social value creates solidarity, and solidarity makes it possible for people to transcend their apparent limits and take risks. That idea underpins the model of a meritocracy that is also socially cohesive and cooperative. There is a widespread tendency to underestimate the contribution of social policy, which functioned quite effectively for a long time, to Germany’s economic success. And its secret ingredient was the explicit link between social equilibrium and competition.

In the context of Christian social ethics, the concept of justice is not restricted to ensuring that everyone has enough to live on, it also encompasses the issue of social inclusion. In Munich, some 120,000 people are classified as poor. They have just enough money to see them through from one month to the next, but they are excluded from engagement in many aspects of social life, which, in a such a wealthy city, is largely organized around money.

Educational opportunities in Germany are unevenly distributed. What effect does this have on levels of social participation?
In the field of education, one can most clearly discern the effects of a lack of positive encouragement and active concern. All the investigations that have been carried out, starting with the PISA tests, have shown that children whose parents have received little education are particularly at risk of being left behind. These children do not lack motivation, what they need is active support. Many of these pupils, including those who come from immigrant families, become frustrated, lose confidence in their own abilities, and simply give up. Moreover, the notion that greater selectivity alone will be enough to raise the level of educational attainment is erroneous. Actually, such measures often have the opposite effect. Demanding more of pupils can, of course, help, but only if the pupils have been instilled with a certain level of self-assurance.

The idea that social justice is compatible with the operation of performance-related criteria is perfectly sound. Each individual bears a personal responsibility for his or her own well-being, but sometimes we need the assistance of others to develop the ability to achieve our best – and that is true at all levels and on all scales.

What would it take to make Germany a more equitable place?
Justice is not an attainable goal, it is an ongoing process. Societies are constantly engaged in adjusting their normative frameworks. That is the case, at the moment, with the issue of the minimum wage. The lack of a defined and legally binding minimal wage means that many people are being forced to work for less and less. A further example is the tax on financial transactions, the proceeds of which are earmarked for programs to fight poverty. It is important that the banking sector be forced to bear the losses attendant on irresponsible risk-taking. Over the past several years, profits in Germany have gone into private pockets, while the losses have been passed on to society as a whole.

The costs of the European Stability Mechanism are also being borne by the average taxpayer.
In Europe, the most immediate challenge is to find the appropriate balance between fiscal consolidation and necessary level of investment. Money is not the limiting factor, money can be printed. What is in short supply is confidence, confidence that one can create wealth by investing capital, and at the same time earn a fair return on one’s investment. To re-establish the element of trust that is a prerequisite for a readiness to invest requires stable cooperative arrangements between the actors involved. In Europe at present, fiscal consolidation is being pursued at the expense of social cohesion. In Spain, for example, the rate of youth unemployment is nearly 50%. When fiscal policy has effects like that, it is destroying more than it can possibly safeguard.

What are the most important challenges for the advancement of social justice worldwide?
The most substantial deficits with respect to social justice exist in sub-Saharan Africa and in India. In these areas, whole habitats are being devastated and cultures blotted out, quite apart from the prevailing inadequacies in health care and education systems. This underlines how important it is not to define poverty solely on the basis of income.

The increasing incidence of malnutrition is the most blatant and urgent instance of social injustice, especially in light of the huge amounts of food that are wasted in the cities of the rich world. The problem is not a shortage of food as such, it is a matter of a patently unjust pattern of distribution, and that is in turn a consequence of the wrong structures. Redistribution alone will not be sufficient to solve this problem. The most important thing is to achieve what the developmental economist Amartya Sen has called a reallocation of capabilities. The goal must be to equip people with the capability to produce food for themselves. This also means that the efficiency of local markets must be improved. Nowadays, most of the countries located south of the equator primarily function as suppliers of raw materials to, and consumers of the manufactures produced by, the industrial societies of the northern hemisphere.

From an ecological point of view, the current rate of exploitation of natural resources, in association with climate change, represents a major hurdle to efforts to ensure that future generations get a fair chance. We are living at the expense of future generations. Germany has indeed been relatively successful in reducing its carbon dioxide emissions, by comparison with other countries, but that success has largely been achieved by relocating energy-intensive production units elsewhere.

What impact do unjust structural conditions have on the individual consumer? Should we all buy Fairtrade products with eco-labels?
Justice begins with the individual. It is not enough to leave it up to society as whole to provide the necessary framework for its achievement. Each individual has an obligation to contribute. And each one can make a difference, as a consumer, for instance – although, one should not overestimate the impact of “shopping-bag politics”. The asymmetry at the level of basic information is too pronounced, and it is therefore all too easy to be deceived by a green image. But one can keep one’s eyes open, and take one’s responsibilities as a citizen seriously, by participating in citizens’ initiatives, for instance, and of course by taking part in elections.

Social justice raises a number of difficult questions. University students, in particular, should take the time to reflect deeply on the issues involved and, on that basis, be prepared to take an active part in the process of political decision-making.

Interview: nh

vogt_130Professor Dr. Markus Vogt holds the Chair of Christian Social Ethics at LMU. His research interests include social mobility and relative impoverishment as a consequence of globalization, as well as sustainable economic models. Markus Vogt is also official spokesperson for the Association for Christian Social Ethics in German-Speaking Countries (Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Christliche Sozialethik im deutschen Sprachraum) and is actively involved in several ecclesiastical, scholarly and social organizations, including the Munich Competence Center for Ethics.

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