Feed on

Yesterday, we outlined briefly the difference between traditional conceptions of justice and modern versions of it. Today I wanted to highlight one simple implication of it, and in future posts we may spend some more time on the problems with the concept of social justice itself.

Hayek states in the Constitution of Liberty the most important goal for those of us espousing a Classical Liberal worldview (i.e. those of us who argue on behalf of actual liberty as being a value worth cherishing) is to establish equality before the law. He argues that this is the only kind of equality that can be established without ending up destroying the very liberty we claim to cherish.

Interlude: for example, imagine a different kind of liberty as construed by modern social justice advocates – the right to free health care. Such a right is invoked, believe it or not, on liberty-ish grounds, with the not-tongue-in-cheek response that no man is free if he is subject to sickness and death. Of course, the only way to provide free health care is to force someone to provide it. There can be no other way. The utilitarians among us may have no problem with this, and I cannot say that they are wrong on their own terms, but this clearly has to violate the liberty of other free individuals who are now coerced both in their choice of lifestyle but also in the consumption choices they may ultimately make.

If equality before the law is the utmost goal of liberty, then it has to be the case that classical liberalism has no place for the idea that all men are ipso facto equal. Now, my freedom loving friends typically run away from making this point, for it is the thing that gets one uninvited to the great dinner party that we all so much want to be a part of. But as Hayek emphasizes, this fact ought not be run away from, but rather embraced.

In other words, the inequality that must necessarily emerge in a free society is not a black mark. Nor is the inequality itself ipso facto desirable. Some of my friends like to argue the latter point – but it is in itself a poor argument and I’d suggest offense to reasonably minded folks who truly want to understand why we like liberty. What is important about the inequality that emerges in a free world is this:

If the result of individual liberty did not demonstrate that some manners of living are more successful than others, much of the case for it would vanish.

That’s Hayek’s defense on utilitarian grounds. And he spends much of his time in the Constitution of Liberty discussing the practical defenses of liberty (e.g. that defining merit and value is really hard, so that even if we took conceptions of social justice seriously we’d not be able to effectively alter the pattern that emerges from market forces in ways that we want). He pretty much leaves the ethical and moral defenses of liberty to others, a task I think that makes it tough for some classical liberals to take Hayek more seriously.

One Response to “Justice: Social and Otherwise, Part 2”

  1. Harry says:

    Believe it or not, I was thinking about this same problem driving to the golf course today, which is not exactly the same as Caligula riding in his litter to the colosseum, but distantly similar. I was thinking of the most unfortunate children who are born with great infirmities that are accidental and beyond their control, caused not by them or their parents or anybody.

    This is one of the ultimate justice questions, not answered satisfactorily by anyone I know. Surely these children, and if they live to become adults, require care from their parents and family, from their neighbors and friends, as wide as the circle gets until they are cared for. This example is easy to handle ethically, and there is no justice for people so afflicted.

    Others argue that there is no justice until everybody gets equal material security and pleasure. Hardly anybody puts it this way, but how do you explain free health insurance, food stamps, universal college education, and the right to a four-week holiday on the Cote d’ Azur, with free high-speed Internet access? How about the right to a job as a puppeteer, after putting in all that effort at Wesleyan? These concerns do not trouble me as I drive in my car to play golf.

    In between these extremes lie large libraries of discussion of justice, and yes, if somewhere along you got caught with the short straw, it alters how you argue the subject.

    If we go back to the primitive water hole, justice was whoever was strongest and wielded the best weapon to subdue the rest, and that was the system until relatively recently, the idea of liberty taking hold among men.

Leave a Reply