‘Economic justice’ by Stephen Nathanson

Stephen Nathanson’s Economic Justice is a good read. I have one chapter left to go, but I’m putting a review up now while the rest of the book is fresh, as it may be a while before I finish it off.

The book’s designed for use by undergraduates, so it’s very reader friendly – you can skim through and still get most of the main ideas, which is great.

Nathanson sets out to examine three philosophies – capitalism, socialism, and the welfare state. He does so in abstract, so that there are at most only half-page references to historical context. This is useful for his purposes – it means that he can talk through how different theories of justice relate to different economic systems, without getting bogged down in detail over Russia’s five year plans or intellectual property rights in the US.

There is nothing groundbreaking in the book – a few points where I made notes for later, but nothing that causes a seismic shift in thinking. But what it does very well is set out clearly and simply a set of arguments for different positions – a clear and simple catalogue, which was just what I was after.

Nathanson himself takes a position, which is for a comprehensive welfare state. He’s reasonably persuasive, and I don’t think it detracts from the value of the book for those interested in counterarguments.

Interestingly, in his theoretical discussion, there’s a point that falls out that neatly matches Australia’s historical development. Discussing whether in a welfare state support should be provided to those who are capable of working, he notes that if not, there should be a role for government in guaranteeing adequate jobs, at adequate wages.

This is in fact how much of Australia’s history played out (although economic reform has shifted the landscape in recent decades). But for an extended period Australia had what Castles calls a ‘wage-earner’s welfare state’, with an arbitration system and the Harvester judgement providing for adequate wages, and both Labor and Menzies committing (at least to some extent) to full employment.

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