Michael Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard who teaches a popular course on justice. He now has published a book based on the course and it was reviewed in Sunday's New York Times. The reviewer, Jonathan Rauch, notes that many public policy disagreements are really differences about justice. I suspect he is correct, although Tom Sowell's book, A Conflict of Visions, remains a better discussion of his point. But Rauch begins his review by recalling a conversation with a prominent conservative commentator who railed against the Obama administration's handling of General Motors and Chrysler. Rauch states that he found the fury of the commentator puzzling. He asks, "Was it such a crime for the government to treat differently situated stakeholders differently, even if doing so was unorthodox?" Clearly, Rauch thinks the answer is no, but I must respectfully disagree.
When economists give advice about how a poor country can encourage economic growth a common part of the answer is the importance of the rule of law. When decisions about who owns productive resources are left to the whims of the reigning government, few people make long-term investments in the resources. A predictable constancy is necessary if investments are to be made. Or, as Mancur Olsen put it--the wealth of a society depends on its ability to make long-term investment commitments. Such investments will not be made when the fruit of the investments may be confiscated at a later date. To alter bankrutpcy proceedings for the sake of political expediency is to move away from the rule of law. Rauch is aware that the rule of law is involved, but dismisses it when he writes, "Is justice absolute and process-driven, so that we should stick to rules come what may? Or is it situational and outcome-aware, so that we should sometimes imporise to take account of special circumstances?" Rauch seems to favor the latter. I favor the former, along with Hayek, Sowell, and Milton Friedman (to name a few).
We may be moving into a period of slower growth rates for the country. The focus on the short term that exists in Washington, the alteration of rules due to the emergency of a recession, and probably health care reform will reduce somewhat incentives to invest. For the latter, David Brooks offered an interesting discussion of health care reform as a trade-off between vitality and security. The social safety net will be enhanced but marginal tax rates will increase. The latter will reduce growth rates in the future.
Living in a liberal democracy means that decisions about trade-offs like those just mentinoed are decided through political processes. If society prefers less growth but bigger safety nets, then who am I to say society is wrong? Most Europeans I have met prefer their society to ours. But I am not certain most Americans prefer European economic and social systems to ours. Time will tell.