“Progressives” tend to think of themselves as warriors for racial, gender, and economic equality. The latter they equate with “social justice.”
But is economic equality synonymous with social justice? For one thing, equality is an oxymoron. If everyone is equal, who will have the power to enforce equality? And if some have the power to enforce it, how can they still be regarded as equal to everyone else?
Even if we are willing to give up liberty, which is the antithesis of equality (so much for the daft French revolutionary slogan of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity), is it not illogical to think that we can have a functioning economy without liberty? And how much does economic equality matter anyway? Who is better off, a child of a rich family born with severe mental or physical defects or a healthy child born to poor parents? One could go on and on with the logical problems created by defining social justice as economic equality, but the more interesting question is this one: if social justice is not economic equality, what exactly is it?
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If there is one question the human mind is consumed by, it is the question of fairness. In our everyday relations with others, we do not demand equality, but we do demand a spirit of “give and take” or “give to get.” This operates on every level from the sublime to the ridiculous. If I lend my friend some butter for baking, I expect that on some future occasion I can in turn borrow something similar from him or her.
This idea seems to be as old as humanity. The root Indo-European word for giving was the same as receiving, which shows how closely connected these actions were in primitive minds. Henry Hazlitt worked out the many implications of the basic principle in The Foundations of Morality. He called the resulting philosophical and economic system Mutualism. It could also be called Reciprocalism or Cooperatism, because it underlies all human cooperation. Mutual or reciprocal cooperation is indeed the essence of social justice.
Moreover social justice is a moral concept, not a legal one. Charitable givers can make the necessary moral judgment about who have done their best to be part of the “give to get” system and are therefore deserving of help from those more fortunate. Governments cannot possibly make such judgments. Consequently if we really want to help others more, we should give more ourselves, and if government has any role to play it would be to provide more tax relief for charitable givers, for example, a tax credit rather than a deduction. With today’s deduction, it is still quite expensive to make a charitable gift.
All of this is quite simple when explained. But adults need to keep explaining it to the next generation of the young.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.