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.”

7 thoughts on “Hayek on “The Mirage of Social Justice”

  1. you seem to be a Hayek bhakt. I am amused/baffled by your last statement “It is fraudulent because it employs fine sentiments (charity, generosity, etc) as instruments for the destruction of all values of a free civilization.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by ‘all values of a free civilization’ and how the said sentiments might be used to destroy them?

    I am quoting here from wikipedia on social justice, so that we have a common ground to discuss on:
    “Social justice assigns rights and duties in the institutions of society, which enables people to receive the basic benefits and burdens of cooperation.[3] The relevant institutions can include education, health care, social security, labour rights, as well as a broader system of public services, progressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealth, equal opportunity, equality of outcome, and no gross social injustice.”

    One thing that confounds me about you Hayek bhakts is how you hate big government but put absolute faith in the so called free market and the big businesses it churns out. big businesses are not answerable to you and your relationship to them is governed by cryptic terms & conditions that could change without notice. and yet you seem to put absolute faith in them.

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    1. As it happens, I have decided not to argue with anyone — particularly people who have a different ideological perspective. Ideologies are hard to escape from and it is a waste of time to try to convince people to examine their prejudices.

      Thus, thanks for your comment but I will not respond.

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  2. Social justice: because people are unequal the gov. ought to treat them unequally in order to make them equal…. If there ever was a layman’s definition that captures the essence of social justice this is it.

    Seeing the multitude of policies be it in law (UCC) edu (reservation, RTE) religious freedom (control over temple but not other institutions) it feels as if we have a social justice bureau instead of a republic.

    May be stating the obvious but the precision and methodology of first defining/understanding the issue at hand in its entirety and then debunking stood out. If only we had such rigor and process in what passes for discourse today ūüė¶

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    1. Defining/understanding an issue before rushing off to get things done? Perish the thought.

      Idiots don’t know that they need to understand the problem before they can have any hope of solving it. The people are perhaps not intelligent but the leaders are certifiably stupid.

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  3. I see it differently than Hayek. Social justice is analytically an elusive concept. It’s relativist objectivism of a particular theoretical framework whose purported objectivity falters when its structuralist foundation is scrutinized more closely. For this approach, it is helpful to see social justice theory as being constructed by specific moralistic perceptions of a particular Western-liberal universality. Not to mention that there is something dysfunctional about Western modes of social justice understandings representing universal morality norms for humans around the world.

    The implementation of Western modes of social justice understandings‚ÄĒespecially when dialogues on social justice are not only Anglophone-centric but also monopolized by Western-in-origin moralisms (especially since it‚Äôs sociologically a Western conception)‚ÄĒamong communities of oppositional or radically different socio-ecological environments can be, at least somewhat, and as Skirbekk analyzes in ‚ÄúDysfunctional Culture‚ÄĚ (2005; pgs. 72-75), faulty.

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  4. I found the post relatively content free. It started with an abstraction called social justice and went on to discover that it was an abstraction. Reminded me of a bhatura from chana bhatura and the fluffy emptiness of it.

    That said, lets say the wikipedia definition is usable. If it is, then the question turns to: if a society is built with building blocks should we define those rigorously as to serve everyone equally. In other words, if we have roads, should we have rules on how they are used?

    In fact, one finds, from an evolutionary perspective, that as the economic strength of a region improves, as the pie gets bigger, the region becomes amenable to such a set of rules.

    What say ye?

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    1. Hayek wanted to rigorously define what “social justice” is, and what people precisely mean by it. It’s a phrase thrown around by many people without a proper understanding of what it is. So Hayek concluded and that’s what this post is about.

      I don’t quite follow what you mean by “such a set of rules”. What is that set?

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