Justice versus Social Justice

by John Hospers

John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the  University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He is the author of numerous  books, such as Human Conduct, Understanding the Arts, and Introduction to  Philosophical Analysis, as well as several anthologies and more than one hundred  essays in journals and encyclopedias. He is president of the American Society  for Aesthetics, and was the first Libertarian Party candidate for U.S. president  (1972). He is editor of the philosophical quarterly The Monist.

It is individual human beings who are born, live, enjoy, suffer, and die.  Individuals sometimes band together into groups; but groups as such do not live,  love, or suffer; only their individual members do. The individual, not the  group, is the unit.

Individuals interact with one another, in families and larger societies.  Sometimes they act wrongfully toward others; and one kind of wrongful action is  called injustice. But what does this mean? What precisely is involved in an  action being just or unjust?

Justice, in a tradition going back to Aristotle, means treating  individuals in accordance with their deserts. If a teacher gives a student a  C when the student deserves a B, the low grade is an injustice to the student.  It is equally an injustice when the teacher gives her an A which she doesn’t  deserve. Though the student is not likely to complain of her grade in the second  case, it is an injustice all the same, since it is treatment that is not in  accord with desert. Moreover, every case of an undeserved high grade involves a  diminution of the value of the grade; the more numerous the B students who get  undeserved A’s, the less the grade of A comes to mean, and the less it  distinguishes the genuine A student from the others.

There are some distinctions about justice which should be kept in mind before  we apply them to particular cases.

Distinctions About Justice

1. Justice has to do with the treatment of persons by other persons. The lion  is not being unjust to the antelope in killing it. The lion is not a moral  agent, and no right or wrong, no justice or injustice, is involved.

If a child is born crippled or diseased, this is a misfortune but not an  injustice. Injustice requires some person or persons to perpetrate the  injustice. (Even those who say that God caused the baby to be born crippled or  diseased are not likely to accuse God of injustice.) Congenital deformity is  something that unfortunately occurs, but it is not something that someone has done to someone else; no person has wronged another.

2. Justice depends on desert, and desert is a matter of past performance, not  of future possibilities. The grade a student deserves in a course depends upon  his past record of achievement in the course. If a man deserves a punishment for  a crime, it is because that person committed a crime in the past, not because  (for example) it would be useful to punish him as a scapegoat; punishing the  innocent is always unjust. Nor is it just to punish him because he might commit  a crime in the future. Preventive detention of persons believed to be dangerous  is sometimes used as a utilitarian mea-sure, to prevent the commission of crimes  in the future, but this is done from considerations of utility, not of justice.  (Justice is not the whole of morality, and whether preventive detention is ever  justified would have to be argued separately.[1])

3. Sometimes a law itself is unjust; if every driver who parked too long at a  parking meter were to be given a prison sentence, such a law, however  impartially administered, would be unjust because the sentence is harsher than  the offense deserves. But more often it is the administration of the law  that is unjust; one man gets five years for armed robbery and another man guilty  of the same offense is given a suspended sentence, or convinces the jury that he  is insane, thus receiving an insanity verdict which may let him out in sixty  days. Such maladministration of the law is often called comparative  injustice. Many prisoners who accept full responsibility for their actions and  do not claim that their sentences are undeserved, still complain of comparative  injustice: why were they sentenced when someone equally guilty was let go? Their  sentence may itself not have been unjust, but the injustice lies in the  lightness or absence of the other person’s sentence compared with theirs.

Justice is compatible with forgiveness if the person deserves  to be forgiven. But the only person who can forgive the aggressor is the victim.  If the offender asked the person he injured “Will you forgive me?” and the  victim said “No,” and a stranger then entered the room and said “That’s all  right, I forgive you,” the stranger could only utter the words, not actually  extend the forgiveness; only the aggrieved party can do that. “I don’t want the  mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs!” wrote  Dostoyevsky. “She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she  will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her  mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to  forgive.”[2]

As opposed to forgiving, pardoning is a legal act: a president or a  governor may pardon a criminal. Is pardoning compatible with justice? Again yes,  if the person deserves to be pardoned.

4. Justice is a very different thing from mercy, and mercy may be at  odds with justice. “But shouldn’t justice be tempered with mercy?” Let us  consider what this would involve. Suppose that five men have committed murder,  but one of them is let go as an example of mercy. This is surely a comparative  injustice to the other four, as well as an injustice to the one who is let go  (assuming that he deserves the assigned punishment). If mercy is so wonderful,  why shouldn’t every criminal be let go? That would really be  merciful! Why shouldn’t every teacher give every student an A as an act of  mercy? Because, of course, this would be a great injustice, especially to the  students deserving A’s. It would also be mercy to give everyone a job demanding  literary skill, even to persons who are illiterate—and more merciful still to  give them wages for doing nothing at all. Mercy in this sense would mean a total  abandonment of justice. (Mercy in a much different sense, such as “giving the  defendant the benefit of the doubt” in criminal cases [procedural justice],  giving him a chance to improve his conduct, etc., is desirable enough, but these  are already incorporated in the notion of just treatment; they are included in  justice, they do not supersede it.)

Justice vs. Collectivism

5. Most important of all, justice is individualistic: since the deserts of  individuals differ from one another, so should their rewards and punishments  differ from one another. That is why Aristotle said that justice consists of “treating equals equally, and unequals unequally.” If five persons have  committed no crime and five other persons have committed crimes with a one-year  sentence attached, it would be unjust to average out all their records and  condemn all ten to six months in jail. The innocent do not deserve the sentence,  and the guilty do. Justice is not a matter of averaging; it is a matter of  assigning to each individual his or her proper desert.

The example just given illustrates the opposite of justice, namely collectivism: that is, not considering a person’s individual deserts but  considering his behavior solely as a member of some group. Suppose someone in  tribe A has killed a man in tribe B, and in retaliation the members of tribe B  conduct a massacre of the entire tribe A. Only one of the members of tribe A was  guilty of murder, but all his fellow tribesmen are killed, not because they were  involved in the killing but simply because they were members of the same tribe  as the killer. Such tribal retaliations, though common in primitive societies,  are gross injustices because they involve the punishment of those who do not  deserve it. (A variant of this occurs when the members of tribe B select a  member of tribe A at random and kill him, even though the person killed was not  the person who was guilty; he was selected not because he was guilty, but simply  because he happened to belong to the same tribe as someone who was.)

Racism is a particularly pernicious form of collectivism. Persons who  cast racial slurs on others are not considering the individual merits or  demerits of the person slurred; they may not know the individual at all, except  that he is a member of some racial group (Jews, blacks, Ital ians, etc.). Though  the person’s individual qualities may be quite different from many other members  of the group, all this is ignored: all they know or care is that he is a member  of that group. “A genius is a genius, regardless of the number of morons who  belong to the same race—and a moron is a moron, regardless of the number of  geniuses who share his racial origin. It is hard to say which is the more  outrageous injustice: the claim of Southern racists that a Negro genius should  be treated as inferior because his race has ‘produced’ some brutes, or the claim  of a Nazi brute to the status of a superior because his race has ‘produced’ Goethe, Schiller, and Brahms.”[3]

Vagueness of “Desert”

All might agree that justice is treatment in accord with desert, and yet they  might disagree on particular judgments about justice because they do not agree  on what particular punishment, grade, compensation, etc. a person deserves.  Everyone agrees that a murderer should be punished, but there is much  disagreement about what specific punishment is deserved: should it be the death  penalty? should it be life imprisonment? should it be imprisonment for a stated  term with possibility of parole? should it involve incarceration in a prison, or  would duty on a work farm suffice?

There is general agreement about the severity of various offenses: murder,  which takes away the victim’s life, is a worse crime than assault and battery,  from which a victim may recover and resume his life thereafter; crimes against  the person are worse than crimes against property, which can usually be  replaced; and so on. Yet this is not always so: there are forms of mutilation  that are worse than death, and the theft of a valued and irreplaceable family  heirloom may be a worse loss to the victim than being mugged. Since each case is  unique, it is necessary to describe in detail the circumstances of each case in  order to form any estimate of the person’s desert.

Even with such a detailed description, along with a sincere attempt to  empathize with the situation of both parties, there will be disagreement about  desert. A woman will ordinarily recommend a severer punishment for rape than a  man will. A wife will tend to be more sympathetic to the position of a wife in  divorce court, and a husband will tend to be more sympathetic with the husband.  Those who do not care about animals will tend to be immune to pleas about  cruelty to animals.

“Put himself in the other person’s place” is a piece of advice that most  individuals can practice only very incompletely; and even when they try, they  will be likely to favor those who have been in situations similar to their own.  A criminal will be likely to be more concerned with the treatment of prisoners,  but a person who has been stabbed is more likely to identify with the victims of  stabbing and less likely to be worried about how the aggressor is treated in  prison. This ineradicable “human equation” will probably color all of a person’s  judgments about deserts—even a judge’s.

Is the Punishment Deserved?

In all this, however, it must be kept in mind that the only consideration  relevant to justice is whether the treatment (the punishment, the reward, the  grade, the compensation for work done) is deserved. Punishment should be  proportional to desert, whatever that may be; it should not be proportioned to  the usefulness of the punishment, as it is in utilitarian theory. The  question for justice is “What punishment does he deserve?” not “What punishment  would be most socially useful?” As a rule the two tend to coincide: the most  serious crimes (involving the worst injustices) tend to be those that also  require the strongest deterrent measures in order to prevent them from  recurring. But it is not always so. It might be socially useful,  especially during a crime wave, to convict an innocent person and punish him as  an example, thus deterring potential lawbreakers and giving the members of the  community a renewed sense of “law and order.” But of course the conviction of an  innocent person, no matter what its social utility, is always an injustice,  because the innocent person does not deserve to be punished.

When we turn our attention from the prison to the marketplace, we face  equally pressing problems. What should be our criteria for determining what  compensation a worker deserves? Is there such a thing as a “just wage” and how  do we determine it? Does justice commit us to “equal pay for equal work”? Is  discrimination in hiring unjust? Does the free market, when it is permitted to  function, result in injustice?

“Equal Pay for Equal Work”

Does justice require that employees receive equal pay for equal work? That  depends on what “equal work” means:

1. If it simply means equal time spent, this has very little to do  with justice. One employee may work diligently throughout the workday, and  another may spend half her time on the phone with her friends while letting the  customers wait in line (as frequently happens in government offices, such as the  Department of Motor Vehicles). To give two such employees equal pay would be un  just, though this is typically what occurs.

2. “Equal work” may mean equal effort expended. Two employees may each  work to their full capacity during the workday—they both “do their best.” Should  they receive equal pay? Again, not necessarily. The one may have more background  and experience and expertise in the job than the other; and ordinarily more  experienced employees do, quite justly, receive more. Also, in any kind of job  requiring imagination, one person may exert maximum effort and produce little or  nothing, while the other may with less than maximum effort achieve brilliant  results. Doesn’t the second deserve a higher return? (If he didn’t receive it,  another employer who appreciated ingenuity and initiative would probably hire  him at a higher wage.)

But if both exert that same effort, and the difference is that the second  employee is brilliant and the first is dull and rather stupid, isn’t it unfair  (unjust) to penalize the dull employee for a quality, such as unimaginativeness,  which he lacks through no fault of his own? If they’re both doing their best,  why give less to the dull one? Isn’t this an injustice? No: it’s true that it’s  not the dull person’s fault that he is not as gifted, but his lack of  intelligence is a misfortune (like a disease), not an injustice imposed on him  by other persons.

3. But “equal work” can also mean the product of effort, namely achievement. A student who deserves and receives an A in mathematics may  have a great natural aptitude for it, and may work far less hard than a duller  student did for his B or C. But the grade is a measure of achievement, not of  effort or time expended. The employee in a factory whose productivity is high  (either in quantity or in quality, or both) deserves higher pay, having  contributed the most to the organization that employs him. If high achievers  receive higher compensation, this is hardly an injustice.

Justice and Job-Discrimination

But of course not everyone does receive higher pay for higher achievement.  Some employees are compensated less because of their race or sex; some are  turned down as applicants because of this, before they have a chance to achieve  anything in a job at all. Isn’t this an injustice? And doesn’t justice demand,  as “affirmative action” programs insist, that the injustice be rectified by  giving the victims of discrimination preference in jobs available now?

That depends. (1) If it is not you but your ancestors who have been the  victims of discrimination, then giving special consideration to you in no way  helps them. To hire an under- qualified applicant because his  great-grandfather was a slave, is no help to the deceased slave; a grave  injustice was done, but nothing can be done now to remedy that injustice.  To reward someone now because another member of the same racial group was once  penalized is sheer collectivism.

(2) But if the person himself has been discriminated against in the  past, measures can usually be taken to correct it: past injustices can often be  corrected.

(a) You may have been the victim of job-discrimination because the  educational facilities in your neighborhood were poor; you never learned to  write or add properly so as to be qualified for any decently paying job. To hire  the underqualified person anyway is no solution: it is not just to students to  inflict on them a poor teacher because (for reasons that are not, or not  entirely, her fault) she was discriminated against in the past. And to the  extent that such hiring is practiced, the students in a school or fellow  employees in a factory come to view the new employee as a case of “sympathy-hiring,” rather than hiring on the basis of genuine qualifications for  the position; which does nothing whatever either to improve the quality of the  instruction or to promote harmony among races.

On-the-job training may help to remedy this defect—a device that many  employers use. And in the longer run, changing the educational system so that  these radical disparities in educational background no longer occur, is even  more effective. But hiring an incompetent employee is only an attempt to correct  one past injustice by perpetrating another one.

Curing Past Discrimination by New  Discrimination

(b) Suppose, however, that of two applicants for a job, A, who is black, is  more qualified than B, who is white, but B gets the job because he is white.  This is certainly a case of job- discrimination on account of race. The question  is how to remedy it. Suppose the position falls vacant; should A, who was turned  down before, now be hired in preference to the other new applicant, C? If they  are equally qualified, yes: this would help at ]east to correct a past  injustice. But suppose that C is more qualified than A is. Then hiring A rather  than the more qualified C constitutes an injustice to C. (It’s not C’s fault  that she is white, any more than it was A’s fault that she is black.)

There are many such cases in which acts of past discrimination can be  corrected only by committing another act of unfair discrimination in the  present, thus perpetuating discrimination, not eliminating it. If a past act of  injustice can be remedied by creating another one in the present, it may be that  the cure is worse than the disease; perhaps it would be preferable, rather than  to commit a second injustice to correct the first, simply to say no to  any such discrimination in the future. In that case, we hire whomever is most  qualified for the job, regardless of the race; and if by this procedure a past  act of unfair discrimination remains uncorrected (for this time only), at least  no future acts of discrimination need occur as a result.[4]

Other Aspects of Job-Discrimination

1. It has been assumed thus far that one’s race or sex is irrelevant to one’s  qualifications for a job. But this, of course, is not always the case. An  employer is not necessarily treating an applicant unjustly if he hires a man  rather than a woman as a bodyguard or as a bouncer in a bar; the woman is turned  down not because of her sex but because she lacks the physical qualifications  for the job. Similarly, a white actor is not being unjustly treated in being  passed over for the role of Othello, which requires a black actor to take the  part. If justice in hiring is based on one’s qualifications for the job,  sometimes a person may lack the qualifications precisely because of sex  or race.

2. It is worth noting that most employers will not turn down a qualified  black applicant in favor of a less qualified white applicant, even if only for  reasons of self-interest: his company will prosper only if he takes on the most  qualified applicants, regardless of race or sex. Why is the percentage of  unemployed black teenagers almost 50% today, whereas it was less than 10% in the  late 1940s? It is not because employers have suddenly turned racist; it is  because government interferences in the marketplace, which were intended to help  minorities, have actually hurt them. For example, minimum-wage laws have  prevented many teenagers from being offered summer jobs, and from receiving  on-the-job training (since before they acquire a skill the employer would lose  money by hiring them at the legal minimum wage). There are countless examples of  this, and a reading of Markets and Minorities by the distinguished black  economist Thomas Sowell should be sufficient to convince anyone of it, popular  propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding.[5]

3. One should keep in mind the difference between justice and rights.  Many would contend, as I would, that no one has a right to a job: for  example, no employer should be forced by law to hire an employee he doesn’t  need, or even to hire an employee he doesn’t want on his payroll; if it’s his  own money he’s dispensing (and risking), he is within his rights to hire whom he  pleases. If he is a racist who refuses to hire blacks or Mexicans, he may well  suffer economically for his prejudices: if he fails to avail himself of many of  his best qualified applicants, he will himself be the loser, especially when his  non-racist competitor employs them; but that is a punishment he takes on himself  by being a racist. Many employers may have racist feelings, but if they  want to stay in business they do not let these feelings get in the way of their  pocketbooks.

His failure to hire certain persons is, then, not a violation of the rights of those whom he fails to employ; no one has a right to a job that  another person has to pay for. But in refusing to hire those applicants who are  most qualified, he is committing an injustice, because he is not treating  others in accordance with their deserts. The right to so treat them is  not incompatible with his being unjust in so treating them. Whether the  law should prohibit so treating them depends on one’s view of the law: whether  one believes, as the Founding Fathers (on the whole) did, that the law should  prohibit only violations of rights, or whether (as on more recent views) the law  should intervene also whenever there are cases of injustice.

Justice and the Market

It has often been alleged that the free-market system is unjust. Criticisms  of the free market constitute a very high percentage of the content of most  college courses in ethics and social philosophy. It may be granted at once that  no system is entirely just in every detail; there will always be cases of  injustice. But the market system is by far the least unjust of all economic  systems.

The Soviet Union does not have a market economy. A worker’s pay depends not  on his actual merit or productivity, but on what the bureaucrats in charge  decide to pay each worker in a given category. The government decides that  teachers shall receive a higher wage than physicians, and that factory workers  shall receive a higher wage than filing clerks. Theoretically at least, each  worker in a given category is supposed to earn the same—the assumption being  that each one is maximally dedicated to the ideals of communism and therefore  will exert maximum effort and achieve maximum productivity during his hours at  work. How does this system work out in practice? A description by someone who  defected from it provides a dramatic illustration:

Nobody in the bus factory was in a hurry to work; the workers  preferred to sit in the smoking room until the foreman appeared, when they all  dashed to their places. “Why should we hurry for the money they pay us?” said  the workmen. “Work’s not a wolf, it won’t run into the forest!” In the mornings  they were almost all drunk or hung over, and throughout the working day people  would be regularly detailed to slip over the fence for some vodka. Only one man  put in a full day’s work. The rest hated him, and when pointing him out would  rotate one finger meaningfully by the temple. They were always looking for  chances to do him dirt, either by surreptitiously damaging his machine or by  stealing his tools. “Want to be a champion and raise the targets?” they said  spitefully. It turned out that if one man exceeded the target, the target would  be raised for all of them the following month, and they would have to work twice  as hard for exactly the same money.[6]

The injustice of a system that penalizes the dedicated worker is too obvious  to require comment—not to mention the effects on the worker himself: nothing  ruins the morale of a human being more than being penalized for doing a good  job.

Market Rewards

A market economy, by contrast, rewards initiative and enterprise. Not every  employer recognizes talent immediately: there may be a period in which he pays a  certain employee less than he would if he knew the employee’s true worth. Yet  the tendency in a market economy is for each person to rise to the limit  of his ability. Since there are competing employers, if one employer doesn’t  recognize his worth, another one is likely to do so.

Don’t those who work in some kinds of jobs deserve more pay than others? Yes,  and the market sorts this out also. A person who does dangerous work, such as  walking along the catwalk of a high bridge for safety inspection, is not likely  to take such a job unless in doing so he earns more than he would as a janitor.  Nor is a person likely to spend years of his youth going through medical school  if at the end of the road he earned no more than he would have as a dishwasher.  And a physician with a good record of curing diseases is likely to have more  patients than one with a bad record; and doesn’t the first physician deserve his  greater reward? There is no one wage which one can describe as a just  wage (surely this depends on the health of the economy, and what employers can  afford to pay): if one wants a definition of a just wage, one could simply say  that it is the wage that one’s services can command on a free market. The fact  that some persons’ labor is worth more than others’ is largely taken account of  by the market itself.

A foreman complains that the manager who sits behind a desk all day receives  more pay than he does. But the manager has the responsibility of coordinating  workers’ efforts and turning out a quality product. And the president of the  firm, who earns more than the manager, has the awesome responsibility of trying  to anticipate next year’s market, and thus deciding how much of what to produce,  what materials to order and from whom; on such decisions depends the continued  existence of the firm. Doesn’t the successful discharge of such responsibilities  merit a higher income? Workmen and foremen who later become managers and members  of the board seldom complain any longer about the disparity in income.

There are those who say that no one deserves the high pay received by  some executives and corporation heads—that such high incomes somehow constitute  an injustice. But what if the executive who receives $500,000 a year is talented  and ingenious enough to save the company two million dollars a year without  sacrificing quality of product? He has certainly been worth more than his pay to  the company. The stockholders are anxious enough to pay him this, and even more  rather than see him captured by another company. Should they be prohibited from paying him what they believe he deserves?

Misfortune vs. Injustice

If someone is unemployed because there is no longer any demand for his skill,  he will have to set about acquiring another. But where is the injustice in this?  Who is the perpetrator of the alleged injustice? The buggy-maker who no longer  has any demand for buggies? Wouldn’t it be unjust to the buggy-maker to force  him to retain a worker he doesn’t need, when most customers are buying cars  instead of buggies?

Or suppose a man does have a marketable skill but at the moment there are no  openings in his area. Is this unjust? It is unfortunate for him that he must  either be unemployed or change jobs or move to another area, but there is no one  who can be accused of treating him unjustly. The more a free market is permitted  to operate, the more likely it is that he will soon find an outlet for his  skills. Again, his unemployment may be a temporary misfortune, but not an  injustice.

Suppose a farmer decides to grow soybeans this year, endeavoring to enrich  the soil and to increase the output of the same product that made him  considerable money last year. But suppose that many other farmers have the same  idea, and as a result there is an overproduction of soybeans and the price of  soybeans this year suffers a sharp decline. This is simply a reality of the  market: “Given constant demand, if there’s more of a product the value of each  unit declines.” Is this an injustice to the farmer?

If the farmer’s crops are lost through drought or flood, this is a  misfortune, not an injustice; but the fact that other farmers also planted  soybeans is a deliberately undertaken human action, not a condition of nature.  Still, where is the injustice? If the farmer had been wise, perhaps he should  have planted something else this year; but how is the fact that other farmers  also wanted to make money by planting soybeans an injustice to him? If he can  plant soybeans, why can’t they? It may be a misfortune that too many are grown  this year and a surplus results; but where is the injustice? Who has been unjust  to whom? If he had a reason to anticipate what other farmers would do, he is  stuck with the results of bad planning on his part; but if he had no way of  knowing, the financial loss can be described only as a misfortune, not as an  injustice.

Justice vs. “Social Justice”

Those who are engaged in “social engineering” often characterize the concept  of individual justice, described above, as outdated. What we need, they say, is social justice.[7]

But what exactly does this term mean? If justice is treatment in accord with  desert, and deserts are unequal, then justice demands that treatments also be  unequal. If everyone were given the same wage regardless of effort or  achievement, we would have a society in which hardly anyone would choose to work  at all; in the end there would be nothing left to distribute, and starvation  would stalk the land. The ideal of justice as complete egalitarianism—everyone  receives the same regardless of who does what or how much, or even if they do  nothing at all—is contradicted by the most elementary facts of reality. It is  not the idea of forcible redistribution that deters egalitarians—they have no  objections at all to that—but only the fact that once the goose has been killed  it can lay no more eggs.

Proponents of “social justice” do not, then, usually demand that every person  (or every family) receive the same income. For reasons of sheer survival, this  is not done even in the Soviet Union. What the proponents of “social justice” do  demand, however, is that everyone, regardless of effort, ability, or  achievement, receive a “decent standard of living”-which in urban America may  include not only food, clothing, and shelter, but a telephone, a television set,  and convenient means of transportation as “necessities of life.” And who shall  be required to pay for these things? Those whose income is higher; “justice  demands” that those who are “more fortunate” be required to contribute to those  who are “less fortunate.” These are the popular name tags, and the underlying  assumption is that if one person has more and another less, this is solely a  matter of “luck” or “fortune,” as if somehow individual ability and initiative  had nothing to do with im proving one’s lot.

It is far from clear, however, how A being forced to give part of his  paycheck to B is an example of justice: it would seem to be a case of injustice  to A, and a windfall for B. And even if such transfer payments should be made,  should they be done in the name of justice? The basis of justice is desert; the  basis of charity is need: in charity, we give to others because they need it; in  justice, we receive compensation (or punishment) because we deserve it. The  difference between justice and charity should not be obscured.

The “Underprivileged” and Why They Are  Poor

The poor are usually classified as “unfortunate” or “underprivileged,” as if  those who earned more had purposely deprived them. But this label, which social  planners automatically attach to everyone who is below a certain level of  income, applies only to some of them, certainly not to all. We must first  investigate, which social planners almost never do, why they are poor.

1. Suppose a neighbor of yours is about to make an investment which you know  to be fraudulent: he will lose everything if he makes the investment. Undeterred  by your pleas, he does it anyway, and the result is that he loses everything.  Would most people, including champions of “social justice,” be willing to hand  over part of their paychecks in perpetuity to a person who has merely been  foolish?

2. Suppose a lady has been thrifty all her life, saved for her old age, and  has a small house and yard; a second lady, with considerably more income, spent  it all on riotous living and is now destitute. Should the first lady be required  to give over part of her limited income each month to the second? (That is the  way things work out under the current welfare system; but is this justice?)

3. Assume that a worker has been able to pay into old-age insurance but  simply failed to do so, spending everything she earned. Now she is destitute.  Should others, who have provided in advance for their old age, be forced  to hand over a portion of their savings to the person who has not so provided?  To do so may be charitable, but is it just?

4. Now let us take a different kind of case. A person is ill or has a  physical handicap which does not enable her to work; she would like to, but she  can’t and her family has no resources. Shouldn’t “society” take care of her?

Coercive or Voluntary

This is certainly the best case for welfare; but the question remains whether  it should be government welfare (compulsorily paid by all wage earners) or  privately financed welfare (voluntarily contributed by those who are able).  Though the matter would require a lengthy discussion that is not possible here,  I suggest that the persons who answer to this description are a comparatively  small minority of the population, and that, once the enormous ball-and-chain of  high taxation (including social security payments) was removed from every wage  earner, and would-be entrepreneurs could start small businesses and take on  employees without the present high probability that their enterprises will be  bankrupted by taxes and regulation, there would be such a resurgence of  prosperity that government welfare would be quite unnecessary: private funding  would be quite adequate to the task, as it was during the first century of  American history when the standards of living were much lower than they are  now.[8]

Herbert Spencer was much wiser than today’s planners when in 1884 he  criticized “the tacit assumption that Government should step in whenever  anything is not going right. ‘Surely you would not have this misery continue!’ exclaims someone, if you hint at demurrer to much that is now being said and  done. Observe what is implied by this exclamation. It takes for granted, first,  that all suffering ought to be prevented, which is not true; much of the  suffering is curative, and the prevention of it is prevention of a remedy. In  the second place, it takes for granted that every evil can be removed: the truth  being that, with the existing defects of human nature, many evils can only be  thrust out of one place or form into another place or form—often being increased  by the change.

“The exclamation also implies the unhesitating belief . . . that evils of all  kinds should be dealt with by the State. There does not occur the inquiry  whether there are at work other agencies capable of dealing with evils, and  whether the evils in question may not be among those which are best dealt with  by these other agencies. And obviously, the more numerous governmental  interventions become, the more confirmed does this habit of thought grow, and  the more loud and perpetual the demands for intervention.”[9]

Try Freedom

With an unfettered economy, and a minimum of charity (and most Americans have  more than a minimum), the problem of poverty would become almost obsolete.  Economist Thomas Sowell may have overstated the case, but he had a valid point  when, in answering the question “How to get rid of poverty?” he answered, “Hold  a meeting of all the leading experts on poverty some where in the middle of the  Pacific and not let them go home for ten years. When they came back, they would  discover there was no more poverty.”[10]

It will be apparent by now that the demands of “social justice” are  incompatible with those of individual justice; to the extent that the first  demand is met, the second must be sacrificed. If the government takes money out  of Peter’s wallet to put it in Paul’s, it may have achieved greater equality,  but not greater justice. It is impossible for individuals to receive a just wage  on a free market and then be forced to part with a portion of it, for then they  receive less than a just wage.

The final irony is that the ideals of the champions of “social justice” are  not even achieved when they are put fully into practice. Because people will  not—and cannot—produce indefinitely without compensation, the final result of  massive transfer payments is equality of zero—universal destitution. That, after  all, is how the excesses of the late Roman welfare state gave way to the  destitution of the Dark Ages.[11]  It has happened many times in history, and it could happen again if the  proponents of “social justice”—that is, enforced collectivism—push their demands  so far as to cancel out the requirements of individual justice.


1.   See, for example, Frederick Schoeman, “On  Incapacitating the Dangerous,” in John Arthur and William Shaw, eds., Readings in the Philosophy of Law (Prentice-Hall, 1984), and in Joel  Feinberg and Hyman Gross, eds., Philosophy of Law (Wadsworth, 1981).

2.   Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov,  Modern Library edition, p. 254. (First published 1882.)

3.   Ayn Rand, “Racism,” in The Virtue of  Selfishness (Signet Books, 1964).

4.   See Louis Katzner, “Is the Favoring of Women and  Blacks in Employment and Educational Opportunities Justified?” in Feinberg and  Gross, Philosophy of Law.

5.   See also Walter Williams, The State Versus  Blacks (McGraw-Hill, 1982); Warren Brookes, The Economy in Mind  (Universe Books, 1982).

6.   Vladimir Bukofsky, To Build a Castle: My Life as  a Dissenter (Viking Press, 1977), p. 123.

7.   See, for example, Richard Brandt, ed., Social  Justice (Prentice-Hall, 1962); Nicholas Rescher, Welfare (University  of Pittsburgh Press, 1972); Norman E. Bowie, Distributive Justice  (University of Massachusetts Press, 1971); Robin Barrow, Injustice,  Inequality, and Ethics (Barnes & Noble, 1982); Michael Bayles, Principles of Legislation (Wayne State University Press, 1978).

8.   See, for example, Henry Hazlitt, The Conquest of  Poverty (Arlington House, 1978).

9.   Herbert Spencer, The Man .versus the State  (Caxton Press, 1940), pp. 34-35. Originally published 1884. See also John  Hospers, Libertarianism (Laissez Faire Books, 1971), Chapter 7.

10.   Thomas Sowell, in Reason, December 1980  issue, p. 5.

11.   See Ludwig von Mises, Human Action  (Regnery, 1945), esp. pp. 767-769; also Isabel Paterson, The God of the  Machine (Caxton Press, 1943), pp. 38-40.