The gathering of assorted leftists on Oct 2nd in Washington D.C. was unremarkable except for the staleness of the rhetoric. “Power to the people,” a dated phrase that evokes the hammer and sickle image, was intended to summon lethargic Democrats to the polls in November. Other speakers fell back on the tired terminology of class warfare and social justice. Big corporations, banks and the rich were predictably cast as villains and the designated victims were there to applaud. Apparently rally organizers were not aware of the disconnect between the event title “One nation working together” and the divisive nature of the speeches and their redistributionist appeals for social justice.
The term social justice has a long and dishonorable history, but it has been given renewed currency by President Obama, various members of Congress and others within the Obama Administration.
Almost 40 years ago, Leonard Read* wrote an essay entitled “Justice vs. Social Justice” in which he explained the difference. Given the resurgence of the concept, Read’s analysis bears reviewing. His contention is that “justice and so-called social justice are opposites, and to promote the former is to retard the latter.”
He defines justice as James Madison did in Federalist 51, as the purpose for government. “Justice,” Madison wrote, “is the end of government. It is the end of civil society.” Justice is how individuals relate to one another. “Justice cannot be rendered to everyone in general, only to each one in particular.”
“The Goddess of Justice is blindfolded; if she peeks, she cheats. Her concern is not with what or who the person is, but what he did or is charged with doing. This is the meaning of ‘a government of laws, not of men.’” Alexander Hamilton called justice “the cement of society.”
However, equality under the law is unacceptable to the proponents of social justice. Treating people equally under the law produces unequal results. It follows that the only way to get equality of result is unequal treatment under the law.
Social justice is the antithesis of the justice Adams and Hamilton defined. Social justice ignores the individual. It divides the population into haves and have-nots and then subdivides again by voting blocks, among them wage earners, old folks, oppressed minorities and so on.
“Social justice is the game of robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul.” It seeks the gain of some at the expense of others.
It is not, as its advocates like to claim, an expression of mercy and pity. As Read points out, those are personal attributes expressed by voluntarily sharing one’s own prosperity. They have nothing at all to do with seizing and redistributing other people’s property.
F. A. Hayek wrote, “Equality of the general rules of law and conduct, however, is the only kind of equality conducive to liberty and the only equality which we can secure without destroying liberty.” The truth of that statement has been amply demonstrated by history.
In an October of 2009 column, Walter Williams warned that the pursuit of social justice always involves massive centralized government power. “It just turns out,” Williams wrote, “last century’s notables in acquiring powerful central government, in the name of social justice, were Hitler, Stalin, Mao, but the struggle for social justice isn’t over yet, and other suitors of this dubious distinction are waiting in the wings.”