The public debates of those critical of Social Justice—the idea of correcting for unequal outcomes—tend to focus primarily on the illiberal attitudes and behaviours of today’s so-called Social Justice Warriors. As justified as that critique may be, it fails to address the problems inherent in the concept of Social Justice itself.
In Law, Legislation and Liberty, F. A. Hayek writes, “It is indeed the concept of ‘social justice’ which has been the Trojan Horse through which totalitarianism has entered.” To quote Thomas Sowell, “if you give the government enough power to create ‘social justice,’ you have given it enough power to create despotism. Millions of people around the world have paid with their lives for overlooking that simple fact.”
In other words, the “moral guise” (Hayek) of Social Justice conceals a threat to liberal democracy—partly because Social Justice is far more concerned with the equal distribution of resources (distributive justice) than the equal treatment of individuals (procedural justice). Its primary objective is, therefore, not to safeguard individual rights and liberties, but to control social and economic outcomes.
Thus, unlike justice tout court, Social Justice is compatible with gender quotas, Affirmative Action and other forms of positive discrimination based on group membership. Justice, however, implies impartiality and non-discrimination, as symbolized by Lady Justice’s blindfold.
Usually, the purpose of positive or reverse discrimination is to compensate for past injustices. We might call this approach corrective injustice. Two wrongs don’t make a right, though. Nor is it self-evident that past injustices explain current disparities. As Sowell notes, “Given the innumerable factors influencing the current well-being and misfortunes of individuals and groups, the presumption of being able to disentangle all these factors and determine how much is due to the injustices of history is truly staggering.” There is also an implicit assumption that—were it not for such injustices—equal outcomes would be the norm. This shifts the burden of proof: inequality is unjust until proven otherwise. However, since people differ in a myriad of ways, we have no reason to expect equal outcomes. Equal opportunity—the absence of arbitrary discrimination—does not imply equal probability. Yet, groups that are, on average, better off than others are routinely accused of being privileged.
The idea of privilege—that certain groups in society benefit from an unfair advantage—is central to Social Justice. The basic premise is that, in order to create a just society, those who have privilege must be stripped of it. However, once a group has been labelled privileged (based on its performance), the distinction between privilege and achievement becomes blurred. If history is any indication, this is a recipe for disaster.
Social Justice has changed over the years. In its original form, it purported to liberate “the exploited majority” from “the privileged hands” of “the exploiting minority” (Stalin’s words). Today, it is more focused on marginalized groups, including women. Influenced by postmodern philosophy, many of today’s Social Justice advocates think of society as a hierarchical structure of power and privilege designed to oppress the Other.
In keeping with this view, racism has come to be defined as systemic white privilege, rather than as an attitude held by individual human beings. This implies that only white people can be racist. In fact, it suggests that white people are, in some sense, inherently racist. Moreover, this means that there is no such thing as anti-white racism. Analogously, the traditional concept of sexism—prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination on the basis of sex—has been replaced by a powerful myth: the patriarchy.
People are thus divided into two categories, based on their immutable characteristics: the oppressed and the oppressors. Inverting Martin Luther King’s vision of a just society, in which people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” identity politics is best defined as a politics of group essentialism.
It is often argued that society’s most marginalized identity groups are impacted by multiple, interlocking systems of oppression: a theory known as intersectionality. A woman of colour, for example, is oppressed by both the patriarchy and by white privilege. From this we can conclude that privilege, too, must be intersectional. For instance, I have white male privilege according to this logic.
However, given that privilege is commonly defined as “a special right, advantage or immunity” (my emphasis), the claim that being white means being privileged is a non-sequitur in a predominantly white society. There is nothing special about being part of the majority population, nor does it imply special treatment. For much the same reason, it makes no sense to define men, who make up half of the world’s population, as a privileged class.
What’s more, my identity group (white male) is highly diverse in almost every other respect. The idea that diversity can only be achieved by mixing and matching people from different groups is based on a fallacy: that all members of a group are alike. Moreover, it assumes, a priori, that between-group differences are greater than within-group differences, which is, at best, a questionable assumption. Worst of all, however, this leads to people being treated as a means to an end rather than as ends in themselves—in direct violation of Immanuel Kant’s dictum that we should never treat people simply as a means.
Social Justice narratives tend to be highly selective in their focus. For example, the narrative of male privilege suppresses a number of relevant facts, such as that over 90% of occupational fatalities in the US involve men or that over 70% of Britain’s homeless are male. Similarly, those who invoke white privilege tend to ignore the existence of white poverty. When pressed on the issue, they often argue that white poverty has nothing to do with race. But that undermines the basic premise of white privilege: that race is all-pervasive.
In fact, this demonstrates that outcomes are determined by a multitude of factors, which can be extremely difficult to disentangle. Often, the only way to sustain a single cause explanation, such as white privilege or patriarchy, is by withholding relevant information.
Take, for example, the so-called gender pay gap. The fact that women, on average, earn less than men is taken as proof of patriarchy, ignoring a whole host of factors that might explain this discrepancy but don’t fit the prevailing narrative. However, according to a recent Harvard study, gender differences in income are mostly due to the different career choices men and women make.
Another example of supposed injustice is racial economic inequality, as measured by median household income. This fails to take into account differences in household demographics. According to the American Enterprise Institute, “Household demographics, including the average number of earners per household and the marital status, age and education of householders, are all very highly correlated with household income.”
For example, when we are told that the median household income of Hispanic Americans is lower than that of whites, we don’t hear about the fifteen-year age gap between the two groups. Given that older people, on average, tend to have a higher income than people at the beginning of their careers, it’s hardly surprising that whites with a median age of forty-three are more likely to be in a higher income bracket than Hispanics with a median age of only twenty-eight.
Moreover, while whites have a higher median household income than Hispanics, Asian Americans have a higher median household (and per capita) income than whites—despite the fact that, in the past, Asians suffered severe discrimination at the hands of whites.
Furthermore, Hispanics have a higher median household income than African Americans, which can, in part, be explained by the latter’s lower rate of marriage and higher rate of single-parent households— social patterns negatively correlated with income, irrespective of race.
None of this means that sexism and racism don’t exist or don’t matter. It just means that it’s unwise to assume a single-cause explanation without considering other possibilities. We can’t solve social issues if we misdiagnose their causes. This is why multivariate analyses are indispensable. Unfortunately, Social Justice has little use for such analyses.
Social Justice defines fairness in terms of outcomes, rather than processes, the implication being that the end justifies the means. Whether the goal is equality (of outcome) or diversity (of identity), the individual is just a pawn in the game of Social Justice: a means to an end rather than an end in itself. In short, Social Justice is not justice. The future of liberal democracy depends on our ability to tell the two apart.