The Fallacy of “Social Justice”

In an age where real political and philosophical debates often seem impossible, where the knee-jerk reaction of people generally is that everyone who has a different opinion has to be wrong – or often enough, a “populist,” “racist,” “white supremacist,” “Nazi,” or any other of the buzzwords used so leniently by the Left – and where talking heads on television shout at each other rather than discuss a topic, it is often relieving to go back to a time where civil discourse was still a thing. And so it is great to see that last year, the Hoover Institution uploaded on YouTube one of the best shows for just that: Firing Line. Whenever you hear Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, and then see the great conservative William F. Buckley introduce his guests in the most eloquent way imaginable, you know that the purpose of the next hour will be solely about exchanging different viewpoints – while remaining calm, shockingly enough.

Over the years of the show, numerous conservative and (classical) liberal heroes visited Buckley, among them Margaret Thatcher, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan. But one of the best shows is the one with Friedrich Hayek, accompanied by Hillsdale College’s George Roche, in which the winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences completely dismantles the idea of “social justice.”

“Social justice” is today used for all kinds of purposes, the goal mostly to further a social democratic – can one say collectivist? – agenda. If you are against a minimum wage, you are against “social justice.” If you are against redistribution from the rich to the poor, you are against “social justice.” Meanwhile, all sorts of policies can be advocated for simply by referring to this mystical term.

As Hayek argues, nobody really knows what “social justice” even is: “everybody talks about social justice, but if you press people to explain to you what they mean by social justice, nobody knows. I’m telling you, because I have been trying for the past twenty years asking people what really are your principles of social justice.”

In fact, social justice is an impossibility:

There are no possible rules of a just distribution in a system where the distribution is not deliberately the result of people bringing it about. Justice is an attribute of individual action. I can be just or unjust towards my fellow men. But the conception of a social justice, to expect from an impersonal process which nobody can control, to bring about a just result, is not only a meaningless conception, it’s completely impossible.

However, not only the term “justice” runs into deep problems – “social” does as well. What is a society anyway?

Is the fact that the people of Oklahoma and the people of New York find it convenient to have a common system of law and of rules a justification that the people of Oklahoma can demand that the people of New York out of their pocket assist the people of Oklahoma?

The question needs to be put forward if one can act justly by using other people’s money. As Roche argues: “It’s fine for you to decide to be charitable. It’s not fine for you to be charitable with my resources as opposed to yours. In fact there’s no charity connected with it.”

Of course, behind the demands of “social justice” more often than not lie two deeper meanings: personal self-interest, or ideological egalitarianism. Most of the social democrats arguing for “social justice,” and a redistribution of wealth argue for it out of self-interest. Working-class people, student activists, politicians who failed their entire life, demand the money from others to improve their own lives – that this often includes simple envy and resentment of the success of others is naturally the case. In the case of politicians, it might also be just an instrument to win over voters with over-simplified – can one almost say “populist?” – solutions.

Even worse than that, though, are the true and faithful egalitarians, who have as their single goal to see all people being completely equal. That this is completely fallacious is clear for Hayek:

Classical demand is that the state ought to treat all people equally in spite of the fact that they are very unequal. You can’t deduce from this the rule that because people are unequal you ought to treat them unequally in order to make them equal. And this is what social justice demands to – the demand that the state should treat different people differently in order to place them in the same position. The rule of equal treatment applies only to things the state has to do in any case. But making people equal a goal of governmental policy would force government to treat people very unequally indeed.

Nowhere can this be seen clearer than in today’s climate of identity politics, where social justice warriors sanction everyone who treats people in any way differently – and by that, those “protectors” themselves inadvertently accentuate the differences, by trying to protect all minorities. The goal of total equality has again and again led to suffering and tyranny – that is, radically unequal authoritarianism, in the twentieth century, as Ryszard Legutko explains:

Communism was social justice, and social justice was communism. This marriage between the system and the ideal gave birth to a peculiar type of mentality, inadvertently prone to political moralizing. Living in such a system one could not simply describe facts or express one’s political persuasion because everything had to be entangled in the phraseology referring to the good of humanity, the liberation of peoples, the wickedness of imperialism, the blessings of a classless society, and the happiness of life under socialism. From the very beginning, socialism/communism was sanctioned in moralistic terms without which it was as a system inconceivable; every communist or socialist, even if cynical and cruel, was compelled to see some communist and socialist ideals reflected even in the simplest matters and could not express the simplest thought without referring to them.

The only form of social justice that is acceptable – though not being social justice anymore as generally understood – is the freedom to improve one’s own situation. As Daniel Hannan says, “free trade is the supreme instrument of social justice.” Not equality of outcome, but equality before law, should be the mantra of justice – and by that equality in opportunity, as far as voluntarily possible.

For the state, this obviously leaves a rather small sphere to get involved in. Government’s task is then only to provide the framework for individuals, living in a strong and flourishing civil society, to accomplish what they dream of. The goal of government should just be, as Hayek writes in The Mirage of Social Justice, to create conditions for the spontaneous order to develop. “A free society,” writes Douglas Den Uyl, “necessarily supposes that some will be better off relative to others if for no other reason than that circumstances are always changing. This state of affairs cannot be altered short of a totalitarian society.” With egalitarianism on the rise all around the Western world, from social justice warriors on American college campuses to politicians on the Left to a political elite in Brussels dreaming of European sameness, this lesson is more relevant now than ever before.


  • Kai Weiss

    Kai Weiss is the Research Coordinator of the Austrian Economics Center, a board member at the Friedrich A. v. Hayek Institute, and a graduate student in politics at Hillsdale College.

The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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