Here, just in time for holiday fun, is some old-fashioned ordinary-language, probably worthless, rumination.
It is often said, when criticizing institutions, that such and such political arrangement systematically hurts the poor and vulnerable. But how is that different from saying that such and such political arrangement hurts the poor and vulnerable? What is the meaning of the qualifier “systematically”?
The more I tried to think about this, the more puzzling the issue became. The word “systematically” is noticeably obscure. Two things can be said about it. A first implication is that the system (the legal system, say) causes harm to the poor. A second implication is that such harm is unfair. For consider the following statement: “The criminal law systematically hurts criminals.” This is silly: the very point of the criminal law is to hurt criminals. Now compare with this statement: “The criminal law systematically hurts poor families.” Now this doesn’t sound silly. The idea is that because most criminals are poor, the criminal law unfairly hurts their innocent families.
There are other ambiguities:
1) Sometimes the word “systematically” is used to indicate that the rules of the system are designed to unfairly harm or favor certain people or groups. For example, in apartheid South Africa, the rules were designed to exclude non-whites from market benefits, job opportunities, and the like. Thus we can say that apartheid systematically harmed non-whites, where the qualifier means that the legal system itself does this. Or consider crony capitalism. We can say that the system (with its subsidies to inefficient industries, etc.) favors the rich friends of the government. What we mean is the same as in the South Africa case: the legal rules, the political system (the subsidies) unfairly favor these people.
2) But in other cases the speaker means the opposite of (1), that is, he means a lack of deliberate design. Obscurely, the qualifier sometimes suggests something bad and unintended. Take the example above of the criminal law. When we say that the criminal law “systematically” hurts poor families, we imply that this was not the intended effect of the criminal law, and it is unfair precisely for that reason, because it obliquely hurts innocent persons. The direct intent of the criminal law is to punish criminals, and this is not unfair; the oblique, unintended effect is the harm suffered by poor families, and this is unfair. The qualifier here (perhaps) discloses unintended bad consequences of social institutions.
Now consider an ideal libertarian political system. In a free market, where the legal rules protect property and contract, the poor are those who cannot compete as effectively. They cannot produce enough stuff that others want and so have a lesser income. But then, to say that the free market hurts the poor is true but trivial: it will always be the case that some people will do worse than others. The “system,” that is, the market (legally enforced by rules of property and contract) rewards those who can offer stuff that others want. By definition some will do worse than others. Is this what people mean when they say that a libertarian political arrangement “systematically” hurts the poor? That is, is the idea that the rules of property and contract (the legal system, thus the word “systematically”) under which the market operates produce winners and losers?
This allows us to see that the qualifier plays a derogatory role in the sentence. If we interpret the phrase “libertarian institutions systematically hurt the poor” as descriptive, it is trivial: it merely says that some people will do better than others. But the speaker is not describing libertarian institutions, he is condemning them. The phrase “the free market systematically hurts the poor” means something like: “In a market system, everyone is legally free to use their powers (natural and material) in order to produce goods that they can exchange. Some people will be more successful than others, and this is unjust.”
So the expression “political system X systematically hurts the poor” is ambiguous, because it does not allow us to tell whether it refers to (i) the trivial fact that, left to their own devices, some people will do worse than others; or (ii) the non-trivial fact that the system unjustly wrongs people, as in the apartheid example. The critic of libertarianism must explain why the fact that some people will do better than others is unjust. Of course, he has many resources at his disposal to do that; for example, he will say that libertarian institutions are unfair to those who are naturally or materially disadvantaged through no fault of their own. This is not a trivial statement but a substantive criticism of those institutions.
But he can say this without the aid of the word “systematically.” The word is conclusory and describes nothing. It condemns that which is described by the rest of the sentence. It has no place, therefore, in social science or philosophy. Any political arrangement has to be defended or criticized by substantive argument. Presenting the issue as one where the arrangement “systematically” does this or that is not very helpful.
Needless to say, my point is entirely conceptual. As such, it is agnostic about the merits or demerits of libertarian (or any other) institutions.