‘Social justice’ as a term is as old as the time of America’s founding, appearing in Federalist number 7. In the 19th century, it was used by religious organizations, and rose in prominence during the European revolutions of 1848. During the 20th century, when politics was defined along class lines, it referred mostly to economic differences. Today it is a buzzword that has taken on new connotations, both positive and negative, and acts as a core component of world views.
The positions that advocates of social justice defend are often rooted in compassion and care for the downtrodden, the unfortunate, unlucky, unfairly treated, marginalized, victimized, and oppressed. Who could fail to be moved by the vast disparities between people born in different countries, of different social classes and identity groups, even of different time periods? From a certain perspective, the suffering seems to be a cruel injustice of fate, and deserves to be rectified by a movement towards equality in the here and now.
There are clearly different types of people who believe in and practice things involved with the term and fall into vaguely separate categories. I’ll call them the Earnest, the Intellectual, and the Activist.
The earnest and sincere are people who are passionate about care, harm, and fairness. They are genuinely concerned for the well being of others and want to help improve lives as best they can. A great many teachers, social workers, activists, and employees of NGOs fit this bill. Their goals relate to helping above all, and they do not seem to be motivated by anger and resentment, nor focused on the issue from a mostly political angle.
The second camp consists of intellectuals, academics, and lay educated people who see social justice as a phenomenon to be understood, and acted upon. Here, the intellectual understanding and justification of the project is crucial, though it is very difficult indeed to find a commonly accepted definition of the term. It is best to contrast it with other, earlier understandings of justice to bring out the differences.
Roughly speaking, justice traditionally pertains to discrete acts carried out by particular people against specific others. Social justice is not concerned with individual acts in themselves, but in the outcomes that are the by-product of the normal ways in which things are done.
This is a technical point with major consequences. Even though theoretically, social justice is recognized as distinct from specific wrongful actions, many of the causes grouped under the heading ‘social justice’ refer to specific cases of injustices committed against groups of people. This is why the term actually needs rethinking.
Activists can be earnest and sincere, or what is seemingly more common today, deserving of the derogatory epithet ‘Social Justice Warriors’. They are the ones that many have a lot to say about, and not in a very positive sense. This is because they seem to be motivated by anger and resentment, make bold and outlandish claims, and advocate radical, sweeping changes in the name of their cause.
True, people have always existed as ‘types’ that fit the aforementioned descriptions more or less, though in another time and place, with different contexts, issues, and frameworks characterizing them. Nonetheless, it is useful to make the distinction because the goals and motivations behind a good deal of what is called social justice are noble and worthwhile.
Though it is not clear what exactly is meant by the term, it is common to find that advocates are concerned both with relative differences in material goods, and social status. The goal is to ‘equalize’, or reduce the disparity between groups to smaller levels. The target group of social justice can be defined in many ways – socioeconomic, racial, gender, an identity group, comparisons between nations and regions, for example.
Hayek on Social Justice
Friedrich Hayek is recognized as someone who was critical of the term, though not merely for the sake of it. He wanted to articulate a sense of it that was meaningful, and could be used to inform policy and practices.
Hayek’s argument is in fact, a complex one, but one that on the surface looks like a bit of logic chopping and semantics because his point is often summarized and quoted as ‘social justice has no meaning‘. In Law, Legislation and Liberty, he describes two main problems with social justice.
The first being that the term does not have ‘meaning or content’ in society because most of it is ‘unplanned’. If at first this strikes us as odd, or even callous to suggest that such concerns are ‘meaningless’, Hayek urges us to recognize that we experience the same feeling of moral indignation in cases where people are unjustly treated as a direct result of human agency, and in ones that have no specific human agency responsible for them.
Think of witnessing a malicious verbal or physical assault on someone, and compare it with a documentary about poverty and illness in a society other than your own. The feelings are very similar, and both tragic, yet there is no one in particular to blame for the latter. He writes,
“The only blame implicit in those complaints (about social justice) is that we tolerate a system in which each is allowed to choose his occupation and therefore nobody can have the power and the duty to see that the results correspond to our wishes”.F. A. Hayek (Law, Legislation and Liberty, 233)
In such a system, “in which each is allowed to use his knowledge for his own purposes the concept of ‘social justice’ is necessarily empty and meaningless, because in it nobody’s will can determine the relative incomes of the different people, or prevent that they be partly dependent on accident. ‘Social justice’ can be given a meaning only in a directed ‘command’ economy (such as an army) in which the individuals are ordered what to do; and any particular conception of ‘social justice’ could be realized only in such a centrally directed system” (Law, Legislation and Liberty, 233).
A family is much more like a communist organization that operates according to Marx’s dictum “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. In a family, it would be unjust to serve your kids food based on their ‘performance’. The same applies to other small-scale relationships, such as friend groups, extended family. The concern for perfect distributive equality decreases directly in proportion to the size of the group in question.
Hayek goes on, “No system of rules of just individual conduct, and therefore no free action of the individuals, could produce results satisfying any principle of distributive justice” (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, 233).
This is a very different conclusion from recognizing that individual and group fates are not distributed according to principles of morality or fairness. This is obvious. It is just to point out that the opposite is an impossibility, or at least wholly undesirable in light of the fact that it requires a complete rejection of freedom and rights that strongly defined social justice must necessarily entail.
Of course, any normative (evaluative) standard must make use of conditions to describe whether someone is ‘deserving’, but social justice is vague enough to accommodate a wide range of demands for preferential treatment – lack of respect, lack of representation in general, and in certain offices, unequal amounts of income, or access to resources, jobs, and social services.
In an earlier work, Constitution of Liberty, Hayek seizes on another important point related to the feeling of injustice that is behind calls for more ‘social’ justice. He writes of the motivation that “much that on the surface appears as a demand for greater equality is in fact a demand for a juster distribution of the good things of this world and springs therefore from much more creditable motives. Most people will object not to the bare fact of inequality but to the fact that the differences in reward do not correspond to any recognizable differences in the merits of those who receive them” (Constitution of Liberty, 156).
When people defend the current system in liberal democracies, they are often wont to describe it as a ‘meritocracy’. Hayek notes that we do not in fact reward based on merit, and that to do so would be undesirable, because it would result in people “being rewarded differently for the same service” (Constitution of Liberty, 160). Now, this applies only to the default way of remuneration in complex societies where most are strangers to each other. In private, and personal relations, people are and should be ‘rewarded’ for real merit among many other things. But again, this requires detailed knowledge of the specifics of a person’s life.
To see why rewarding for merit could not work as a default form of reward in modern society, imagine how you would have to pay your employees, a clerk at a store, a contractor – you name it. It would require that people take the time to discern genuine from non-genuine forms of behaviour and adjust compensation on those grounds. This is very easy to fake, and extremely difficult and time consuming, and therefore unworthy of measure. That is why market compensation is done on the basis of objective measures, and contracts. Most transactions do not require evaluating how well a person acted on the whole.
To summarize, social justice is a bit of a misnomer, because group differences are the norm, and cannot be eliminated through equalizing measures because they end up favouring interest groups. Most differences in outcome among groups are the result of a combination of factors, some of which are pernicious and include explicit discrimination, others are the inevitable result of difference – genetic, social, cultural, regional, etc.
Again, this just goes to show that there isn’t really such a thing as ‘social justice’, both because it cannot be achieved, and because the injustices that much of it refers to, can be captured by traditional understandings of justice that refer to specific actions and people.
Positive Discrimination Programs
One of the types of policies that commands the most support among moderates and reasonable people is the idea that certain things must be made available so that ‘equal opportunity’ can be effectively realized. This is very appealing because it is not difficult to recognize that the classical liberal definition – equal applicability of the rule of law, and possession and enforcement of negative rights – cannot effectively guarantee complete equality in starting positions. It only requires that the same rules and standards apply to all individuals in the same jurisdiction.
The kind of social justice that aims only at subsidizing the provision of certain goods that are deemed necessary to provide a level playing field seems very reasonable indeed. The fact that family background, environment at home, genetic endowment, sex, race, place of birth are all factors influencing a person’s starting point, make it such that any policy aimed at controlling for, or making up for one of these factors for those who do not possess them seem fair. Not only that, such measures are supposed to help achieve a genuine equality of opportunity.
This is where they fail miserably.
First, there is no way to actually control for all of the variables that contribute to disparate outcomes among groups, nor would it be desirable because supposing that this could be, it would require a massive reduction in freedom. Because of this, when you subsidize some good, service, or engage in affirmative action quotas, alter standards of achievement or reward, the outcome is that only small numbers of people in the target pool benefit from the proposal, and others are hurt by it.
If, for example, an affirmative action policy is adopted in some state or province, immigrants from country X who have higher unemployment rates and thus lower levels of income than immigrant group from country Y may be substantial winners, whereas those from country Y will not. Even then, those beneficiaries of the policy are likely the ones at the top of the intended category. Since categories are crudely defined, these people would likely succeed without interventions. What’s more, those hurt by it are those in the ‘privilege’ category who are in fact not very privileged at all, but are defined as such by statistical membership in the category to which they ‘belong’, arbitrarily conceived.
In Affirmative Action around the World, Sowell conducted a comprehensive review of affirmative action practices around the world. In India, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka, affirmative action policies have been tried and contributed next to nothing to the goals that they are in service of, and similar patterns exist between them. The same goes for the policies that followed the civil rights revolution in the 60s in the United States. The Civil rights revolution is distinct from the ‘Great Society’ initiatives enacted by Lyndon Johnson, and carried on by Nixon. Prior to the advent of large scale affirmative action policies, African-Americans had higher employment rates than whites. Furthermore, income and employment levels were increasing at a significantly higher rate prior to the adoption of these policies, after which the rate of increase declined substantially.
There are many cases of minority groups with high levels of success in spite of overt discrimination, and in the absence of major ‘positive’ discrimination policies. The Japanese were interned in Canada during WWII and today have very high median incomes, and are very successful. Chinese students constitute a significant proportion of students at top achievers at Universities around the Western world, and are among the most successful of immigrant groups wherever they go. Little needs to be said about the colossal discrimination that Jews have faced in Europe and America over the centuries. In spite of this, Jewish people have very high levels of income, educational attainment, and are widely successful in many fields, despite representing a very small proportion of any population. Italians, and Irish immigrants to Canada and the United States were subject to serious persecution and discrimination, and have seen incomes rise in dramatic fashion over the years.
Many of these successful social groups have socially conservative values that emphasize hard work, discipline, and family life, and have not been hurt by an internalized sense of victimhood, and well-intentioned policies that disincentivize behaviours that contribute to success.
One of the most damning cases against affirmative action is to look at how the target groups perform in industries where there is very little affirmative action. In the United States, African-Americans are hugely successful in sport and in the entertainment industry, music especially. A substantial portion of the scholarships in football and basketball, and represent a majority of players in those amateur, and professional leagues. They have also been extremely successful in the music industry, creating entire genres of music and topping billboard charts for decades.
This leaves out the effect of affirmative action on groups outside the specific target group in question. We can see the harmful effects today in the affirmative action case against Harvard – whose policies deny Asians entry at the same rates as other students because they are so successful, and would ruin the ‘diversity’ balance if admitted on the basis of their achievements.
It is very sad that sometimes well-intentioned policies actually harm the prospects of groups that they are supposed to help because they are ill-conceived and ignore the realities of incentives, trade-offs, dependency, and skill-matching, among others.
Social Justice as a ‘Virtue’ Practiced by Individuals in their Communities
The late Michael Novak, former US ambassador and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, makes a case for social justice that is compatible with freedom and markets in a 2015 book entitled Social Justice Isn’t What you think it is.
He notes that at the turn of the 20th century, many people had already begun to recognize the need to develop new virtues for an increasingly mobile, and disconnected modern society and the dangers of statism and damage to the social fabric that social welfare programs can do if they grow too large. He builds upon Catholic Social Teaching and key developments he finds in the encyclicals of Popes Leo the XIII and Pius XI, who called for virtues that were previously practiced in small villages to be extended to larger communities.
It is too much to go over here, but that is his main argument – that social justice is a virtue, that individuals develop and practice in the places in which they live.
“The practice of the virtue of social justice consists in learning three new skills: the art of forming associations, willingness to take leadership of small groups, and the habit and instinct of cooperation with others. All three are needed in order to accomplish ends that no one individual can achieve on his or her own.”
There is no way for societies to deal with the disparate impacts between groups and specific injustices that occur in conjunction with them without people taking responsibility for it at the local level.
Freely made market transactions are positive sum, whereas affirmative action and redistribution schemes are zero-sum. Positive sum transactions are where both parties stand something to gain – an employment relationship, a contract, a sale. Affirmative action and redistributions are zero sum, because only one party gains by it, and a small portion of the ‘group’ at that.
Social justice should be about making, not taking and encouraging, rather than providing. It should be practiced by people as a virtue, not by bureaucracies with sometimes well-intentioned aims, with harmful results.