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Why Social Justice Matters

Brian Barry

ISBN: 978-0-745-62993-3 March 2005 Polity 336 Pages


In the past twenty years, social injustice has increased enormously in Britain and the United States, regardless of the party in power. At the same time, the idea of social justice itself has been subverted, as the mantras of personal responsibility and equal opportunity have been employed as an excuse for doing nothing about the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and for making ever harsher demands on the poor and vulnerable.

With grace and wit, Brian Barry exposes the shoddy logic and distortion of reality that underpins this ideology. Once we understand the role of the social structure in limiting options, we have to recognize that really putting into practice ideas such as equal opportunity and personal responsibility would require a fundamental transformation of almost all existing institutions.

Barry argues that only if inequalities of wealth and income are kept within a narrow range can equal prospects for education, health and autonomy be realized. He proposes a number of policies to achieve a more equal society and argues that they are economically feasible. But are they politically possible?

The apparent stability of the status quo is delusory, he responds: radical changes in our way of life are unavoidable. Whether these changes are for better or for worse depends partly on the availability of a coherent set of principles and a programme flowing from them that is capable of mobilizing the growing discontent with business as usual. That is, ultimately, why social justice matters.

Preface vii

Part I Social Justice: The Basics

1 Why We Need a Theory 3

2 The Machinery of Social Injustice 14

3 The Scope of Social Justice 27

Part II Equality of Opportunity

4 Why Equal Opportunity? 37

5 Education 46

6 Health 70

7 The Making of the Black Gulag 95

Part IV The Cult of Personal Responsibility

10 Responsibility versus Equality? 131

11 Rights and Responsibilities 142

12 Irresponsible Societies 154

Part V The Demands of Social Justice

13 Pathologies of Inequality 169

14 Wealth 186

15 Jobs and Incomes 200

16 Can We Afford Social Justice? 215

Part VI The Future of Social Justice

17 The Power of Ideas 233

18 How Change Happens 243

19 Meltdown? 251

20 Justice or Bust 261

Notes 274

Index 311

“A brilliant polemic against inequality.”
Roy Hattersley, The Guardian

“Barry's pugnacious defence of a robust social democracy deserves to find a wide readership ... for disillusioned social democrats, Why Social Justice Matters stands as a refreshingly staunch and intelligent manifesto.”
New Statesman

“Barry's writing is extremely engaging. His arguments are supported by a wide range of examples and illustrations and an impressive breadth of scholarship.”
Ethics and Social Welfare

“This book is a powerful argument against the utter inequity of the current political and economic system in the UK and against the way in which a discourse of ‘equal opportunities’ is used to maintain what Barry describes as the ‘machinery of injustice’. In this extraordinarily simple and lucid book, Barry weaves striking threads of supporting evidence, anecdotes, quotations and statistics together to encourage us to insist that another (just) world is not only possible but that an unjust world cannot endure.”
British Journal of Sociology

“Barry persuasively argues that differentials in positional goods allow the rich to have better personal health due to higher self-esteem, better access to more fulfilling jobs due to a wealth of social connections, and greater ability to capture the government and use it to secure their own interests.”

  • Sets out this prize-winnng author's vision of what social justice means, explaining why it must have universal scope or is worth nothing.

  • Strongly attacks New Labour, as well as most contemporary political philosophy.

  • Argues that the present period is a time of opportunity to be seized, brought about by the increasing instability of the international economic and political order and by growing opposition to the selfish short-sightedness of the world's richest countries.

  • Outlines the implications for the obligations of the present generation to future ones and the distribution of resources within the world as a whole.