What are the ‘norms’ that economics lays down? They start from the laudable principle of maximizing well-being, or ‘welfare’. Welfare, however, is defined merely as what individuals want, and only that. That is the principle of ‘methodological individualism’. A social improvement takes place when somebody can get more of what they want, without depriving anybody else. This is a ‘Pareto improvement’ (after Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist). When there is no slack, nobody can gain without somebody else losing. We get there by means of exchange: people sell what they want less of (including their labour), and buy what they want more of. Everybody has something to sell. If everyone trades freely, the system achieves a benign equilibrium, which is ‘Pareto efficient’. This was supposedly anticipated in the eighteenth century by Adam Smith as being like the work of an ‘invisible hand’. 5
In such a system, everyone gets the value of what they can sell, and what they get is what they are due. This imaginary marketplace belongs with a larger set of doctrines, ‘Just World Theories’. The concept comes from social psychology, but is used differently here. 6 The idea is simple: a Just World Theory says that everyone gets what he deserves. If the Spanish Inquisition burned heretics, that was only what they deserved. If peasants were starved and exiled in Soviet Russia, they got what they deserved. Likewise the Nazis and the Jews. Just World Theories are ubiquitous; they are political, religious, ethnic, gendered, and cultural. They justify the infliction of pain.