Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Against Social Justice

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Zwolinski discusses various aspects of social justice. Hayek argued that social justice is a non-concept. Everyone talks about it, but nobody can seem to define it. Zwolinski attempts a few definitions of it, but it runs into the very problem at the heart of "social justice," which is that it is neither social, nor justice, precisely because of what it is: collectivist.

Naturally, this claim begs all sorts of questions. So let me say that I accept the Hayekian distinction between two kinds of individualism, Scottish Enlightenment and Continental, as I describe here (for "Continental" I use "Cartesian," meaning in the tradition of Descartes' theory of rationality rather than attributable in all it's forms to Descartes himself -- a distinction I have discovered some find difficult to understand). So there is an individualism that leads to collectivism and an individualism that is fundamentally social in nature. The former is anti-social, and thus requires collectivist schemes to "socialize" the people. It is under this world view that "social justice" emerges (I am not unaware of the fact that social justice is originally a Catholic concept -- but I will note that it is a reaction to this version of rationality/individualism that fits in with it).

When people are talking about "social justice," you often hear terms like "the poor," "the oppressed," etc. Please note that these are aggregates are misleading. They hide all sort of details that are in fact quite relevant. This is a necessary element of collectivism, of course. Collectivism must see things as aggregates, and aggregate-thinking tends to lead one into collectivist thinking. With "the poor," one will sometimes see people divide them into the deserving and the undeserving poor. But even this is problematic. Each person is poor for their own particular reasons, based on a combination of personality traits (partially inherited, partially influenced by environment), circumstances (of time, place), and even luck. There are local economic conditions, problems of institutions and governance, etc. Clearly the poor of Swaziland are not the poor of Switzerland. It makes little sense -- and is an insult to the poor of Swaziland -- to compare the two. One can justly argue that compared to the developing world, places like the United States have no poor. Calling the same people who receive our various forms of welfare and those who live on a dollar a day while working themselves to the bone by the same term is absurd. Worse, it cannot but lead to bad ideas.

One of those bad ideas is that education is the answer to poverty. In places like the United States, which is increasingly dominated by creative workers, there may be some truth to this (even if it is not true that a university education is desirable for as many as are getting one, with the debt load they are getting, when other kinds of education may be much more desirable), but in developing countries, it is not. As I have pointed out, overeducating a population relative to the ability of an economy to absorb those receiving the education can result in dire, even revolutionary, consequences. A country has to have the right institutions in place for entrepreneurship to take hold and economic growth to take off. When that happens, those whose lives are improving financially will then seek out education for their children. As is typical in such situations, the natural evolution of society works best, both long and short term. Of course, in a country like the U.S., which is well past the agricultural stage, and into the so-called postindustrial stage of development, education is of central importance. Thus education as a solution makes more sense, even if it is still not the utopian solution too many make it out to be.

But let us return to the basic problem of social justice being connected to collectivism. Not only does it result in aggregating "the poor," but also to looking at all kinds of groups as aggregates. When one looks at members of a race as an aggregate, that has typically been known as racism. Yet, we see precisely this kind of thinking among those many advocates of social justice. We can see it, for example, among the advocates of reparations for slavery in the U.S. The problems with such reparations is many-fold. First, there is no one alive who was a slave, and there is no one alive who owned a slave. So who can be said to justly receive reparations, or to provide them? The logic behind such reparations is that the son is guilty of the sins/crimes of the father (or in this case, great-great grandfather, at least). More than that, it is a racial sin. One may not even be descended from slave owners, yet one has to pay reparations because one is of the same race as those who did. What is this but good old fashioned racism? It's racism dressed up with progressivist garb (but progressivism has deep roots in racism as well).

This should not be surprising as racism is a form of collectivism, and thus is in the same family of thinking as other forms of collectivism, no matter how "advanced" they may be. There is an atavistic element to all forms of collectivism. Spontaneous order social individualism is a very complex form of thinking, and much more recent. And, thus, more difficult. It is easier to fall back on our evolved tendencies, no matter how bad and even maladaptive they may be for living in contemporary society. In this sense, then, social justice, as a form of collectivism, has no place in modern moral thinking.

That being said, there is something Zwolinski ends his piece with that I cannot agree with more, and which needs to be emphasized. He says it in reference to the idea of social justice, but it is generally true:

"Philosophy can tell us what we should be aiming for, but not how to get there. Economics can tell us how to get where we want to go, but not where we should be trying to end up. Neither economics nor philosophy by itself can tell us what our public policies ought to look like."

Too many think good intentions are enough (the "philosophers" in this example). It is not. One has to know how to get there, or else one is lost.
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