1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar
Source link: http://archive.mises.org/19290/justice-versus-social-justice-2/

Justice versus Social Justice

November 17, 2011 by

Leonard ReadThere was a time when people understood justice far better than we do today. Aristotle’s definition was “Justice is to give every man his own.” Cicero’s was almost identical. America’s Declaration of Independence reflected that tradition in asserting inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

What does that traditional American view of justice consist of? It is almost entirely a matter of defending “negative rights” — freedoms from encroachment on our inalienable rights. Government is to protect citizens from others’ encroachments on our rights (e.g., by defending property rights against force and fraud), yet citizens are also to be protected from government encroachments. Such rights, which can be held by everyone at the same time, are best illustrated by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

However, over time, that understanding of rights as freedoms from others’ abuse has been giving way to “positive rights” — rights to be given things (e.g., housing, food, education, income, etc.). Unfortunately, creating positive rights to be given things via government requires that other people’s negative rights be violated, since the government has no resources it does not first take from others, regardless of whether they consented. Further, not everyone can have such positive rights at the same time, as acquiring the resources to provide someone what they did not acquire through voluntary arrangements reduces the ability of those taken from to acquire those same things.

In recent times, the erosion of negative rights to create positive rights for some — violating the traditional understanding of justice — has used the language of “social justice,” which rhetorically hides the evisceration of the traditional meaning of universal justice (e.g., a government of equal laws rather than the favoritism of men) by keeping the word justice, but adding a new modifier.

Leonard Read, one of history’s most prolific defenders of liberty, recognized this battle between negative rights and positive rights, and the huge but hidden transformation it involved, for what it was. And in “Justice Versus Social Justice” (in his 1973 Who’s Listening?), he analyzed the conflict, starting from Aristotle’s definition of justice, in powerful terms.

Since the battle is still being played out, with the real justice represented by negative rights on the losing side, Read’s understanding is an invaluable part of shifting the scales back in that direction, and merits close attention.

What is justice? “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society” (James Madison, Federalist 51)…

[J]ustice and so-called social justice are opposites…to promote the latter is to retard the former.

[O]nly individuals experience justice or injustice… Justice cannot be rendered to everyone in general, only to each one in particular.

[J]ustice prevails in personal relations, that is, in the absence of injustice. Understood in this manner, justice is indeed the end of civil society.

Government in its ideal concept can have no other end than a common justice, for this is the end of civil society of which government is the arm or agent. The Goddess of Justice is blindfolded; if she peeks, she cheats…This is the meaning of “A government of laws, not of men.”

I have a moral right to my life, livelihood, liberty. Is this just? Yes, if one can concede a similar right to every other individual. I can! Try it in reverse: I have a moral right to take the life, livelihood, liberty of another. Just? Only if I can rationally concede the right of murder, theft, enslavement to everyone else. I cannot concede this right to anyone; thus, it is neither good nor just.

The institution of freedom, if properly defined, suffices to render justice to each individual. John Stuart Mill said: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

We now come to what is euphemistically referred to as social justice, though it is in theory and practice the very opposite of justice…a device that politicians and social planners find convenient to gain votes and power.

Social justice has no case except the lust for position; it has no rational content and simply manifests the little-god syndrome.

In the practice of so-called social justice, the individual is ignored…Social justice is the game of “robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul.” This form of political behavior seeks the gain of some at the expense of others… it is the thwarting of justice that begs our censure.

Test social justice…to perceive the difference.

If you would not condone others coercively taking from you to feather their nests, you could not, perforce, take from them to feather your own.

Social justice involves…depriving others to gain one’s ends.

Social justice promises to reward the idle by punishing and restraining those who have exercised creative energy.

So-called social justice is man’s greatest injustice to man, antisocial in every respect; not the cement of society, but the lust for power and privilege and the seed of man’s corruption and downfall.

[S]ocial justice in no way fits the claim of its advocates: an expression of mercy and pity. These virtues are strictly personal attributes and are expressed only in the voluntary giving of one’s own, never in the seizure and redistribution of someone else’s possessions.

Morally and ethically motivated citizens can condone a philosophy of so-called social justice only if they fail to see its terrible injustice.

If people thought as carefully about the massive misrepresentation that is entailed by claims of “social justice” as Leonard Read, we would not be so far down the path to eviscerating justice in the name of a “new and improved” justice. Yet, having moved down that path, the only route to improvement is to recognize the rhetorical cheat and reverse course. Leonard Read’s contrast between justice and social justice is a good start toward real progress in that direction — progress that entails undoing the “progressive” political redefinition (or better, mis-definition) of justice.


Hack November 17, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Your articles are great. Thanks.

Nuke Gray November 17, 2011 at 9:41 pm

A journalist once proposed lampooning the whole concept by insisting on cosmic justice! Whilst never explained, I always thought this meant that every planet should have a nice ring around it (why should Saturn have a monopoly on big rings?), and should be an equal distance from the Sun, and why don’t we go back in time and stop whatever got rid of the dinosaurs- and let’s make all lifeforms vegetarians! Cosmic Justice, NOW!

Hume November 18, 2011 at 12:57 am

“Government is to protect citizens from others’ encroachments on our rights (e.g., by defending property rights against force and fraud)”

This looks awfully like a positive right to me. Also, the Bill of Rights does not provide the support you seek. For example, the 5th Amendment states “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.” So individuals have a right to Grand Jury proceedings. This requires others doing positive acts in order to provide this right. The 5th Amendment continues: “nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” So individuals have the positive right to due process of law. This requires others doing positive acts in order to provide this right. The 6th Amendment states “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” This requires others to do positive acts, for an “impartial jury” must be made up of persons. The same can be said about the 7th Amendment.

As an anarchist/libertarian, I am sympathetic to the claim that “negative rights” are the rights individuals actually posses. But I do not think the issue is some sort of self-evident maxim that needs no justification or defense. Nor do I think that those who favor positive rights are ignorant or evil men. The negative/positive debate has been argued to death over the last decades; it does not serve the libertarian cause to pretend like this debate is not a live one with strong arguments on both sides, or that this is a fetish of the 20th-21st century (Rousseau and Kant come immediately to mind (recall that Kant argues that everyone has a right to demand that others enter into political society, a positive right)).

Anthony November 18, 2011 at 11:55 pm

“So individuals have a right to Grand Jury proceedings”…

This only means that the state cannot violate a persons right to life without using a specific mechanism, ditto for the right to a trial. That does not give everyone has the right to a jury, only the right not to be deprived of freedom without one.

Not that I disagree with the rest of your post.

Inquisitor November 19, 2011 at 11:21 am

Actually positive rights are on a horribly weak basis. If you are not convinced, read Anton de Jasay’s The State, as he dissolves the case for positive rights and the state based on utilitarian and deontological grounds as well as intuitionist (though I think intuitionism is a terrible moral theory in its own right.) The difference is that, like Keynesianism, arguments for them often -sound- sophisticated and/or strong, but a lot of them rely on strings of conceptual ambiguities/nonsense/outright lies/contradictions. Negative rights can mostly be argued for via epistemologically routed arguments that place the burden of proof on statists to make the case for their “rights” (which apparently are a right to everything under the sun), and/or expose contradictions in their denial.

Inquisitor November 19, 2011 at 11:15 am

“progress that entails undoing the “progressive” political redefinition (or better, mis-definition) of justice.”

Lets call it what it is – regressive.

alkane benzene November 19, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Social Justice and Universial Health Care.
By your definition, Universal Health Care, requiring everyone to have, is in effect an “injustice.” There is an issue here, such that as it stands, without requiring everyone to have, then the those that are paying for it, are paying for those that do not have it. Since, we can’t let people just die on the sidewalk.
So, as Madison would say, government has to be Blind. It is not, so we are at a cross roads, on really what is an individuals innate rights? We have to look at where we are, such that back long time ago, medical care was not as ubiquious as it is now. So, is health care a basic right?
Just how does justice now work?

Inquisitor November 19, 2011 at 10:33 pm

“Since, we can’t let people just die on the sidewalk.”

Who is “we”? Why would they die on the sidewalk?

“We have to look at where we are, such that back long time ago, medical care was not as ubiquious as it is now. So, is health care a basic right?”

Why would it be? Why is someone else providing you a good an innate right?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: