Social Justice and Its Critics

Matt Zwolinski,

Release Date
November 30, 2012


Poverty & Inequality

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.

The Libertarian Critique of Distributive Justice [blog post]: Matt Zwolinski’s response to common libertarian critiques of social justice
Rawls and Nozick on Justice [article]: A basic outline of the Robert Nozick/John Rawls debate on social justice
Defining Social Justice [essay]: An essay on the meaning of “social justice”, including Hayek’s definition and dismissal of it
Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez [interview]: America Magazine interview with an advocate of the Liberation Theology brand of social justice
Hayek and Buchanan: Rawls, Egalitarianism and Social Justice (video): F. A. Hayek argues that the term “social justice” has no real meaning
Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Justice [encyclopedia entry]: A brief overview of how social justice fits into Noam Chomsky’s “libertarian-socialism”
Hayek on Spontaneous Order and the Mirage of Social Justice [lecture]: Text of a lecture describing Hayek’s skepticism of social justice

A lot of people think that we should do more for the poor as a matter of social justice. Sometimes they mean that we should do more as individuals, giving more of our own money or our own time to help those in need. But often what they mean is that we should do more politically, that our government should enact policies that try to help the poor by providing them with various tax-funded benefits or other means.
Many classical liberals and libertarians, on the other hand, reject the idea of social justice. Some reject it because they think it’s practically unrealizable, because they think it violates individual rights, but in this video I’m going to focus on a different libertarian critique of social justice. One that holds the idea is not merely immoral or impractical, but conceptually confused. On this view, which has been defended by libertarian luminaries like Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek, asking whether distribution of wealth in a society is an equivalent for social justice is like asking whether the color blue is heavy or whether a stone is moral. It simply doesn’t make sense.
Before we can get to the argument, let’s get a little clearer on exactly what the term social justice means. Typically the term is used to refer to a moral assessment of the way in which wealth, jobs, opportunities, and other goods are distributed among different persons or social classes within a society. People who believe in social justice think there is some moral standard that ought to govern such distributions and that societies that fail to meet that standard are subject to criticism and should be reformed. So, for example, someone who held that wealth ought to be distributed in a perfectly egalitarian way so that no one had any more or less than anyone else would be affirming one kind of theory of social justice. But there are other kinds as well.
Someone could hold that it is not wealth but opportunities that ought to be distributed equally, or someone could hold that wealth and opportunities need not be distributed equally but only in a way that guarantees that no one falls below a certain minimum threshold level. Social justice on this view is something that stands above and apart from the justice of individual exchanges and behavior. In other words, social justice could be violated if someone becomes poor because of their own bad choices or bad luck even though no particular person has done anything at all unjust.
So why might someone think social justice matters? Suppose I treated my three children very, very differently. I might give one an allowance of $50 a week and the biggest bedroom in the house; the other two might receive only $20 each and be cramped together in the same small room. Unless I’ve got some very good reason for doing this—it’s hard to imagine what such a reason could be—most of us would probably say that what I’m doing is quite unfair, even unjust. The question is, could we say the same thing about society as a whole?
Is it unjust that some people have gold-plated faucets while others cannot even afford a modest apartment? That some work long hours in dangerous, difficult conditions while others can afford not to work at all? Are the great inequalities of income and wealth we find in societies like the U.S. a violation of social justice? And if so, should government do something about it, like tax the rich more in order to give the proceeds to the poor?

Nozick and Hayek think that the answer to both these questions is no. To see why, think about one important difference between a family and a large-scale society. What makes the family situation unjust is that stuff is being divided up by a central distributor in a morally arbitrary way. Now, the way things are distributed in society as a whole might look equally arbitrary. It is hard to imagine why Derek Jeter deserves so much more than a manual laborer in a strawberry field just because he’s good at playing baseball. But in society, unlike in the family, there is no central distributor.
Jeter’s income, my employment opportunities, the labor conditions of the strawberry worker: all of these are determined by the innumerable decisions of countless individuals. There’s no single person or group of persons responsible for distributing wealth in a free society. And so we can’t accuse any such person of distributing justly or unjustly. All of us are the distributors. We each contribute in a very small way to the overall distribution of wealth with every decision we make: whether to buy from this grocer or that, whether to major in business or psychology, whether to move to California or Nebraska. None of those decisions are themselves unjust. So if decisions like that are what give rise to the overall distribution of wealth in society, then how can that distribution be unjust?
What advocates of social justice seem not to appreciate is the important way in which society is a spontaneous order—the product of human action but not of human design. Justice and injustice are concepts that apply to human agency. This is why we think that a mugging is unjust, but a devastating hurricane is not. If there’s no agent responsible for the distribution of wealth in society, then how can that distribution be just or unjust? For libertarians and classical liberals like Hayek, the only meaningful concept of social justice will be one that focuses on the legal and economic rules of a society. Most libertarians don’t believe that that kind of focus is compatible with the way in which those on the political left interpret the idea of social justice. But I think they might be wrong. And in my next video I’ll explain why.