Social justice in theory and reality
This is the first essay in a four-part series aimed to educate people about the true nature of the “social justice” movement and its role in creating many of the very real injustices we see today.
This is the first essay in a four-part series aimed to educate people about the true nature of the “social justice” movement and its role in creating many of the very real injustices we see today. In this first part, I go right at the root of the quest for social justice and show why its seductive rhetoric masks a deep hostility to freedom and individual rights.
There are many assumptions and beliefs that seem prevalent today, backed up by fervent rhetoric and strong emotions. If we look into these ideas, examine them, and try to fairly define them, we will find the truth behind the rhetoric. Among these ideas are “justice” and “equality,” terms passionately invoked in arguments about current issues across the political spectrum.
No matter how passionately they are invoked, these two terms go unexamined and undefined. More could be gained if we stopped to understand these terms, rather than using them to convince or overwhelm others. Maybe we could gain a greater chance of others understanding our points, rather than talking past each other, especially when we mean different things with the same terms.
This is an attempt to examine social justice and the reasons why people crusade in its name. The quest for social justice is ongoing, and it is more important than ever that we understand what drives its adherents. We also need to stay aware of the immense costs that the quest imposes on the unsuspecting public, so that more people are not subject to those costs.
“Justice” and its meanings
“Justice” is a word that is often invoked, but only rarely is it explicitly defined or explained. Justice is more of a feeling than a concrete notion to many of us. We know that we believe in justice, but we can’t articulate why. We all agree on the need for justice. It’s when we start talking on how to bring about justice that we disagree, sometimes violently, going so far as to drive entire world wars.
The term “social justice” seems nonsensical. All justice is inherently social. Can someone be just or unjust on a desert island? Advocates of social justice will say that they oppose the vast inequalities of wealth and income that are always present in human societies. But even Milton Friedman, the head of the twentieth century free-market economists, complained about the gross inequities of wealth.
Even Adam Smith, the father of the school of free market economics, complained about the callousness of businessmen. Although he noted the systemic benefits of free capital, he had nothing good to say about the intentions of given individual businessmen. He was even a bit insulting in his attitude towards businessmen, “who never look upon their inferiors as their fellow-creatures.”1
In other words, inequalities of wealth may not necessarily have anything to do with uncaring businessmen or malign intentions in general. If they are the result of a spontaneous order, then they can’t be called just or unjust. If a healthy person is suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer and dies shortly after, this is indeed a great loss to their friends and relatives, but is it unjust?
The situation can be considered unjust if negligence played a part in the person’s untimely death. But if that is not the case, then the death cannot be reasonably called unjust, unless the definition of justice is stretched unreasonably. If someone loses their job due to systemic processes out of his control—their employer going bankrupt, for example—then this is also difficult to call unjust.
Advocates of social justice usually try to create a personified “society” on which to place moral responsibility for such unfortunate events of the sort described in the examples above. They seek out tragic misfortunes and attempt to correct them, by demanding collective action from the rest of society. To do this, they will use language such as “we have failed the homeless” with solemn tones.
The goal is to attain—or enforce—consensus amongst enough people to bring about the collective action that social justice types see as the “solutions” to the homelessness crisis, one of many moral crusades embarked upon. One example is the construction and running of homeless shelters, underwritten by taxes paid by every tax-contributing individual in a society, from both young and old workers.
For the time being, the merits and demerits of such “solutions” aren’t at issue. The point is to show that advocates of social justice have the correction of undeserved misfortunes as their central goal. Most importantly, they believe they are capable of righting all undeserved misfortunes through a vast reordering of society. The demands for collective action follow naturally.
People are born into circumstances varying in both fortune and misfortune. A boy born into a single-parent family, in a crime-ridden area without decent schools, will clearly have a different experience to a boy born to married, educated parents who persistently encourage him in his school studies and keep him away from the dangers that the first boy might experience on a daily basis.
To some, it is not only acceptable, but morally just, to tinker with these boys’ lives, in order to “correct” the unequal circumstances of their respective births. They would see nothing wrong in depriving certain opportunities from the second boy, in order to compensate for the misfortune of the first boy’s environment—especially when it is the state tinkering in such decisions.
However, the justice of this tinkering by a social justice advocate may be seen as rank injustice by others. The second boy had no role in his being born to an affluent environment, in which his parents do everything possible for his future prosperity. His parents, in fact, are punished for their role in trying to guarantee such a positive environment for their son.
In a similar fashion to the first boy being born into less favourable circumstances through no fault of his own, the second boy is subject to penalties through no fault of his own, except this time, those penalties are the direct result of human action. It should not be difficult to see why some view this attempted levelling-out of fortunes and misfortunes as perverse, unnecessary, and counter-productive.
Any list of immediate differences between people is far from exhaustive. People with better schooling will likely find themselves with similarly well-educated friends and colleagues, while people from less fortunate backgrounds are more likely to be surrounded by people engaging in crime and other forms of vice. In other words, virtues and vices are not static; they compound themselves.
People with less money not only have to deal with a lower standard of living, they also tend to have to pay more for goods and services, since there is a higher cost for businesses to operate in areas more likely to have crime and violence. Poor people living in neighbourhoods with other poor people therefore have far more disadvantages than their outer circumstances might imply.
Although we can all agree that such disadvantages are widespread and abominable, it is a mistake to think we can get rid of them through tinkering without costs elsewhere in society. Milton Friedman is not the first thinker to point out that equality and freedom aren’t mutually independent variables—by tinkering with one, you inevitably affect the other in some way:
A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.2
This is why so many are opposed to the “solutions” put forward by advocates of social justice, not a want of caring or kindness. Nevertheless, those in favour of social justice will often complain about America’s inability to attain consensus across political and social realms. That “inability” to achieve consensus is better known as “freedom,” and is an explicitly baked-in feature of the United States Constitution.
Why is it that those who advocate social justice are not as concerned about the costs of ensuring economic equality as Friedman clearly is? The history of the twentieth century is full of examples of one government after another trying to bring about economic equality, whether in absolute terms through communism, or less severely through policies such as rent control or minimum wage laws.
There are a range of reasons why social justice advocates are not as concerned with the costs of such crusades. Either they aren’t aware of the costs, they don’t care about the costs, they deny that there are costs at all, or they think that the costs are justified. All of these possibilities are frightening. A cost-benefit analysis can’t take place if the very consideration of the costs is deemed morally unworthy.
We can look at an example of this cost-ignorant phenomenon in San Francisco, where in 1996 a pizza delivery company refused to deliver to a bad part of town. Moral indignation blew up as a result of the company’s “discriminatory” decisions, and a law was passed forcing the company—and others—to provide equal service to all areas of town, whether they were safe or dangerous.3
As emotionally satisfying as it must have felt to write such an order into the law, there are a number of long-term costs that the law’s proponents ignored. Forcing businesses to provide goods and services to bad areas of town means that those businesses’ costs become higher. Because those businesses can’t increase their prices in just the bad areas, the prices charged must increase for everyone.
This case was ripe for social justice advocates to meddle in. You have a set of people who are suffering through no fault of their own, and other people willing to triumphantly ride in to help them, armed with legislation and rhetoric. But if a pizza delivery driver gets shot in a dangerous area of town while working, does that count as him suffering a disadvantage, through no fault of his own?
For advocates of social justice, it is all too easy to claim that those decrying such costs “misunderstand” the goal of social justice, perhaps even laying the blame again on “society” for its “role in creating the criminals” who shot the delivery driver doing his job. In the eyes of the social justice advocate, the criminals are the oppressed, and society is the oppressor. End of story.
Even if we pay no attention to the exact causes of such costs, it is nevertheless crucial to at least acknowledge that they are there. Weighing costs and benefits of given policies put forward by social justice advocates is something we rarely do, for fear of being scolded as being “against equality” or “on the side of the oppressors” as punishment for the crime of questioning the value of such policies.
The difference between traditional justice and social justice boils down to a difference in the weighing of costs. In the realm of social justice, the costs of a given action are deemed unworthy of consideration, since the perceived costs being wrought on someone suffering, through no fault of their own, are enough by themselves to merit the “solution” being proposed.
Traditional justice is very different to social justice. It gives no regard to the consistency or constancy of results in any arena, only seeing the consistency and constancy of processes as worthy goals to obtain. “Equality under the law” means that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. It is up to all of the various parties in the trial to determine the outcome. There is no guarantee of outcome, only a process.
The idea of the “level playing field” has very different meanings in traditional justice and social justice. If a referee applied the same rules in a judicious manner to you and your competitor in a sports game, then regardless of the outcome, you had your chance. It was a fair game. In social justice, it is only a fair game if any and all of the disadvantages suffered by competitors are compensated for.
We’ve all watched an underdog play against a stronger team in a sports game. We root for the underdog, feeling they deserve to win, especially if they’re trying harder than the other team. It is all very well to cheer on an underdog because they “deserve” victory more than the other team. But it is another thing entirely to apply this same principle to the entire economic system.
The tinkering prescribed by social justice means preferential treatment for specific groups of people, and history shows that preferential treatment can very ugly, very fast. We weep when thinking of the example of Sri Lanka, where the institution of explicit group preferences caused a vicious civil war, even though those preferences were introduced with the best of intentions.
The vast amount of suffering, destruction, and death surely amounted to more than whatever suffering may have motivated the preferential policies. There is now ample historical evidence to indicate that tinkering with group treatment, whatever your intentions, can only lead to bitterness, resentment, and violence. It is a lesson written in blood across the pages of human history.
Those on the quest for social justice have shown themselves time and time again to have a dangerous contempt for the costs of their actions. For example, American criminal trials have seen a growing trend of psychological speculation in the courtroom, with the aim of maximally strengthening each defendant’s right to due process. But that effort came at a great cost to society at large.
In American criminal trials, before a murderer is sentenced, the law permits his unhappy childhood to be taken into account. Seldom is there any claim that the person murdered had anything to do with that presumptively unhappy childhood. In one famous 1996 case, the victim was a twelve-year-old girl who was not even alive when her murderer was going through his unhappy childhood.4
Massive amounts of time and effort went into explaining away this defendant’s guilt through his difficult upbringing. There can be no doubt that his difficult upbringing had an impact on his later criminal activity. But in face of the clear evidence that he had murdered a little girl, such speculation seems difficult to justify, unless one fully buys into social justice rhetoric.
A social justice advocate may argue that society is morally responsible for creating the murderer, and therefore he should not be held responsible for his actions. As ridiculous, absurd, and morally reprehensible as such a view sounds, it reveals a breathtaking ignorance of the reason why we allow the state to punish criminals: to deter would-be criminals from hurting others.
Japan’s crime rate is a lot lower than America or Britain,5 and the difference lies in the speed and reliability of its criminal justice system. It doesn’t have harsher penalties on its books than America or Britain. The difference is that a given criminal has a higher probability of being tried and punished in a much shorter time in Japan than in America or Britain. That speed is a strong disincentive.
One can argue from the social justice perspective that this is “unjust” towards the defendant, particularly if they had a difficult upbringing.6 This may or may not be true. But if defendants aren’t tried and sentenced quickly and reliably, such arguments impose a much greater cost on the rest of society, including the innocent people that a released criminal will continue to prey upon.
Even if you can make a solid case that defendants should be given every opportunity to defend themselves, you have to accept the costs this imposes on the very people you claim to be helping. Put differently, while due process is a noble concern, treating it as a categorically superior concern to all other concerns imposes a devastating cost on people in the form of ongoing crime.
Allowing more and more speculation into the courtroom, none of which bears a strong relevance to the direct evidence of the alleged crime, only slows down the criminal justice system. Victims of crime suffer, and society as a whole suffers from the degradation of order and unity. The only beneficiaries are the criminals who prowl the streets on bail and the anointed visionaries who defend them.
“Fairness” and equality
Let us look at two attempts at defining social justice by two of its proponents. In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson made one of the classic statements of social justice: “You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, and bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘You are free to complete with all others’, and still justly believe you have been completely fair.”7
LBJ was heavily influenced by the social justice movement, and his administration started off some of its trademark projects in the United States. Notice in the quote how he asks you to question whether “you have been completely fair,” as if it is you who has decided the fate of the chained man. This is the same strategy as creating a personified “society” on which to place blame, as described before.
Professor John Rawls’ celebrated treatise, A Theory of Justice, puts the case more generally. According to Rawls, “undeserved inequalities call for redress,” in order to produce “genuine equality of opportunity.”8 Rawls defines justice as “fair” equality, as opposed to mere “formal” equality, as providing everyone with equal prospects of success from equal individual efforts.9
Rawls’s definition of justice is emblematic of the social justice ethos. Truly “fair” equality, in Rawls’s definition, is all about providing equal prospects of success to all, while the latter, mere “formal” equality, which much of Western thought is based upon, is about the fair comparison of people by the same standards. Note how the word “fair” has an entirely different meaning in both contexts.
This brings us to a satisfactory definition of social justice: It is the mission to put particular segments of society in the position that they would have been in but for some undeserved misfortune. It disregards the agreed-upon rules of any particular game or situation. Further, it disregards the opinions, hopes, decisions, and wishes of any of the people in those segments of society.
The natural next step is to place an anointed few, all of whom care about social justice, in a position that allows them to control outcomes, override rules, and preempt other people’s decisions, all concerns deemed unworthy. In other words, social justice calls for the abolition of freedom. All rules, responsibilities, decisions, and free will are surrendered to those doling out social justice.
Both Communism and Nazism were seen by Friedrich A. Hayek as beneficiaries of a way of thinking that had nothing to do with either ideology: the mission to erode the respect for legal rules in favour of the imperatives of particular social results. Redistributive justice, according to Hayek, is inherently “irreconcilable with the rule of law,”10 and this is all that stands between a free society and totalitarianism.
The attitudes described above can be found in every major institution. Test scores are waved away for “unfair discrimination” even if they provide knowledge to universities and employers. It is of no matter to these people that a genuinely poor person may work himself out of poverty by striving towards better test scores. His efforts must be preempted by self-congratulatory advocates of social justice.
If all our institutions were reoriented around the notion of social justice, then there would no longer be equal standards or rules applied consistently to all. Any and all perceived inequalities would be counterbalanced with preferential treatment in whatever areas deemed fit by the high priests of social justice. This approach must disregard, by definition, the preferences and interests of everyone.
Billions of dollars are funnelled through the U.S. federal government to fund the education of the next generation, but because a few politicians and bureaucrats decide what is done with that money, there is no connection between the tax-paying public and the schools that receive those tax dollars. Authorities collect vast amounts of money and preempt all educational decisions.
Those on the quest for social justice demand the power to reorder vast swathes of society according to their liking. But if we really think about it, advocates of social justice also presume a vast amount of knowledge. How else could they speculate where some segment of society might be, had it not been for some perceived misfortune? Without this crucial aspect, the earlier definition falls apart.
It is pure guesswork to speculate where a young man’s life might have gone had it not been for his difficult upbringing. Any person’s life is full of unexpected twists and turns, and our reactions to those twists and turns can often be just as unexpected. That does not stop advocates of social justice in the courtroom from throwing out clear evidence of a person’s crime based on unmerited speculation.
Life is random and unpredictable, but not to advocates of social justice. It is upon this crucial point where their projects often go wrong. They assume knowledge that no one can ever possess, confidently gambling billions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars on unproven pet projects, all to “correct” perceived “wrongs” that may be due to nothing more than mere chance.
There is no doubt that much of life is mere chance. It is also perfectly obvious that some people’s windfall gains are no less “earned” than other people’s disadvantages. But it is far from obvious how those presumably “unearned” advantages and disadvantages may be sorted out in a fashion that could “level the playing field” as social justice advocates seek to do.
People who are born healthy and physically attractive will achieve more on average than unattractive or perpetually sick people. We can rightly argue that this is unfair, and any benefits as unearned. But a healthy, beautiful person may also have crippling internal anxiety that holds them back, and an unattractive, perpetually sick person may have enormous drive to succeed in their career.
Weighing up all of these infinitely complex variables against each other, and then factoring in the constantly changing circumstances of people’s lives, the political situation, the condition of the economy, and so on, is a task of such complexity that no person can formulate it, to say nothing of actually “redistributing” people’s fortunes based on such calculations.
Every person has a long trail of cultural history, external influences, and countless cross-currents. There is no “standard” history that all others might have enjoyed, had it not been for some oppression or disparate impact. Unravelling all of this and trying to “correct” the circumstances of entire segments of the population is a staggering task, much more staggering than seeking traditional justice.
Traditional justice is a lot less costly to implement than social justice. No knowledge is sought or needed of anyone’s background, childhood, or heritage. The same rules are applied to everyone, period. Traditional justice may seem unfair at times, but unlike social justice, it does not breed bitterness and resentment, nor does it put immeasurable burdens on the justice system.
Social justice is not merely a higher level of traditional justice, it is an entirely distinct concept. Traditional justice is the guarantee of equal treatment, whether someone is a king or an Average Joe. If that king won a legal trial against that Joe, and every process was followed by an impartial judge and jury, we would say that “justice has been done” regardless of the outcome. Regardless of the outcome—that is the key idea.
Social justice, as I’ve repeated a few times, assumes an enormous amount of knowledge in order to tinker with the fortunes of entire segments of the population. But with these vast assumptions, there is also the potential for vast errors. Not to mention that people don’t like to feel like they’re subject to mass experimentation or tinkering by little tin gods.
Those dangers are glazed over in the face of clear and tragic historical injustices. It is all too easy to glide from emotional stories in the past to a cause-and-effect explanation of problems happening today. There are cries to “solve” some given issue with sweeping legislation, taking a massive leap forward without looking at what lies ahead. Those who don’t know any better feel compelled to follow.
We may look forward to some day where any and all undeserved misfortunes can be righted, but until then, we should not presume ourselves able to do more than is reasonably possible for human beings. Holding all people to the same standards and treating them equally under the law, even if some are less well-off than others, is a much less costly way of running a civil society.
Regardless of how justified we feel in transferring immense amounts of wealth from segment A of the population towards segment B, we should be very careful about mistaking ourselves for God on Judgement Day. We are human beings who have to live with the consequences of our actions. We have to pay attention to the dangers that might arise tomorrow, and change our decisions accordingly.
We often talk about rewarding those who deserve it the most. We like to think that we reward by merit. But we have no exact way of measuring merit. If someone enjoys rewards or suffers misfortunes, we have no consistent measure of how much they deserved those things. Even if we could tot up the pluses and minuses of someone’s life up to the present, what do we do with that information?
If we were able to build a perfect merit-measuring computer that allocated resources according to each individual’s merit score, we still know nothing about how rewards and penalties affect future actions, nor whether such rewards or penalties count towards a merit score. Humans learn. We take note of our surroundings and change what we do accordingly.
One person’s windfall gain in a lottery is different to the creation of a legal precedent or a redistributive policy through government. A lottery creates no entitlement for future payments, nor does it encourage millions of people to change their behaviour according to those future payments. A lottery requires no knowledge. It is random and anyone from any segment of society can take part.
We reward productivity, not merit, because we know how to measure productivity. It is objective. Rewarding productivity encourages future performance. It feels good to give retrospective rewards for merit, but it is subjective, and encourages bitterness. Everyone thinks they deserve more than others. Can you deny people recognition and merit without feeling horrible about yourself?
It is easier to justify rewards based on objective measures, such as productivity, whether that is a grade received for an exam in high school, the number of cars a salesman sells, or the number of copies that an author’s books sell over time. Productivity is clear, few can argue with it. Merit is not clear, everyone can argue with it, and it has the added penalty of being fraught with deep emotions.
Society as a whole benefits when it is more productive. So rewarding productivity, rather than merit, leads to a more prosperous society. Older methods of doing things become obsolete when a new, more effective method comes along. Although some people may lose their jobs due to such advancement, this is not a zero-sum game. Everyone benefits in the long run from this advancement.
The introduction of fast, affordable, and reliable cars had a naturally devastating effect on those who drove horses and carts for a living. Now these people using an obsolete technology had worked hard and certainly had a lot of merit. But to reward that merit by holding back the new car industry would have been a great injustice to society in the long run due to the crippling effect on productivity.
Equally meritorious people may receive different rewards, simply because of the industry they work in. But if we were to prevent the loss of an obsolete industry in the name of social justice, then we would actually create an even greater injustice to the millions of others who would be needlessly poorer or otherwise less prosperous than if new industries were allowed to advance.
An even more serious injustice can happen if government officials are given explicit powers to enforce social justice—the result tending towards tyranny and despotism. One need only look to the mass killings under Robespierre, Lenin, and Stalin for evidence. Are the victims of such killings not suffering a great injustice, even if they are killed in the name of social justice?
It is too easy to stray into academic fights over definitions when talking about justice and merit, because there are such different definitions for these terms in social justice and traditional justice. Arguing past one another in this way, using words such as “justice” and “merit” as cudgels can make us lose sight of flesh-and-blood individuals who suffer through no fault of their own as a direct result.
Take someone who lives in a bad part of town. Advocates of social justice might argue that he is the undeserving victim of circumstance. But let’s complicate the picture with some realistic details. Say his brothers and sisters all rose out of the same surroundings that he stayed in, to go to college and enter lucrative jobs. How does that affect the responsibility of society for his unmerited suffering?
Can we honestly pretend to fine-tune a child’s upbringing, when that same upbringing clearly produced wildly different outcomes amongst people born and raised in the same household? Or are we to treat people as individuals capable of anything, including things we can’t predict due to the constantly changing nature of circumstances, saving the immense costs that fine-tuning entails?
If we designed the universe from scratch, we’d make it so no one grows up in violent, crime-ridden areas, and ensure everyone has a happy upbringing with loving parents who push them to excel. We don’t have that power, nor do we have a blank slate to work with. If we were to rip society up from its roots in order to redesign it from scratch, that would entail immense acts of violence and injustice.
There are many diverse traditions developed by human societies with the aim of social control. Some of these, such as family disgrace, widely seen across Asia, seem unjust. Individuals suffer greatly as a result of family disgrace, and suicides are not unheard of. But the overall effect of family disgrace is to provide a strong incentive for parents to raise competent, productive, and polite children.
Cry all you like about the injustice that individuals suffer at the hands of cultural traditions intended to promote social control. They have survived for thousands of years because they are effective. Put differently, the cultures that promote self-preservation through social control last longer than societies that “celebrate diversity” or allow a growing parasitical class to undermine the social fabric.
The point is not to be for or against such things on a blanket basis. The smaller objective is to show how differently we must act if our framework is one of social justice and not traditional justice. Social justice requires an investigation into a bottomless pit of each person’s intertwining grievances, while traditional justice requires no such investigation and has a much longer track record of viability.
Categorical and incremental concerns
Adam Smith and John Rawls each said that justice was the primary virtue of a society, but they had very different conceptions of justice. Smith said that society needed predictable order based on a moral principle, so that people live their lives unharmed and unfettered by others. Rawls said that justice, even if it broke down order in a society, should always be the overriding principle in a civilised society.
Advocates of social justice see justice and equality and qualitative benefits, automatically justifying any costs that might be incurred in the quest for these values. They don’t want to hear about the potential costs, because they see the end as too good to pass up. All other concerns, chief of all freedom, are subordinated as categorically less important concerns.
Let us look at primogeniture, a policy with much less emotional sway today. It is unjust in individual circumstances, especially from the perspectives of the siblings of the heir who stands to benefit from the policy. The monarch’s subjects have no say in his selection, unless they risk massive penalties by overthrowing him in a civil war, and we can rightly call this unjust.
The point of primogeniture is to ensure that control of the state succeeded from one generation to another without being divided up. Equal inheritance for all the monarch’s siblings might seem more fair, but it would only ensure the breakup of the family’s total holdings as generations passed. When agriculture was the dominant form of production, this breakup of land holdings would spell disaster.
Land was worth more when it could be farmed in a single piece. Having lots of individual plots is less efficient, especially when those plots are far away from each other. This isn’t about whether primogeniture is really a net good even though it may seem unjust on the surface. It is an example of something that feels unjust but is costly to abolish. It fulfilled a specific purpose for thousands of years.
It’s easy for us to blast primogeniture today because keeping assets in one person’s hands is no longer as critical, when land is no longer a primary financial asset. But we can’t say that primogeniture was without moral or practical consideration in the time and world it existed. This by itself does not necessarily justify primogeniture. It simply says that the costs of achieving justice matter.
Primogeniture is a good example because we can reason about it in much less emotional terms than current policies. But it is also a good example of a society seeing justice as an incremental concern and not a categorically superior concern. It is simply too costly for the entire society to choose a different policy of picking rulers, even if the status quo feels unjust.
What, after all, is an injustice but the arbitrary imposition of a cost on an innocent person? And if correcting this injustice imposes another arbitrary cost on another innocent person, is that not also an injustice? If you treat justice as a categorically more important concern than all other concerns, then these questions make no sense. But if you treat justice as an incremental concern, they make perfect sense.
Again, this is not to condemn all calls for justice on a blanket basis. Britain’s leading religious and naval figures judged that abolishing slavery was worth the costs, and in America the costs were paid amply in a bloody civil war to abolish slavery. Abraham Lincoln’s stunning victory in the 1864 election proved that his Emancipation Proclamation and freeing of Southern slaves were well-received.
The earlier generation of American leaders who declared independence from Britain deemed the costs of seeking abolition to be too high at a time when unanimity between the colonies was an existential need. Outright abolitionists such as John Adams chose to keep their views to themselves when faced with the very real threat of the fragile American alliance falling apart.11
Slavery is an abomination that caused suffering to millions. But time and death cheat us of the opportunity to mete out justice to slave traders or other long-dead people we today deem criminals by modern standards. One thing we can do, instead, is to create new injustices among our contemporaries for the sake of symbolic expiation. Time is remarkably uncooperative with our moral categories.
Social justice in reality
Social justice has captured Western institutions. Attitudes associated with it have seeped into every area of life. Words such as equality, equity, and justice regularly make it into the Western public discourse. Even some conservatives who vehemently disagree with criticism from social justice advocates feel compelled to justify their views, decisions, and policies through the lens of equality and justice.
Central to social justice is the presumed ability to treat people like piano keys, meaning that they are expected to respond in a linear fashion to attempts to “redistribute” income between groups of people. There is little to no recognition of how profoundly this slanted treatment changes the actions of the people in sets of “advantaged” and “disadvantaged,” as defined by social justice.
The Malay majority in Malaysia gave themselves preferential treatment in academia and government jobs after the Chinese minority began supplying 80 to 90 per cent of all university students in medicine, science, and engineering.12 But giving a segment of the population an ongoing entitlement creates a lack of urgency in that segment, as shown by the extension of Chinese performance in those same areas.13
Laws intended to help the homeless in cities across California have created a situation where it is difficult to walk across Los Angeles without stepping in human excrement. When Californians see unemployed men urinating in public, leaving drug needles in children’s parks, they aren’t just looking upon their tax dollars at work, but the end result of the vision of social justice.
This pattern of able and ambitious young people being held back by endless government largesse has been found among white “chavs” in working class Britain, perpetuating their patterns of indolence, crime, and bitterness against authority. Britain’s once proud working class were turned into a vast field of human livestock in little more than a generation or two.
People deemed “privileged” by advocates of social justice also change their decisions and actions rationally. Businesses at the risk of being labelled as discriminatory for the racial profile of their customers or employees also respond rationally. They locate in areas away from concentrations of ethnic minorities, so that they’re not subject to rules stipulating “representation” of local groups.
This obviously means that ethnic minorities lose out as a result of rules intended to help them. Such costs are rarely attributed to those rules, though. Hidden discrimination and saboteurs are blamed instead. Nor is any credit given to the progress enjoyed by people in ethnic minorities as a result of equal opportunity policies, in contrast to mandated rules for representation.
Why aren’t these apparently blatant failures talked about more? Why don’t more people know that the many social justice movements of the 1960s actually marked profound reversals in numerous positives trends in crime, racial discrimination, teen pregnancy, and poverty?14 Why don’t we talk about how Britain’s experiment with outright socialism in the 1970s made the country poorer than before?
Pointing out the repeated, blatant, and disastrous failures of social justice is to invite bile and hate. Social justice advocates respond with such anger and ruthlessness when questioned because you’re not just challenging their policies. You’re challenging their entire vision of the world and their role in that world as a heroic champion of the oppressed and downtrodden.
No one should be happy when people suffer, especially when they suffer through no fault of their own. The real questions are: What can we do about those problems, and at what cost? What should we do as a society to solve those problems, and how much should we leave to individuals? This would address problems of injustice without wreaking new injustices on innocent people.
There has never been a point when people have sat and done nothing to help the poor. People will spontaneously help others when they are in distress, without needing to be on the wrong end of a commissar’s rifle or bayonet. Movements to encourage private morality and private charity have done far more good than the massive government welfare programs of twentieth century.
Private charity has been at least as popular among those vehemently opposed to social justice as those who breathlessly support it. We only found out after Adam Smith’s papers were opened that he gave most of his modest wealth to charity. The fact that conservatives also consistently donate more to charity than liberals is ignored because it does not fit the vision of social justice.
It is not about whether misfortunes shall be addressed at all. It is about whether people shall be free to help whoever they want, as much as they want, without a gun being held to their heads. There’s a very big difference between that and being coerced into paying taxes to fund massive programs that create entitlements, change future behaviour for the worse, and ossify into uncaring bureaucracies.
Private charity—help for the poor that is not politically mandated—only relies on a free society based on the rule of law. It does not take on the heavy burden of feeding the entire society, because people are free to work and earn their own money which they use to pay for food, in whatever way they choose. It is voluntary. No artificial rights need to be conjured up that sit above all other concerns.
Capitalism and economic growth have been the most effective drivers of wealth and prosperity. The number of people below the poverty line has decreased by a billion since the year 2000.15 This isn’t due to any government welfare policy. It is due to former socialist countries—chiefly China and India—embracing free capital. This movement has brought countless more out of poverty than social justice.
Taxpayers, through no fault of their own, have been deprived of much of their potential wealth by utopian schemes that have, in general, not only totally failed to meet their objectives, but have also wrought havoc on the very people they were claimed to help. Crime and violence are now much, much worse thanks to policies intended to fight the “root causes” of both.16
If the world could be changed to meet the dreams of social justice activists, then it would surely be a better one compared to the world constrained by costs, human desires, and traditional justice. The quest for social justice is the pursuit of this illusory new world where all merit is justly rewarded and all past crimes are justly punished. It is an attractive crusade. But joining it could cost you everything.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, pp. 115, 120, 355.
Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose, p. 148.
Barbara J. Jordan and Elspeth D. Rostow, The Great Society: A Twenty-Year Critique, p. 71.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 100.
Ibid., p. 275.
Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. II: The Mirage of Social Justice, p. 86.
Firdaus Hj. Abdullah, “Affirmative Action Policy in Malaysia: To Restructure Society, to Eradicate Poverty,” Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. XV, No. 2, p. 210.
Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict, p. 670.
James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Hernnstein, Crime and Human Nature, p. 409.