The prevailing political discourse seems to be consumed with the bromides of social justice, carefully tended by political and intellectual classes claiming special knowledge of its demands.
Friedrich Hayek, perhaps the greatest intellectual of the past century, was famously critical of the concept. “Justice is an attribute of individual action,” Hayek said. “I can be just or unjust towards my fellow man. But the conception of a social justice … is not only a meaningless conception, it’s completely impossible.” Hayek argued everyone talks about social justice without knowing what it means, and he reasoned the idea of social justice puts the cart before the horse by arbitrarily demanding certain end results when justice is actually about means.
It is ironic today’s “liberals” should espouse social justice, making it the centerpiece of their proposed solutions to problems of poverty. Only in vain do the champions of this most slippery notion search for answers in attacks on economic liberalism. Long centuries have passed since the one and only cure for poverty, importantly humankind’s natural state, was discovered in trade and its concomitants, the division and specialization of labor. Its proven merits notwithstanding, that solution suffers from the fact it cannot be achieved through the edicts of rulers, that it must be allowed to develop on its own without the interference of those who believe they must know better. “Let it be” is not a motto suited to the stump speeches of politicians eager to impress crowds with the seeming sophistication of their schemes.
Today’s social justice warriors have forgotten, in the words of Hayek’s teacher Ludwig von Mises, “It is precisely want and misery that liberalism seeks to abolish, and it considers the means that it proposes the only suitable ones for the achievement of this end.” Mises continues, “All economic policies are designed as remedies for poverty.”
It is worthwhile to reiterate this simple fact: Virtually all social and economic designs purport to achieve peace, justice, and prosperity. The correct question, therefore, asks not about the intentions of a policy’s proponents—which are, in any case, quite undiscoverable—but about the real-world relationship between the stated goal and the means chosen to achieve it. It is futile to look for answers to social problems without assessing whether the supposed cures are not themselves aggravating the problems. History teaches oftentimes the “solutions,” particularly those of crusading apostles of social justice, are deeply incompatible with their own explicit objectives.
Consider 20th century communists, whom we might regard as the quintessential social justice warriors. Their blood-soaked revolutions were supposed to finally free the workers of the world from the waking nightmare of drudgery and poverty. Instead, they instituted programs that exacerbated the problems of poverty and want, undoing the progress ushered in by the classical liberalism of Mises and Hayek.
Under actual communist regimes, the subject of poverty itself was off limits, if not legally verboten. Poverty scholar Serena Romano points out in several of the Soviet Republics, terms like “poverty” and “slums” were actually banned from official sources, cast into the memory hole. Merely to suggest poverty persisted was to cast doubt upon the entire edifice of Soviet-style authoritarian communism, and, for that reason, it could not be tolerated. It is important to understand, as Romano does, poverty is a politically-constructed concept, conceivable only in a world that has discovered the escape velocity at which human beings might leave behind the unspeakably widespread impoverished state that has held us for millennia on end. To put it another way, poverty was conspicuous as a social and economic problem only as human civilization began to overcome it. So long-standing and so complete was its victory that in the past it was virtually invisible, the unremarkable normal condition of life. Communism, the living rejection of market liberalism, was a relapse into this tragic, if normal, state. As columnist Steve Chapman wrote in 1990, people living behind the Iron Curtain “were even worse off than the fiercest anticommunists imagined,” often hopelessly malnourished and destined for an early grave.
Confronted with this sad history of anti-free-market ideas turning back the clock, reversing the trends of increasing health and wealth, Mises’s lesson about means matching ends appears particularly salient. This lesson ought to guide the libertarian in his promotion of the freedom philosophy. As the conversation turns from abstractly-defined philosophical concepts, such as equality and justice, to partisan politics and then from politics to concrete public policy, perhaps taking the form of legislation, the important fact of shared underlying goals is lost in translation, obscured by the inanities of team loyalty.
We would get further in our debates about political and economic ideas if we refrained from imputing bad motives, assuming rather that our interlocutors share most of our basic values. The adoption of such a posture allows us to more specifically identify points of genuine disagreement and new questions, the answers to which might resolve some of our apparent differences of opinion. For instance, most self-described socialists have taken up their socialist ideas out of genuinely felt concern for workers, a moral and emotional investment in their rights and the conditions under which they labor. Instead of condescendingly insisting this concern is misplaced, advocates of economic freedom might note actual socialism has been an utter catastrophe for poor and working-class people.
Cronyism and communism rely on the same fundamentally destructive principle: coercive intervention in the otherwise peaceful world of commerce, the state’s choosing of winners and losers. Both programs are decidedly regressive, privileging insiders and cutting off the roads to prosperity. Economies are rather like human beings; in both, adaptation, change, and movement in general indicate life and vitality, while sclerosis and stasis mean death. It is not that coercive impediments to voluntary, mutually-beneficial trade cause poverty, but, more accurately, that they preempt the dynamic processes through which poverty’s grim rule is overthrown.
History has given us only a taste of the market economy, a hint of its potential to create and disperse wealth. Free markets are a peaceful force multiplier, the key to unlocking the outpouring of material abundance that has lifted billions out of the most abject conditions. Free markets, private property, and individual rights did this, not socialism, communism, nor vague notions of social justice. These simple principles are the most significant anti-poverty program yet discovered, the only one that has truly spread the wealth.