Hayek with pipe“‘Social’ or Distributive Justice.” Chapter 9 in Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy, Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Pages 62–100.

I was so excited after my first Hayek epiphany that I sought out (through my local library system) some Hayek material not yet available as a free eBook. (Well, technically, I ordered the library book based on Thomas Sowell’s citation of it in A Conflict of Visions. I found the eBook while checking to see if the Ludwig von Mises Institute site had a copy of Law, Legislation and Liberty for free download, which it did not.) As clear from my post about that epiphany, as well as in my review of Routes and Radishes, Christian academia’s current embrace of “social justice” troubles me greatly. (As I’ve previously observed, I am easily troubled.) Hayek’s “‘Social’ or Distributive Justice” addresses the topic so effectively that I couldn’t resist passing along some quotations and commentary. This post is probably less a review than an extended set of annotated quotations, though with more commentary than normally found in the latter.

Hayek describes his motivation for writing “‘Social’ or Distributive Justice” this way: “I have come to feel strongly that the greatest service I can still render to my fellow men would be…[to] make the speakers and writers among them thoroughly ashamed ever again to employ the term ‘social justice’,” because “the phrase ‘social justice’ is not, as most people probably feel, an innocent expression of good will towards the less fortunate, but…a dishonest insinuation that one ought to agree to a demand of some special interest which can give no real reason for it….the mark of demagogy or cheap journalism which responsible thinkers ought to be ashamed to use…”(97). Though “justice in the sense of rules of just conduct is indispensable for the intercourse of free men,” a call for “social justice” is “merely an invitation to give moral approval to demands that have no moral justification, and which are in conflict with the basic rule of a free society that only such rules as can be applied equally to all should be enforced” (97).

Unlike some unsophisticated advocates of the free market (more prevalent in caricature than reality), who convince themselves that successes and failures in the market are reliable indicators of personal moral worth or merit (poverty is just punishment for bad choices, wealth the reliable outcome of good choices), Hayek readily acknowledges that in the market bad things do happen to good people (and good things to bad, or just not so good, people). This is not a legitimate basis for calling the market “unjust,” however. He writes:

It has of course to be admitted that the manner in which the benefits and burdens are apportioned by the market mechanisms would in many instances have to be regarded as very unjust if it were the result of a deliberate allocation to particular people. But this is not the case. Those shares are the outcome of a process the effect of which on particular people was neither intended nor foreseen by anyone when the institutions first appeared—institutions which were then permitted to continue because it was found that they improve for all or most the prospects of having their needs satisfied. To demand justice from such a process is clearly absurd, and to single out some people in such a society as entitled to a particular share is evidently unjust. (64–65)

Note that Hayek finds justification for not interfering with market processes or institutions in the reality that they have been found to “improve for all or most the prospects of having their needs satisfied.” One finds no “Devil take the hindmost” attitude here; rather, one finds a benevolent concern for the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people. Though there may be free market advocates who are “Devil take the hindmost” Social Darwinist types (at least in movies), Hayek is not one of them. (Note that I am here using “Social Darwinist” in its popular usage, where harshness and uncaring are implied. This may be a caricature, or may ignore varieties of self-labeled “Social Darwinism” that I have yet to encounter or study. To some, the mere idea of free competition in the market is “Darwinian.” In fact, I once had a seminary professor say, if I recall accurately, that “Capitalism is just Darwinism applied to economics.” Darwinian Evolution has, of course, been the go-to analogy for diverse processes of change and competition ever since On The Origin of Species hit the bestseller lists. I confess, however, that it is unclear to me how social adaptation driven by consciously choosing human minds parallels the alleged processes of biological evolution driven by chance and mindless processes incapable of “choosing” anything.)

On the history, current state, and future direction of “social justice,” Hayek helpfully offers the following:

The expression [“social justice”] of course described from the beginning the aspirations which were at the heart of socialism. Although classical socialism has usually been defined by its demand for socialization of the means of production, this was for it chiefly a means thought to be essential in order to bring about a “just” distribution of wealth; and since socialists have later discovered that this redistribution could in a great measure, and against less resistance, be brought about by taxation (and government services financed by it), and have in practice often shelved their earlier demands, the realization of “social justice” has become their chief promise. It might indeed be said that the main difference between the order of society at which classical liberalism aimed and the sort of society into which it is now being transformed is that the former was governed by principles of just individual conduct while the new society is to satisfy the demands of “social justice”—or, in other words, that the former demanded just action by individuals while the latter more and more places the duty of justice on authorities with power to command people what to do. (65–66)

Though you may already be familiar with the distinction, I note “just in case” that “classical liberalism” is advocacy of the free market, individual liberty, and equality under the law, a position most common today among Republicans and Libertarians. It should not be confused with what I call “left-liberalism,” a liberty-destructive view common among Democrats, Socialists, and anyone self-identifying as “liberal” or “left-wing.”

Hayek recognizes that “commitment to ‘social justice’ has in fact become the chief outlet of moral emotion” and that “Though people may occasionally be perplexed to say which of the conflicting claims advanced in its name are valid, scarcely anyone doubts that the expression has a definite meaning, describes a high ideal, and points to grave defects of the existing social order which urgently call for correction” (66). “But,” he points out, “the near-universal acceptance of a belief does not prove that it is valid or even meaningful any more than the general belief in witches or ghosts proved the validity of these concepts” (Ibid.). Note that Hayek’s point here is valid whether or not witches and ghosts are real. Just as widespread disbelief in them would not prove they were unreal, so widespread belief in them would not prove them real. Believers in witches and ghosts, therefore, should still give Hayek a hearing. “What we have to deal with in the case of ‘social justice,’” he concludes, “is simply a quasi-religious superstition of the kind which we should respectfully leave in peace so long as it merely makes those happy who hold it, but which we must fight when it becomes the pretext of coercing other men. And the prevailing belief in ‘social justice’ is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization” (66–7).

Belief in “social justice” poses “probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization”? How so? Noting that calls to pursue “social justice” raise two important questions, Hayek writes:

The first is whether within an economic order based on the market the concept of ‘social justice’ has any meaning or content whatever.

The second is whether it is possible to preserve a market order while imposing upon it (in the name of ‘social justice’ or any other pretext) some pattern of remuneration based on the assessment of the performance or the needs of different individuals or groups by an authority possessing power to enforce it.

The answer to each of these questions is a clear no.

Yet it is the general belief in the validity of the concept of “social justice” which drives all contemporary societies into greater and greater efforts of the second kind and which has a peculiar self-accelerating tendency: the more dependent the position of the individuals or groups is seen to become on the actions of government, the more they will insist that the governments aim at some recognizable scheme of distributive justice; and the more governments try to realize some preconceived pattern of desirable distribution, the more they must subject the position of the different individuals and groups to their control. So long as the belief in “social justice” governs political action, this process must progressively approach nearer and nearer to a totalitarian system. (68)

In a free system, Hayek reiterates, where “each is allowed to use his knowledge for his own purposes[,] the concept of ‘social justice’ is necessarily empty and meaningless, because in it nobody’s will can determine the relative incomes of the different people, or prevent that they be partly dependent on accident” (69). Thus, “‘Social justice’ can be given meaning only in a directed or ‘command’ economy (such as an army) in which the individuals are ordered what to do; and any particular conception of ‘social justice’ could be realized only in such a centrally directed system” (Ibid.). Such a system “presupposes that people are guided by specific directions and not by rules of just individual conduct. Indeed,” Hayek emphasizes, “no system of rules of just individual conduct, and therefore no free action of the individuals, could produce results satisfying any principle of distributive justice” (69). Believing, as I do, that this point merits emphasis through restatement, Hayek further writes:

In a free society in which the position of the different individuals and groups is not the result of anybody’s design….the differences in reward simply cannot meaningfully be described as just or unjust. There are, no doubt, many kinds of individual action which…might be called just or unjust. But there are no principles of individual conduct which would produce a pattern of distribution which as such could be called just, and therefore also no possibility for the individual to know what he would have to do to secure a just remuneration of his fellows. (70)

When I encountered references to “social injustice” in seminary classes, I think it was the repeated reference to anything bad that happened to anyone as “injustice” that bothered me most. Rather than just calling upon the more well-off to give freely of their God-given abundance to the less fortunate, classes often seemed to hold that for one person to be more wealthy or otherwise fortunate than another is an injustice for which the more well-off are culpable, and which the less well-off should feel entitled to have remedied at the better-off’s expense. This was not treated as the case only if the better-off had done something dishonest or immoral to acquire their wealth, but even when wealth was acquired honestly. This is the morality-corroding effect of outcomes-based “social justice” thinking: the honesty or dishonesty of individual action becomes irrelevant; only the outcomes matter. In this way of thinking, a dishonest and immoral poor person is entitled to (deserves, merits, rightly demands) a portion of the wealth of even the most honest and moral rich person. (Left-liberal theologians have even invented the idea that being poor gives one an ability to perceive truth that those who are not poor necessarily and invariably lack, so that the perspective of the poor should be specially favored. Contrast this poor-favoring bias with the rich-poor even-handedness of Leviticus 19:15: “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.”)

“The general failure to see that…we cannot meaningfully speak of the justice or injustice of the results [in a free market system] is partly due,” Hayek suggests, “to the misleading use of the term ‘distribution’ which inevitably suggests a personal distributing agent whose will or choice determines the relative position of the different persons or groups. There is of course no such agent, and we use an impersonal process [the market] to determine the allocation of benefits precisely because through its operation we can bring about a structure of relative prices and remunerations that will determine a size and composition of the total output which assures that the real equivalent of each individual’s share that accident or skill assigns him will be as large as we know to make it” (72). Caring for all your neighbors as you care for yourself, then, should motivate you, not to call for government action in pursuit of “social justice,” but to seek to let the market do its work. You should do this not because you believe the results perfect, or benightedly or heartlessly think that those who fail in the market “deserve” what they get, but because the free market is “as good as it gets” (prior to Christ’s Millennial Reign) when it comes to human flourishing. (In the preceding parenthetical, Amillennialists and Postmillennialists, such as I once was, should substitute “Christ’s Second Coming and the New Heavens and New Earth” for “Christ’s Millennial Reign.”)

“Another source of the [mis]conception that the categories of just and unjust can be meaningfully applied to the remunerations determined by the market,” Hayek adds, “is the idea that the different services have a determined and ascertainable ‘value to society’, and that the actual remuneration frequently differs from the value. But though the concept of ‘value to society’ is something carelessly used even by economists, there is strictly no such thing and the expression implies the same sort of anthropomorphism or personification of society as the term ‘social justice’. Services,” he explains, “can have value only to particular people (or an organization), and any particular service will have very different values for different members of the same society.” To think or act as though the case were otherwise, as though a “value to society” could be identified for services in a free market, “is to treat society not as a spontaneous order of free men but as an organization whose members are all made to serve a single hierarchy of ends. This would necessarily be a totalitarian system in which personal freedom would be absent” (75–6). Since “socially redeeming value” seems a synonym for “value to society,” Hayek’s observation here, if he is correct that “value to society” is vacuous, could call into question attempts to base the legality (or illegality) of products or services on an assessment of their possession (or lack) of “socially redeeming value.” (I offer no policy suggestions on the basis of this, but thought the implication worth noting. If court officials deem a product or service worthy of legal protection because it has “socially redeeming value,” are such officials saying anything more than that the product or service has value to them?) In any case, Hayek later reiterates his present point, and his reiteration, since it looks at the topic from a slightly different (and perhaps even clearer as to totalitarian dangers) angle, merits quotation:

The idea that men ought to be rewarded in accordance with the assessed merits or deserts of their services “to society” presupposes an authority which not only distributes these rewards but also assigns to the individuals the tasks for the performance of which they will be rewarded. [This authority must also, of course, determine for everyone the “value to society” of each service it will assign and reward.—DMH] In other words, if “social justice” is to be brought about, the individuals must be required to obey not merely general rules but specific demands directed to them only. The type of social order in which the individuals are directed to serve a single system of ends is…not the spontaneous order of the market, that is, not a system in which the individual is free because bound only by general rules of just conduct, but a system in which all are subject to specific directions by authority. (85)

Perhaps all the preceding is true and pursuit of “social justice” is simply nonsense in a free society. Surely, though, “social injustice” exists and can be identified and opposed, right? Wrong, says Hayek:

It might be objected that, although we cannot give the term “social justice” a precise meaning, this need not be a fatal objection because…we might not know what is “socially just” yet know quite well what is “socially unjust”; and by persistently eliminating “social injustice” whenever we encounter it, [we could] gradually approach “social justice”. This, however, does not provide a way out of the basic difficulty. There can be no test by which we can discover what is “socially unjust” because there is no subject by which such an injustice can be committed, and there are [to reiterate what has been stated more than once already] no rules of individual conduct the observance of which in the market order would secure to the individuals and groups the position which as such (as distinguished from the procedure by which it is determined) would appear just to us. It [the concept of “social injustice”] does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense, like the term “a moral stone”. (78)

Will Hayek’s call to eschew the nonsense terms “social justice” and “social injustice” be heeded, or will their use persist until our society has morphed into a totalitarian one where they can be given meaning? One can only hope that the recent failure of the ruling U.S. oligarchy to recognize that the term “homosexual [‘gay’] marriage” is nonsense (as I noted in an earlier post) does not indicate a culture-wide willingness to reshape society to accommodate popular irrationalism. (My candidate of choice last Republican primary recently made some remarks on the subject.)

The “social justice”/”homosexual marriage” comparison is a weak or invalid analogy, you say? Perhaps. However, just as “social justice” redefines “justice” from “equality under the law” to “equality of outcomes,” so “homosexual marriage” redefines “marriage” from “potentially procreative nature-grounded union of physically compatible male and female persons” to “contractual convention-based union between any two adult persons, physically compatible or not, potentially procreative or not.” An abuse of language, and of the rational thought processes depending upon it, obtains in both cases. Concerning the “marriage” redefinition (something no doubt helped along by easy “[vague or unidentified] irreconcilable differences” divorce and prenuptial agreements), it will be interesting to see how broadly the term will end up being construed now that it has been wholly severed from its grounding in nature (that is, the nature of males and females as created by God) and made purely a matter of convention.

In any case, back to the main topic….Granted calling market outcomes “just” or “unjust” doesn’t make sense in a free system, can it really be said our current system is free? Remember “too big to fail”? Hayek writes:

The prevalent demand for material equality is probably often based on the belief that the existing inequalities are the effect of somebody’s decision [as has already been noted more than once]—a belief which would be wholly mistaken in a genuine market order and has still only very limited validity in the highly interventionist “mixed” economy existing in most countries today. This now prevalent form of economic order has in fact attained its character largely as a result of governmental measures aiming at what was thought to be required by “social justice”. (81)

In the current system, then, it may well be that unjust actions by human actors (government officials and the crony “capitalists” benefiting from their misdeeds) cause negative outcomes for various persons and groups, making those outcomes injustices that should be remedied. These, however, are standard injustices, harm done victims by culpable human actors; there seems no good reason to refer to them as “social injustices,” since “injustices” alone identifies them quite nicely.

The following extended quotation well restates, clarifies, and emphasizes Hayek’s points:

As is becoming clear in ever increasing fields of welfare policy, an authority instructed to achieve particular results for the individuals must be given essentially arbitrary powers to make the individuals do what seems necessary to achieve the required result. Full equality for most cannot but mean the equal submission of the great masses under the command of some élite who manages their affairs. While an equality of rights under a limited government is possible and an essential condition of individual freedom, a claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.

We are of course not wrong when we perceive that the effects on the different individuals and groups of the economic processes of a free society are not distributed according to some recognizable principle of justice. Where we go wrong is in concluding from this that they are unjust and that somebody is responsible and to be blamed for this. In a free society in which the position of the different individuals and groups is not the result of anybody’s design—or could within such a society not be altered in accordance with a principle of general applicability—the differences in rewards cannot meaningfully be described as just or unjust. There are, no doubt, many kinds of individual actions…which might be regarded as unjust. But there are no principles of individual conduct which could produce a pattern of distribution which as such could be called just…. (83)

To put it another way, in a free society, pious Christians (the central concern of this Pious Eye site) may conduct themselves as best they can in accord with the moral principles of Scripture (including, of course, charitably assisting, as they are able, those who fail to thrive in the market and taking care never to “exploit” anyone), confident they are contributing to the sort of free market environment shown to be the best way to produce the most wealth overall and to benefit the greatest number, and trusting in God’s providence. In a society bent on pursuit of “social justice,” in contrast, decisions about how to conduct oneself and one’s affairs must increasingly be ceded to government, since only a ruling elite deluded enough to think it can understand and direct the entire processes of society, necessarily including all the people in that society, can believe itself (and be believed by a citizenry) capable of making “social justice” a reality.

Agreeable though they might find most of the preceding, free marketers of a “Devil take the hindmost” temperament (if they exist outside of fiction) may be taken aback by Hayek’s reflections on what we today typically call a “safety net”:

There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need[s] to descend. To enter into such an insurance against extreme misfortune may well be in the interest of all; or it may be felt to be a clear moral duty of all to assist, within the organized community, those who cannot help themselves. So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law. The problems with which we are here concerned arise only when remuneration for services rendered is determined by authority, and the impersonal mechanism of the market which guides the direction of individual efforts is thus suspended. (87)

Only an unfettered market, of course, will reliably produce sufficient excess wealth to allow one to provide such a safety net over the long term. Providing such a safety net with debt financing because one’s “mixed” economy does not provide sufficient excess wealth to fund all the government activities you’ve decided you need, the current approach of our federal government and of many state and local governments, would certainly not meet with Hayek’s approval. It does seem to me unclear, I should note, exactly how one could ensure that provision of a minimum income safety net could be prevented from interfering in any way with the market, since it must lead to an increase in demand for things recipients of the income could not otherwise purchase, and since it would likely also increase demand for (by decreasing supply of) certain types of workers, as some opted to settle for the guaranteed minimum income and drop out of the market (stop seeking employment). I’ve outgrown my youthful Libertarian belief that the “safety net” could safely be entrusted entirely to private charity, but am still not certain how or if government can provide such a net without unforeseen negative consequences. Thus, though I want to agree with Hayek here, I am not entirely sure this “minimum income” proposal can really be made to work in a market-unaffecting way. I’m also not sure what could be done to prevent a minimally-market-affecting safety net from growing inexorably into an unwieldy greatly-market-affecting welfare apparatus such as the one currently in place. (Even modest reforms to the current system seem unlikely before final implosion of the U.S. economy and collapse of the American system, so none of this may have any practical relevance anytime soon. Do keep it in mind should you be among those surviving to reestablish our lost Republic.)

A series of additional quotations should round out the picture of Hayek’s thinking. Here they are:

There is…a fundamental difference between what is possible in the small group and in the Great Society. In the small group the individual can know the effects of his actions on his several fellows, and the rules may effectively forbid him to harm them in any manner and even require him to assist them in specific ways. In the Great Society many of the effects of a person’s activities on various fellows must be unknown to him. It can, therefore, not be the specific effects in the particular case, but only rules which define kinds of actions as prohibited or required, which must serve as guides to the individual. In particular, he will often not know who the individual people will be who will benefit by what he does, and therefore not know whether he is satisfying a great need or adding to abundance. He cannot aim at just results if he does not know who will be affected. (90)

But while in a market order it may be a misfortune to have been born and bred in a village where for most the only chance of making a living is fishing (or for the women the cleaning of fish), it does not make sense to describe this as unjust. Who is supposed to have been unjust?—especially when it is considered that, if these local opportunities had not existed, the people in question would probably never have been born at all, as most of the population in such a village will probably owe its existence to the opportunities which enabled their ancestors to produce and rear children. (93)

The frequent recurrence of…undeserved strokes of misfortune affecting some group is…an inseparable part of the steering mechanism of the market: it is the manner in which the cybernetic principle of negative feedback operates to maintain the order of the market. It is only through such changes which indicate that some activities ought to be reduced, that the efforts of all can be continuously adjusted to a greater variety of facts than can be known to any one person or agency, and that that utilization of dispersed knowledge is achieved on which the well-being of the Great Society rests….It is a necessary part of that process of constant adaptation to changing circumstances on which the mere maintenance of the existing level of wealth depends that some people should have to discover by bitter experience that they have misdirected their efforts and are forced to look elsewhere for a remunerative occupation. (94)

Don’t I know it!

There can be no moral claim to something that would not exist but for the decision of others to risk their resources on its creation. What those who attack great private wealth do not understand is that it is neither by physical effort nor by the mere act of saving and investing, but by directing resources to the most productive uses that wealth is chiefly created. And there can be no doubt that most of those who have built up great fortunes in the form of new industrial plants and the like have thereby benefited more people through creating opportunities for more rewarding employment than if they had given their superfluity away to the poor. The suggestion that in these cases those to whom in fact the workers are most indebted do wrong rather than greatly benefit them is an absurdity. (98)

Here is a strong reason for ensuring that charity remains free and voluntary. Wealthy individuals must judge what uses of their money are most likely to provide most benefit to others, not have that judgment taken from them by a distant elite that thinks it knows better.

It is precisely because in the cosmos of the market we all constantly receive benefits which we have not deserved in any moral sense that we are under an obligation also to accept equally undeserved diminutions of our incomes. Our only moral title to what the market gives us we have earned by submitting to those rules which [make] the formation of the market order possible. These rules imply than nobody is under any obligation to supply us with a particular income unless he has specifically contracted to do so. If we were all to be consistently deprived, as the socialists propose to do, of all ‘unearned benefits’ which the market confers upon us, we would have to be deprived of most of the benefits of civilization.

It is clearly meaningless to reply, as is often done, that, since we owe these benefits to “society”, “society” should also be entitled to allocate these benefits to those who in its opinion deserve them. Society, once more, is not an acting person but an orderly structure of actions resulting from the observation of certain abstract rules by its members. We all owe the benefits we receive from the operation of this structure not to anyone’s intention to confer them on us, but to the members of society generally obeying certain rules in the pursuit of their interests, rules which include the rule that nobody is to coerce others in order to secure for himself (or for third persons) a particular income. This imposes upon us the obligation to abide by the results of the market also when it turns against us. (94–5)

These quotation persuasively refute, or at least plausibly contradict, common left-liberal shibboleths, whether the idea that the wealth of “greedy capitalist” business owners most often arises from their “exploitation” of workers, the idea that “justice” requires government to correct differences in wealth resulting from accidents of birth or market happenstance, or the idea that moral principles of direct community-level interaction between acquainted individuals can be validly applied to lawmaking in that grand web of complex interconnected influences that is modern society. I commend these quotations, and Hayek’s entire work, to you, especially to those of you who have completed, are completing, or plan to complete education at an institution (seminary or otherwise) promoting (or where some courses promote or just fail to question the validity of) “social justice.” Justice? Yes. “Social Justice”? No.