Gold coin of Croesus

This post is about economic justice. What makes some distributions of money just, and others unjust? Given the disagreements, and the huge practical implications, how do we decide?

I ended my last post , about Greece’s debts, arguing that if anyone is at fault, it is the creditors rather than the Greeks. I now feel this was too strong a claim to be left without more justification. This is what I am attempting here.

Our society has two conflicting accounts of economic justice. One is based on need, the other on contract. In politics the difference often works out as our familiar left-right split; but not always, and in any case our political culture of superficial debating points does more to hide than to reveal the substantive issues at stake.


In the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes and John Locke argued that society is based on a social contract. Their theories, though different, both treated the individual human being as the place where value resides. Locke developed the concept of natural rights, including the right to own property. Justice meant that different individuals, each with their legitimately owned property, should be free to negotiate with each other as they see fit. The job of the state, on this theory, is to ensure due process.

Today much neo-liberal economic theory is built on this. Its defenders may argue that all income tax is theft, and that governments have no business redistributing wealth: however little or however much money each individual has, they should be left free to use it as they wish. Most neo-liberals do not go so far, but they do provide constant pressure to reduce state intervention, especially taxes.

Not that anybody now thinks the way Locke thought 300 years ago. Then, property rights were important as a defence against the power of the king to requisition land and possessions. Today we accept some taxes, and compulsory purchase of land, as legitimate government powers.

Locke’s belief in human rights was tied to his theology: to say we have rights was to say that God lays down laws about how we should, rightly, treat each other. The fundamental principle, the starting-point in his theory, was not the individual’s rights themselves but God’s laws. In principle God’s laws might set limits to human rights. However, this was not Locke’s main concern; his concern was to defend the rights of property-owners against kings who claimed a divine right to rule as they saw fit.

Take God out of this picture, and what happens? Natural rights become free-floating metaphysical entities, absolutely basic. So they become absolutes, no longer modifiable. Individualism becomes the fundamental principle of justice. Our relationships become secondary. First of all I am an individual who owns property and in all justice is free to do whatever I want with it. As such I may if I choose feel sorry for poor people and give something to them, but justice never requires such giving.


The earlier theological basis produced a very different account of economic justice. As long as natural rights expressed how God wanted people to live, individualism could be set within, and limited by, a broader picture. Our individualism is given to us to be used in particular ways, expressed by God’s purpose in creating us.

Those who believe in God disagree about what this broader picture is. I summarise my own account very briefly here. I take it that the teaching of Jesus reaffirmed a strand of Jewish doctrine expressed in the Old Testament.

In the Hebrew Scriptures God creates humans for our own good, gives us everything we need and blesses us (Genesis 1:28, 9:1, 12:1-2). The things we need are given by God to the community, so that the community may flourish. What does it mean for a community to flourish? It means that the individuals in it flourish in their relationships with each other, with the land and with God.

Both as individuals and as a community, we have been created for our own good. The individual is real enough, but is always an individual in relationship. From the start, ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27). ‘Adam’ means ‘man’, Abraham matters not for his own sake but because his descendants will be a nation.

God has provided us with all the things we need so that everybody’s needs can be met. For society, therefore, the top priority is to make sure everybody’s needs are met. Only when that has been successfully achieved does it then become possible for some people to establish free, unforced contracts with others.

Taking and borrowing

Hobbes and Locke therefore exaggerated the role of contracts. They are artificial constructs. What is natural is giving and taking to meet immediate needs. All animals do it. A cat with a full stomach does not chase more mice, let alone sell them to other cats. Children love to feed ducks at the local lake. We humans would not have survived the first day of our lives if we had had to negotiate for our mother’s milk. No system of contracts can replace giving and taking.

Other animals do not borrow and lend. Humans have done so ever since they found a way of recording who owed what to whom. At first there were limits to how much a wealthy person could accumulate; excess barnfuls of grain may rot. The limits were overcome in the 6th century BCE in Lydia, now western Turkey, with the invention of money. It immediately produced a king famed for his wealth, Croësus. From there it was adopted and popularised by neighbouring states, chief of which, ironically, was Athens.

So buying and selling, lending and borrowing, and interest rates are social constructs. Many a society has managed without them. On the other hand giving and receiving, without contracts, is foundational for all societies. No society has managed without noticing when other people are in need, and providing for them.

Many feminists have gone further and argued that relationship is more fundamental than individuality. Perhaps it is only through our relationships that we can conceive of ourselves as an individual with a self. Perhaps also the ultimate moral challenge is, as some Christians and many Buddhists have argued, to let go of our individuality, our self-centredness, and see ourselves as part of the whole.


If economic justice is based on contracts, we humans are primarily individuals. Only as individuals do we engage with society, on terms we negotiate with others. Provided that the terms of the contracts are obeyed, justice sees no problem with some people being fabulously rich while others are so poor that they cannot eat.

If justice is based on need, we are social beings from the start. Relationship is as fundamental as individuality. We all begin our lives needing to receive. Most of us spend large parts of our lives giving as well as receiving. The giving and receiving goes unrecorded. Nobody works out the sums.

Because the giving and receiving are free, they create two things that contracts can never create: gratitude, and love.