Social Justice and the Economy

William H. Young

The German philosopher G. F. W. Hegel saw the French Revolution as superior to the American Revolution because it never accepted America’s lowly standard of “settling for man as he was” and “embracing only his drive for material well-being and gain.” Justice in the American sense, understood chiefly as the equal right to share in the fruits of a bourgeois culture, was hardly sufficient. The French Revolution established the notion of a “higher possibility” for modern democracy, which included genuine justice (something approaching economic equality). (Ordering America, 2010)

Hegel’s philosophy of rights granted by the state became the conception of social justice in the early-twentieth-century American academy and in the concurrent political progressivism. Herbert D. Croly concluded in The Promise of American Life (1909) that the state would have to become responsible for “a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth.” In Progressive Democracy (1915), Croly argued that social justice should be the product of a collective will of American democracy.

With the New Deal, economic rights began to be allocated by government. The Employment Act of 1946 abandoned laissez-faire as national economic policy and committed the government to maintaining a maximum level of employment and production. Tulane sociologist Carl L. Bankston III explains the relationship of social justice to that economic policy (“Social Justice: Cultural Origins of a Perspective and a Theory,” The Independent Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Fall 2010).

The term social justice comes up frequently in circles concerned with political and economic policy. Although it is often ill defined, it generally rests on two overriding principles. First, social justice is viewed primarily as a matter of redistributing goods and resources to improve the situations of the disadvantaged. Second, this redistribution is not presented as a matter of compassion or national interest, but as a matter of the rights of the relatively disadvantaged to make claims on the rest of society….

The desire to redistribute goods toward the disadvantaged in a society of mass consumption was consistent with a version of Keynesian economic logic...In his February 1961 message to the Congress on the economy, [President] Kennedy announced an economic recovery plan that would “sustain consumer spending and increase aggregate demand now when the economy is slack.”

In my previous article Productivity, I explained how this policy led to the disastrous Great Inflation. Banks goes on, paraphrasing Kennedy’s words (quite like those President Obama articulates today):

Kennedy… expressed some of the basic themes that began to turn attention in an economy of high consumption toward the economically and socially marginalized….Because the poor had the least to spend, government could boost economic growth by improving their spending power and by making targeted government investments that would ultimately bring them in from the margins and create full employment….

As demand-side policies became institutionalized in the U. S. economy, putting the least advantaged into jobs and directly subsidizing them to increase their buying power became ways of ensuring that everyone participated fully in a consumption-driven economy….

The most troubling assumption in both the perspective and the theory of social justice involves power. If justice is a matter of organizing society in the best interest of the least advantaged, then the quest for justice necessitates unending efforts to reorganize society in the name of those interests….The goal of reorganizing society as a whole, then, is essentially a goal of reshaping how people choose to live and think. This goal is implicitly totalitarian.

Philosopher Michael Novak (“Defining Social Justice,” First Things, December 2000) argues that the concept of social justice coincided with “the rise of the ideal of the command economy” through which “the lovers of power would rule”:

“Social justice” would have its natural end in a command economy in which individuals are told what to do…This notion presupposes that people are guided by specific external directions rather than internalized, personal rules of just conduct. It further implies that no individual should be held responsible for his relative position….[which] would be “blaming the victim.” It is the function of social justice to blame somebody else, to blame the system, to blame those who (mythically) “control” it.

In The Mirage of Social Justice (1978), Friedrich Hayek made a sharp distinction between those failures of justice that involve breaking agreed-upon rules of fairness and those that consist of results from a free society. In that vein, Novak continues:

The first sort of failure earned his severe moral condemnation. No one should break the rules; freedom imposes high moral responsibilities. The second, insofar as it springs from no willful or deliberate act, seemed to him not a moral matter but an inescapable feature of all societies and of nature itself. When labeling unfortunate results as “social injustices” leads to…a command society, Hayek strenuously opposes the term….

Justice…becomes positively destructive when the term “social” no longer describes the product of the virtuous actions of many individuals, but rather the utopian goal toward which all institutions and all individuals are “made in the utmost degree to converge” by coercion. In that case, the “social” in “social justice” refers to something that emerges not organically and spontaneously from the rule-abiding behavior of free individuals, but rather from an abstract ideal imposed from above.

The former-Marxist author David Horowitz also draws upon Hayek’s Mirage of Social Justice and argues, ironically, in The Politics of Bad Faith (1998):

For two centuries, the Left has attempted to “complete” the French Revolution by extending political and civil freedom into the social realm in the form of redistributionist claims to economic wealth….The leftist revolution must crush freedom in order to achieve the “social justice” that it seeks. It is unable, therefore, to achieve even that end. This is the totalitarian circle that cannot be squared….

That point of view is most succinctly summarized in Hayek’s observation that “the prevailing belief in ‘social justice’ is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization.”…The reason is that the idea of social justice is a chimera and that it incorporates the totalitarian idea. In order for the term “social justice” to have meaning, as Hayek pointed out, there must be an entity “society” that can be held responsible for perceived injustices, such as the unequal distribution of wealth. But there is no such entity.

The unequal distribution of wealth flows from the free choices of individuals in the economic market. The only practical meaning that complaints about social injustice have, therefore, is that a system exists in which individuals are free to choose their occupations, to succeed and to fail, and there is no power to make the results “correspond to our wishes.” In other words, the only remedy for “social injustice” is for a state to abrogate individual freedoms, eliminate such choices, and organize the social order to correspond to its conception of what is morally right. The demand for “social justice” …is really the demand for a command economy organized by a totalitarian state.

In Part II of his April 2011 essay Is Our Civilization a Bubble? Stephen Balch wisely observed that “the great miracle of our lives rests on the anomalous triumph of exchange over command, of making over taking that has showered upon us so much wealth and security.” I amplified this point in my article Exchange. The academic left ignores Balch’s wisdom and seeks Croly’s collective will of society to impose social justice on capitalism through democratic engagement.

And the sustainability ideology now dominant on college campuses would turn America to the ultimate command economy, as I discussed in The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability: Economy. To enforce sustainable development, the state would command a zero-growth economy, ration natural resources and scarcity, and set wages for all on a worldwide rather than national basis.

The academic left, one must conclude, seeks a collective will as a progenitor of its totalitarian, “sustainable” state.


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).

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