Distributive Justice and Rural America
55 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2019
Date Written: March 4, 2019
What happened to rural America and what should be done about it? These questions shape today’s discourse on America’s struggling rural communities. A common response to the first question is that rural America is “dying” or was “forgotten” as globalization and automation made livelihoods in agriculture, mining, and manufacturing obsolete, giving rise to problems such as the opioid crisis. Yet, this narrative fails to inform the second question. Globalization and automation are framed almost as forces of nature. The status quo is no one’s fault. The idea that rural America has died a natural death inspires mourning rather than resuscitation.
This Article offers a more illuminating narrative. Drawing on a novel application of distributive justice theory, it argues that rural America did not just “die.” Rural America was sacrificed. Specifically, distributive justice theorists question the morality of public measures that disadvantage discrete groups in the name of aggregate welfare. A critique of legal frameworks shaping rural livelihoods for the past several decades shows that policymakers decided, time and again, to trade rural welfare for some perceived societal benefit, violating distributive justice norms. In the agricultural sector, the Federal Reserve’s high interest rates during the 1980s farm crisis alongside a rise in legal regimes friendly to polluting agribusiness greatly undermined farm communities. In the extractive sector, lackluster reforms in response to environmental and economic devastation left fossil fuel communities bereft. In manufacturing, trade adjustment programs’ inadequate mitigation of increased international competition destroyed entire towns. Decisions to concentrate these economic and environmental burdens on rural communities have been rationalized by “the greater good.” But benefits to rural communities that would offset these burdens and render their sacrifice “just” prove elusive.
This Article’s alternate narrative reveals that the rural story is not morally neutral, but infused with value judgments that determined winners and losers. Yet, it also shows that rural challenges are more tractable than most realize, with discernible solutions. This is a tale of unfairness, it is everyone’s problem, and it suggests the need to work toward more equitable distributions of burdens and benefits, which expansive legislation such as the Green New Deal could help achieve.
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