Social Justice Theory: A Solution in Search of a Problem

What is social justice? Sam Gregg’s essay answers this question by reviewing the origins and evolution of the concept. I find little to quibble with in Sam’s remarks and I am certainly in no position to make them a fortiori.

My contribution will therefore be to offer an explanation for why social justice theory is both misguided and dangerous. It is misguided because it regards observed inequality as prima facie evidence of injustice because of insufficient understanding of how a free market economy actually works. It is dangerous because social justice advocates therefore attempt to solve a moral problem that doesn’t exist and, in so doing, reduce a society’s ability to solve moral problems that really do exist. In making my arguments I’ll discuss the origins of social justice thinking even farther back than considered in the Gregg essay.

Although Gregg is quite right to quote Hayek’s observation that social justice resists clear definition[1], I must say I disagree somewhat with Hayek on this point. I think it is fair to say that social justice advocacy is now generally taken to be the idea that there are things that are unjust about free market societies, so we are morally required to attempt to redress these problems. Social justice advocacy, if it is to have any normative meaning, is about what must be done to right these wrongs. Among other things, social justice advocates endorse the exercise of government power to redistribute wealth/income and to regulate behavior to produce a more just outcome across the whole of society. People drawn from a very wide variety of ideologies and political views would agree with this characterization of the practical meaning and effect of social justice theory regardless of how it is defined.

But is the premise actually true? Do free market societies inevitably produce unjust outcomes, or are social justice theorists incorrectly inferring injustice from what is actually innocuous inequality? In my view the latter is true and the former is false, so social justice theory amounts to a solution in search of a problem. As such, it constitutes a massive straw man argument against the free market society. Making matters worse, it is a particularly attractive straw man argument because it comports well with incorrect but very plausible folk wisdom about what a market economic system is and how it functions.[2] An affirmative defense of this claim is beyond the scope of this essay, but it will become clear below that an affirmative defense of this claim is not required to reject social justice theory.

What is the argument for the claim that free market societies naturally and inevitably produce unjust outcomes? This is where social justice theory really falls apart, because it does not, in fact, provide an answer to this question. Instead it simply makes a bald assertion or, worse, it assumes its conclusion into existence by way of tautological reasoning. When social justice advocates see unequal outcomes they simply presume there must have been something unfair along the way to produce them which, of course, would be unjust if it were true. It is certainly hard to quibble with the proposition that one does indeed promote justice when one rectifies unjust outcomes that result from the unfair institutions of an unjust society.

But in this case why not go after the cause of the problem rather than its symptoms? What, exactly, about the functioning of the institutions of a free market system is unjust? When you ask social justice theorists this question, they always answer the same way – by offering more specific examples of what they view as unjust outcomes. But such answers miss the point entirely. This is very revealing and it is where social justice theory shows its true colors.

What social justice theory is really about is equality, but that just begs the following question: what, precisely, is so bad about unequal outcomes? I shall now argue that social justice advocates have an answer for this, but they don’t know what it really is and therefore cannot understand why it is wrong. Social justice advocates view inequality of outcomes as sufficient evidence of injustice because they have a very narrow and foolish view of equality that we all naturally find plausible because of our small group moral sensibilities and our hardwired proclivity to be envious. In short, social justice theory implicitly focuses on the equal division of output without accounting for input. Suppose that Bob works 10 hours a day, every day, creating 100 units of output. Mark does nothing and thereby creates no units of output. Mark then insists that he should get no less than 50 units of output per day. Even a child knows this would be patently unfair. And even a child knows that Bob won’t indulge Mark for long.

In small group contexts it is easy to see that, when judging fairness and equality, it is foolish to limit attention to the division of output. But we no longer live solely in small group contexts where cause-and-effect relationships between inputs and output are self-evident. In our large group world the connection between input and output is bewilderingly complex and therefore prone to magical thinking. Those who do not know economics have no framework to connect the dots of cause-and-effect, as it were, and therefore have no choice but to take the amount of total output as given, for what other assumption could they possibly make? This effectively delinks input (effort) from output. So without ever consciously making an argument to this effect, social justice advocates implicitly assume that total output is not a function of how output is divided.

Social justice theory therefore effectively considers only half of the relevant story when making judgments about what is fair and therefore just across the whole of any society. But surely I must be missing something, otherwise how could social justice theory be so popular? I submit that it is so popular because in reality all that social justice theory does is codify small group moral sensibilities that come naturally to us by virtue of being a small group species.

Humans and our immediate ancestors have been around for more than 500,000 years. For less than of 2% of that period, we lived exclusively in very small groups. For the next 1.5% of that period almost all humans continued to live in very small groups. I contend that in very small groups focusing on the equal division of output is normally quite sensible and efficient because in very small groups free-riding isn’t nearly the problem that it is in large groups. This is true for at least four reasons.

First, in small groups the effect on total output of a single act of free-riding often produces a significant change in total output. Second, in small groups most of what individuals do is in the plain view of others in the group. Third, patterns that help us indirectly infer free-riding are easier to discern in small groups. Fourth, and most importantly, like all purposive species humans have evolved traits that induce them to want to do what they need to do to in order to survive and reproduce. Just as cheetahs don’t hate running, humans don’t hate hunting and gathering.[3] But in modern life the hyper-specialization of economic activity often turns our work into drudgery. No one wants to stand at a drill press or sit in a cubical all day, so shirking is a significantly tougher problem to solve for us today than it was for our ancestors.

Consider this example. In 1972 a father in the Soviet Union wants to stay home from work to be with his daughter on her birthday. If he gets an equal share of the output irrespective of his input, the benefit to him of staying home is huge while the cost to him is essentially zero. This free-rider problem was so strong at the time that the only way the Soviet Union could keep going was to deny people the freedom to choose not go to work. This is one reason why after Glasnost took hold so it became politically impossible to continue to use vicious tactics to force people to work that the Soviet Union fell apart.

In the small group milieu within which most of our social traits evolved, nearly everyone did their fair share of the work most of the time because they liked doing it, and they liked doing it because of their hardwiring. This observation is hardly clever as it is almost an evolutionary tautology. Suppose it were not true for any particular group. That group, and the traits it might have passed through future generations, would soon cease to exist. As a result, differences in output among individuals were almost always due to differences in luck. As such, sharing the output equally was not a foolish convention that invited free-riding because free-riding simply wasn’t an issue; it was an efficient form of social insurance. This suggests further that for our not-so-distant ancestors, sharing output was not likely viewed as some kind of higher order virtue but as a very robust social norm.

In modern free market societies, however, dividing output evenly produces strong incentives to free-ride because some of what we have to do to make a living we find unpleasant because it is too hard, too boring, or too risky, while at the same time the marginal cost to us in terms of our share of the total output is virtually zero. Social justice theory therefore makes a grave error by focusing on output without accounting for input, because the free-riding it engenders effectively kills the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Does rejecting social justice mean that we therefore shouldn’t care about the poor? No. Thirst, hunger, lack of shelter, and lack of basic healthcare make people miserable. Being the empathetic species we are, such misery makes us miserable, too. I find this very reassuring. Empathy is indeed the root of our basic decency. In any case, it produces a compelling argument for collective action to alleviate misery if such action is more efficiently undertaken collectively. This is just social insurance in the form of social programs aimed to aid the needy under the premise that no one really knows for certain that he’ll never be terribly down on his luck. Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan all believed this.

But this is not to make an argument for equal outcomes. There are rather sharp limits to how much water, food, shelter, and healthcare one needs to not be miserable. Beyond these limits, further redistribution is about equalizing outcomes for no compelling reason other than assuaging envy or currying political favor. I am not saying that individuals who give their money to help the poor in other ways (e.g., building a baseball diamond for little league) are foolish. I am only saying there is no compelling argument for doing such laudable acts through the exercise of government power. My immediate point is that going beyond providing for basic needs that we all agree are basic needs ends up destroying incentives for industrious behavior which eliminates the tremendous positive spillover benefits we all enjoy from it. Those who doubt the size of these spillovers in a free market economy need to explain why the poor in free market societies fare so well.

Social justice theory tries to solve a minor problem (unequal outcomes arousing feelings of envy) but in so doing undermines society’s ability to solve a major problem (providing for the basic needs of the needy). But one can only see this irony if one knows enough economics to understand that output is not manna from heaven so one cannot redistribute output without affecting the amount of output to be distributed.

The great prosperity of free market societies is what allows those who live in them to take care of their needy citizens so easily. But when a society goes beyond providing social insurance for basic needs by trying to build an egalitarian nirvana, it ends up effectively inducing fathers to stay home on their daughters’ birthdays. The solution to this problem is to force them to work. That’s why social justice theory is a most dangerous idea indeed.

[1]Gregg correctly points out that “A common criticism from the non-left is that social justice appears to have no stable or concrete meaning. This point features prominently in the critique articulated by Friedrich Hayek in The Mirage of Social Justice, in the second volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty.”

[2] For a interesting discussion of this topic see Paul H. Rubin’s “Folk Economics,” Southern Economic Journal, 2003, vol. 70, issue 1, pages 157-171.

[3] For an interesting take on this observation see Jared Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66.

Reader Discussion

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on April 02, 2013 at 13:00:11 pm

If the initial appropriation of property is unjust, or the intial allotment of property unjust, the transactions that follow are likewise unjust. Social justice advocacy does not necessarily claim that in a hypothetical Rawlsian society (for instance) in which initial starting points are relatively egalitarian that subsequent inequalities that develop as a product of each individuals' different conceptions of the good (Steve likes money and works, Bob hates work and is lazy) are unjust, but rather that the society we live in does not provide sufficient initial equality of opportunity.

In an unrelated point, it deserves to be pointed out that a) Adam Smith was immensely concerned with the stultifying effects of the division of labor and b) thought that a market economy free from "combinations" and collusion would result in relatively equal outcomes. It is unclear that such a market economy is practically achievable.

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Image of CattusPetasatus
on April 02, 2013 at 19:04:05 pm

I am first generation American, born and raised in slums. I attained a degree in Chemical Engineering and worked along side chemical engineers here and in the US and Europe. In the US, there are many engineers with backgrounds similr to mine. In Europe, it was extremely rare for me to meet an engineer who was not from the upper middle class. Therefore, I dispute the argument that welfare state offer greater opportunity. What they do offer is greater economic equality. Not the same thing. And, probably because the elites fear a popular uprising. That is why riots have occurred in Greece and other Eurozone countries as the economic crisis there spins out of control. The same will happen here unless we find a way to stem the crisis.

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Robert Ennis
on April 03, 2013 at 00:55:45 am

Great article.
If I can pull down the equivalent of 40k a year through social benefits, why bother busting my hump to get a head for 15-20 bucks an hour? The guy down the street with 2 kids and unemployed, has got it made.
If we keep down the road we are going, I will spend every holiday (hell, everyday) at home with my kids. Eff-it!

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Image of 11bravo
on April 03, 2013 at 03:17:06 am

"among the most important of the liberties which the institution of property secures is the liberty to help one's neighbour ; and if this liberty were used with a little more generosity and with much more thought there would be less foolish rant about the crime of ownership. "

Harold Cox, Economic liberty (1920), p. 25

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Image of Bruce Graeme
Bruce Graeme
on April 03, 2013 at 13:55:21 pm


"Humans and our immediate ancestors have been around for more than 500,000 years. For less than of 2% of that period, we lived exclusively in very small groups. For the next 1.5% of that period almost all humans continued to live in very small groups."

Did you mean "For all but the most recent 2% of that period, we lived exclusively in very small groups."

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Image of rnoble
on April 03, 2013 at 14:00:33 pm

I agree CattusPetasatus, that there is no inherent equality of opportunity and there never will be: genetics, luck, historical discrimination, etc. But the equal output solutions of redistribution, reparations a century later, regulation to favored industries, etc. create further inequality of opportunity as punishment. This type of correction to the historical wrongs creates more injustice upon the heads of people who were never responsible for the historical wrongs.

It would be far preferable to create more equality of opportunity, especially in the government where money buys influence. Why would someone create new systems of aristocratic favoritism and corruption in the name of 'social justice'? The answer can be found in the anger at past wrongs and human foibles of our natures. We should resist this wrathful impulse that is exploited by hucksters and politicians.

Better that we focus on the uplift of others rather than the degradation of those whose ancestors benefited from discrimination and colonization (A vast oversimplification anyway. I never hear about the need to determine if any white man's ancestor fought for the Union to end slavery to exempt him from the need to pay reparations.).

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Image of Dexember
on April 03, 2013 at 16:38:05 pm

Look, I didn't make any claims about the efficacy of redistribution or various ways of organizing our social order--I simply wanted to respond to this claim re: social justice: "...it regards observed inequality as prima facie evidence of injustice because of insufficient understanding of how a free market economy actually works. It is dangerous because social justice advocates therefore attempt to solve a moral problem that doesn’t exist and, in so doing, reduce a society’s ability to solve moral problems that really do exist."

I think that simply isn't the case--there is a broad body of scholarship (theoretical, my milieu, and otherwise) devoted to examining what sorts of inequalities are unjust and which are just, and does NOT simply regard inequality in of itself as prima facie evidence of injustice. Rawls (a strident defender of the modern liberal and market driven democratic state) was writing in a long intellectual tradition that includes Kant and Locke, and while many of his claims may be objectionable they deserve (as representative of the views of some social justice advocates) a more sophisticated treatment than they receive here.

As to your points, I think we're getting hung up on the gap between ideal theory and non-ideal theory. What sort of actions are effective, and what sort of actions are just, [may be] different questions. That's worth a conversation in of itself, before we rush on trying to solve the world's problems.

Finally, (not directed at you Dexember, I simply didn't mention it yesterday) it strikes me that helping the poor because we don't like seeing poor people is pretty weak sauce, even if it is evocative of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which I'm rather fond of.

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Image of CattusPetasatus
on April 03, 2013 at 22:14:15 pm

I don't understand what you mean by a "just" initial appropriation or allocation of property. It seems that, because "initial" appropriations/allocations took place in the far distant past, either you have no way of knowing if they were just, or that requirement is just a way to insist that all current allocations/appropriations are unjust.

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Image of Scot
on April 04, 2013 at 08:14:35 am

Interesting article. I’m curious about what exactly you “disagree somewhat with Hayek” on? Gregg does not actual quote Hayek, but if Hayek, to quote Gregg “struggled to find a clear definition of what people mean by the term” social justice, he certainly had no trouble intellectually squashing every definition he could find, and furthermore was adamant that, in all of its forms, it was a “most dangerous idea”, to use your words.

I ask this because your single reference to Hayek implies that you have read his work, yet the article itself offers no attribution, while it reads like paraphrased version of Hayek’s arguments. You write of “my contribution”, “my arguments”, “in my view”, “I shall now argue”, “I submit”, “I contend” and so on, but never give credit to Hayek, who literally wrote the book on this subject.

Perhaps no credit is due, as you may not have read Hayek, which is certainly not unusual for an economist. If this is the case, I salute you for coming up with these ideas on your own, but I would suggest you read some Hayek. You will find that he makes your points, where valid (as many are), much better, with much more authority, intellectual power, and historical perspective. You would also probably jettison the few invalid points in your article, which weaken your overall argument.

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Paul Mansour
on April 04, 2013 at 15:56:13 pm

I don't really have any interest in identifying specific unjust appropriations of property, although I think that various European imperial endeavors (including in the colonies) probably qualify, and are hardly so distant as to be unidentifiable (not that I think there's any way of rectifying such things--but the question is how do they fit in whatever theoretical framework we choose?); again, I just wanted to address the claim that social justice advocates, as a whole, regard property inequalities in of themselves as unjust. Some certainly do, but as a sweeping claim that's undoubtably false, and I'd even charge that the preponderance of social justice advocacy is not in the name of inequality writ large.

I think the real source of my complaint is a Marxist isn't a Rawlsian isn't a pick your other philosopher; there are lots of arguments for all sorts of things each with attendant strengths and deficiencies. Too often we array political philosophy along the left/right axis that our political parties fall along--however our parties are pragmatically ideologically compromised coalitions--the antithesis of coherent political theory!To lump all proponents of "social justice" together is to dismiss the differences between them, to the detriment of an actual conversation about political philosophy.

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Image of CattusPetasatus
on December 15, 2015 at 10:09:00 am

I agree with Paul about Hayak, more indepth analysis is needed for a better discussion on the subject. Thanks for posting though an interesting read.

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on November 02, 2016 at 18:22:09 pm

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