Social Justice

Justice relates to the doctrine that equal circumstances are treated equally by individuals and authorities and that restraints are placed on all in equal measure.

Social justice, one form of Justice Opens in new window, is oriented towards the equality of outcomes of human endeavor (endeavour) irrespective of starting position, luck, and effort.

Social justice aims to even out interpersonal or inter-group differences in incomes and wealth. If it becomes a dominant concern of public policy, it undermines procedural justice Opens in new window and freedom Opens in new window and erodes incentives to compete and perform.

An important reason why government cannot guarantee social justice in the sense of ensuring equal outcomes is that, in modern mass society, a great number of other human beings influence outcomes, many of whom are unknown to the individual actor or the government.

Equal outcomes are therefore impossible to imagine, as long as people are free to act and react, and as long as that has a bearing on what they earn and own.

Like positive liberties, policies to realize greater equality of outcomes (social justice) require that governments infringe individual property rights, an important part of economic freedom.

Redistribution policies always rely on confiscating the property of some for the purpose of giving it to others. It must in any event be noted here that inequality is not injustice (Flew, 1989).

Social justice—attained by redistribution of property and opportunities to achieve greater outcome equality after interaction in the market place—relies on collective action to realize a pre-conceived standard of equality.

Social justice therefore conflicts with the principle of justice in the sense of equal treatment of persons and circumstances, as well as the principle of freedom.

The pursuit of social justice thus poses several fundamental questions:

Then, redistributive government interventions have to discriminate against some citizens.

The fundamental value of negative freedom is also pushed aside when (positive) outcome equality is pursued.

Social justice always implies that the traditional concept of procedural justice is violated, as the law is then used to discriminate between formally equal citizens. Then, the equality before the law gives way to a state of affairs that many consider unjust (Hayek, 1976, pp. 62 – 88; Sowell, 1990; de Jasay, 2002).

When government redistributes wealth and incomes, it can therefore not treat all citizens with formal equality. The classical role of government was only to protect the law and the peace Opens in new window. But when redistribution became a major concern of Western governments, individual liberties and the rule of law were being undermined.

The conclusion is that outcome equality (that is social justice) cannot be achieved by political action over the long term.

This is borne out by the persistence of begging on the streets of even the most elaborate Western welfare states. The evidence shows that income inequalities persist irrespective of average income levels (Gwartney and Lawson, Passim; Sowell, 1990).

Despite this logical and empirical insight, gross inequalities in incomes and living standards are considered unacceptable to many in Western societies.

This is partly because people identify to some extent with their most vulnerable fellow human beings and partly because they fear deleterious consequences for internal peace and the attainment of other fundamental values (Kliemt, 1993).

There is certainly a role for private, voluntary charity by the affluent for the poor. Such voluntary redistribution, instead of coercive state intervention to reallocate poverty rights, has beneficial effects, including for those who do not participate. It therefore deserves societal acclaim.