By C.B. MacPherson
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985
ISBN # 0-316-08251-1
154 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2010

The general frame of this book of essays is to address the question of what role, if any, theories of economic justice do or will play in economy, especially capitalist economies of the (mainly) western nations.

C.B. MacPherson notes that there has been some resurgence of theories of economic justice and that there have also been some changes in prevailing economic and social relations. He wonders whether or not there are any causal connections between these two facts, or just correlatives that cannot be shown to be causal.

The central thesis that overarches the essays is to say that indeed there is a plausible causal connection between theories of social justice and the actual practices in economy. Further he thinks that a study of those causal relations will strongly suggest that recent resurgences of interest in economic justice will not last.

He makes the claim with marvelous scholarly essays and what I found to be mainly quite persuasive arguments. But, without being flip, the essays of his position are that any resurgence of interest in economic justice will come to nothing. Economy, especially capitalist economy is likely to continue to virtually exclude considerations of economic justice. Here in 2010 that certainly seems to be a clear direction with some definite set backs in the dreams of more economic justice since his book appeared in 1985.

I was raised a Roman Catholic in a working class neighborhood. The old Irish pastor was one who preached a “Christian communism,” which amounted to a strong view of social justice rooted in Christian principles, not economic ones.

This seemed to either move me deeply, or fit with my own disposition and intuitions, or some of both. I went on to the seminary after high school, and after four years of undergraduate study realized the priestly world wasn’t for me.

I left the year Kennedy was running for president, and soon had replaced my old Catholic view of social justice with the soaring vision of the soon-to-be president and his “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

I soon married, moved off to do voluntary service work a small elementary school in the Bahamas Islands. At that time I embraced a totally non-sectarian, non-religious view of social justice rooted in the economic arguments of Marx and the social and personal arguments of the French and German Existentialists.

By 1965 I was teaching philosophy at Webster University and deeply involved with the New Left, especially the economic social justice activities wing of that movement.

I haven’t changed much on that score since, but ever since the election of Ronald Reagan it has seemed to me that the social justice agenda has been getting harder and harder to make or to succeed in achieving many adherents or many legislative successes. Thus reading this somewhat pessimistic, but very enlightening book has at least given me a better understanding of the historical situation in which we now struggle. Perhaps it provided some small consolation for being so often on the losing side of political debates and policies, but at least it helps me in understanding these loses.

Below I plan to go through the essays one by one making notes perhaps more useful to myself than others, and to help remind me of what so struck me along the way in this journey through MacPherson’s essays.


Economic justice is about “… relations into which people enter, in any society, in their capacities as producers, or owners of exchanges of valuable goods or services.”

These must be something more than what just flows from social and political relations in general, but it must be somehow specific to economy.

A further necessary condition for theories of economic justice is that there must be some moral principle involved in the theory itself.

I think critical to this understand is MacPherson’s insistence that we can see the difference most clearly if we recognize that the notion of JUSTICE will not necessary be done simply because people follow freely agreed contracts. That will tell us that an interaction may well be LEGAL within some state, but not necessarily that it is JUST. Justice and legality are not the same.

He begins his study with an historical lesson. Before the issue of economic justice could even arise there had to be a set of social relations which achieved a significant independence from the political, social and religious traditions of any culture or state. This began to occur in the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, about 1200 B.C.

The traditional and religious values began to push back over growing economic relations which had separated from those values. However, it took 600 years before historical evidence begins to give us some solid information and evidence in the work of Solon, and 200 more years until Aristotle wrote the first serious recorded work on social justice. “It (Aristotle’s work) called for a concept of economic justice, comprising principles of both fair exchange of commodities and of fair distribution of the society’s whole product.”

Aristotle’s three main arguments against unregulated wealth were that that notion was contrary to the notion of “a good life.”

  1. It makes acquisition the goal instead of the means to the good life.
  2. The accumulation process is without limit whereas the good life requires only limited material wealth.
  3. It is a means by which some men gain at the expense of others.

Aristotle also introduces an important distinction between:

Commutative justice -- acts of exchange
Distributive justice -- justice of society’s whole product’s distribution among citizens.

He spoke to a fairly advanced market society suggesting moral standards drawn from an earlier traditional society, and he failed to convince the society. Yet he saw that only such a fight for economic justice could forestall a complete separation of market from economy.

When 12th century AD society rediscovered Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas became the champion of Aristotle for his time, and with his view “The justice of trading for gain depended on the gain being moderated by customary standards, and on trade being potentially beneficial to the household or the community.” With the backing of the church’s power these views guided the market until the end of the Middle Ages.

However the decline and fall of the power of theories of economic justice came during the mercantile societies of the rising nation states. The goal of the state’s struggle for national power began to rise and the voice of Thomas Hobbes fairly much laid notions of economic justice to rest by 1651. Rather, the market became the measure of value. “All market exchanges are … exchanges of equal value.” Labor became a product and one sold one’s labor.

Little real change came until Karl Marx. (Corbett notes, at least MacPherson notes this to be the case among scholars. I note there was a significant rise in utopian communities prior to Marx and much of their structure was to bring more social and economic justice to their small and isolated communities, hoping their models would spread.)

Marx tried to bring in some notions of economic justice within the world of distributive relations -- circulation and exchanges -- rather than in the relations of production.

And within the liberal mainstream, theory, both political economy and political theory, remained impervious to the concept of economic justice even until our own time.

However there has been a relatively recent revival of notions of economic justice. “The revival matches a decline of confidence in the beneficence and indeed in the possibility of a freely competitive capitalist market theory.”

MacPherson cites three primary factors in this revival:

  1. Growth of the trade union movement.
  2. Power of monopoly capital to undercut common values of the concept of justice.
  3. The fact of state intervention at a massive level.

These combined to undercut the claim of the market to be free of calls for economic justice.

Yet MacPherson is quite pessimistic of this “revival” to last.

  1. In the area of distributive justice:

    1. He sees an alliance between corporate capital and regulatory states such that “when calamity threatens, the distribution of misery becomes unimportant.” (This seems especially prevalent today!)
    2. Suppose the working class took over? This would likely not lead to a change in social relations, but quality of life issues.

  2. In the area of commutative justice:

    1. There has been some lasting progress in some countries to disallow “unconscionable” contracts. This is not very helpful, but it is something.
    2. The courts made some ground in deciding some gross excesses in contract law.
    3. There has been an increasing call from Third World nations for some adjustments based upon historical calls of justice.

    However, in sum he doesn’t think these three will amount to many very substantial changes.


MacPherson thinks human rights are best understood in three categories: 1. Civil rights in which the claims are against the state. 2. Political rights which are for a voice of the people in the state. 3. Economic and social rights which are for benefits guaranteed by the state.

MacPherson doesn’t believe these sorts of rights are quite as distinct as others seem to think and he is quite suspicious of the tendency to want to deal with them on the basis of a view that there are always “trade-offs”. That is, to sacrifice A is to lead to a gain in B and vice versa. However, he is concerned that such trade-offs generally do not lead to any EQUAL sacrifice of all.

At the time of the essay MacPherson isn’t convinced that the modern calls for human rights will go very far, but at least they are one nagging voice with some appeal, that are calling for notions of economic justice to be taken into consideration.


MacPherson sees economic democracy as “ . . . an arrangement of the economic system which will give a just distribution of work, income and wealth in a country.”

Industrial democracy means in effect workers’ control of the industrial production.

He looks at the POLITICS of each and notes:

  1. Within capitalism
    -- the capitalists seek higher profit
    -- the workers seek better life satisfaction
    The political involvement of each group is likely to depend upon the satisfaction of its wants.

  2. Within socialism
    -- many of the socialist states seek to “catch-up” with the capitalist world.
    -- most of the workers have a primary interest in the conditions of their own labor.

As in the capitalist situation, each “side” of this tension will politically work for its own ends with the clashes entailed as an outcome in the struggle.


Earlier he had mentioned this distinction of “trade-offs” where one sees that both A and B are in conflict and to increase some A is to lessen some B and so on.

MacPherson points out that in modern capitalism it is often seen that such trade-offs are necessary.

He argues, however, that there are often third outcomes C, which could be there instead of the opposition of A and B.

I must admit that in this particular essay his notion of this “C” alternative which isn’t just a version of the trade-off, wasn’t very clear. He didn’t seem to give any concrete examples.

However, one quote of his did quite intrigue me. He has come back again and again to the notion that in order to fix some weakness in capitalism there is often a trade-off, but the trade-off itself relies on the capitalist system. He says: “But we must notice that it was only marginal for the welfare state still relies on capitalist enterprise to provide the wherewithal for the transfer payments. And indeed it is doubtful if the flowering of the welfare state since the 1930s on should be considered a trade-off at all. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the subsequent successful decades of Keynesian politics in all the capitalist nations, had as their goal nothing more than the rescue of unregulated capitalism from its own incompetence.”

This seems to me to echo the bitter anger of so many Americans in today’s rescue of the banks and following the very methods of capitalism in order to do it.


  1. Market capitalists mainly, though not fully, accept the theory of capitalism as self-sufficient. However no grand theory of the state is really possible anyway since it collapses into a Hobbesian notion of man as a market individualist maximizer.
  2. Market folks influenced by Mill’s humanism need a theory to flush that out.
  3. Marxists who reject market-man need a theory to flesh it out.

MacPherson is in group two. Many who might be regarded in group 1 are actually in group 2.

In this essay he will preach at the Marxians.

  1. From Marx:
    1. Human essence is to be fully realized in free, conscious, creative activity.
    2. People need to be able to realize a greater ability than has been fostered.
    3. Capitalist society denies the impulse
  2. Government is not free nor fully “democratic.” State must maintain the capitalist system as a requirement.
  3. Supporting capitalism has made the state much more involved in the state than classical theory would allow.
  4. Three sectors of government
    1. High capital
    2. Low capital
    3. Government and service workers and unionist: Those groups are non-capitalist and they are 40% of U.S.

Four ways ahead:

  1. Legitimation of problems for both capital and the state.
  2. Leads to a new kind of pluralism
  3. Needs change of consciousness toward the new pluralism.
  4. Sets the agenda for a new theory of the state.
    Which is:
    1. State legitimates itself to 3 groups:
      1. State employees
      2. Benefit receivers
      3. Organized labor
    2. The state has a harder problem legitimating itself to capital. Capital must show it’s acts are in long-term capital interest.

The new pluralism is a great dialectic between government leading capital and capital leading government and special groups.

The present time (1985) is a model toward the future.


The problem with many environmental issues is private property.

There was a change over time from

  1. From a broad notion of private property including the self as material property
  2. From Aristotle to 17th Century:
    1. Right to exclude others from use of one’s property.
    2. Right to use all public property
  3. To:
    1. Right to use, exclude to enjoy
    2. Right to use and sell.
  4. Revenues as property

    Today property is: The exclusive individual right to use and dispose of individual things.

But this view leads to the unacceptable exclusion of many to needs of life. Increasingly the market economy is not the exclusive provider of benefits, but the state is doing much in the name of “rights to ….”

As less work is needed for survival there could be a shift to: “As current labour becomes less needed, individual property in the means of labour becomes less important as individual property in means of a full and free life becomes more important.”


Earlier views saw property as a means to an end that was moral or ontological.

From development of market economy property became and end in itself, a measure of value.

Bentham recognized: Ends other than accumulation as the aim happiness. However, he argued that accumulation of wealth was the most successful measure of value.

MacPherson argues that virtually all contemporary defenders of market capitalism implicitly justify unlimited accumulation as the end of life, even when they say they reject it.


MacPherson believes that a serious developmentalist groups having significant impact on monopoly capital is unlikely. This is because the developmental groups themselves don’t have the power or unity to function as a limiting block to monopoly capital’s dominance.


Hypothesis 1: “That the economic penetration of political theory varies with the extent of the market.”

  1. Greek / Roman world – not very much penetration. Aims were more the higher goals of the state.
  2. Medieval – Even less so for this period when state determined goals.
  3. Modern world has seen full market penetration.

Hypothesis 2: “That the economic penetration of political theory varies with the extent of recent or current change in actual economic relations.”

MacPherson sees this as not a very hopeful hypothesis; seems to fail in modern times.

One might refine this hypothesis more fruitfully as: “… economic penetration of liberal theory varies directly with the recognition, by the political and economic theorists, of the increasingly exploitive or extractive nature of market relations in a fully capitalist society.”

3 classes of income:

  1. ownership of land
  2. ownership of capital
  3. ownership of capacity to work

Civil government’s main purpose on Adam Smith’s view is protection of property.

Hypothesis 3: “That the economic penetration of political theory varies with the theorists’ recognition of the necessarily exploitive or extractive nature of market relations in a society divided into owners and non-owners of productive material property.”

Many major theorist say the poverty of wage labor is a necessary evil and even nature itself.

All early liberal theorists assume: man as infinite appropriator. This view obscures the recognition of the exploitive nature of society based on the capitalist / wage-labor relations.

Change came with J.S. Mill and T.H. Green. Mill rejected the inequality created by capitalist division of wealth, but didn’t see it as inherent in wage labor.

Cause of reaction: “ . . . the increasingly evident incompatibility in the nineteenth century between the dehumanizing actual economic relations and any morally acceptable vision of human society.”

The notion of “rising of all boats” just wasn’t happening.

Hypothesis 4: “That the economic penetration of political theory varied with the political strength of an exploited class; directly in socialist theory, inversely in liberal theory.”

In mid to late 20th century: liberal theory is seen more in capitalists recognizing a rising threat, not from labor, but from the socialist world and Third World nations.

The modern response is for capital to try to stave off conflict by allowing some reforms not rooted in economic theory but in social justice.


Engels raised the question for socialism a century earlier. MacPherson wants to inquire about the differences regarding democracy today. He asks: Is it possible for anything visionary to be scientific. Engels thought so for Marx at his time.

Engels’s criteria:

  1. Existing economic relations were transient and had internal laws of logic.
  2. He comprehended and explained exploitations in the nature of those relations.

The crisis of liberal democracy “ . . . that crisis arrives from an increasing misfit between demand and supply, that is between increasingly political demand for goods of the welfare state and decreasing ability of the capitalist economy to supply them.”

  1. Democratic theorists have not thought democracy had an inherent logic of development.
  2. Nor do they see it as exploitive – using the “rising tide lifts all boats” argument.

From mid-20th century on equilibrium democratic theory viewed voters as a self-regulating market. Equilibrium theory in the market analogy can’t account for counter-active powers of parties.

Not mentioned in MacPherson: nothing of unequal wealth.

Further on equilibrium theory deals only with liberty, not fraternity or equality .

He claims a weakness in that theory: “It takes no thought for the possible outcome of a probably increasing ability of the capitalist economy to satisfy the expectation both of the electorate and powerful pressure groups in its midst.”

2 possible outcomes:

  1. Popular movement getting more participatory power.
  2. A kind of corporatist plebiscitarian state.

The democratic state was founded by pressure from underclass’s. The system needs infinite consumers. But it seems to rule out quality of life and work as meaning.


By mid-17th century, emerging capitalism was destroying older notions of the state. Prior to Hobbes most were mercantilists …. “. . . were concerned to finding what state politics would be most conducive to increasing productivity and hence the wealth of the nation.”

Hobbesian mercantilists didn’t have a notion of a self-regulating market and believed the state had the role of planning and organizing the economy.

MacPherson rejects the notion of a mercantilist as “pre-capitalist.” Rather, he thinks of it as “nascent” capitalism.

Hobbes held that the worth of a man is his price and that price is decided by others, by their willingness to pay it.

This was a period of early capital accumulation – thus Hobbes’s insistence on the ultimate right of the Sovereign to all property made good sense.

Recall that even early democratic societies were bourgeois. I.e. only property owners would vote or participate. They didn’t want any self-perpetuating rulers.


This is an odd inclusion in this volume and one I found of relatively little use. The issue is about the Levellers, an English social political group of the late 1600s. The issue is – who would they include in voting? Only property owners, or some others, or all men of the state?

I just didn’t see much that it might add to the general marvelous volume that this book otherwise was.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett