The Public Interest

Toward a definition of economic justice

Lester C. Thurow

Spring 1973

MODERN economics springs from the search for a definition of economic justice, but has largely abandoned that search. Thus, 19th-century utilitarian economists, such as John Stuart Mill, spent much of their time searching for the principles that would lead to a condition of equity. But by the 1940’s, economists reluctantly came to the conclusion that there were no economic statements that could be made about equity. In this they were in agreement with moral philosophers and other social scientists that no ethical statements can be deduced from purely factual or purely logical statements-the only two kinds of statements to be found in modern economic theory. By the 1950’s questions of economic equity were not even discussed in the basic textbooks, except to note that it was necessary for a market economy to start with a “just” distribution of economic resources. What made any such distribution “just” was left blank or was vaguely handed over to the political process.

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