Distributive Justice and Rural America
65 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2019 Last revised: 13 Feb 2020
Date Written: March 4, 2019
Today’s discourse on struggling rural communities insists they are “dying” or “forgotten.” Many point to globalization and automation as the culprits that made livelihoods in agriculture, natural resource extraction, and manufacturing obsolete, fueling social problems such as the opioid crisis. This narrative fails to offer a path forward; the status quo is no one’s fault, and this “natural” rural death inspires mourning rather than resuscitation. This Article offers a more illuminating account of the rural story, told through the lens of distributive justice principles. The Article argues that rural communities have not just “died.” They were sacrificed. Specifically, distributive justice theories 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 consistently decided to trade rural welfare for some perceived societal benefit, violating distributive justice norms. In agriculture, policies favoring consolidated agribusiness hollowed out once multidimensional farm communities. In the extractive sector, lackluster oversight enabled the environmental and economic devastation of fossil fuel communities. In manufacturing, trade adjustment programs’ inadequate mitigation of international competition facilitated whole towns’ dismantlement. Decisionmakers pointed to “the greater good” as their rationale. But benefits for rural communities that would offset these burdens and render their sacrifice “just” prove elusive. This alternate narrative reveals the rural story as not morally neutral, but one infused with value judgments that determined winners and losers, raising questions of what a fairer allocation of benefits and burdens should be.
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