Social Justice and Its Critics

Many argue that we should do more for the poor as a matter of social justice. In some cases, they mean we should use our own time and resources to assist those in need, but more often they mean the government should enact policies that try to help the poor in various ways. Meanwhile, many classical liberals and libertarians reject the idea of social justice, finding it immoral, impractical, or even, as Professor Matt Zwolinski discusses, conceptually confused.

The term social justice typically refers to a moral assessment of the way wealth, jobs, opportunities, and other goods are distributed in society. Some may think wealth should be distributed equally; others may argue that it is more important for opportunities to be equally distributed. Unfortunately, there is no central distributor in a free society able to enforce this type of equality.

In fact, Prof. Zwolinski argues, we are all distributors. When we make decisions, like which grocer to buy from, what to study in school, or where to live, we affect the distribution of resources. None of those decisions is inherently just or unjust. As Prof. Zwolinski says, “If there’s no [single] agent responsible for the distribution of wealth in society, then how can that distribution be just or unjust?” For libertarians and classical liberals, the only meaningful concept of social justice is one focused on the legal and economic rules of societies. Many think this focus is incompatible with the political left’s concept of social justice. Stay tuned to the next Learn Liberty video by Prof. Zwolinski to find out why he disagrees.


  1. Greg Gauthier

    "Do more politically" – translation: threaten people with theft, assault, kidnapping, and murder, if they refuse to participate in or contribute to my preference to relieve the suffering of the poor.

  2. GeF

    better working man’s life

  3. asexymind

    Do we want the poor to have more of a smaller pie today (government redistribution) or more of a larger pie (free market) tomorrow? How much more tomorrow? 50% more? 150% more? 500% more? 5000% more?

  4. Lukas Koube

    if you could go back to the 1960s and talk to a socialist, you could probably strike a deal saying “people should be allowed to make as much as they want, but the worst someone can do is middle class”….but we live in that society today…capitalism creates so much wealth that even poor Americans have a far higher standard of living than a middle class person of the 1960s….furthermore, the wealth is only going to grow, so the things that make a person middle class today will soon be available to even poor Americans. 

  5. Matt Wavle

     in society, unlike in the family, there is no central distributor.”  What a huge difference.  And you can’t put an individual moral judgement against the spontaneous order of a market.  

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