Justice is an Option
Rarely do I read a book that leads me to think differently about economics, but Robert Meister’s effort to quantify the price of historical justice has done exactly that. His latest book, Justice is an Option, builds on the debates surrounding distributive justice. It builds on the work of John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Michael Walzer, while at the same time it abandons many of their ideas. Because in many ways, Meister has written a contemporary account of a classic debate that remains influential but overlooked among scholars today.
Unlike past accounts of distributive justice, Meister does not waste time on a defense of his version of justice. Instead, his focus is almost entirely on how to bring about justice. The present world, for Meister, is inherently unjust. Moreover, capitalism has allowed injustice to compound over years into more extreme forms of inequality. So, Meister begins from a position of injustice in a manner that reverses the approach of Rawls or Nozick. At the same time, the original position for Meister is no less theoretical, because he does not name an original crime. Rather he feels the starting point of injustice is irrelevant, because so many different crimes such as slavery or colonization have compounded over generations at this point.
Nonetheless, despite the weight of widespread injustice, Meister believes justice is an option even when it is not a possibility. Here his language may appear confusing, because he means justice not in a moral sense, but rather a financial one. He uses modern financial theory as a way to value historical justice and use it as a limit on the excesses of capitalism. It’s a novel theory that combines ideas from philosophy, finance, and economics. Let me explain.
What is Historical Justice?
Meister’s view of justice begins with a possibility that is literally terrifying for most economists. He writes, “The purely financial argument against having a revolution is that the attempt to seize accumulated wealth makes it all suddenly illiquid and thus financially worthless before it could be made available for redistribution.” In other words, the arrival of historical justice will likely bring a complete collapse of the financial system. It’s possible to imagine how an economic revolution would lead to a fire sale in financial assets as their value drops to zero.
Indeed, every market decline raises important questions of value. It seems almost inconceivable when large quantities of wealth simply disappear due to a market correction. The irony, of course, is accumulated wealth retains its value, because it remains unspent. The moment everyone wants to divest the value of any asset, it disappears. So, accumulated wealth appears greater than it really is simply because it remains stored in existing assets. At the same time, finance does fuel a system necessary to create the basic necessities of modern life. So, the economic system depends on the availability of liquid capital for production and distribution of basic goods.
The project of historical justice then is a challenge to the purpose of wealth. It depends on a rethinking of the entire economic system into something where production and distribution of basic goods continues, but where the absence of accumulated wealth eliminates what Meister describes as unjust inequalities. Because Meister, for his part, views “unjust inequality as intrinsically historical.” Nonetheless, the remedy of historical justice is not only radical, but extraordinarily risky. There is no guarantee of a seamless transition where food, energy, and other necessities remain readily available.
Unlike Marx, Meister does not propose revolution as a solution. Rather he believes it is possible to occupy an equilibrium between the present era and the next. He writes, “If the present is a time between the end of evil and the beginning of justice, it can for this reason be appealing, even ethically, to prolong it and thus save people from suffering the consequences of their evil past.” Meister believes the recognition of justice as an option opens a number of possibilities previously foreclosed or maybe just ignored.
The Global Financial Crisis serves as an example and as a metaphor for him. It offered a rare choke point for global capitalism. Democracy had actual leverage to demand concessions from the financial system for a more just society. Of course, this does not imply the arrival of historical justice, but rather a recognition of its possibility. Instead, the financial system deflected a direct assault as entirely inappropriate “when its weakness might have been leveraged.” In the end, Meister concludes this event “suggests that financialized capitalism may have ultimately trumped the project of historical justice.”
Instead, Meister wants to place the option of historical justice onto the table. He does not suggest the exercise of the option. Rather he argues the possession of the option has value in its own right. He links the role of democracy to the cause of justice as a means to limit the harms of capitalism. “Democracy,” he writes, “is an arena for the continuous repricing of the option of justice in a class-based society that is continuously deferring an event of sudden disaccumulation that could come about in many ways.” In the end, this middle ground avoids the uncertainty of revolution. Instead, it redirects the trajectory of society’s orientation toward justice.
Of course, Meister does not advocate for some middle road between justice and injustice. Rather, he argues justice as an option only has value so long as it remains a real possibility. If capital markets believe historical justice is not a real possibility, they will not take it seriously. The problem in Meister’s theory is it depends on a public mandate to use justice as an option. It’s unlikely any democracy is prepared to take such a radical step. Moreover, it’s debatable whether Meister’s vision of historical justice is preferable for many in contemporary society.
But I think these criticisms miss the point. Meister forces us to think differently about our economic system. Even leftist intellectuals will find their assumptions about capital markets, democracy, and justice challenged in new ways. Perhaps the novelty in Meister’s analysis is most evident in his view on democracy. “Even if there is currently no democracy in finance,” he writes, “I believe that there can be no democratization of our present society without it.”
Robert Meister joins the Democracy Paradox as a guest on tomorrow’s podcast, October 12th. He discusses the ideas from his most recent book Justice is an Option: A Democratic Theory of Finance for the Twenty-First Century. Subscribe today on your favorite podcast app.
Binyamin Appelbaum (2019) The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society
Karl Marx (1885) Capital Volume II: The Process of Circulation of Capital
Robert Meister (2021) Justice Is an Option: A Democratic Theory of Finance for the Twenty-First Century
Chantal Mouffe (ed.) (1992) Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community especially Quentin Skinner’s chapter “On Justice, the Common Good, and the Priority of Liberty”
Thomas Piketty (2013) Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Piketty (2019) Capital and Ideology
Plato The Republic
John Rawls (1971) Theory of Justice
Michael Walzer (1983) Spheres of Justice