Hayek on “The Mirage of Social Justice”
Such is the current state of public debate and understanding that anyone who is against or even questions the presumed desirability of what is known as “social justice” is axiomatically equated with being a monster lacking basic human morality and compassion. Friedrich Hayek (1899 – 1992), one may say, was one such monster. He began by trying to make as good a case in support of the ideal of ‘social justice’ as he could but realized that the concept was meaningless. “I have now become convinced, however, that the people who habitually employ the phrase simply do not know themselves what they mean by it and just use it as an assertion that a claim is justified without giving a reason for it.” That’s from his book The Mirage of Social Justice, the second volume of his magnum opus Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973). Here’s an extended quote from it.
In my earlier efforts to criticize the concept I had all the time the feeling that I was hitting into a void and I finally attempted, what in such cases one ought to do in the first instance, to construct as good a case in support of the ideal of ‘social justice’ as was in my power. It was only then that I perceived that the Emperor had no clothes on, that is, that the term ‘social justice’ was entirely empty and meaningless. As the boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, I ‘could not see anything, because there was nothing to be seen.’ The more I tried to give it a definite meaning the more it fell apart — the intuitive feeling of indignation which we undeniably often experience in particular instances proved incapable of being justified by a general rule such as the conception of justice demands.”
We must emphasize this point: to take care to define a concept clearly before taking action or even arguing about it. If it is meaningless to begin with, arguing about it is itself pointless, leave alone taking action to implement it. But showing something that is clearly dear to some people as being meaningless is even worse than showing that it is wrong. Hayek continues:
But to demonstrate that a universally used expression which to many people embodies a quasi-religious belief has no content whatever and serves merely to insinuate that we ought to consent to a demand of some particular group is much more difficult than to show that a conception is wrong.
Let me underline that. The phrase “social justice” is used by specific groups who want to coerce others into giving in to their demands unquestioningly. All too often these groups then use political means for effecting transfers from other groups. Back to Hayek:
In these circumstances I could not content myself to show that particular attempts to achieve ‘social justice’ would not work, but had to explain that the phrase meant nothing at all, and that to employ it was either thoughtless or fraudulent. It is not pleasant to have to argue against a superstition which is held most strongly by men and women who are often regarded as the best in our society, and against a belief that has become almost the new religion of our time (and in which many of the ministers of old religion have found their refuge),
and which has become the recognized mark of the good man. But the present universality of that belief proves no more the reality of its object than did the universal belief in witches or the philosopher’s stone. Nor does the long history of the conception of distributive justice understood as an attribute of individual conduct (and now often treated as synonymous with ‘social justice’) prove that it has any relevance to the positions arising from the market process. 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 at least to try and free them of that incubus which today makes fine sentiments the instruments for the destruction of all values of a free civilization — and to try this at the risk of gravely offending many the strength of whose moral feelings I respect.
Bottom line: thoughtful people should be ashamed of ever using the hollow incantation of ‘social justice’ because it is thoughtless. It is fraudulent because it employs fine sentiments (charity, generosity, etc) as instruments for the destruction of all values of a free civilization.
Addendum – June 14: Here’s Friedrich von Hayek in conversation with William F Buckley Jr., in 1977.
“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.”