Social justice is a very difficult concept to define.
The notion of some form of social justice has been around since Socrates’s interpretation of Plato’s Crito. He suggested the idea of a ‘social contract whereby people follow the rules of society to have both the benefits offered by and the obligations related to society. Ever since then, there have been many revisions of social justice from philosophical and religious perspectives. More recently, the notion of social justice has been extended to education, health care, the environment and even illegal immigration among other aspect of societies. However, even today there is not a clear definition of social justice.
The United Nation offers a definition of social justice as; “Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth “(2006, Social Justice in an Open World: The Role of the United Nations). This definition highlights the inherent difficulties with social justice and leads to the questions of what is fair, what is compassionate and what are the obligations of the people who demand social justice? This definition also ignores Hayek’s earlier comment who stated:
“There can be no test by which we can discover what is ‘socially unjust’ because there is no subject by which such an injustice can be committed, and there are no rules of individual conduct the observance of which in the market order would secure to the individuals and groups the position which as such (as distinguished from the procedure by which it is determined) would appear just to us” (Law, Legislation and Liberty, 1982).
My contention is that fair and compassionate can only be defined as the policies of a democratically elected government of the day and the institutions underpinning those policies.
2.Individual preferences cannot be added up to a derive social welfare function
In 1951, the Nobel prize winning economist K. Arrow demonstrated in his book ‘Social Choice and Individual Values’ that individual preferences cannot be aggregated to derive a social welfare function (Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem).
The implication of the Impossibility Theorem is that there is no simple way of defining ‘fair and compassionate redistribution of wealth. What one person may deem as fair and compassionate redistribution of wealth another person may not. This particularly could be the case, when the person whose wealth is being redistributed feels that the recipient is not deserving that benefit as the beneficiary has not met his/her societal obligations.
In a non-dictatorial society, free democratic elections are the best way to express the majority’s point of view about fair and compassionate redistribution of wealth. In an election, different parties have different ‘packages’ of social/welfare policies, and the public can freely and unanimously vote for them. Whilst such a process does not mean that an individual’s preference will prevail on each individual issue, as in an ideal world, the majority view will prevail on the most preferred ‘policy package’. In my view this is a reasonable, practical proxy for a social welfare function, hence for social justice.
3.The imperfections of free democratic election
Even free and democratic elections have a number of shortcomings. Let me highlight some of the key ones.
First, elections are held periodically (i.e. elections are held every 3, 4 or 5 years) rather than a continuously, where every new policy is voted on. Hence individual preferences can only prevail on policy ‘packages’ not on individual policies. Furthermore, changes in social preferences may shift between two elections, and it takes time to reflect those changes.
Second, voting in elections can be compulsory (like in Australia), or voluntary (like in the US and the UK). Clearly, under the voluntary voting system, voters’ inertia may lead to outcomes which at the end of the day the majority did not want. A typical example of this may be the recent vote for Brexit (i.e. the UK to leave the European union). Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that many young people do not support Brexit, but at the same time they could not have bothered to turn up to vote for it or against it (it is impossible to get statistics on secret ballots).
Third, different countries have significantly different voting systems such as the Electoral College System (US), the First Past the Post system (UK), Preferential Voting system (Australia) and Mixed Member Proportional system (New Zealand). Each of these systems have their own idiocrasies, and could lead to outcomes, where the winning candidate and/or party may not have received most of the popular votes (see for example the last election in New Zealand).
Finally, perhaps the most debated aspect of elections are the financing sources of candidates and the amount of money spent on elections. For example, in the 2016 US presidential race Hilary Clinton spent almost 1.2 Billion US dollars on the election race, almost twice as much as President Trump did (https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2016-presidential-campaign-fundraising/). Her funding came from the Democratic Party fund raising activities, from PACs (political action committees) and individuals (the top five individual contributed close to 75 million dollars to the Clinton campaign). The total spent on the last US elections, including the Congressional elections, was over 6.5 billion dollars. No wonder that some people argue that elections can be bought, although the last US election proved otherwise, when President Trump won the election. Nevertheless, Western societies need to think about the sources of election funding and amounts of money spent on them.
Despite all the imperfections of democratic elections, they are far preferable to the dictatorial regimes of Russia, Venezuela or North Korea. Democratic elections are more likely to approximate social welfare functions than any other alternatives, hence social justice.
4.Misuse and abuse of social justice
Regrettably, the notion of social justice has been used and even abused by individuals, groups of people fighting for specific causes, Neo- Marxist left wing political groups and international organisations.
Let me give you some examples of this.
Individual social warriors argue that, the income gap has widened between the richest and the poorest part of society and they are fighting for income redistribution under the banner of social justice. They just seem to ignore some crucial facts. First, the income distribution gap has dramatically reduced over the last two centuries. The number of people living in poverty has reduced from over 45 percent to less than 10 percent in the last few decades( https://ourworldindata.org/global-economic-inequality ). Hence capitalism is working, creating wealth to all and delivering social justice to all. Second, the globalization of the world through the internet has enabled entertainers, social influencers and sports people to leverage their presence internationally and earn incomes which were unimaginable even a few years ago. For example, a number of basketball players in the US NBA have yearly salaries of just under 40 million US dollars(https://www.thestreet.com/lifestyle/sports/highest-paid-nba-players-14628556 ). Third, the ‘new rich’ lists are invariable dominated by internet entrepreneur, who started out without inherited titles or wealth but with a great idea (https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/#7e2e288251c7 ). There is no barrier to entry to the internet business.
Green groups argue for a carbon free future under for the next generation under the banner of social justice. I have written about this in my previous blog on this site. Renewable energy is only part of a carbon free future, but it is not the total solution. Nuclear energy must be part of a carbon free future. The Western world is meeting its social obligation to the next generation and balancing that obligation with the need of the current generation.
Illegal migrants are entering into a country and demanding ‘social justice’ in terms of housing, free education and free health services. Western countries have always taken migrants from war torn countries, but in a legal and orderly manner. The legal immigration intake must reflect the host countries ability to accommodate the legal migrant intake in terms of their own housing, educational and health infrastructure. That is social justice to all. Further, many Western countries have rebuilt their countries after two world wars rather than moved to other, richer countries. Take for example Germany, where the towns were rebuilt with the support of the legendary ’rubble-women’ (Trummerfraun), who literally brick by brick helped to rebuild their destroyed housing stocks. These men and women more than met their social obligations. These people deserve the fruits of their labour.
5. Key takeaways
It is difficult to define social justice as every individual has a different sense of fair and reasonable.
The best way to get a consensus on what is fair and reasonable, hence social justice, is by free and democratic elections, even if elections are not a perfect vehicle for that.
Social justice is often misused by Neo-Marxists, greens and social warriors to promote their causes at the expense of the welfare of society as a whole.