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  • Catering to Blindness: A Closer Look at a “Just” World
  • Bruce Jennings

To the Editor: Charity Scott’s “Belief in a Just World” (Jan–Feb 2008) contains valuable insight about the shape of public ethical discourse in America. However, she is so concerned with how to “sell” social reform in the short term that her essay misses an opportunity to subject the so-called belief in a just world (“you deserve what you get, and you get what you deserve”) to critical analysis. Where does this ideology come from, and what function does it serve? What causes this resentment and this blindness to the yawning gap between American ideals of justice and our actual social reality?

Instead of looking for ways to rectify this blindness, Scott counsels supporters of progressive social programs to cater to it. This belief system promotes self-esteem for achieving lower middle class stability and resentment against tax-based transfer programs. Why? Because these social programs are not financially set up to redistribute downward from the very top, but only from roughly the lower middle on down. Such programs, like the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (which are modest, though important for their beneficiaries), are chronically underfunded and controversial. We make people of limited means fight over crumbs and then consider it political progress when we extend health coverage to children who are three times richer than the poorest child, but not four—yet still a hundred times poorer than the children of the top quintile.

Supporters of progressive social policy should not cater to the beliefs that mask and perpetuate this state of affairs. They should work to undermine such beliefs by educating people about the true shape of American society. They should continue to ask the most basic—the rudest—political questions of all: who gets what, when, where, and how?

Bruce Jennings
Center for Humans and Nature
  • Charity Scott Replies

By exploring a case study in Georgia, I was testing a research finding that support for social welfare spending increases when the causes of poverty are framed as being social rather than individual. The case study seemed to confirm this finding. The anger displayed by newspaper readers toward an individual family needing public health insurance for their children contrasted sharply with the overwhelming support for children’s health insurance when framed as a matter of broader public policy. In suggesting that social welfare advocates be aware of this phenomenon, I was proposing possibly better ways to educate opponents of social welfare reform by reframing the larger social questions—including those that Bruce Jennings identifies—and by putting the problems of achieving health justice in terms that both advocates and opponents could agree on. Appealing to shared principles of fairness for vulnerable populations like children is one way of doing this; another is placing our country’s disparities in the broader context of socioeconomic conditions beyond individual control.

We make people of limited means fight over crumbs, considering it progress to extend health coverage to children three times richer than the poorest, but not four—yet still a hundred times poorer than the richest.

Having been astonished by the anger of the newspaper’s readership, I was trying to account for this hostility on the basis of a view (the belief in a just world) that I believe perversely disadvantages those who try hardest to overcome social and economic inequities in our society. If I’ve learned one thing as a teacher, it’s that educating an angry audience is hard. Sometimes shifting the focus of conversation can be an effective strategy to open it up, so that the dialogues on injustice and inequality in our society that Jennings and I both want can take place. I join him in calling for more extended public discourse on fundamental questions of how our social stratification and inequities were caused and maintained. These are worthy subjects of future essays.

  • LVADs and the Limits of Autonomy
  • Tia Powell

To the Editor: I read with concern the recent case study (“Doctor, Will You Turn Off My LVAD?” Jan–Feb 2008) regarding deactivation of LVADs. Jere-my Simon’s commentary argues that physicians...


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pp. 4-5
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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