5.2.4 Hayek’s critique of social justice

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Unit 5 Contents



Friedrich A. Hayek, who could be called the father of neo-liberalism, argued that both ‘social justice’ and ‘distributive justice’ are meaningless concepts.

Hayek (1899-1992), originally from Austria, was an economist who worked both in London and the USA and wrote several sophisticated and powerful books which together represented a formidable restatement of economic liberalism.  His largest work, Law, Legislation and Liberty, was published in three volumes in the 1970s; the second of them was titled, provocatively, The Mirage of Social Justice.1

In a chapter headed ‘”Social” or Distributive Justice’ – the title indicates that Hayek’s target was both of these terms – he said that ‘social justice’ is a term that “has no meaning whatsoever”, a “superstition”, a “necessarily” and “entirely” empty and meaningless concept, a “will-o-the-wisp”, like believing in witches or the philosopher’s stone, in short “vacuous”.2. One of the characteristics of Hayek’s writing is powerful polemic alongside apparently rigorous argument.  Hayek made a clear argument for this rejection of ‘social justice’ that we need to examine.

The starting point in Hayek’s argument is this. The words ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ necessarily imply human responsibility: we can attribute them only when humans are responsible, and not, for example, to what a cow does or to the effects of an avalanche.  He says that “only human conduct can be called just or unjust”.3. Then, making a consistent but slightly wider claim, he says, “only situations which have been created by human will can be called just or unjust”.4. So far so good: ‘justice’ is indeed a moral term.  It is about what is right and wrong in human action, so it has no application if there is no human responsibility at all.

Hayek goes on to consider whether ‘justice’ or ‘injustice’ can be applied to distributions of goods.  He argues that, “if it is not the intended or foreseen result of somebody’s actions that A should have much and B little, this cannot be called just or unjust”.5. His point in making this line of argument is to reflect what happens in market transactions.  That statement implies that, if after various freely agreed transactions in markets, Roy, Rachel, Rob and Rebecca end up relatively rich and Pam, Paul, Penny and Peter are relatively poor, then the overall outcome is a state of affairs which no individual has intentionally brought about, and which, therefore, cannot be called just or unjust.  This is the case, Hayek held, however great the resulting inequality among people might be.

In this argument, Hayek is making a fundamental distinction between intentional human action, on one hand, and ‘states of affairs’ that no-one has intended to bring about, on the other.  Someone is responsible for the former, but no-one is responsible for the causing the latter.

Again, so far so good.  Hayek then claims that use of the language of ‘social justice’ typically fails to recognize that distinction.  Attributing ‘justice’ to a ‘society’ uses the term to refer to an overall state of affairs, to a distribution of goods across society as a whole, even though no individual or group has intentionally brought this about.  But, he says, this is a basic mistake.  No-one is responsible for such an outcome, so it is not meaningful to apply the term ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ to it.  From this followed Hayek’s invective against ‘social justice’, some of which I quoted above.



What do you make of Hayek’s argument?

Can you think of an objection to it?

In other words, can you think of a good reason why it might be appropriate to call a ‘state of affairs’ just or unjust even if no-one or no group has intentionally brought it about?


This argument of Hayek’s has been massively influential.  Its primary practical target was the view – a position held across most of the political spectrum in Western countries at time he was writing in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – that it is the state’s role to respond to and overcome social injustice. His argument seemed to pull out the rug from under this view by claiming that, at least in societies that have market economies, governments cannot act coherently if they are attempting to overcome a problem that does not really exist, a “will o’ the wisp”.  All that governments can do is to seek to ensure that there is justice in market transactions, by requiring contracts between sellers and buyers to be upheld by law.

From that outline of Hayek’s argument, you will be able to see why he was so influential in the rise of neoliberalism from the 1970s onwards. In his view, governments can and must provide a robust legal framework for exchanges in markets but should not be involved in economic redistribution that aims to reduce inequality.  This called into question both progressive taxation – that is, higher rates of tax for people with more income or wealth – and much state welfare provision.  In relation to the latter, however, Hayek believed that there does need to be a ‘safety net’ of such provision, not to bring about social justice, but to ensure minimum security for those individuals “who for various reasons cannot make their living in the market” because of illness, age, disability, or similar “adverse conditions”.6



End of 5.2.4

Go to 5.2.5 Responding to Hayek’s argument


Module B outline


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  1. Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice (University of Chicago Press, 1976)  

  2. Hayek, Mirage, pp. 64, 66, 68, 69, 75, 97  These are just some of the negative ways in which he refers to the term. 

  3. Hayek, Mirage, p. 31 

  4. Hayek, Mirage, p. 33 

  5. Hayek, Mirage, p. 33 

  6. Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 3: The Political Order of a Free People (University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 55, emphasis added