“Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money.”
— Davy Crockett
By Brent Parrish
Tonight, President Obama will give his State of the Union address to the nation. Judging from the president’s recent pivot away from the disastrous rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), I will venture to guess his speech will focus instead on issues like so-called “income inequality” and the raising of the minimum wage.
The concept of “social justice” is one we hear often by those on the left-side of the political spectrum. The notion of social justice is inextricably linked to the left’s version of “equality” and its inverse—”income inequality.”
But just what is social justice?
Perhaps we should clearly define what we mean by justice first. Often times justice involves a judgement or punishment in order to restore equity or fairness for those who have allegedly been wronged. True justice or righteousness can only be achieved when one has all the facts and the moral authority to dispense justice fairly and equitably. One could also argue that only a perfect and omniscient being like G-d himself is truly just and can judge individuals with perfect fairness and correctness, i.e. righteousness.
One of the things that I have found endearing about very young children is that they seem to come into this world with an innate sense of fairness. For example, if I were to hand an entire bag of candy bars to a young child and gave another child a single candy bar, more than likely, the one with the single candy bar would protest that I had given the other child a whole bag of candy bars. “That’s not fair!” is often the typical response. That is why most parents or adults who are dealing with very young children are wise to give each child the very same thing so that one is not granted special favors over the other, i.e. favoritism.
At some point in our lives we may have experienced such a scenario where someone was given more than we were and we exclaimed, “That’s not fair!” Typically we learn this lesson early in life. And it is not unusual to be told by a parent or adult that “life isn’t always fair.”
Of course, this is by no means an excuse to justify unfairness or the purposeful inequitable treatment of others; it is a recognition that we live in an imperfect world where some do not practice treating others in a fair and unbiased manner.
Often times when I have asked people to define just what “social justice” means to them, they often times cannot define it. I typically will get a plethora of definitions from those I’ve posed the question to. Nevertheless, it does not dissuade some from demanding “social justice,” even though they cannot explain the concept clearly or succinctly. It just sounds right; it feels like a good thing.
For the rest of this article I will be drawing heavily from the ideas and writings of Bastiat, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, James Madison, Milton Friedman–whose views and beliefs on economics and individual liberty align most closely with my own.
To me, the current political battle in the United States is one that pits the inalienable rights of the individual against the collective will of the state. Many leftists believe that only a collectivist society can provide true social justice and equality for the masses.
First, there is no such thing as a mass of people. People do not congeal into one monolithic block, as if they were one plasmodial blob (cf. slime mold), whereby individuals are indiscernible from one another. A mass of people is, in reality, a group comprised of individuals. Despite the fact that socialists and communists believe that the “cult of individualism must be crushed,” the desire to rid humanity of its individualism is, to me, an act of self-loathing and psychological projection.
But the belief that the individual should not be permitted to be the masters of their own lives, but rather the subjects of a greater power–namely, the state–is nothing new. Free society is very rare occurrence. Tyranny has been the common theme throughout mankind’s history.
Why is it those who subscribe to the notion that individuals, on their own accord, cannot benefit society for the “greater common good”—unless managed by an elite cabal of so-called experts—believe an individual becomes more moral, honest and virtuous as part of the ruling class?
The often repeated refrain heard from those on the left is that free societies that embrace so-called capitalism are inherently greedy and care not a whit about the “haves” and the “have nots.” This is the classical argument set forth from the outset and enshrined in The Manifesto of the Communist Party.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
— Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto
Are not governments just as greedy, if not more so? As Milton Friedman has said, “The world is run on people pursuing their own self-interests.” We would not have the personal computer if it was not for people like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniack pursuing their own self-interest, utilizing their own talents and abilities to produce wealth via their own industry. We would not have the automobile if it was not for people like Henry Ford pursuing his own self-interest. Milton Friedman asks, “Is political self-interest really nobler than economic self-interest?”
John Locke wrote, “All wealth is the product of labor.” But just what is wealth? Is not wealth created and produced by an individual’s own labor and industry? Wealth is not money or currency, per se. Money or currency is simply the medium of exchange individuals use as a means to obtain things they feel are valuable to them. Granted, more than one individual may be involved in laboring to create something that can be considered valuable to others. But it still is incumbent on the resourcefulness, labor and industriousness of the individual, or individuals, to produce something of value.
So what is it about socialism, communism, collectivism–what have you–that makes it attractive to so many? The proponents of collectivist forms of government often promise “equality and harmony,” that all will be treated fairly and equally. But is that really the case?
I believe most people truly wish to do good. And when one is persuaded that only the state can provide that which is truly good, it would seem logical that one would wholeheartedly embrace notions like “social justice.”
But as Milton Friedman points out, “It’s always so attractive to be able to do good at someone else’s expense.” F.A. Hayek believed socialism assumes that all available knowledge can used by a single central authority. It overlooks that the modern society is based on the utilization of widely dispersed knowledge. A system of fair and just distribution is impossible unless the distributor knows all the facts, which exceeds the perception of any individual mind.
“There is one thing now to which I will call your attention. You remember that I proposed to give a week’s pay. There are in that House many very wealthy men – men who think nothing of spending a week’s pay, or a dozen of them for a dinner or a wine party when they have something to accomplish by it. Some of those same men made beautiful speeches upon the great debt of gratitude which the country owed the deceased – a debt which could not be paid by money, particularly so insignificant a sum as $10,000, when weighed against the honor of the nation. Yet not one of them responded to my proposition. Money with them is nothing but trash when it is to come out of the people. But it is the one great thing for which most of them are striving, and many of them sacrifice honor, integrity, and justice to obtain it.”
— From The Life of Colonel David Crockett, by Edward S. Ellis (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1884
The concept of redistribution, i.e. taking from the haves to give to the have nots, underpins the whole notion of social justice. Ironically, socialist theory is one that eschews the concept of absolutes and embraces the philosophy of moral relativism, yet goes on to demand social justice. The utilitarian goals that all ideas and all values are to be considered essentially on their own merits undercuts traditional values in Western civilization.
Hayek states, “The classical demand is that the state must treat all people equally, in spite of the fact that they are very unequal.” To paraphrase Hayek, you can’t deduce from this the rule that because people are unequal that you must treat them unequally in order to make them equal. Social justice is a demand that the state should treat different people differently in order to place them in the same position.
Milton Friedman’s views on redistribution and social justice align with Hayek’s economic philosophy. Socialism is force–meaning: when we depart from voluntary cooperation and try to do good by using force, the bad moral force triumphs over good intentions. At the heart of a free society is voluntary cooperation and voluntary exchange. Milton Friedman stated,”the only way in which you can redistribute effectively the wealth is by destroying the incentives to have wealth.”
Friedman goes on to say, “Whenever you try to do good with someone else’s money, you’re committed to using force. How can you do any good with someone else’s money unless you take it away from them? … Heaven preserve us from the sincere reformer who knows what’s good for us … and, by Heaven, will make us do it whether we like it or not.” Echoing the sentiments of Bastiat from more than two centuries ago, Milton Friedman concludes, “Government is a way by which every individual believes he can live at the expense of everybody else.”
Take for example our minimum wage laws. Some speak of a “living wage,” yet they cannot tell you what that so-called living wage should be. Should the minimum wage be $15 per hour? $50 per hour? Why not $500 per hour? Yet, paradoxically, President Obama–who supports raising the minimum wage, and will do so by executive order for federal employees–has stated that “at some point you’ve made enough money.”
People are either free or they are not. When the government forces businesses to pay a wage, what is being done, in effect, is “assuring that people who do not have the skills to justify that kind of wage will be unemployed,” as Milton Friedman has pointed out. Friedman states that the minimum wage laws create a situation where an employer must discriminate based on low skills
The poorest of the poor are the ones most hurt by minimum wage laws. The real purpose of the minimum wage is to reduce competition for trade unions to maintain the wages for their privileged members. And we all know how near and dear the unions are to the president and the Democratic Party, among other far-left factions. Although there are well-meaning sponsors who support raising the minimum wage, they really just become front-men for special interests like the trade unions who are the driving force behind minimum wage laws.
But often times we hear from the left that these laws were enacted by a democratic process—”the people have spoken.”
Ayn Rand encapsulates my thoughts on the matter:
“I do not believe that the majority can vote a man’s life, property or freedom away from him. I do not believe that because a majority votes on any issue that this makes the issue right.”
Ayn Rand’s position was to separate the government from economics. “If you do not regulate production and trade, you will have peaceful cooperation and harmony and justice among men,” Rand said. Legislation and regulations are creating the “robber barons.” The worst of all economic phenomenon is the capitalist in collusion with government, i.e. fascism.
In a rather famous interview and debate on socialism versus capitalism between Phil Donahue and Milton Friedman in 1979, Donahue laments on what should be done about the “mal-distribution” of wealth, and the plight of poor and underdeveloped countries, i.e. “income inequality” between the haves and the have nots. Friedman asks, “Just where are we going to find these angels that will organize society for us?” As Hayek stated, unless one has all knowledge and all the facts, how can one redistribute wealth justly and fairly?
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
— James Madison, The Federalist Papers