Being a libertarian in the UK is difficult, not least because the government here does so much and has so much power. Almost every day as I read the news I can head the collective groan from libertarians and classical liberals alike as the government promises to ‘do more’ for its citizens or to give more money to the ‘our NHS’, the fount to all goodness in nasty Brexit Britain. Can’t the public health wombles, the meddling local councillors and the social justice warriors just go home and let the market do its job, I can hear them say. As any defender of free markets well knows, the road to free market capitalism is beset on all sides by these kinds of people.
But as I see the corporate lobbyists trooping into Westminster alongside the public service moguls and anti-discrimination campaigners, I ask myself the question every libertarian or classical liberal should ask themselves: what is the difference between corporate lobbying and campaigns for social justice? In the most generic sense, they are both causes, commitments which require time (and often money) to be spent persuading people in positions of power. More specifically, they both use the levers of government to achieve their aims. Such a fact in my opinion confuses the sharp distinction made between those who advocate for ‘freer markets’ and those for a ‘socially just’ economy . The idea of social justice is almost exclusively the preserve of the left, and it is an idea which possesses great power.
However, social justice being monopolised by the left presents its own problems, namely that those who oppose ‘social justice’ desire an unjust world. Do businessmen, who often support philanthropic causes, really have such ulterior motives? Part of the problem lies in the lack of any fixed meaning of the term. This is as much a result of the general confusion of our times as well as a fact of history. Disagreements over what is meant by social justice usually hinge upon the roles and responsibilities of the state. For those of us who are not socialist but nonetheless believe in some notion of justice, this tendency has its problems. To equate justice, social or not, with greater state involvement ignores the fact that some of the greatest injustices, social or otherwise, have occurred under state supervision or have been perpetrated by the state.
From Plato to Rawls philosophers have attempted to theorise what a ‘just’ society would look like. Plato’s ideal society was hierarchical, with the ‘guardians’ keeping the peace between the upper and lowest classes. Marx’s ideal society first passed through what was reassuringly called a ‘dictatorship’ which was necessary for the envisioned future. John Rawl’s interpretation of justice incorporated ‘distributions’ far beyond the capacity of modern governments.
It is an ironic (and, for many, inconvenient) fact that so many attempts to seek social justice have in fact caused even greater suffering. Relative inequality among Soviet peasants was replaced by the murder and deportation of millions. Attempts by Tanzanian socialists to modernize their country led to Tanzania becoming one of the most dependant countries on foreign aid in the world. A similar outcome has occurred in Venezuela, where the government promised to share the country’s vast oil wealth with the poorest in society. Now it is a country suffering from an acute humanitarian crisis, where hunger, extreme poverty and poor health are rife. Corruption and horrendous mismanagement cannot explain why all these attempts to make the world a better place failed so spectacularly.
As capitalists, we must be braver in asserting that capitalism too can bring social justice to unjust societies. Prosperity and freedom are guaranteed best by a free market system and respect for human rights, property and freedom of expression. If this cannot be called social justice, then we must reconsider what we really want when we say social justice. And if, as many say, it really means equality, then we must remember the words of Milton Friedman: “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”