Monday, May 28, 2007

"Social justice" is our hubris 

John Palmer, while teaching this summer in England, posted last week about social justice.
One of the papers at the conference I am attending has the phrase "social justice" in the title. Last week, before leaving for the conference, I told my colleagues at The Castle that typically this is just a buzz word/phrase for "condescending paternalistic pinko left-wing elitist interventionism". I'll be very curious to see if the paper fits the mold. I have tight priors that it will.
I haven't heard yet what he though of this particular paper, but he cites Roger Kimball's new essay in the New Criterion on Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and the willingness of intellectuals to believe beyond all reason that they can build a new society, damn the costs.
Of course, you can�t make an omelet without breaking eggs. But it is remarkable what a large accumulation of eggshells we have piled up over the last century. (And then there is always Orwell�s embarrassing question: �Where�s the omelet?�) I forget the sage who described hope as the last evil in Pandora�s box. Unfair to hope, perhaps, but not inapplicable to that adamantine �faith in a better world� that has always been at the heart of the socialist enterprise. Talk about a hardy perennial! The socialist experiment has never worked out as advertised. But it continually blooms afresh in the human heart�those portions of it, anyway, colonized by intellectuals, that palpitating tribe Julien Benda memorably denominated �clercs,� as in �trahison de.� But why? What is it about intellectuals that makes them so profligately susceptible to the catnip of socialism?
I've answered that mostly by saying intellectuals have a hard time arguing for a moral basis to society. Several years ago Walter Williams made the argument:
If social justice has any operational meaning at all, it is that the purpose of law is to prevent one person from violating another person's fight to acquire, keep, and dispose of property in any manner so long as he doesn't violate another's simultaneously held fights, In other words, laws should be written to prevent force and fraud. Laws that force one person to serve the purposes of another are immoral. These values, expressed in our Declaration of Independence as the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, guided the framers in the writing of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Today, our government has become increasingly destructive of the ends it was created to serve. Americans have become increasingly hostile and alien to the liberties envisioned by the framers. We have disregarded the inscription that graces the U.S. Department of Justice: "Where the law ends tyranny begins."

...[L]aws do not determine what is or is not moral conduct. In Nazi Germany, there were laws that required the reporting of a person hiding a Jew. In our country, the Fugitive Slave Act made assisting runaway slaves a crime. In apartheid South Africa, hiring blacks for certain work was illegal. In the former East Germany, assisting people in their efforts to escape to the West was illegal. Would any decent person demand that any of these laws be obeyed? Decent people must always ask: does the law have a moral basis?
But what is the source of the moral basis? For the modern intellectual, Kimball finds, it has to be the intellectual himself. And that misses everything:
The road away from serfdom was to be found by embracing what Hayek called �the extended order of cooperation,� AKA capitalism. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith noted the paradox, or seeming paradox, of capitalism: that the more individuals were left free to follow their own ends, the more their activities were �led by an invisible hand to promote� ends that aided the common good. Private pursuits conduced to public goods: that is the beneficient alchemy of capitalism. Hayek�s fundamental insight, enlarging Smith�s thought, is that the spontaneous order created and maintained by competitive market forces leads to greater prosperity than a planned economy.

The sentimentalist cannot wrap his mind, or his heart, around that datum. He cannot understand why we shouldn�t favor �co- operation� (a pleasing-sounding arrangement) over �competition� (much harsher), since in any competition there are losers, which is bad, and winners, which may be even worse. Socialism is a version of sentimentality. Even so hard-headed an observer as George Orwell was susceptible. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell argued that since the world �potentially at least, is immensely rich,� if we developed it �as it might be developed � we could all live like princes, supposing that we wanted to.� Never mind that part of what it means to be a prince is that others, most others, are not royalty.

The socialist, the sentimentalist, cannot understand why, if people have been able to �generate some system of rules coordinating their efforts,� they cannot also consciously �design an even better and more gratifying system.� Central to Hayek�s teaching is the unyielding fact that human ingenuity is limited, that the elasticity of freedom requires the agency of forces beyond our supervision, that, finally, the ambitions of socialism are an expression of rationalistic hubris. A spontaneous order generated by market forces may be as beneficial to humanity as you like; it may have greatly extended life and produced wealth so staggering that, only a few generations ago, it was unimaginable. Still, it is not perfect. The poor are still with us. Not every social problem has been solved. In the end, though, the really galling thing about the spontaneous order that free markets produce is not its imperfection but its spontaneity: the fact that it is a creation not our own. It transcends the conscious direction of human will and is therefore an affront to human pride.

Socialism, thus, is an expression of sin. Williams notes that liberty is not our normal state of affairs or is fragile. So too did Milton Friedman.