An Inquiry Concerning "Social Justice" and Its Influence
By Barry Loberfeld
FrontPageMagazine.com | February 27, 2004


The signature of modern leftist rhetoric is the deployment of terminology that simply cannot fail to command assent. As Orwell himself recognized, even slavery could be sold if labeled "freedom." In this vein, who could ever conscientiously oppose the pursuit of "social justice" -- i.e., a just society?

To understand "social justice," we must contrast it with the earlier view of justice against which it was conceived -- one that arose as a revolt against political absolutism. With a government (e.g., a monarchy) that is granted absolute power, it is impossible to speak of any injustice on its part. If it can do anything, it can't do anything "wrong." Justice as a political/legal term can begin only when limitations are placed upon the sovereign, i.e., when men define what is unjust for government to do. The historical realization traces from the Roman senate to Magna Carta to the U.S. Constitution to the 19th century. It was now a matter of "justice" that government not arrest citizens arbitrarily, sanction their bondage by others, persecute them for their religion or speech, seize their property, or prevent their travel. This culmination of centuries of ideas and struggles became known as liberalism. And it was precisely in opposition to this liberalism -- not feudalism or theocracy or the ancien régime, much less 20th century fascism -- that Karl Marx formed and detailed our popular concept of "social justice" (which has become a kind of "new and improved" substitute for a storeful of other terms -- Marxism, socialism, collectivism -- that, in the wake of Communism's history and collapse, are now unmarketable).

"The history of all existing society," he and Engels declared, "is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf ... oppressor and oppressed, stood in sharp opposition to each other." They were quite right to note the political castes and resulting clashes of the pre-liberal era. The expositors of liberalism (Spencer, Maine) saw their ethic, by establishing the political equality of all (e.g., the abolition of slavery, serfdom, and inequality of rights), as moving mankind from a "society of status" to a "society of contract." Alas, Marx the Prophet could not accept that the classless millennium had arrived before he did. Thus, he revealed to a benighted humanity that liberalism was in fact merely another stage of History's class struggle -- "capitalism" -- with its own combatants: the "bourgeois" and the "proletarian." The former was a professional or a business owner, the latter a manual laborer. Marx's "classes" were not political castes but occupations. Today the terms have broadened to mean essentially income brackets. If Smith can make a nice living from his writing, he's a bourgeois; if Jones is reciting poetry for coins in a subway terminal, he's a proletarian. But the freedoms of speech and enterprise that they share equally are "nothing but lies and falsehoods so long as" their differences in affluence and influence persist (Luxemburg). The unbroken line from The Communist Manifesto to its contemporary adherents is that economic inequality is the monstrous injustice of the capitalist system, which must be replaced by an ideal of "social justice" -- a "classless" society created by the elimination of all differences in wealth and "power."

Give Marx his due: He was absolutely correct in identifying the political freedom of liberalism -- the right of each man to do as he wishes with his own resources -- as the origin of income disparity under capitalism. If Smith is now earning a fortune while Jones is still stuck in that subway, it's not because of the "class" into which each was born, to say nothing of royal patronage. They are where they are because of how the common man spends his money. That's why some writers sell books in the millions, some sell them in the thousands, and still others can't even get published. It is the choices of the masses ("the market") that create the inequalities of fortune and fame -- and the only way to correct those "injustices" is to control those choices.

Every policy item on the leftist agenda is merely a deduction from this fundamental premise. Private property and the free market of exchange are the most obvious hindrances to the implementation of that agenda, but hardly the only. Also verboten is the choice to emigrate, which removes one and one's wealth from the pool of resources to be redirected by the demands of "social justice" and its enforcers. And crucial to the justification of a "classless" society is the undermining of any notion that individuals are responsible for their behavior and its consequences. To maintain the illusion that classes still exist under capitalism, it cannot be conceded that the "haves" are responsible for what they have or that the "have nots" are responsible for what they have not. Therefore, people are what they are because of where they were born into the social order -- as if this were early 17th century France. Men of achievement are pointedly referred to as "the privileged" -- as if they were given everything and earned nothing. Their seeming accomplishments are, at best, really nothing more than the results of the sheer luck of a beneficial social environment (or even -- in the allowance of one egalitarian, John Rawls -- "natural endowment"). Consequently, the "haves" do not deserve what they have. The flip side of this is the insistence that the "have nots" are, in fact, "the underprivileged," who have been denied their due by an unjust society. If some men wind up behind bars, they are (to borrow from Broadway) depraved only because they are "deprived." Environmental determinism, once an almost sacred doctrine of official Soviet academe, thrives as the "social constructionist" orthodoxy of today's anti-capitalist left. The theory of "behavioral scientists" and their boxed rats serviceably parallels the practice of a Central Planning Board and its closed society.

The imperative of economic equality also generates a striking opposition between "social justice" and its liberal rival. The equality of the latter, we've noted, is the equality of all individuals in the eyes of the law -- the protection of the political rights of each man, irrespective of "class" (or any assigned collective identity, hence the blindfold of Justice personified). However, this political equality, also noted, spawns the difference in "class" between Smith and Jones. All this echoes Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek's observation that if "we treat them equally [politically], the result must be inequality in their actual [i.e., economic] position." The irresistible conclusion is that "the only way to place them in an equal [economic] position would be to treat them differently [politically]" -- precisely the conclusion that the advocates of "social justice" themselves have always reached. In the nations that had instituted this resolution throughout their legal systems, "different" political treatment came to subsume the extermination or imprisonment of millions because of their "class" origins. In our own American "mixed economy," which mixes differing systems of justice as much as economics, "social justice" finds expression in such policies and propositions as progressive taxation and income redistribution; affirmative action and even "reparations," its logical implication; and selective censorship in the name of "substantive equality," i.e., economic equality disingenuously reconfigured as a Fourteenth Amendment right and touted as the moral superior to "formal equality," the equality of political freedom actually guaranteed by the amendment. This last is the project of a growing number of leftist legal theorists that includes Cass Sunstein and Catharine MacKinnon, the latter opining that the "law of [substantive] equality and the law of freedom of expression [for all] are on a collision course in this country." Interestingly, Hayek had continued, "Equality before the law and material equality are, therefore, not only different, but in conflict with each other" -- a pronouncement that evidently draws no dissent.

Hayek emphasized another conflict between the two conceptions of justice, one we can begin examining simply by asking who the subject of liberal justice is. The answer: a person -- a flesh-and-blood person, who is held accountable for only those actions that constitute specifically defined crimes of violence (robbery, rape, murder) against other citizens. Conversely, who is the subject of "social justice" -- society? Indeed yes, but is society really a "who"? When we speak of "social psychology" (the standard example), no one believes that there is a "social psyche" whose thoughts can be analyzed. And yet the very notion of "social justice" presupposes a volitional Society whose actions can (and must) be held accountable. This jarring bit of Platonism traces all the way back to Marx himself, who, "despite all his anti-Idealistic and anti-Hegelian rhetoric, is really an Idealist and Hegelian ... asserting, at root, that [Society] precedes and determines the characteristics of those who are [its] members" (R.A. Childs, Jr.). Behold leftism's alternative to liberalism's "atomistic individualism": reifying collectivism, what Hayek called "anthropomorphism or personification."

Too obviously, it is not liberalism that atomizes an entity (a concrete), but "social justice" that reifies an aggregate (an abstraction). And exactly what injustice is Society responsible for? Of course: the economic inequality between Smith and Jones -- and Johnson and Brown and all others. But there is no personified Society who planned and perpetrated this alleged inequity, only a society of persons acting upon the many choices made by their individual minds. Eventually, though, everyone recognizes that this Ideal of Society doesn't exist in the real world -- leaving two options. One is to cease holding society accountable as a legal entity, a moral agent. The other is to conclude that the only practicable way to hold society accountable for "its" actions is to police the every action of every individual.

The apologists for applied "social justice" have always explained away its relationship to totalitarianism as nothing more than what we may call (after Orwell's Animal Farm) the "Napoleon scenario": the subversion of earnest revolutions by demented individuals (e.g., Stalin, Mao -- to name just two among too many). What can never be admitted is that authoritarian brutality is the not-merely-possible-but-inevitable realization of the nature of "social justice" itself.

What is "social justice"? The theory that implies and justifies the practice of socialism. And what is "socialism"? Domination by the State. What is "socialized" is state-controlled. So what is "totalitarian" socialism other than total socialism, i.e., state control of everything? And what is that but the absence of a free market in anything, be it goods or ideas? Those who contend that a socialist government need not be totalitarian, that it can allow a free market -- independent choice, the very source of "inequality"! -- in some things (ideas) and not in others (goods -- as if, say, books were one or the other), are saying only that the socialist ethic shouldn't be applied consistently. This is nothing less than a confession of moral cowardice. It is the explanation for why, from Moscow to Managua, all the rivalries within the different socialist revolutions have been won by, not the "democratic" or "libertarian" socialists, but the totalitarians, i.e., those who don't qualify their socialism with antonyms. "Totalitarian socialism" is not a variation but a redundancy, which is why half-capitalist hypocrites will always lose out to those who have the courage of their socialist convictions. (Likewise, someone whose idea of "social justice" is a moderate welfare state is someone who's willing to tolerate far more "social injustice" than he's willing to eliminate.)

What is "social justice"? The abolition of privacy. Its repudiation of property rights, far from being a fundamental, is merely one derivation of this basic principle. Socialism, declared Marx, advocates "the positive abolition of private property [in order to effect] the return of man himself as a social, i.e., really human, being." It is the private status of property -- meaning the privacy, not the property -- that stands in opposition to the social (i.e., "socialized," and thus "really human") nature of man. Observe that the premise holds even when we substitute x for property. If private anything denies man's social nature, then so does private everything. And it is the negation of anything and everything private -- from work to worship to even family life -- that has been the social affirmation of the socialist state.

What is "social justice"? The opposite of capitalism. And what is "capitalism"? It is Marx's coinage (minted by his materialist dispensation) for the Western liberalism that diminished state power from absolutism to limited government; that, from John Locke to the American Founders, held that each individual has an inviolable right to his own life, liberty, and property, which government exists solely to secure. Now what would the reverse of this be but a resurrection of Oriental despotism, the reactionary increase of state power from limited government to absolutism, i.e., "totalitarianism," the absolute control of absolutely everything? And what is the opposite -- the violation -- of securing the life, liberty, and property of all men other than mass murder, mass tyranny, and mass plunder? And what is that but the point at which theory ends and history begins?

And yet even before that point -- before the 20th century, before publication of the Manifesto itself -- there were those who did indeed make the connection between what Marxism inherently meant on paper and what it would inevitably mean in practice. In 1844, Arnold Ruge presented the abstract: "a police and slave state." And in 1872, Michael Bakunin provided the specifics:

[T]he People's State of Marx ... will not content itself with administering and governing the masses politically, as all governments do today. It will also administer the masses economically, concentrating in the hands of the State the production and division of wealth, the cultivation of land, the establishment and development of factories, the organization and direction of commerce, and finally the application of capital to production by the only banker -- the State. All that will demand an immense knowledge and many heads "overflowing with brains" in this government. It will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!

It is precisely this "new class" that reflects the defining contradiction of modern leftist reality: The goal of complete economic equality logically enjoins the means of complete state control, yet this means has never practically achieved that end. Yes, Smith and Jones, once "socialized," are equally poor and equally oppressed, but now above them looms an oligarchy of not-to-be-equalized equalizers. The inescapable rise of this "new class" -- privileged economically as well as politically, never quite ready to "wither away" -- forever destroys the possibility of a "classless" society. Here the lesson of socialism teaches what should have been learned from the lesson of pre-liberal despotism -- that state coercion is a means to no end but its own. Far from expanding equality from the political to the economic realm, the pursuit of "social justice" serves only to contract it within both. There will never be any kind of equality -- or real justice -- as long as a socialist elite stands behind the trigger while the rest of us kneel before the barrel.


Further Reading

The contemporary left remains possessed by the spirit of Marx, present even where he's not, and the best overview of his ideology remains Thomas Sowell's Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, which is complemented perfectly by the most accessible refutation of that ideology, David Conway's A Farewell to Marx. Hayek's majestic The Mirage of Social Justice is a challenging yet rewarding effort, while his The Road to Serfdom provides an unparalleled exposition of how freedom falls to tyranny. Moving from theory to practice, Communism: A History, Richard Pipes' slim survey, ably says all that is needed.




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Barry Loberfeld

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