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Many political parties, right across the world, are impassioned by the pursuit of social justice. The United Nations celebrates the 20th of February as the ‘World Day of Social Justice’, which it has observed since 2007. All people seem to agree on the desirability and need in society for justice, however personally it is defined. Both the current coalition government and the last Labour government have cited social justice as justification for their policies. The most prevalent meaning of the term ‘social justice’, particularly in the United States, is for policies that seek to reduce income and wealth disparities. In one sense, justice must be social, as a person alone cannot rule themselves to be just or unjust.
Traditional and Social Justice
Traditional concepts of justice are dependent upon the application of the same rules and the same standards to all participants. Traditional justice is a characteristic of the single process of applying the same rules. For a criminal trial, the justice or injustice of the trial is not a quality of the verdict, but a quality of the process that led the trial to that verdict: whether the judge and jury were impartial, whether the trial’s legal proceedings were properly followed. More generally, traditional justice concerns process, rather than prospects or results.
Social justice can be distinguished from more traditional forms of justice, by principally standing for the abolition of iniquities and the amelioration of inequalities that exist throughout society. Professor John Rawls summarised the difference between social justice and traditional justice in his books A Theory of Justice and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, by the distinction between “genuine” equality of opportunity and “formal” equality of opportunity. This level of equality is not achievable through the application of the same rules and standards to everyone, as that would be merely traditional equality, but necessitates specific interventions within the existing processes, as “undeserved inequalities call for redress”. Thus, social justice is achieved by the elimination of undeserved advantages and disadvantages from selected sections of society.
Traditional justice is principally the uniform application of rules, and so is readily replicated and mimicked outside of the legal sphere, such as the arbitration in sporting leagues. Underlying these two types of justice are two distinct types of fairness: one is an equality of process and the other is the equalisation of prospects. A race would befit one idea of fairness, as long as any violations of the race’s rules were proportionately penalised, but would be declared ‘socially’ unfair if the racers had different levels of training and different prospects of winning. The act of selection, over what comprises undeserved advantages and disadvantages and who in society holds them, means that policies for social justice must be tailored to each specific situation. This makes social justice difficult to fully critique, as proponents will simply scuttle to the shelter of a different definition, and decry any critique as narrow. This can be seen in a public lecture by Dr Lister to Oxford’s Centre for the Study of Social Justice, who proposed that Friedrich Hayek had only provided a “very narrow” critique of social justice.
A clash between these two types of fairness and justice can be observed in the university admissions process, focussed on the disparities in attainments of students from different types of schools. It is regarded as socially unjust that state-schooled students are unable to achieve the necessary grades and exemplary performance in interviews and personal written statements to the same level that privately-schooled students do. It would be traditionally unjust if it was discovered that the university admission tutors had deliberately and overtly favoured privately-schooled students in their admissions process. However, little empirical evidence is given for such an assertion and it is rarely asked for. The disproportionality alone is enough to deem the admissions process ‘socially unjust’, as prospective students who through no fault of their own are not as well-equipped for the admissions process as others. The policy consequences are varied, all of which would be sheltered under the umbrella of social justice. One such policy is quotas for state-schooled students in British universities. In order to ameliorate, and not eliminate, the inequality of results by state-schooled students for being admitted into university, a great inequality of process must be established. The tests for admission reveal the inequality of prospects within our education system: they don’t cause that inequality.
The Impossibility of Social Justice
The complete elimination of undeserved advantages and disadvantages is simply impossible, which makes the ultimate aim of social justice a plan to reach the horizon. In education, the primary source of ‘social injustice’ is the excellence of certain teachers and schools. However, there is no plausible mechanism to ensure that the number of great teachers is evenly distributed at each school, and these schools are spread across the land, so that each school provides a similar standard of education, and so no pupils are either advantaged or disadvantaged. George Monbiot, environmentalist and author, said that all private schools should be closed down, calling them a “social menace”. Even if all private schools were closed down, the distribution of excellence in the state-controlled education system would still be uneven. Teachers can inspire their pupils, even when reading from a mandated script, and this inspiration and urge to learn can never be evenly distributed. Even if the state schools were somehow made completely equal, children having different parents would mean that they would still have undeserved advantages through the provision of private tutoring and the parents’ own experiences and knowledge. The ‘undeserved advantage’ of parenting is outside societal control, and so cannot even be reduced by social action. As there are numerous inequalities that fall outside of society’s control, American economist Thomas Sowell produced the term ‘cosmic justice’ to properly describe social justice.
Given the impossibility of social justice, pursuing it has serious costs. For example, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a report entitled Social Justice and the Future of Flood Insurance. The report states there should be ‘fairness’ in flood insurance, so “those at lower risk of flooding would contribute to the support of people at higher risk”. The argument, for a proponent of social justice, is that everyone has to be housed somewhere, and those people may have chosen their property at a time when the flood risk was lower. Thus, these people are entrapped in places with high flood risks, through no fault of their own. However, changing the insurance price does not change the underlying risk, and so people will be unable to use higher flood insurance prices to help determine where they live. The cost of enacting legislation of this kind can be counted in flooded houses and water-soaked items, which the insurance companies and the government will replace. The unnecessary destruction of such goods drains wealth from society.
Plans to Enact Social Justice
Society is vast: brimming with organic structures, flourishing through the voluntary associations and transactions between citizens. Whilst Friedrich Hayek used the plural nature of society to explain that the terms ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ could not be used to describe society as a whole, as such terms could only apply to individual actions, the nature of society also severely inhibits any plan to enact social justice. There are so many processes that apparently render a society just or unjust; a government seeking social justice would have to interfere with all of them. It is rare that proponents of social justice will claim the need and power to directly implement certain results, such as straight powers over employment, instead preferring to change the relevant processes that lead to their desired result, which is usually something more proportional than the status quo. The Sutton Trust commissioned research that found the personal statements part of university admission was ‘unfair’ to some prospective students, and that personal statements could be made fairer by “limiting the number of experiences that an applicant could include”.
There are three prominent problems with this plan of ratifying social justice. Firstly, the interference in a process may not have the intended result. For example, high rents may be declared extortionate – the government seeking social justice then implements caps and other controls on rental prices. A ceiling on rents has the effect of greatly benefitting rich tenants, as the greatest difference between the market rent price and the capped price will be in luxury accommodation.
Secondly, the sculpture of processes towards a certain end establishes great political inequalities. A specified group may have existent advantages within society, but the government pursuing the dream of social justice will not be on their side, endlessly toiling, tailoring and tinkering with social mechanisms to annihilate these advantages. This political disadvantage means that individuals and institutions, such as universities, are under pressure by the government to give the desired, socially just result. The failure to yield such results will mean further interference, political limitations and potentially, financial and legal penalties.
Thirdly, the pursuit of social justice unavoidably means that social mechanisms should treat different people, with different advantages and different disadvantages, in different ways. This is an abandonment of traditional justice, the application of equal rules and equal standards to all. The crux of traditional justice lies within the impartiality of process, usually the trial. In comparison, social justice relies on the moulding of process to give an intended and foreseen result: a proportionate society. Proponents of social justice act as if they are filing the locks on a golden sarcophagus, in order to reveal the ‘true’ prospects of an individual, separate from their upbringing, schooling, and parenting. Individuals are forged by their experiences, and cannot be distilled from their past.
Social justice is an entirely laudable idea, the removal of undeserved disadvantages, but is also entirely impossible. Society has absolutely no knowledge, control or power over some aspects of our lives, such as the manner of lawful parenting in private homes, and thus is entirely unable to redress any resulting advantages and disadvantages. Social justice is also intentionally ignorant of costs, as justice must be attained, regardless of price. The consideration, no matter how temporary, of such costs is antithetical to social justice, as this is a goal that must be reached, and is not open to a cost-benefit analysis: anything less is unjust. Social justice, despite the name, extinguishes the fundamental principles of traditional justice. It desires to sculpt a proportionate society, rather than upholding impartial processes. A proportionate society itself is a mirage, as human beings are not random events, and so are not bound by the probabilistic laws of expectations. The plural, entwining nature of society means that social justice, if it were possible, would be incredibly difficult to implement. There are so many social processes that shape our lives, a government desperately lusting after social justice would necessarily be a seeping, sprawling and limitless leviathan, entangling itself within our most basic associations.