5.2.5 Responding to Hayek’s argument

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Unit 5 Contents



There is a decisive objection to Hayek’s case that social justice is not a meaningful concept.  When you responded to the Reflection on the last screen, perhaps you came up with an argument similar to that this screen will outline.1

Hayek does not reckon with the fact that human responsibility encompasses both what people do and what they fail to do, in other words, that there can be both ‘sins of commission’ and ‘sins of omission’.  We cannot attribute justice or injustice to a ‘state of affairs’ as such, but we certainly can attribute these terms both to actions that bring it about and to how people respond once it exists.  Regardless of whether human suffering has been brought about by intentional human action, it is a matter of justice whether and how people respond.

This point can be illustrated by looking at one of Jesus’ most famous parables.  You are, I expect, familiar with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  (To refresh your memory, see Luke 10 vv.25-37.)  Jesus told this story to illustrate what it means to obey the second great commandment: love your neighbour as yourself.  The victim in the story has been beaten up on a lonely road.  The one who loves him is the one who aids him practically, even though he, the Good Samaritan, is from a different and disliked ethnic group.  The point of the story is that, when we encounter human need, love of neighbour means that we must not walk by on the other side, whoever the victim is.  In the parable, the victim had been intentionally beaten up, but no doubt the people on the road would have had the same duty to aid him if he had been injured by falling rocks.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan makes unmistakeably clear that to walk by in the face of human need is to fail to render what is due – it is injustice.

But Hayek does not engage with the possibility that failing to act can be unjust. This weakens his argument against ‘social justice’ in a basic way.  Even if no one has intentionally brought about the way goods are distributed within a society, how people respond to such a ‘state of affairs’ is a matter of justice. It follows that it is not meaningless to talk about justice in relation to a society as a whole.

This is the case whatever has brought about such a state of affairs – whether, for example, drought and consequent famine, or war, or exchanges in markets.  In relation to the last of these, people in fact bring vastly different levels of purchasing power as they participate in markets, and this means vastly different levels of bargaining power. Outcomes will often reflect those inequalities: if, for example, there are people who have no option but to work for a subsistence wage and others willing to employ them, they will very often agree to work, even though the wage is unjust and leaves them poverty-stricken.  There is no reason to hold that, in real human societies already characterized by poverty, differences of power, and exploitation, the result of market transactions will be just for everyone.

In relation to wages, Rerum Novarum in 1891 was already very clear on this.  In the following quotation, Pope Leo XIII first summarises the kind of economic-liberal theory that Hayek much later was defending, and then critiques it.

Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances.

To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent… for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether…  The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work…

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.  (Rerum Novarum, ##44-45, first para. break added, as quoted in Module A, 4.2.6)

It is not meaningless, either, to see government as responsible for acting against social injustice. To ensure there is justice is up to government: “The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, #28, quoted in 1.3.1).  Hence, if members of a society themselves fail in the general moral duty of love of neighbour and hence fail to do justice in relations among themselves, CST’s view is that it must be for government to act, employing its powers to enforce, for example, law against exploitation in the workplace.  In terms of the role of government as outlined in Unit 3, this is part of what upholding human rights requires, specifically ‘benefit rights’ (3.3.2).  When government does that, it is acting for social justice – seeking to enable all to live in a just society and to have the possibility of benefiting from the common good.

Of course, a government may fail to act effectively, or it might be incompetent in ways that actually make things worse.  This is all too common.  As mentioned earlier (3.1.4), badly designed social security systems, for example, can leave large numbers of people in ‘poverty traps’.  Worse, corruption is often endemic among people with political power.  But the highly important questions about how to ensure that policy is effective and that officials are honest are quite separate from whether it is meaningful to say that government is responsible for social justice.

For all the rhetorical force and apparent analytical rigour of Hayek’s argument against ‘social justice’, it does not stand up to scrutiny. This is not to reject the rest of Hayek’s work; one quite different argument he made, about the dispersion of knowledge in markets, is immeasurably stronger and enduringly important – you can read about this in Module A, Unit 5: 5.1.5.

Near the beginning of this unit, you read Pope Francis’s address when he visited the island of Lampedusa in 2013.  In that short homily he used a striking phrase that has since become famous, “the globalization of indifference”.  He said this:

Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!”, and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!

More than any other thinker and writer, Hayek inspired the rise of neoliberalism in the second half of the twentieth century.  Even though his argument that ‘social justice’ is meaningless is flawed, it helped to generate neoliberalism’s way of seeing the world.  This, in turn, has been immeasurably influential, initially in English-speaking Western countries, and through them globally.  It lends an appearance of legitimacy to the view that we – whether people or governments – are not responsible in relation to the economic conditions that others are in. According to Hayek, these things are ‘states of affairs’ we encounter, and if some of them are characterised by human need and suffering, the only real solution lies in letting free markets take their course.  Although flawed, the Hayekian argument about social justice is ideological ballast for the ‘globalized indifference’ that Pope Francis named.

The term ‘social justice’ was introduced into CST in QA and has been used, although not very frequently, from MM right through to Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate and beyond.  Pope Francis has written, “none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice”2. Over the half century since MM, the concept has been undermined by the rhetoric of the revived economic liberalism, but it can withstand this attack. In short, when what is in view is a whole society, ‘social justice’ means ‘distributive justice’.  What the Catholic Catechism says about distributive justice applies equally to social justice: the civil authorities “should practice distributive justice wisely, taking account of the needs and contribution of each…” (#2236, quoted in 3.1.4).

In an important development in CST, also over the period since MM, it has incorporating an understanding that social justice and injustice can be ‘structural’.  Established practices and customs, and even law, can embed unjust structures in a society that are very hard to reform. We shall study ‘structural’ justice in Unit 6.

Acting for social justice is a basic part of both everyone’s responsibility for their neighbours – as exemplified by the people of Lampedusa whom Pope Francis praised – and governments’ responsibility to secure the conditions that the common good requires.




End of 5.2.5

Go to 5.2.6 MM chapter II: The revival of civil society


Module B outline


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  1. The objection set out on this screen draws in part from critical discussion of Hayek on social justice by Raymond Plant and by Duncan B. Forrester; see Forrester, Christian Justice and Public Policy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 148-154. 

  2. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), #201