I was reading some of More’s Utopia (no, I’m not done the book) and what struck me was the character Raphael’s account of how things could be better. England in that time, instead of hanging people left and right for thievery, could have taken seriously that it let rich landowners buy up the land of poor farmers. This left the former farmers worse than destitute, as they had no land from which to produce their meager living and no other relevant skills. And that’s just one group made to become thieves. More’s character talks about veterans injured by the war or too old and weakened for hard labor. A lack of opportunities for anyone seems to be the status quo. Official policy, of course, was to be absolutely brutal to thieves and take pride in that brutality.
Why is this important? There are bad laws and policies everywhere. But people have been asking me how things can be better nowadays, and honestly, I’m not sure because our questions have a peculiar context. Many of us have enough but are fearful of the future. Our fears aren’t unreasonable, but we’re thinking policy is something that makes good lives better.
More’s critique of England through Raphael, on the other hand, seems meant to advance a more general discussion of how the just and the good link. (More, as a character himself in his own book, muses about prudence, virtue and authority all being united prior to Raphael’s speech.) The good of politics seems to be the remedying of the harshest of injustices. Trying to be too clever and finding out some way we can each get $5 more might result in solid policy at times. But it probably makes a lot more sense to start with what is obvious. If some group is obviously hurting or aggrieved, that needs to be a priority. What exactly makes life better for all is another question. Certainly lawfulness promises happiness, but that happiness may be the satisfaction we are trying to be just.