Social Justice and Capitalism

William H. Young

In its contemporary academic incarnation, social justice embraces the ethos of redistribution to achieve fairness and equality. Within that ethos, certain mores, assumptions, and habits of mind have been so thoroughly imbued in students, professors, and public policy elites that they have become second nature. At the same time, many aspects of the intellectual traditions on which our economic and social order was founded have not only been discarded, but largely forgotten. And current undergraduates are unlikely to learn them at all.

Thus, most of today’s college graduates have no conception of just how contrary the pervasive underlying components of “social justice” are to those of the founding order and to its concomitant view of human nature. As such, they are wholly unable to appreciate how and why the basic principles of capitalism and limited government led to our successful economic, political, and social order. What should be more closely examined are the specific assumptions that constitute social justice and why they are inimical to a prosperous social order and to individuals. To that end, let’s first directly contrast the distinctive tenets of social justice and of capitalism within our founding order.

Social justice is based on the following tenets:

  •         Human nature is a blank slate; inequalities stem largely from the social order.
  •         Individuals must be made equal by the social order to redress undeserved inequalities.
  •         Individual freedom is created by the state through allocations of rights and resources to designated social groups.
  •         Equality of opportunity is socially constructed by the state to achieve social diversity.
  •         Individuals are evaluated as members of oppressed groups and by share of communal result.
  •         Inequality of outcome is unfair; fairness is the equal sharing of societal outcomes among groups.
  •         Reward is based on rights to communal sharing, inspiring envy and inducing entitlement.
  •         Recognition comes from group preferences awarded to redress privilege and past oppression.
  •         Equality as fairness overrides all other values, including efficiency, productivity, and the common good of the organizational entity.
  •         Hierarchy is based on diversity by group to overcome privilege.
  •         Equality is the goal.

Capitalism and limited government, by contrast, is based on very different premises:

  •         Human nature is inherent, with innate but unequal potentialities among individuals.
  •         Individuals bring inequalities of abilities and interests, and a work ethic, to the social order.
  •         Individual freedom derives from natural rights and emphasizes personal responsibility and opportunity.
  •         Equality of opportunity is determined by diversity of learned capabilities and legal equality (prohibiting prejudice and discrimination).
  •         Individuals are evaluated as persons who perform and deserve unequally.
  •         Inequality of outcome is inevitable and fair; fairness is judged by differential achievement and contribution.
  •         Reward is based on equity and reciprocity, incentivizing performance and inspiring cooperation.
  •         Recognition comes from accomplishment in mutually beneficial exchange and fair competition.
  •         Equality is subordinate to productivity to maximize the common good of the organizational entity
  •         Hierarchy is also fair, and is based on function and merit.
  •         Excellence is the goal.

Justice—not social justice—is the end of government and civil society contemplated by the Constitution, as James Madison explained in The Federalist, No. 51. The Founders considered equality of opportunity in the economic and social order as justice. That order was shaped by their perception of the unequal faculties of human nature. A commercial republic—with few rewards provided by limited government—provided for pursuit by individuals of prosperity within multiple productive hierarchies to fulfill their different interests and potentialities, later further enabled by public education.

The founding vision of human nature has been validated by modern evolutionary psychology, as summarized by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate (2002). The most common ethos of humans is reciprocity, not communal sharing. Human nature was forged in competition; man is competitive. The drive for human dominance is universal. Human nature is hierarchical; man seeks to form hierarchies of dominance. Humans have a need for recognition or esteem from others. They have a deep-seated capacity for envy.

Our system of regulated market capitalism is built upon mutually beneficial exchange: reciprocity. Humans realize their ambitions for dominance and hierarchical status through competition, satisfy their desire (envy) for material reward and comfort, and receive recognition and esteem from others through achievement. Capitalism captures the motivation to self-interest and channels it in a way that encourages human cooperation and betterment.

The Founders rejected the economic theory of the French Physiocrats, which Tocqueville characterized in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1858) as “absolute equality, State control of the activities of individuals, despotic legislation, and the total submerging of each citizen’s personality in the group mind”—a Gallic precursor to social justice.

But progressivism adopted Hegel’s argument that capitalism, ipso facto, yields unequal recognition of the dignity of the individual. Full recognition of the individual, and freedom from want and the inequality of private property, can be provided only through rights to social justice granted by the state.

The doctrine of social constructionism—human nature is produced by culture and the state, through groups—replaced the founding concept of human nature as I showed previously in Social Justice and Human Nature. John Rawls reinforced the intellectual basis for progressivism, which I analyzed last week in Social Justice and Fairness. He envisions equality of self-respect from societal recognition.

Both economic and cultural Marxism, seeking social justice through communal sharing by group, dominate the beliefs of the American academic left. History is a series of clashes between exploited and exploiting groups. In postmodern multiculturalism, diversity defines individuals as members of groups. Hierarchies that drive capitalism are seen to be oppressive to identity groups and based on unjust privilege. Evolutionary psychology has shown that such group-based approaches are naturally divisive.

In Part II of his April 2011 essay Is Our Civilization a Bubble? Stephen Balch wisely avers:

Where the route to wealth is via exchange, members of society, especially the most talented and energetic, are motivated to produce more wealth in order to trade it for the wealth produced by others. Relationships tend to become mutually beneficial, overall wealth increases, and inventive ways are found to produce ever more of it.

Lamentably, as I argued in my previous article Exchange, only a small minority of college students accepts capitalist economics since:

Few students leave their courses with a genuine understanding of how commercial societies work, societies in which everyone specializes and lives by exchanging. Many believe that “the activity of pursuing one’s own interests…is, if not wicked, at least somewhat immoral.” “In a commercial society, everyone uses others as a means to their own ends.” They see that as “basically immoral.”

Such misguided moralism is the fruit of long years of schooling in “social justice.” But capitalism--serving each party’s mutual self-interest as well as the societal interest—is a superior moral system.

Ironically, the beliefs ingrained by social justice undermine the ability of both capitalism and students to thrive in the real world. “Teaching for social justice” in public schools has yielded graduates lacking the skills required to earn a wage sufficient to support a family. Meanwhile, jobs requiring such skills go begging.

Too often in the academy, study of identity subjects produces inflated grades for little effort, aimed at raising the self-esteem of members of oppressed groups, rather than imparting the hard knowledge necessary to succeed in most job situations. Recognition comes from preferences and group rights rather than competition and performance. Group sharing replaces individual responsibility. Fairness replaces differential achievement. Entitlement replaces reciprocity. Hierarchy of diversity replaces hierarchy of merit. Worst of all, equality—inclusive excellence—replaces excellence as the objective of education.

Many of the products of American education have been imbued with the enervating tenets of social justice. They have not been prepared for the demands and rigors of the economic constituent of the social order that operates based on the different tenets of capitalism.

The resulting combination of ignorance of the functioning of the capitalist order and its requirements, the continued hostility of the intellectual class to that order, and the turn of the academy and the state ever more toward social justice does not bode well for a prosperous future—for either individuals or society.

Next week’s article will examine application of the concept of social justice to the American economy—state power over a command economy.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: "G20 April 1st" by Jonny White // CC BY-SA

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