Via Economic Policy Journal

Friedrich Hayek

Since the radical left is aggressively promoting the goal of social justice, it is fruitful to consider what Friedrich Hayek said about the concept.

From an interview with James Buchanan:

It’s undefinable. People don’t know what they
mean when they talk about social justice. They have
particular situations in mind, and they hope that if they
demand social justice, somebody would care for all people
who are in need, or something of that kind. But the
phrase “social justice” has no meaning, because no two
people can agree on what it really means. I believe, as
I say in the preface [to Law, Legislation and Liberty],
I’d written quite a different chapter on the subject
trying that [concept] in practice in one particular case
after another, until I discovered that the phrase had no

content, that people didn’t really
know what they meant by it. The appeal to the word
justice was just because it was a very effective and
appealing word; but justice is essentially an attribute
of individual human action, and a state of affairs as such
cannot be just or unjust. So it’s in the last resort a
logical muddle. It’s not that I’m against it, but I say
that it has no meaning.

From an interview with Robert Bork:

[A]ny deliberate attempt to correct the distribution according to supposed principles of social justice, is ultimately irreconcilable with a free society….It’s completely empty. I’m convinced it’s completely empty. You see, justice is an attribute of human action, not of the state of affairs, and the application of the term social justice assumes a judgment of the justice of a state of affairs irrespective of how it has been brought about. That deprives it of its meaning. 

From Law, Legislation and Liberty:

 Such statements which explicitly connect ‘social and distributive justice’ with the ‘treatment’ by society of the individuals according to their ‘deserts’ brings out most clearly its difference from plain  justice, and at the same time the cause of the vaucity of the concept: the demand for ‘social justice’ is addressed not to the individual but to society – – yet society, in the strict sense in which it must be distinguished from the apparatus of government, is incapable of acting for a specific purpose, and the demand for ‘social justice’ therefore becomes a demand that members of society should organize themselves in a manner which makes it possible to assign particular shares of the product of society to the different individuals or groups. The primary question then becomes whether there exists a moral duty to submit to a power which can coordinate the efforts of the members of society with the aim of achieving a particular pattern of distribution regarded as just… 

The appeal to ‘social justice’ has nevertheless by now become the most widely used in most effective argument in political discussion. Almost every claim for government action on behalf of particular groups is advanced by its name, and if it can be made to appear that a certain measure is required by ‘social justice,’ opposition to it will rapidly weaken. People may dispute whether or not the particular measure is required by social justice. But this is this is the standard which ought to guide political action, and that the expression has a definite meaning, it’s hardly ever questioned. In consequence, there are today probably no political movements or politicians who do not readily appeal to ‘social justice’ in support of the particular measure which they advocate.

It also can scarcely be denied that the demand for ‘social justice’ has already in great measure transformed the social order and is continuing to transform it in the direction with those who called for it never saw. Though the phrase is undoubtedly helped occasionally make the law more equal for all, whether the demand for justice in distribution has in any sense made society juster or reduced discontent must remain doubtful. 

RW

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