Courtesy Reuters

Questions of Fairness

In This Review

Economic Justice in an Unfair World: Toward a Level Playing Field

By Ethan B. Kapstein
Princeton University Press,, 2006
272 pp. $27.95


"The predatory attitude has become the habitual and accredited spiritual attitude," the economist Thorstein Veblen said of the late nineteenth century. The same holds true today. A few years ago, Paul Volcker, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, remarked that "corporate greed [had] exploded beyond anything that could have been imagined in 1990." Paul O'Neill, the former U.S. treasury secretary, recently described the corporate world today as "an ethical vacuum space."

Yet even in a climate apparently so uncongenial to ethics, "global poverty" has shot up to the top of the agenda of international public policy since the late 1990s. The United Nations gave tangible expression to this new global mood in 2000 when it created the Millennium Development Goals and made "eradicating extreme poverty and hunger" the first of them. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development identified an emerging "global anti-poverty consensus."

Academics who write about globalization and development usually avoid ethical questions. Ethan Kapstein's new book, Economic Justice in an Unfair World, marks an important exception: it is explicitly about ethics. And although indirectly, it arrives at a skeptical view of this "global anti-poverty consensus."

Focusing on poverty is inadequate, Kapstein argues, because it does not put relations between states front and center. "It is governments," he writes, "that sign treaties and agreements, impose sanctions and boycotts, and make war and peace, and it is governments that -- for good or for bad -- are ultimately accountable for their actions at home and abroad." In other words, a theory of global distributive justice must emphasize relations between states and the kinds of economic arrangements states subscribe to. Individuals are not the only moral agents; states are also moral agents, with duties and responsibilities to one another as well as to their citizens.

Kapstein's goal is to present an alternative framework of global justice, one that centers on equality of opportunity among states. He refers to this

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