Beware of the Trojan Horse: A Critique of Social Justice

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.

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  1. “Social justice” is another name for what the Communist Party of the USA did internally around 1950. I believe “white supremacy” and “white privilege” are derived from “white chauvinism” at that time. The result was that they threw out people for such trivial things as serving watermelon to blacks. Months ago a fireman in the USA was fired for doing exactly that.

    See the following:

    Use “search inside” here:

    “American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957” by Joseph Starobin, foreign editor for the US edition of the Daily Worker.

    “Odd Man Out” by Edward Dmytryk, one of the original “Hollywood 10”, who went to prison but later decided to testify.

  2. Some of the commenters here defending social justice seem to be unaware of how it is being used: that whites are accused of racism no matter what, that structural racism is claimed to exist (without proof), that women are claimed to be oppressed by the patriarchy (without proof) when in fact they make up a majority of college students, of med students, and take more lifetime in social security than they pay in, as well as having big advantages in divorce and criminal courts (I could go on). Yes, there certainly used to be racism and patriarchy, but claiming that nothing has improved is not realistic. The point of the author is that the demand for equity is potentially (not always) a trojan horse for despotism. Communism claimed to be about equity, to be the salvation of the workers but look what happened.

  3. Ambrose’s concern is not necessarily with the merits of privlidge or social justice although he touches on these issues. His core point is the danger of creating a system powerful enough to redress even legitimate past social injustice. To contemplate logistical problems involved, knowledge demanded and unforseen consequences .. the power needed is equivalent to forging the ring of Sauron and opening pandora’s box. Historically this has not ended well. I am poorly acquainted with this literature and would appreciate a reference grappling with the practical problems associated with such concentration of power from those invested in social justice and how it would differ from previous attempts.

    1. That has been my question to acolytes of Robin Di Angelo. I ask: Where is her research to prove her hypotheses? I am just as white as Di Angelo is, but I apparently was not raised as she was. I was not raised to believe that whites were racially superior to nonwhites. She, therefore, does not speak for me and has nothing of value to say to me. When I say this, I am condemned as “not getting it” or am told that I “definitely have it” (i.e., white privilege). No, I don’t “get it,” and I don’t “have it” either. I have finally concluded that arguing with these advocates of self-flagellation for whites is useless and one can only resist their “ideas” or ridicule them.

      1. Di Angelo is particularly pernicious because of her concept of “white fragility”. It’s the equivalent of the inquisitor’s satanic possession. Any criticism of the system can just be chucked away as “white fragility”, which is just used as more proof of the person’s inherent racism. It’s a foolproof logical loop like any religion. It’s the same with demonic possession. Any criticism of Christianity clearly was the influence of Satan.

  4. I would like to note that the author never quotes or cites a single “Social Justice” advocate. Starting in the third paragraph, in which Ambrosch lays out the goals of Social Justice (Why is that capitalized, by the way? Is it an enterprise or institution? A high street store? Does Ambrosch think that Social Justice is a single person? That might explain some things.), we have an author creating straw men. This entire piece uses detailed data to refute vague recollections of claims that the author thinks somebody has made. Why hyperlink sources and quote thinkers who bolster your argument but never even let us know with whom you are actually arguing? This is weak, sloppy, cowardly thinking and writing — not to mention nonexistent editing.

    1. I laughed at Sowell’s quote that it’s too complicated so we can’t know… Therefore Ambrosch says we should let the situation be.

      We can most definitively see the effect of many laws or historical events on groups of people.

    2. I don’t see why the author need quote any thinkers at all. Wouldn’t you just as easily find fault in the particular citations chosen? Given that your criticism fails to address any of the arguments put forth, and ends on a rather nasty note, one can just as easily dismiss your contribution as an ad hominem.

      Are you incapable of grappling with jdeas? Why not discuss what exactly you disagree with, and why? Then bar for online discussion is generally low but this reads more like taking a potshot.

  5. I was an Equal Opportunities tutor, for many years. Social Justice is defined as equality of opportunity, not outcomes. However, it is argued or assumed if there are more equal opportunities then there will be less disparity of outcome. Although this does not mean you will not have millionaires and very poor people, one reason being many people have no interest in being millionaires, even when given plenty of opportunities to be so. Where the author studied these principles is a good question, not in my class!!

    1. A key component of social justice is the concept of equity,. Equity is equal outcome not opportunity. Pretending otherwise is absurd.

      1. Quite wrong, Tim. Even a dictionary will explain the basis or basics to you:

        ”justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.”

        The more ‘just’ a society or system less disparity will be the result. If all 4 year olds are taught Maths, or given this OPPORTUNITY, then most of them will be able to add, subtract, divide, etc by the age of 8 reasonably well. It’s called a level playing field or a fair crack at the whip. Personality, circumstances…. determine outcomes. If all 4 year olds are given the opportunity to play tennis and enter a tournament there will still just be one winner!! Equal Opportunity policies or Social Justice requires giving all the 4 year olds a racquet and balls, if they want to enter.

    2. “Social Justice is defined as equality of opportunity, not outcomes.” that is how it should be thought of, and if it always was, SJW would not be a disparaging term. The problem is so many of its adherents will see (or perceive) some disparity of outcomes, and jump directly to assume they must have been caused by disparity of opportunity, without considering other possible factors.

  6. I agree with Ambrosch on today’s woke social justice, but disagree with the thesis about social justice having always been a Trojan Horse (using Sowell as authority is telling). Don’t use the woke crowd to tarnish social justice movements in general. Those movements gave us worker and environmental protections, civil rights laws, universal education, universal health care (in all but the US), etc. Are these things really that bad? At least Northern Europe seems to be coordinating social justice into its economies pretty well. Ambrosch’s core thesis about social justice seems right out of Ayn Rand. In an age where gigantic formations of capitalism control health care, energy sectors, etc., we can’t just go back to Davy Crockett individualism. The possibility of exploitation and exponential wealth inequality is too great. We need some collective formation like the government to hold the line on social justice. “Every man for himself’ is an excellent theory if you are born controlling all the assets. If you are a kid born in the ghetto, not so much.

    1. I agree, there’s a danger of setting up a binary between between SJW lunacy and conservative rugged individualism. There’s a long history of social justice from Paine to Rawls and beyond rooted in seeing people as ends and not merely means and just part of groups.

      1. It seems to me that this is another case of inverting the qualifier. Social Justice Warrior mentality is bad, therefore, Social Justice is bad. It doesn’t hold.

        1. It obviously comes down to your definition of justice/social justice and how you wish to achieve it.
          Not only is the SJW approach full of terrible ideas, it’s convinced itself it’s concept of justice is the only valid one. You either agree with them or you oppose social justice. I think the duty of those terrified by what they’re doing is not only to oppose them but to keep articulating their own version of social justice. One rooted in universal values and a common humanity. We have a great intellectual tradition to draw on. Ideas often need revision and updating, but I refuse to be portrayed as ‘right wing’ for thinking critical race theory is pernicious snake oil.

    2. When I think of “environmental protections” I think of the time in the US when someone was prosecuted for violating the Clean Water Act by cutting down trees on his land, thereby causing sunlight to shine on the water in the river adjacent to his property, which warmed the water (heat counts as a pollutant). I am not reassured by this.

      1. I work in forestry. What you described is a real concern. Suddenly exposing streams and other running fresh water sources to direct sunlight where it was previously sheltered can do serious damage to plant and animal life due to heat, de-oxygenation, and soil erosion.

        1. And yet he will not be compensated for his service in protecting the river from the sunlight. After all, if the trees (which he owns) hadn’t existed in the first place, the “damage” would have already occured. And this service that he is providing, which had been taken for granted, is now being used against him, to prevent him from doing as he wishes with what he owns.

    3. Social justice of the identitarian sort has played virtually no role in the way Scandinavian countries have instituted social welfare systems. Quite the opposite. The welfare state was instituted as a nationalist program, where ethnic citizens were the primary recipients of welfare. All of these countries had a population that imagined themselves as one people, so there was no need for the sort of American intersectionalism that rises out of their multicultural society. In a sense their social justice was identitarian too, but the everyone shared the national identity.

      Only recently when people not from nearby countries have been pouring in, is the American kind of identitarianism rising it’s head. So to point to Scandinavia as a model of succesful social justice, and to use that to push for the sort of identitarian social justice that is currently in vogue, is a grave mistake.

      1. I agree 100%. My point was not that “social justice of the identarian sort” had anything to do with Scandinavian welfare systems. Quite to opposite. My point is that social justice of the identarian sort is the disaster Ambrosch says it is, but when he opens by saying we need to broaden the critique and jettison the idea of social justice entirely, he has thrown the baby out with the bath water. He has become Ayn Rand. In fact social justice OUTSIDE the scope of today’s woke version has been a valuable reference point for peoples trying to create a more ideal union for themselves. As Andrew Miller put it in his comment, it’s a mistake to reduce things to the binary (either you choose identarian social justice or you choose Ayn Rand).There’s lots of space for social justice outside of that binary.

    4. At least you sort of skirt around the truth. Social Justice is Socialism. Why you think it is so great is a mystery. Capitalism is not some sort of free for all individualism, and was not that way even in Davy Crockett’s day. You have all your stuff, even your “free” healthcare because of capitalism, not socialism.

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