Social Justice

By: Hans F. Sennholz | Wed, Aug 13, 2003
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Justice is commonly defined as the quality of being fair and impartial. It is a cardinal virtue which renders to each what is due him. Philosophers and theologians alike expound on the claims made on justice, which they believe guide man in his socio-political life. Indeed, mankind forever seeks justice.

The ancient Greek philosophers set forth concepts and doctrines of justice that elevated the State to the supreme moral agent. Plato who has influenced Western thought for more than 2400 years insisted that the head of the community must be "philosopher" as well as "king" (Republic, Book VI). In the ideal State, men of superior intelligence and character who become "kings" know justice from personal insight; the common citizenry learns it by education and embraces it by trust. Aristotle, a disciple of Plato and tutor of Alexander the Great, espoused ethical and political theories that accept the world as it is. In his Nicomachean Ethics, which is one of the most popular volumes on ethics ever written, he defined justice as "voluntary obedience to law." "A man is unjust if he breaks the law of the land; he is unjust if he takes more than his fair share of anything." (Book V, Chapter 1)

The Bible, sacred book of Judaism and Christianity, seeks to edify and guide people into an understanding of the meaning of justice. Many passages make justice the central rule of divinely ordained behavior. Both sections of the Bible impose obligations to perform individual and group acts of social assistance and relief and to prescribe a system of ethical and legal authority as well as popular consent and acceptance of the obligations. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the principal Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages, human institutions, such as government, are arrangements of reason, a gift of God. Observing the power struggle between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, he called on all believers to resist any law and ordinance that might violate divine law, i.e. that of the Church; however, in order to avoid public disturbance and conflict, he urged them to submit to worldly laws, although such laws may exceed the legislator's authority or impose disproportionate burdens on certain members of society. "There is distributive justice in Him, as the order of the universe shows; for God gives to every creature according to its nature and dignity." (Summa Theologica, Chapter XXI)

In the footsteps of Greek philosophers and Judeo-Christian theologians most modern political writers assign the task of defining and administering justice to legislators and government officials. A few classical-liberal economists and political scientists, perceiving justice as the custodian and protector of that which is due to every individual, would limit their official functions and powers to the protection of life, liberty, and property, favoring a minimal or "night-watchman" State. Other schools of political and economic thought readily agree with this definition of justice, but they strenuously disagree on the nature and measure of "that which is due." A few natural-rights philosophers, reflecting on the "night watchman's" innate inclination to seize power and privileges, would shun his services and instead rely on contractual arrangements. But the vast majority of modern political writers assign to government not only the "night-watchman" function but also a formal and explicit responsibility for the basic well-being of all its subjects. They are convinced that the welfare of the individual is too important to be left to private understandings and arrangements and is, therefore, a concern and obligation of the State. To them, too, justice is the firm desire to render to everyone that which is his due; but "his due" may be broadened to what "he ought to have" according to a wide range of value judgments; it is the due of "social justice."

Such "social justice" assigns to government and its agents the ultimate responsibility for the basic well-being of every individual and makes government officials superior judges of individual rights. It charges government with the task of alleviating major causes of economic hardship, such as unemployment or various disabilities resulting from old age, widowhood, single parenthood, or illness. The media daily report basic social needs that they see as neglected. They also report urgent needs in public education, research, medical care and medication, the environment, public housing, and a host of others whether at home or abroad. Reacting to such presumed needs, most politicians devise special benefit programs and, in order to enact them, cooperate with other politicians with similar philosophies. They may cite the arguments of "welfare economists" who would redistribute income and wealth because "it increases total want satisfaction." Loss of the last unit of income of the successful and affluent is but a small sacrifice, they write, but the same unit in the hands of the poor amounts to a substantial improvement. They claim that the transfer enables more intense wants to be satisfied at the expense of less intense wants, thus increasing the aggregate sum of want satisfaction. Complete equalization of income and wealth would maximize total satisfaction.

Welfare economists and their followers in politics press for benefits regardless of their effects on the providers of economic production. Simplistically, they assume that economic activity will continue undiminished no matter what they may do to "the affluent", that the providers will continue to supply productive capital, create jobs, and raise wage rates regardless of the burdens placed upon them. Obviously, such assumptions misunderstand the very nature of man.

Even if the income utility of different individuals could be compared with a common rod, the dissatisfaction of wealthy individuals about the loss of income is likely to be far greater than the satisfaction of the poor for such largesse. The victims of the transfer operation may be more indignant about the loss of their earned income than the beneficiaries are pleased and content about their gratuitous gain. Indeed, the victims are bound to react to mandatory income transfer in a myriad of ways that reduce available total income. They may conceal their income or move it, transfer it, or exchange it for leisure. Some victims, being harassed for shifting their income and prosecuted for tax evasion, may even emigrate to countries that welcome productive individuals.

In a market economy great personal wealth invariably consists of means of production providing employment and the production of producers' and consumers' goods. For example, the great wealth of a billionaire may consist of oil wells and refineries, means of transportation and communication, and many other tools of production. To seize his productive assets or force him to liquidate them, then distribute and consume them is to reduce labor productivity, lower wage rates, and thus aggravate the employment market. It is counterproductive no matter whether it is exacted by progressive income taxation or confiscatory estate levies.

Most Americans are oblivious to more subtle effects that render redistributional efforts counterproductive. In a free economy many highly talented individuals serve the economic needs and wants of all the people. They may apply their energy and ability to reorganize and revolutionize a phase of production. Inventors like Eli Whitney and Thomas Edison, innovators like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, and organizers like Edward Harriman and John Pierpont Morgan, are led to mobilize economic resources and direct them toward serving the public. The vital few, instead of ruling man, are led to serve man. In a "social justice" economy many such may seek self-fulfillment in the arts and sciences, in civil service or military careers, yea, even in politics. Creative and productive individuals thus may shun the field of economic management, surrendering it to politicians and bureaucrats. The detrimental effects on a healthy economy need not be elaborated upon.

The "social justice" service State places politicians and government officials in the center of the economic order. Legislators pass economic laws, administrators adopt regulations, judges adjudicate them; tax collectors, inspectors, and policemen enforce them. Having amputated higher incomes, which provide the savings and investments for economic expansion, government officials must assume the investment function. They allocate tax funds or preferably new central-bank funds to their favorite industries which, suffering losses, call for subsidies. Similarly, when few individuals can afford expensive training and education, government must provide scholarship funds. In every case the "social justice" service State leads to an expansion of the powers of government and of the officials who constitute it and makes them the primary beneficiaries of the system.

Politicians and government officials thus act as spokesmen and trustees of the "underprivileged", doling out benefits to recipients and assigning burdens to providers. In order to avoid creation of a social class perceived as "underprivileged" wards, most such monetary benefits are extended to all members of society. Social Security and Medicare benefits are extended to the poor and affluent alike, which removes the stigma of transfer, but significantly raises the expense of redistribution and necessitates higher taxes on all. In the end, even the beneficiaries are forced to contribute more to the system than they receive; after all, the legions of administrators are not inexpensive.

A "social justice" society is a conflict society which locks beneficiaries and victims alike in a struggle without end. It becomes a society torn apart by resentment over the wealth of capitalists. Envy fosters lawlessness and, especially, crimes against property. Rising rates of crime reveal the growing gravity of social conflict which, in the end, may lead to dangerous confrontations and civil strife.

While the crime rate has risen significantly throughout the growth of the "social justice" State, the envy and resentment which it breeds are directed primarily at businessmen. Most Americans do not condemn and reject all manifestations of economic inequality. For example, they do not covet the multimillion-dollar incomes of their favorite entertainers and athletes; they enjoy watching their famous film stars, recording artists, and sports figures making splashy spectacles of their monetary success. Most even accept the expansive splendor of their politicians and the spectacle of government grandeur displayed in Washington and in state capitols. Every year millions of people are drawn to the seats of political power that fill them with awe and admiration. Indeed, they do not begrudge such individuals the luxuries of political office, but cheerfully approve of the sumptuous conditions of their elected leaders, whether state or national.

"Social justice" advocates are resentful of the fortunes earned by entrepreneurs and capitalists, considering such profits to be exploitative and unjust. In their eyes earned fortunes are unfairly withheld from workers and gouged from consumers. They cling to old exploitation doctrines first espoused by Karl Marx and such socialist writers as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other members of the Fabian Society. Holding forth on social injustices, politicians clamor for the votes of the "exploited" and "underprivileged," promising to wage war on poverty, to create jobs, and raise wage rates. Always occupying the high ground of concern for their "poor" fellowmen, they labor diligently first to forge, and then to politicize interest groups. At election times in particular, they stir the flames of discontent and envy, charging their political opponents with corruption, deceit, and fraud. They may even threaten their opponents with physical assault. To them, politics is class warfare without bloodshed but with public verbal brawls meant to demonstrate their determination.

Indeed, most politicians in opposition to those in power are tireless fomenters of social unrest and political strife. One need only listen to their ferocious denunciations of opponents for favoring high business profits at the expense of "poor working people". If Karl Marx and Beatrice Webb could hear them, they would rise with approbation and applause. In 1787 Benjamin Franklin clearly foresaw the ultimate outcome of such politics: "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."


Author: Hans F. Sennholz

Hans F. Sennholz

Copyright © 2002-2007 Hans F. Sennholz

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