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One of the most bandied about phrases, yet one of the most ill-defined, is ‘social justice‘. So opaque and nebulous is the term that economist and political scientist F. A. Hayek entitled volume two of his important trilogy, Law, Legislation and Liberty, “The Mirage of Social Justice” (University of Chicago Press, 1976. The other two volumes appeared in 1973 and 1979.)

In that volume he wrote extensively about the concept of social justice, and just how vacuous the term can be. And in a lecture given in Sydney in 1976 entitled “The Atavism of Social Justice” he offered an abbreviated look at this topic. He began with these words:

“To discover the meaning of what is called ‘social justice’ has been one of my chief preoccupations for more than 10 years. I have failed in this endeavour — or rather, have reached the conclusion that, with reference to society of free men, the phrase has no meaning whatever.”

He continued:

“The term ‘social justice’ is today generally used as a synonym of what used to be called ‘distributive justice’.”

That is, it basically means the compulsory redistribution of wealth by the state. This, says Hayek in vol 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, of course describes “the aspirations which were at the heart of socialism”.

Hayek certainly had warned about these matters far earlier, especially in his classic 1944 work, The Road To Serfdom. And he was not the only voice to offer concern about this; many others have followed him. One such figure is American economist and social commentator Thomas Sowell. The author of many dozens of important books on this and other topics, his writings are always worth carefully following.

In one of his newest volumes, the revised and enlarged edition of Intellectuals and Society (Basic Books, 2009, 2011) he spends even further time on this concept of social justice. Like Hayek, he bemoans both the elasticity of the term, and the socialist ramifications which lie behind it. He begins one discussion on this with these words:

“Among the many arguments without arguments, none is more persuasive or more powerful than that of what is called ‘social justice.’ Yet it is a term with no real definition, even though it is a term that has been in use for more than a century. All justice is inherently social, since someone on a desert island cannot be either just or unjust. What seems to be implied by adding the word ‘social’ to the concept of justice is that justice is to be established among groups, rather than just individuals.”

It is the attempt to equalise groups, whether such equalisation is either necessary or wise, that seems to encapsulate talk of social justice. Sowell rightly distinguishes between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome:

“The equality of formal justice is an equality of processes, not an equality of impact or consequences.”

Governments should not be treating various groups differently, to produce a false equality of outcome. As long as the rule of law applies equally to all people, then we have true justice. He cites Anatole France:

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Instead of talking about whether society is fair, we should be asking whether life is fair. And clearly it is not.

“Life has seldom, if ever, been fair or even close to fair. The family or culture into which one is born can affect the direction one’s life takes, as can the happenstance of the individuals encountered in the journey through life, who may influence one’s outlook and aspirations, for good or ill. These are just some of the factors affecting one’s life chances.”

The issue is, can and should we seek to correct all of life’s unfairness? Those promoting social justice argue that we should, and that it is the government’s job to erase all inequalities and homogenise all outcomes. But the only way this can happen is to radically remove people’s freedoms.

And it is to promote new injustices, by treating unequal things equally, and treating equal things unequally. Let’s take an extreme example, but a legitimate one nonetheless. Let’s say I really want to play with the Los Angeles Lakers. Never mind that I cannot dribble a basketball to save my life, let alone shoot one.

Also, I am rather short for a basketballer, not to mention out of shape and far too old. But I can argue that my rights are being violated here. Yes, life has treated me unfairly by making me short and un-athletic. So should the state step in to erase these obvious inequalities? Is my situation in fact unjust, requiring the government to intervene and rearrange things so that I can play for the Lakers?

If they do, it can only happen by taking away freedoms from the Lakers and the NBA. They can pass a law for example outlawing anyone over six feet from playing. That would make things fairer for me of course, but only by tampering with outcomes and interfering with the way the game is in fact played.

It would be to discriminate against tall people, and to treat unequals equally. Levelling everyone downwards is one way to go – but it is neither fair nor just, and it only can be done by coercion. It may sound good in theory, but it would be both tyrannical and a blow to human freedom.

And as Sowell rightly notes, for the state to seek to eradicate all inequalities in life would simply be impossible, and again, could only even be attempted by turning society into a police state. No government bureaucracy can even begin to have the range of knowledge to undertake such a fantasy project.

Says Sowell:

“Seeking to make life chances equal is very different from simply prescribing equal treatment by law or other social institutions, since people born with very different natural endowments – whether of brains, physique, voice, or beauty – or with different social endowments according to the different knowledge and values imparted by the families in which they were raised, may be unlikely to have even approximate equal outcomes.”

To argue that society should be more fair or equal really refers to “what only government would have the power to do, thereby side-stepping the crucial and painful question of the consequences of concentrating the vast new powers required for seeking social justice in the hands of political leaders, even though the history of the twentieth century provided all too many ghastly examples of what such concentrations of power can lead to.”

Of course neither Sowell nor Hayek believes there is no place for outside help in certain cases. Says Sowell:

“There are things societies can do to mitigate the inherent unfairness of life. But there are also limits to what society can do.”

And Hayek:

“There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all protection against severe deprivation in the form of assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need to descend.”

So no one is talking anarchy here. There is a role – albeit a limited role – for the state. But the aspirations of those pushing for ‘social justice’ are either unaware of, or sadly happy with, the hugely expansionist role and scope of the state to even seek to get close to their much-vaunted equality of outcomes.

But as Hayek, Sowell and so many others have rightly warned, we have been here before. Those totalistic states seeking to generate equality of outcome – as opposed to equality under law and equality of opportunity – have never achieved their goals, but have instead only enslaved the people.

As Sowell says:

“Just who concretely is responsible, either causally or morally, for the failure of life to be fair? One can say ‘society’ but there is no one named ‘society.’ Moreover, much that happens in a given society is beyond the control of any institution in that society, including cultures that originated in other times and places, individual happenstances ranging from birth defects to being born to loving, wise and dedicated parents, as well as choices made by millions of individuals within that society.


“What living, breathing, flesh-and-blood human being today is either causally or morally responsible for the past – or has either the superhuman knowledge or wisdom to be trusted with the power to pre-empt millions of other people’s decision for the indefinite future? Saying that ‘society’ should somehow ‘arrange’ things better evades rather than answers such questions.”

Indeed, we have the witness of last century to see what a dismal failure any such attempts are. Prophetic voices like Orwell and Huxley warned us about such attempts, and we have seen them lived out in all their bloody reality. Such coercive utopianism can only always lead to major bloodbaths.

Thus the mirage of social justice is just that – a mirage. What the social engineers mean by that term has already been tried – and found wanting. We need to learn the lessons of history here. If we don’t there may not be much history left.

First published here.

Bill Muehlenberg teaches ethics, apologetics and theology at several Melbourne Bible Colleges. His independent blog, Culture Watch, has over 5,000 articles commenting on the major cultural, social and political issues of the day.

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