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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Social Justice

Am I simply being perverse and gratuitously controversial when I declare myself to being opposed to the very idea of Social Justice? I don't think so; and here's why.

Our belief in Justice is innate. Aquinas declares that the Natural Law cannot be erased from the heart of Man. We are born believing that some things are just and some things are unjust. Of course, most of us are most vociferous about injustice when we perceive ourselves to be the victim. C S Lewis points out in Mere Christianity that humans do not just fight, as other animals do; we quarrel. Nearly always (if not always) we quarrel over perceived injustices. "That's not fair," we complain. Any single such complaint may or may not be justified. Nevertheless, we all do it.

So, Justice is fundamental to our thinking about Right and Wrong. Any particular issue may get complicated; but we instinctively believe that, given all the facts, the justice or injustice of the case can be pronounced upon.

The Hebrew Scriptures, the ancient Greeks, the New Testament, the Church Fathers and nearly all philosophers in nearly all civilisations conceive of Justice as being the cornerstone of the moral life.

Putting "Social" in front of it simply dilutes the idea. Worse than that, it is nonsense and will lead to evil. Imagine Chemical Justice, which is absurd. Regrettably, it is easy to believe that Climate Justice has been appealed to. But that would also be absurd. If you can persuade me that some action on my part will adversely affect the climate enjoyed some other people, then my action can be judged unjust – full stop.

What also happens to be true is that a gross injustice is being perpetrated on the poorest people in the world by legislation which subsidises bio-fuels, thereby increasing the cost of food. In order to feel good about themselves, governments have enacted wicked legislation hampering the exploitation of colossal reserves of natural gas, shale oil, tar sands and off-shore oil deposits. If we stopped subsidising bio-fuels and allowed the cost of electricity to fall, the poor would have cheaper food and children would be less likely to die of respiratory diseases caused by burning wood and dung in unventilated huts.

It is patently true that some people have insufficient resources to live comfortable lives. Indeed, for the whole of human history, the vast majority have had insufficient resources to live what we would consider bearable lives. All of the authorities above are agreed that insofar as the poverty of any group is the result of cheating or violence on the part of another group, then an injustice has been done. Well, it's circular, isn't it? Cheating is unjust; violence, except in self-defence, is unjust.

However, you would not get similar unanimity over the idea that everyone should be equally well-off – any more than that everyone should be equally tall or equally brainy. That it is unfair that Jane is prettier than Jenny. That it is morally wrong for Jack to be able to run faster than John. We can certainly say that it is regrettable that Jenny is disfigured or that John is crippled or that some children do not have enough to eat. It's appalling that some children do not have enough to eat. We may be (damnably) failing in Charity if we do nothing to alleviate their hunger, whether by giving or by enabling their parents to help themselves.

Good economic theory demonstrates and history has shown time and again that free markets, based upon property rights and the rule of law, are the only way to enable people to help themselves out of wretched poverty. When it takes years of fighting bureaucracy and paying bribes to establish a business, then the poor remain poor. Granted, some will become rich through markets, perhaps fabulously so. Some of the rich will be philanthropic.

In the so-called Gilded Age, the age of America's fastest growth and steepest improvement in standards of living, we had the example of John D Rockefeller, among others. He brought the cost of kerosene down by 90%. People could afford to read in the evenings rather than having to go to bed. He employed thousands of people and he gave away millions of dollars. I don't know if he was a nice man – he was a man and therefore a sinner – but he contributed more to the wellbeing of his fellow men than any number of government entitlement programmes.

Government entitlement programmes are created to increase so-called Social Justice. They always fail. More importantly, they are unjust. I don't have the right to help myself to your property. Therefore I cannot delegate that right to the government. Theft by individuals is wrong. Theft by government is wrong and catastrophic.

Overseas aid always fails. It almost always means taking from the poor in rich countries and giving it to the rich in poor countries. No country has ever become "developed" by receiving aid. We developed by having a relatively well established system of property rights and the rule of law.

Let us pause to consider the enormous amount of good done in poor countries by charitable enterprises, usually religious. Missionaries, unsupported by governments, have contributed massively to health and education, without which development ain't going to happen.

Social Justice programmes don't work and they are UNJUST. Have I convinced you? Please leave a comment.

1 comment:

  1. I generally agree with this. Foreign aid is wasted by the contributors and is wasted on the recipients. However, I don't agree with the view that missionaries have always been a force for good. Take the Democratic Republic of The Congo as an example. Before the arrival of missionaries and admittedly Stanley and his crones, the native folk in the DRC lived idyllic village lives. Everyone knew their status and the word of the Chief was law. Generally each village got on well with its neighbours. The arrival of Westerners changed all that and the DRC is now one of the most dangerous countries on earth.