• Nicholas Weininger

    I’m not sure why this is mystifying. “Social justice” is usually used by authoritarian leftists to support authoritarian-leftist egalitarian measures, so there’s both a tribal and an intellectual aversion to being associated with that. Not saying we can’t or shouldn’t reclaim the term for better use, I think we can and should, but the present typical usage pattern presents a big practical obstacle.

    • Jeff R.


      Let’s just take one specific example of what goes under this heading, “food justice.” What is food justice, you may ask?

      The concept of food justice starts with the assertion that food is a basic human right, and that everyone must have access to healthy, sustainable food in order to have a fair and equitable global society. The food justice movement tackles a range of issues, from labor rights to increased access to healthy foods to land sovereignty to toxic chemicals. Activists and advocates focus their efforts on communities that are currently or have been historically cut off from a robust, healthy food system, including people of color and people living in poverty.


      Unpack what’s in that paragraph. What I see is public provision of not just food, but whatever activists deem as “fair and equitable” food, the weakening or abolition of property rights (ie, land sovereignty, sustainability), manipulation of labor markets, and some identity politics thrown in for good measure. Who on “our side” doesn’t find this repulsive?

  • Fritz

    Ditto Nicholas Weininger’s comment. Moreover, I don’t know what to do with the other kinds of “social injustice” discussed in Crider’s piece. When the state involves itself in dealing with them (e.g., as with bakers, florists, and same-sex weddings), it just creates more injustices. And if the state doesn’t deal with them, the whiners will just whine because the world isn’t arranged to suit them. The only libertarian way to deal with “social injustice,” it seems to me, is to let people work things out for themselves, as long as they abstain from force and fraud.

  • Bugsby

    “Social justice” is the same thing as “family values.” Stick two vague and positive sounding words together, and then use that as a label for some pretty objectionable policies. A just society sounds like a really great thing. But divisive identity politics and thought policing are much less great.

  • For me, the problem isn’t “social justice” so much as it is “libertarian social justice.” Libertarianism, to me, defines a person’s relationship to the state. Thus, any conversation about libertarian social justice almost necessarily implies a policy recommendation. So, what is that policy recommendation?

    As we all know, most advocates of “social justice” prefer interventionist policy recommendations, so the concept of libertarian interventionism is a contradiction in terms.

    Libertarians who are also advocates of social justice would be well served to make clear what their policy recommendations are and reconcile those recommendations with libertarianism. That, as opposed to scratching their heads as to why libertarians at large would be skeptical of interventionist policy; since, after all, skepticism about interventionism is a defining feature of our political ideology.

  • Jameson Graber

    I echo the sentiments already expressed. Hayek called the word “social” a “weasel word.” I think his critique was pretty accurate, given the dominant use of the word in politics. Personally, I prefer just to talk about justice, the word “social” being either superfluous or destructive.


      I think that’s the key point. A system of institutional arrangements cannot be entirely “just” is it violates the rights of any individual, group, or community. This qualification extends to the poor, the affluent, the abled, the disabled, the gifted, the non-gifted, etc. If you wish to say we need to have a special or different standard of justice for one particular group, you need an argument for that, and I’ve yet to hear a good one.

    • King Goat

      I’m not sure it’s either superfluous or destructive. Like anything it can be used in silly, nefarious or counterproductive ways, but essentially ‘social’ just means ‘relating to society as a whole’ and pairing it with justice just highlights that given sociological realities some groups will sometimes fare relatively more poorly under what seem to be neutral, general rules of ‘justice.’ For example, to take one area where many libertarians do, even if unintentionally, adopt a ‘social justice’ styled critique, ostensibly neutral, general drug laws have the consequence, given inequities (unequal access to legal representation, unequal knowledge of how to ‘work’ governmental bureaucracies, unequal access to legal job opportunities, etc.,) existing across the societal level, have a disproportionately devastating effect on minorities. The same can be said, and is by many libertarians, of many licensing schemes, or sin taxes.

      • Jameson Graber

        I don’t see how the examples you offer make the word “social” any less superfluous. Citing vicious effects of a law on particular groups of people is a perfectly legitimate criticism on any account of justice. Applying the law equally in all cases is a necessary but not sufficient condition for justice to be done (e.g. the government could go around stealing 100% of every individual’s income, and that would certainly not be justice). And even worse for drug laws, one libertarian criticism is that in fact the law is *not* applied equally in all cases. So in fact there is no “social” justice dimension to these arguments, at least not in the way “social” is typically employed elsewhere.

        • King Goat

          I think the ‘social’ part means ‘with an awareness of sociological variables as opposed to simply ‘on their face,’ formal legal ones.’ So a person from a ‘pure’ justice perspective could say ‘well, the drug laws are the same for everyone, it can’t be helped if more poor and black people engage in behavior in violation of them, and everyone is free to obtain legal counsel to combat false prosecutions’ but one from the ‘social justice’ perspective would say ‘come on, being poor or facing discrimination, those groups are going to be more enticed into opportunities to make money that might be illegal, and they’ve less money to hire legal counsel.’

          Another way of putting this is that formalistic notions of justice often discount ‘social’ variables that might not be explicitly implicated by certain policies, but which really matter, a la Anatole France’s line about the law about sleeping under bridges.

          • Jameson Graber

            The kind of “‘pure’ justice perspective” you seem to be describing is only “pure” in the sense of being purely deontological (and even on deontological grounds, the value of anti-drug laws is dubious). If you’re going to call anyone who takes consequences into consideration at all a supporter of “social justice,” then the term loses virtually all meaning. So again, why not just stick to talking about “justice”? To quote Thomas Sowell, all justice is inherently social…

          • King Goat

            Jameson, I think it’s better to say it’s more about formalism in the legal theory sense (as the ‘pure justice’ view) as opposed to realism (which is the ‘social justice’ view), than it is about deonotology vs. consequentialism.

            As a possible example of what I’m talking about, if you look at Haidt’s work on the personality traits and moral theory components of libertarians he finds them to be highly formalistic in their views of right and wrong, on the other hand, what we’d call ‘social justice warriors’ (a term either self-righteous or needlessly dismissive depending on which side tosses it around) would be much less so, basing their ideas of justice much more on something like ’empathy,’ which is often tied to a sense of someone being a member of a ‘social underdog group’. What seems formalistically equal treatment to the former, and therefore abstractly just, will often seem to be sociologically naive and practically, de facto unjust to the latter (and of course, to the former the latter’s approach seems like unsystematic ‘just feelingz’). I submit both sides have real things they can learn from each other.

          • Jameson Graber

            Well, to get back to Mike Munger’s statement, “I really am mystified…” I am equally mystified by his incredulity. There’s really no definition of social justice that I’m really impressed with, and while I tend not to throw around the word “anathema” (I don’t really care about being an “orthodox” libertarian), neither do I really find myself waving the banner of social justice just to sound nice. (Believe me, the temptation is great. On the one hand, I have my colleagues in the academy who get the warm fuzzies when you say things like “social justice.” On the other hand, you have plenty of theologians in the church–to which I personally am deeply committed–who also carry the banner of social justice. But, alas, I remain unmoved.)

            Your definition, I’m sorry to say, still isn’t impressive to me. That’s fine to say we have something to learn from one another, but frankly, I think the method of using “empathy” to derive one’s favorite policies is far less likely to lead to right conclusions. It’s a way of indulging our biases rather than trying to overcome them. So while I’m happy to listen to “social justice warriors,” I sincerely doubt they will convince me that they have reached right conclusions.

            Sometimes the correct path isn’t some middle between two opposing methods. Sometimes one of the two methods really is worse than the other.

  • Michael J. Green

    I’m mystified about why so many of “our” people want to salvage the term “social justice.” It’s just as mystifying as those libertarians who think we should claim the label “socialist.”

  • Kristo Miettinen

    Not sure I can answer as “one of you”, but I can give you why I would be wary of the term if I were you: it is not yet fixed in meaning as you would like it to be. Supporting an idea whose definition is subject to change at any time is foolish.

  • urstoff

    I wonder how much of the split between BHL/liberaltarian types and minarchist/conservatarian types (note: not a perfect grouping, here, just go with it) is due to the split between utilitarianism and (natural?) rights-based moral systems. The BHL camps seems to more often come from a utilitarian perspective: what is the best for the greatest number of people is a state that doesn’t intervene much in the actions of individuals (particularly economic actions) but may need to redistribute wealth. In contrast, more conservative libertarians seem to think that redistribution is fundamentally wrong because it violates an individual’s rights, even if net utility would be greater after that redistribution.

    • Lacunaria

      Exactly. It gets to the fundamental question of what justice is and whether there can be emergent injustice when the constituent individual acts are all just. If there can, then it raises a whole host of issues regarding comparing utility and redistribution, which is a moral and practical mess, not the least of which is because they are achieved at the expense of individual justice.

  • Counsellor

    “References to “social justice” (subject to
    Hayek’s question) are usually intended to imply corrections to perceived
    defects of the markets systems (as noted above). If, instead, we conceive of
    “justice” as the **performance of obligations,** then social justice would become
    the performance of obligations through “social” instrumentalities, rather than
    individually or even through civil voluntary means. That infers governmental
    actions for the performance of obligations; and in so doing the assigning,
    allocation and **imposition of obligations** (usually through taxation,
    occasionally by regulation) on the basis of politically determined criteria.

    “The politically determined imposition of
    obligations, at any level, not voluntarily undertaken, raises serious issues as
    to the viability of the social order in an open society; and certainly as to
    individual ‘freedom from.’ ”

    The above is an extract from a comment at The
    Library of Law and Liberty section on the Liberty Fund site on 4/16/2012.

    The rhetorical use of terms is not always
    helpful in understanding human interactions. Still, it seems to remain elective
    in discourse.

  • Counsellor

    What may be the anathema to many Libertarians (including the BHL) is what the term (SJ) is used to connote or denote in a particular context.
    It is not just the sophomoric issue of “define the terms.” (although that is always helpful).
    We find ourselves discussing various concepts from consequentialism to oppression and on into fairness; complicated further by doing so in both social structure contexts and human relationship contexts.

  • Counsellor

    Social INjustice
    far back as Aristotle we have been alerted to improving our understanding
    through consideration of the “contrary state;” that is, to consider the
    condition which is contrary to the one we are trying to understand.

    understand certain forms of relationships, Jacobi also urged us to “invert.”

    examine the various concepts of “Social Justice”
    more effectively, particularly with regard to what the term is intended to
    denote or connote, we can approach the task by examining the contrary state –
    the contrary condition – of “Social INjustice,” to the extent that the “Social” context is a condition.

    that case we would be examining a condition existing from the nature and
    results of human interactions and relationships. Thus, if we take this
    examination of the contrary condition and examine Injustice we would examine the nature and results of human
    interactions and relationships that result in INjustice. We would examine why particular interactions and relationships have specific effects and what would be necessary to mitigate or eliminate the undesired results. Such examination would direct our observations and considerations to individual and group conduct and to their motivations and constraints.

    making that examination (of the “contrary condition”) effectively we would need
    to observe and consider what “elements” of motivations and constraints are
    missing, or are excessively dominant in generating the resulting conditions
    which may be regarded as unjust.

    the extent that the “Social” context is to be seen as a “process” rather than a
    “condition” then the elements of that process could also be examined from
    contrary aspects of injustice or unjust results of the process. Once again, we
    will find that those elements include the motivations and constraints of
    individual and group conduct.

    if we look for the “causes” of “Social Injustice,” whether considered as a condition or process we will be
    taken to the same considerations of individual and group conduct. Our
    examinations will probably reveal that both the denotation and connotation of
    “Social Justice” are really judgments
    on the motivations and constraints of individual and group conduct.

    • dave

      The same lack of meaning exists for ‘social injustice’ as does ‘social justice’

  • Christopher Ritchie

    Without getting too into history I think a big part of it is that the main issues entertaining ‘social justice’ propose problems that many libertarians either don’t see as problems or simply aren’t interested in solving, because their central mechanisms have proven unable to do so. Issues of Racial discrimination for example, while their are some Libertarians who would oppose say, systematic bias in police activity, is not seen as a serious issue. Note how many libertarians defend the notion that Blacks may be functionally excluded from businesses based on the business owners prejudice. Plenty support notions of social control through non-state cultural institutions, which send to ‘come down’ on certain groups more than others.

    There is no(or I haven’t seen presented with anything other than magical thinking) a solution to say the issue of how brands that become associated with Blacks become less popular with both Blacks and non-Blacks. That’s market functioning based on peoples prejudice. It’s been my experience that libertarians tend not to think that is a problem.

    Obviously a part of it’s tribalism. “Social Justice” is the language of the defined enemy, so we oppose it. The same way some people on the left react to “The Market” even when they theoretically would support a Market in a whole host of instances.

    That the so-called ‘Alt Right’, the ‘Neo-Reactionaries and Dark Enlightenment’ folks emerge from the same places as much libertarianism to me also speaks to perhaps a sociological component. i.e. That libertarianism might not be innately opposed to social justice, but people opposed to the concept of social justice might be attracted for unrelated reasons to libertarianism.

  • Dave

    Either ‘social justice’ has the same meaning as ‘justice’ – or not. If so – why use the additional word ‘social?’ We lose time, we destroy trees to obtain paper necessary to print this word. If not, if ‘social justice’ means something different from ‘justice’ – then ‘something different from justice’ is by definition ‘injustice.’