Accounting for Justice: Entitlement, Want and the Irish Famine of 1845-7

Article excerpt


Focal text: R. Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

Abstract: The evolution of modern accounting consists essentially of a series of pragmatic responses to the needs of capital. Accounting is implicated, therefore, in the maintenance and creation of societies in which relations are primarily defined in terms of property, however it is distributed, and justice is determined by the sanctity of property rights. Accounting historians are encouraged to broaden the compass of their research to include the association between accounting and justice which is already well recognised in the critical accounting literature. Theories of justice, especially those of 19th century political theorists such as Bentham and Senior, and more recently that of Nozick, are used to explore the close association between property, accounting and justice at the time of the Irish potato famine of 1845-7.


Societies are founded on some understanding of justice, however objectionable the dominant meanings of justice may be perceived by those not favoured. All laws of government emanate from this essential feature of social relations for no government will survive without the assistance of significant force if it is not able to convince a sufficient number of citizens that their society is just. For David Hume, Aristotle and Adam Smith justice was first among all the virtues. Smith stipulated that "()ustice ... is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed ... the immense fabric of human society ... must in a moment crumble into atoms" [1976, Section II, Chapter ii, parts 4 and 6]. Smith did not have in mind the distributive justice which we now associate with the achievement of social justice, notably that portrayed by Marshall [1992]. Rather, Smith adopted a Lockean stance and identified justice with the absence of any harm to either an individual's person or to their property; "preservation of property being the end of government" [Locke, 1884, Book II, Chapter IX, section 138, also Chapter XIX, section 222]. Thus, the foundation of justice in capitalist societies is securing property rights [Smith, 1976, Section VII, Chapter ii, part 10; see also Carter, 1989, p.91. Any threats to property rights, suggested Hume, were equivalent to an attack on the sacred laws of God, the result of which would be tyranny and the destruction of society [Hume, 1960, Book II, section 2, paragraph 21. The intention of this paper is not to promote one form of justice over another, rather to show how accounting is compatible with, and essential to, an interpretation of justice derived from the rights of property. It is accepted that meanings attributed to justice are not absolute but instead are the products of particular social contexts.

The intimate association between property rights and justice has long been recognised in theories of justice from Aristotle [1905] to Thomas Aquinas [1969], through to the writings of political theorists such as Rousseau and Bentham during the 18th and 19th centuries and most recently the highly influential work of Robert Nozick [1974]. Nozick's entitlement theory of justice, which owes much to Adam Smith and the utilitarianism of Bentham, proposes that distributions of wealth are just if people are entitled to their holdings as a result of being acquired through the exercise of the initial capacities with which they were born or if their property was transferred to them justly as a result of freely entered into exchanges [Nozick, 1974, pp.150-153, 1993, p.286; see Sen, 1981, p.2 for a similar approach1 ]. Nozick rejects the idea of the state taking responsibility for achieving social justice if this relies upon a conception of distributive justice in which voluntarism is corrupted. The state, according to Nozick [1974, p.ix; 1993, p, should limit itself to ensuring that entitlement rights, once confirmed as just, are secure. …