Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rethinking Social Justice (Part 3 of 3)

This is part three of  a series critiquing social justice, as normally defined, and suggesting a new definition we all can support. Previously: Part 1 - Part 2

As previously proposed, justice ought to be defined not by the preferences of bureaucratic engineers or even by the will of a majority but by the protection of objective, natural rights. Social justice is an admirable goal only insofar as it stays within the boundaries of true justice. A system generally defined as classical liberalism, based on the protection of individual rights and liberties, fulfills the objective of justice because it calls for a limited government to enforce natural law so that no person violates the rights of another, and which may adjudicate conflicts in these rights; all the while, however, it must be careful not to violate the rights of individuals. In such a society, not only are natural rights preserved, but the social problems to which the aforementioned social engineers seek solutions in pursuit of justice are, to a great extent, mitigated. The superiority of liberty to other conceptions of justice is evidenced through both theory and history.
 
In a just society, as I have defined it, all interactions and transactions would be voluntary. This simple fact is best observed in the economic realm. In a free marketplace, when people seek to exchange goods and services, neither party is coerced into doing something he or she does not want to do. Therefore, since every rational person seeks to do what benefits him (I do not mean that every rational man is selfish, but that he has wants and seeks to achieve them; insofar as he does this, he is working for his own benefit even if what he wants is the well-being of others), every transaction will result in both parties benefiting. Take this simple example. If Sally believes she will not benefit from trade with Steve, then she will not trade with Steve. If she thinks she will benefit, then she still cannot consummate a transaction unless Steve concurs. If both decide they can benefit, then, and only then, will a trade take place. This concept of mutually beneficial transactions is central to the justice of free markets. There can be no exploitation of anyone if no one is forced to do anything. The result is that free interactions are positive sum. They create more value than previously existed. No transaction can ever take place unless both parties agree and expect to benefit.

Notice how this fact affects the ability of the rich few to take advantage of the poor masses that the Progressive definition of social justice so fears and tries to guard against. In a free system, the only way for anyone to get rich is to give other people what they want. In fact, the only way for anyone to get anything he wants is to give others what they want. It is difficult to think of a more moral system than one in which legitimate economic advancement comes only as a result of helping one’s fellow man.

History also vindicates the justice of free societies when put into practice. For most of history, humans have suffered abject poverty and misery in unjust civilizations. Under emperors, feudal lords, and absolute monarchs, impoverished conditions were the norm. A privileged class of nobles and elites were entrenched and the poor could not hope to rise to anything greater status than that of their parents. It was not until relatively recently that classical liberalism became fully developed and began to change the cycle of hereditary determinism. The 18th century saw free people starting their own businesses, developing new technologies, and rebelling against tyrannous governments. It is no coincidence that the modern era of economic innovation and prosperity developed at the same time that Locke’s proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with rights to life liberty and property became “self-evident.” It was all made possible by the decline of mercantilist economic policies, which aimed to enrich the politically connected elite, and the rise of liberalism, which exalted the rights of individuals.

The cause of this great swelling of wealth, that makes the average man of today better off than the Caesars and which Progressives so yearn to redistribute, was the institution of free markets. It is free markets that lifted the nations of the world out of poverty. The strong monarchs of history could not do it. The redistributionists in communists China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union could not do it. As Milton Friedman put it when questioned by Phil Donahue about the justice of capitalism, “…the only cases in which the masses have escaped from … grinding poverty…, the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade.”[1]  Proponents of the contemporary leftist definition of social justice find themselves at odds with reality. They want to help the poor by taking from the rich, but they fail realize that the same system that allowed the rich to become rich is the only system that can raise the impoverished out of their destitute state. Not only do they misunderstand justice, but their misunderstanding leads them to undermine their stated goals.

From the preceding evidence, we may conclude that genuine social justice is the universal protection of the natural rights of each person in a society. A just society, under this definition, would differ greatly from popular left-wing notions of “social justice”. Such a society would be characterized by freedom, in which government is limited in its function as opposed to a coercive leviathan to enforce schemes of planners. It would be a flourishing society in which every man succeeds as far as his abilities can take him instead of a stagnant one in which desire for equality stunts individual and collective growth. Pursuing social justice, properly defined and rooted in natural rights, is both ethically and practically desirable and should be embraced by conservatives everywhere.


[1] Friedman, Milton. Interview with Donahue Phil. The Phil Donahue Show. NBC, WDTN, 1979.

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