Feature Article of Sunday, 31 July 2011
Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta
By Kwesi Atta Sakyi
Social justice is the concept whereby every citizen is treated equally and everybody has equal access to social amenities. It also implies equality before the law. Furthermore, in a just society, taxation is based on moral principles of ability to pay, user-benefit, generation of externalities (social costs and benefits created), among others. Where social justice prevails, the state provides many interventions to reduce the suffering of the masses because the state has a duty to protect its citizens and look after them. Canada and the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark have a cradle-to-grave welfare system whereby merit goods such as education and health services are heavily subsidized for easy access by citizens. The socialist-inclined political parties in those countries root for the welfare state while the extreme rightists or capitalists believe in non-welfare state, whereby everything is determined by the invisible hand of the market-Adam Smith’s market forces of demand and supply. Adam Smith in his 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations, opined that when individuals pursue their selfish interests of the profit motive, in the long run it redounds on the public good or the sommum bonum or pro bono publicio. Others believe in the greatest good for the greatest majority ( Wilfredo Pareto & John Stuart Mills). In Ghana and Africa, this maxim turns upside down to become the greatest good for the smallest minority. Haba! I think we need to educate our leaders that leadership is about service to the people and not to self. Leadership entails altruism, self sacrifice and promotion of the public interest. The public interest is of course, nebulous and difficult to pin-point or define as it is dynamic, elusive, diffused, migratory and largely at large. Be that as it may, Abraham Lincoln in the preamble to his famous Guttenberg Speech clearly reminded us in his often-quoted cliché that ‘government of the people by the people of the people shall never depart’. This reminds our leaders that being in political office does not mean you hold the people to ransom or rather you have the authority to dispense public largesse at will. Leadership is based on trust and it requires proper husbandry/stewardship and management of scarce public resources which are provided for through the sweat of taxpayers. Ghana expects no less from its leaders. We need accountability, probity and high levels of integrity in the distribution, redistribution and allocation of public resources. Until this is done, we cannot have social justice as the income gap between the poor and rich will keep on widening and the attainment of the Better Ghana Agenda will be as elusive as a mirage or pipedream. Our leaders need high doses of self discipline to tackle corruption, bribery, tribalism and other social ills which militate against the attainment of social justice. Let us follow the maxim that equals should be equally treated and that the law is no respecter of persons. To attain social justice in Ghana, we have to embrace high levels of professionalism, hard work and avoid unnecessary indulgence in mounting bureaucratic roadblocks where they are not needed. Let us also try to be truthful to ourselves and our God because there is too much lying in Ghana. Some centuries ago, the Poor Law was enacted in England for the clergy to administer stipends to the indigent and impecunious among their congregations. Similarly, the Corn Laws were to protect farmers from grain imports. I think our highly materialistic clergy in Ghana can borrow a leaf here by initiating poor funds to support the poor in their midst and to give relief to some senile communicants. Apart from state pensions and social security/insurance institutions, we need more NGOs to take up the challenge of helping the poor. Some time ago, under Nkrumah, we had many credit, thrift, consumer, farmer and worker cooperatives. These exemplified the principle of strength in numbers. Unfortunately, some dubious characters exploited their illiterate members and they ran away with their subscriptions. It is a known fact that the largest bank in France, Agricole Bank, was started by small scale farm holders. The cooperative movement was started in Rochdale in England in 1844, among small scale cotton weavers who wanted to avoid exploitative middlemen. The model was said to have been started simultaneously in Northern Spain by a Catholic priest. To have social justice in Ghana, we must encourage poor farmers to form cooperatives on trust. In Kenya, the Kikuyu tribe and Kalenjins are said to be successful businessmen because of cooperatives. The same is found among Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, the Dutch, the Danes and others. If government has a social contract with the governed according to the mandate given to them through our votes, then we expect them to bite the bullet by helping to financially support cooperatives in Ghana. These and rural banks can help mobilize grassroots savings for investment.
Cooperatives and rural banks are core to lifting many poor Ghanaians out of the clutches of poverty and helping to achieve the noble goals of social justice. When people become destitute and desperate, they seek solace in social institutions such as the churches, extended families, sororities and fraternities, charities and other groups. These provide social safety nets to avoid committing social Darwinism or survival of the fittest (the winner takes all and the loser stands small – courtesy of ABBA). It will be sad to envision the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes in his ‘Leviathan’, where life is short, nasty and brutish. Thomas Paine in his book, The Rights of Man, called for Social Justice to be observed and his calls were echoed by John Locke who said every man is endowed with inalienable rights at birth to life, liberty and property. This subsumes that no man shall be in want of basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. No man, therefore, should be in want of decent accommodation. No man should be kept in darkness as he needs to be equipped with quality education to help liberate himself and to make informed judgments. Fortunately for us, there is freedom of speech, conscience, movement and association in Ghana. However, these freedoms should not be taken for granted as there are obligations because J.J. Rousseau reminds us that one’s freedom ends where another man’s nose begins and that man is born free but everywhere in chains. Therefore we need to exercise self restraint when enjoying these freedoms. The freedom to life is controversial because people kick against the death penalty for criminals as inhuman. However, should abortionists, arsonists, armed robbers, reckless drivers, rapists, 419s and other criminals go without severe punishment?
It depends on religious, political and personal moral persuasions. Those who constantly feed Ghanaians with lies in the media should be grossly ashamed of infringing on our freedom to know the truth. I was happy that under the watch of Prez Kufuor, he introduced some token old age support for the aged. During Prez Rawlings time, they enacted the intestate law of succession to protect offspring of the deceased from property grabbers. In 1967, student teachers in training colleges in Ghana had their allowances withdrawn or cancelled. Was that social justice? Is it social justice to steal salaries of workers or terminal benefits of pensioners? Or for lawyers to manipulate the system to steal their clients entitlements? What if you report to the police or higher authorities who are themselves stealing? Or what happens when a poor girl is raped and goes to report to WAJU and the officer in charge also wants his cut or piece of the action and dilly dallies? Is that social justice?
This article is not professing communist principles of ‘from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs.’ Far from that path of democratic centralism philosophy which bred apathy, unproductiveness, misallocation of resources and a monolithic institution that streamrolled over the masses in the former communist countries such as USSR, Red China East Germany, Yugoslavia, among others. What this article is aiming at is that the barest minimum of amenities should be available to majority of Ghanaians as by right and not by choice. This call accords well with the Universal Human Rights Declaration of 1948 to which the 193 members of the UN subscribe and which forms the bedrock and fulcrum of many national and international constitutions and conventions. We must endeavour to strengthen our individual property rights through law reform and strengthening our social institutions. After all, John Maynard Keynes in his 1930 treatise of the General Theory on Employment scripted during the Great Depression, came up with the concept of under-consumption or below optimum output and he therefore laid down the foundation of what is now commonly known as Keynesianism or demand-side interventionist policies. He called for massive central government interventions through state-sponsored projects so as to kickstart the multiplier process. This should be done where there is inexorable market failure. Hence, Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt of the USA heeded his advice by embarking on massive infrastructural projects such as the Hoover or Boulder Dam on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and the start of the construction of east to west railway lines across the USA. To achieve social justice in Ghana, we need such Keynesian interventions. The Milton Friedman/Chicago School/Neo-Classicals/Monetainsts/New Right Movement will kick against such ideas as they believe in the efficiency of markets and the price mechanism. Most of the credit crunches and global depressions have been caused by reliance on these short-termist optimists who detest market intervention and who rely on supply-side capitalistic policies to drive the economy. China has been wiser by having an admixture of both central planning and free market, hence their ascendancy as a modern economic giant. A mixed economy approach is the best option to achieve social justice for a majority of Ghanaians and Africans. Even the World Bank and IMF have recently discovered the inadequacies of market-based policies and are adopting bottom-up approaches. It is enough to conclude that market-driven economic solutions are not only imperfect and inadequate because of existence of externalities, public and merit goods and the presence of imperfect market structures such as oligopolies and monopolies. For LDCs and MICs, the mixed economy model is the way to go to achieve social justice and to alleviate poverty.
By Kwesi Atta Sakyi, teacher of Economics, Business Communications and Management, in Lusaka. Serious comments to be sent to: