Hayek: Social Justice Demands the Unequal Treatment of Individuals

Hayek’s logic is correct: social justice demands treating people unequally.

Social justice is one of those squishy terms that is not easy to define. One thing we know for certain: social justice is not the same thing as justice, an age-old idea that was the focus of such thinkers as AristotlePlatoAugustine of Hippo, Aquinas, and Hume. (After all, if social justice meant the same thing as justice, the word “social” would be superfluous.)

Many years ago, while speaking to William F. Buckley, Jr. on the idea of social justice, the Nobel Prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek observed the “meaningless conception” of the term.

“Everybody talks about social justice, but if you ask people exactly what they mean by social justice, what they accept as justice, nobody knows,” Hayek said. “I’ve been trying for the last twenty years, asking people ‘What exactly are your principles?’”

If one Googles the term social justice, this is what one finds:

Social Justice (noun): Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.

From this definition, one quickly sees a fundamental difference between justice and social justice. To Aristotle, Cicero, and America’s Founding Fathers, justice applies to individuals. To social justice advocates, justice is collective.

Implicit in social justice doctrine is the idea that improper imbalances in wealth and privilege must be corrected. But how?

Hayek knew very well. During his interview with Buckley (video below), he explained to a young Jeff Greenfield (13:00) that social justice demands treating people unequally.

The classical demand is that the state ought to treat all people equally in spite of the fact that they are very unequal. You can’t deduce from this that because people are unequal you ought to treat them unequally in order to make them equal. And that’s what social justice amounts to. It’s a demand that the state should treat people differently in order to place them in the same position. . . .To make people equal a goal of governmental policy would force government to treat people very unequally indeed.