Empty. Meaningless. Thoughtless. Vacuous. Naïve. Hollow. Shameful. Fraudulent. Primitive thinking. Demagogy. Cheap journalism. Irresponsible. A grave threat. Destructive of the values of civilization.
These are some of the words and phrases F. A. Hayek use to describe the term – and the idea of – “social justice” and the people who employ it. These are not the words of a detached academic, but of someone who feels deeply and emotionally about the collapse of a great civilization threatened by those determined to destroy it, who will twist and invert both language and principle to achieve their goal. Hayek is driven by the spirit of resistance to these forces.
I believe indeed that the greatest service I can still render to my fellow men would be if it were in my power to make them ashamed of ever again using that hollow incantation. I felt it my duty to at least try and free them of that incubus which today makes fine sentiments the instruments for the destruction of all values of a free civilization.
Even Social Justice Warriors Can’t Define “Social Justice”.
The Mirage Of Social Justice is the title F.A. Hayek gave to Volume 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty. It’ a book about the beneficence of the spontaneous order of the free enterprise society, and includes a withering take down of the claims of “social justice”. It was written over 40 years ago, well before the internet, and yet resonates perfectly in today’s world of political correctness and what Jordan Peterson calls “the elevation of moral posturing … over truth”.
Hayek starts by setting out his position: the term “social justice” is entirely empty and people who habitually employ the phrase can’t themselves define what they mean by it. They just use it as an assertion that a claim is justified without giving a reason for it.
“Social Justice” Is Moral Posturing.
Social justice, Hayek tells us, is
a dishonest insinuation that one ought to agree to a demand of some special interest which can give no real reason for it. (The term is) the mark of demagogy or cheap journalism which responsible thinkers ought to be ashamed to use.
‘Social justice’ is little more than a pretext for making the interest of particular groups prevail over the general interest of all.
This is moral posturing of social justice that goes beyond politically correct speech codes to the economic demands of the self-identified oppressed sections of society upon the rest of us.
Politicians Jump On The Social Justice Bandwagon For Their Own Purposes.
The first problem with the concept is that it is indefinable. Consequently, it can be given almost any content by the social justice warriors. When that content is seen as marketable by the ruling political groups, they will favor it and claim to be supporting the “general welfare”. But the collective that is pressing for their “just desserts” is never the whole of society, but is always a special interest. As soon as government is expected to satisfy some particular collective, some of whose interests may be contrary to the general interests of society, then a friends-enemies political framework is established and a divisive fight ensues.
Democracy Worsens The Problem.
Worse, in a democracy, there is a tendency to define as a general interest anything that a majority will vote for or will lobby for, and it is a perversion of our ideals to define the general interest as whatever the majority desires. For example, union members, in a majority in many industrial settings, can vote for a strike or a restriction of production that is a collective good for all members but certainly not in the general interest. Climate activists can claim they are supporting not only the general welfare but the survival of the planet.
Coalitions of special interests organize to make their case, and politicians and civil servants can aim at securing the support of these interests by promising to implement their demands. In this, Hayek finds the key to the divisiveness of politics:
For the elected representative, a specific gift in his hands is much more interesting and a more effective key to power than any benefits he can procure indiscriminately for all.
The Alternative Is The Free Enterprise Society, Defined By General Rules Applicable To All.
What’s the alternative to “social justice”? In a free society, the general good consists principally in the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her own ends. The spontaneous order that emerges will result in individuals providing for each other’s needs in a way that authority could never devise or manage. It is both futile and counter-productive to aim for specific results for special groups. Justice consists in every individual having an equal chance, not in whether or not their group benefits from the outcome.
Hayek’s ideal to bring this about is to define general rules – he calls them abstract rules – of individual conduct which are required for the formation of spontaneous order. In the Hayekian world, this is a state in which individuals are allowed to use their own knowledge and their own private property for their own purposes, deciding on their actions on the basis of whatever knowledge they possess. The starting point is the information that’s available, including the market price of whatever service the individual feels qualified to offer to others. The market provides the opportunity to utilize dispersed, unique knowledge. The idea that government can determine the opportunities for individuals is in conflict with the whole rationale of a free society.
There are accidents and externalities we can’t control. The parents we are born to and the country and culture we are born in are accidental. No point in complaining. Government can not control the external circumstances from which these accidents of the market emerge.
Even traditions and national character are emergent features of the actions and preferences of the people. Even in concrete symbols like flags and monuments, they stand for abstract rules of behavior – what is acceptable to be done and what’s not acceptable in that society.
Serve Unknown Individuals, Not Collective Special Interests.
Whom do these general, abstract rules serve? Unknown individuals not specific groups. The best we can do for general welfare is to increase the opportunities for any unknown person picked at random. We do not know what outcome these opportunities will produce. They become merely the basis for the planning of individuals.
Long Term Thinking Is Morally Superior To Short Term Thinking.
Another consequence of these general rules, therefore, is that they always aim at the long run. Yet, politicians always aim for the short run in trying to bring about specific results for their constituents and supporters. Politicians aiming for specific results in the short run kill freedom in the long run. (See Chapter 7 of The Foundations Of Morality by Henry Hazlitt for a full exposition of this principle.)
Freedom means that, in some measure, we entrust our fate to forces which we do not control. As a result, changes can occur which are unpredictable and may be viewed as damaging to some interests – for example, when industries decline as a result of new knowledge that is not available to all, or not actionable by one group. This recognition that man can not control his own fate is intolerable to positivists and constructivists, who believe in the infinite power of their own reason. Only they, in their own minds, have the reasoning power to determine the outcome for the rest of us, and that’s what they call “social justice”.