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Ron Kitching, “Social Justice,” The Horatian, Spring 1994, pp. 39-40.

As election time approaches, no matter which country one visits these days, one sees posters of budding politicians advertising their multitude of virtues. The advertisements are usually capped by the greatest virtue, the ultimate good: social justice for all.

What this means is the implementation of the welfare state. Both in theory and practice the welfare state is as much a disaster for humanity as was communism. In fact, the welfare state is socialism. The modern socialist, in order to implement his grandiose schemes of equality for all, promotes social justice and central planning instead of outright confiscation (as Marx, Lenin and their followers advocated). However, central planning is just as destructive of freedom, resources, living standards and the ultimate welfare of the human race as nationalisation — both lead to the totalitarian state (see The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek).

We cannot all be specialists in everything, but there is one science which in reality belongs to the people. It is in every individual’s own best interest to know at least the fundamental tenets of classical economics. For, without a basic understanding of the philosophy of classical liberalism, one is easily deluded by the declarations of Pied-Piper saviours promising the ever elusive social justice.

The justice or law which was in part responsible for the generation of modern Western civilisation evolved (note, evolved not planned) in England over many centuries (see Sir Arthur Bryant’s trilogy A History of Britain and the British People as well as Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty). The best justice available to fallible, finite human beings, is the justice of known general rules, equally applicable to and impartially applied to all. A distribution is just if it is generated by individuals’ just behaviour — behaviour not involving actual or threatened violence, theft or fraud.

The late Professor Hayek has eloquently defended this understanding of justice. Not one to waste words, Hayek’s detailed arguments in several essays cover in total many pages, and cannot be easily summarised. All mature and thoughtful people ought to study Hayek if they wish to contribute to the understanding of society, and take advantage of how society works. What is vital is his stress on the purely general nature of laws. Just laws do not refer to particular individuals or groups: they are impartial and morally neutral. All persons are equal in the eyes of the law.

It is important to stress the procedural justice is one of the necessary conditions for the emergence of an economic system co-ordinated by market-determined changing relative money-prices, for all resources. These prices at all times, everywhere, constantly changing (by the minute in some cases), provide information to countless millions of individuals about rapidly changing technologies, and the ever-changing relative scarcities of raw materials as well as end products. All of this information about diverse ordinal rankings of wants, needs and skills embodied in many countries, can never ever be known to central planners of any particular state, nation or nations.

As we have seen in practice, in all socialist and socialist-oriented countries scarce resources are misallocated, making a mockery of any notion of responsible stewardship. On one side of the scales we have the late USSR as an example. On the other, a democratic country, once prosperous and now devastated by social justice, with a national debt of $200 billion, is Australia, a country we all know well.

Put positively, economic activities, co-ordinated by market-determined changing relative money-prices, enable individuals to act in ways which benefit innumerable people whom they do not and cannot ever know. In their pursuit of profit, the market system lets them care for people they do not and cannot ever care about in a personal sense.

However, there remains, to many men and women of good will, something intuitively attractive about a law which discriminates between the richest and the poorest. A law, for instance, which coercively transfers wealth from the rich to the poor. Such a law identifying and discriminating between different subsets of a community us, for the classical liberal, profoundly unjust. If discrimination is permitted, politicians and bureaucrats will determine who are the beneficiaries and who are the victims of such discrimination. The first beneficiaries are always, directly or indirectly, the politicians and bureaucrats who are implementing policy. In short, the name of the game becomes identifying and even (it seems in Australia) creating and advantaging sufficient special interest groups to secure election to office.

The result is, of course, a class war generated between net tax consumers and net tax payers. The welfare state in which people own a share of their justly acquired wealth and incomes, but pay a share to government for common expenses and a safety net system of welfare, rapidly degenerates into the redistributionist state. The scramble for wealth and privileges is on between the special interest groups. Wealth, created and secured by individuals, is somehow perceived as belonging to all. Governments arbitrarily decide what income and what wealth an individual may keep. Once the net tax consumers (including the bureaucrats and politicians) outnumber the net taxpayers, a Pandora’s box is opened. Australia today is a tragic example of the disaster of such a tyranny. In this country, special interest groups are constantly at war with one another.

Classical Liberals have always sought to specify institutional structures which minimise the evil, the worst people could do (assuming that these worst people were to enjoy political and thereby economic power). The great English liberal scholar, Lord Acton, made this point: this problem is not that a given class is unfit to govern. No class is fit to govern.

This was also Rev. Dr. John Williams: no subset of the community can be entrusted with potentially unlimited power. Not Plato’s guardians. Not an elite privy of Rousseau’s General Will. Not the 19th century Tory aristocrats of England. Not Marx’s class conscious workers and liberated intellectuals. Not Nazism’s hierarchy of fuhrers. Not the majority of unrestrained democracy. Not born again Christians. “But how to curb power?” One vital restraint is an insistence that rule must be classically defined: “Known general principles of just conduct equally applicable to all in an unknown number of future instances” (from his essay The Church, Social Justice and Rights).

All Australians in one way or another bear the burden of defence. Unstable intellectual premises can lead to policies which devastate a country more than an invading enemy ever could. The only defence is sound intellectual premises. As Ludwig von Mises has said, “everybody carries a part of society on his shoulders: no one is relieved of his share of the responsibility by others”. Whereas not everybody need know of the basics of electrical powers, physics, chemistry or modern electronics, to name just a few of the sciences that drive a successful modern society — everyone in his own best interests should study the basic tenets of liberty, that is classical liberalism, which even today hangs by a slender threat, as the welfare state, driven by the false precept of social justice wrecks great societies.