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“Social Justice” is Tyranny

Opinion Editorial
December 14, 1999

By Linda Gorman

According to Robert Conquest writing in the February 1999 issue of The New Criterion, a liberal is “one whose aim is the furtherance of ever greater political liberty, freedom of thought, and social justice.”[1] Nice principles, except for one thing. Advocates of “social justice” have historically ended up pimping for the most bloodthirsty, lawless, and tyrannical regimes the world has ever known.

The problem is that those who work for such ends generally agree with L.T. Hobhouse that “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid meaning.”[2] They emphasize equality, and ignore liberty, praise “social justice” and ignore justice itself. George Orwell called such people renegade liberals, characterizing them as those who hold that democracy can only be defended by discouraging or suppressing independent thought.[3]

In the Politics of Bad Faith, David Horowitz detailed the catastrophic results that logically must occur when people act on the belief that a “socially just future,” one in which “all of society’s members are to be made equal in their economic and social conditions–or, at the very least, in their starting points,” can be created. Unfortunately, “the utopian quest for social justice and its redistributionist goals,” are the root causes of the totalitarian catastrophes created by Twentieth Century socialism. Mao and Stalin, the bloodiest mass murders in history, both began by advocating “social justice” along with equal rights to education, health care, income, and security.

It took Friedrich Hayek, one of the greatest minds of the century, to explain why this will always be so. In The Constitution of Liberty, he noted that it is false to believe that human beings are born equal. “[I]f we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position; [thus] the only way to place them in a equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are, therefore, not only different, but in conflict with each other.”[4] In Horowitz’s words, “some economic redistribution may be compassionate and necessaryit can never be just.”[5]

Leftists harbor a particular animus towards market economies and the businesses that make them tick precisely because free markets enable free individuals to find the best use for their talents. Market economies let individuals choose to cultivate the virtues that lead to success or the vices that lead to failure, choose their own occupations, and dictate how their material wealth will be distributed. Millions of free people making choices, not some secret society, create the outcome. Demands to remedy perceived “social injustices” are really demands that government limit individual choice, using force if necessary, until millions of people either perish in the gulag or begin acting in a way that conforms to the reformer’s notion of moral rectitude.

The basic conflict between equality and liberty was well understood by the architects of the American system of government. In The Federalist, No. 10, James Madison discussed the dangers of direct democracy and the difficulty of protecting the rights of citizens when the majority wishes to “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.”[6] He wanted a republican government to protect citizens from the grand schemes of the left or, as he put it, a “rage foran equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”

Fully alert to the despotic nature of a commitment to equality, the founders chose liberty. Certain that God created all men equal and then left free to pursue happiness, they structured the Constitution to secure the obvious “blessings of liberty” rather than the dubious blessings of equality. This explains why the Constitution emphasizes negative rights, rights creating spheres of activity, like speech, religion, gun ownership, and the press, into which the government may not intrude.

“Social justice” egalitarians agitate for “positive rights,” rights that require government action against individuals. In doing so they impale themselves on the horns of the Hayekian dilemma. Announcing a “right” to adequate food means that individuals may consume it whether or not it is grown by someone else. But this means that those who produce food no longer have equal rights under the law because giving everyone the “right” to food may require that they surrender the products of their labor under unequal terms. Because of this, positive rights lead inexorably from rights to special treatment based on birth, blood, employment, or social status. From there it is a short step to the eventual destruction of liberty.

The opiate of the intellectuals, “social justice” is tyranny gussied up to dupe the masses. If it really were justice, one wouldn’t need to call it something else.


[1] Robert Conquest. February 1999. “Liberals & Totalitarianism,” The New Criterion, p. 4.

[2]Quoted in Robert Conquest. February 1999. “Liberals & Totalitarianism,” The New Criterion, p. 4. Source mentioned was Hobhouse’s book, Liberalism.

[3] Robert Conquest. February 1999. “Liberals & Totalitarianism,” The New Criterion, p. 4

[4] Quoted in David Horowitz. 1998. The Politics of Bad Faith. New York: The Free Press, p. 183.

[5] David Horowitz. 1998. The Politics of Bad Faith. New York: The Free Press, p. 185.

[6] James Madison, The Federalist, No. 10. As reprinted in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 43, Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed. 1952. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. p. 51. Project Guttenberg version of The Federalist is available online at http://federalist.freeservers.com/cgi-bin/framed/3223/number_10.html

Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado, https://i2i.org. This article originally appeared in the Colorado Daily (Boulder), for which Linda Gorman is a regular columnist.

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