Engineering Human Outcomes: Why Social Justice isn’t Justice

For F. A. Hayek, open conflicts of group interests lead to the end of free societies

Photo by Gladson Xavier from Pexels

The recent rise of socialism as a desirable political system in the US and the UK, despite all historical evidence of failure to the contrary, I believe is linked to the false sense of omniscience that Big Data/Big Tech have promoted in recent years. Also, both the media and academia are continually pushing suspect studies of human behavior based on small sample sizes, p-value massaging, and replication crises (especially in economics, sociology and psychology). It cannot be a coincidence that Big Tech, the media, and academia are enclosed in ideological and geographical bubbles, especially ignorant of the devastating critiques of collectivism and social justice by conservative philosophers and F. A. Hayek in particular.

The problem with socialism, collectivism, and central planning is that all are premised on what Hayek calls “a factual assumption of omniscience which is never satisfied in real life.” A centrally planned economy, or a centrally planned society, is based on the idea that all future contingencies can be foreseen, known, and planned for, which is, of course, impossible. 2008 Crash anyone? President Trump? Asia Argento? Our ignorance of the future, our inability to accurately predict what hasn’t happened yet, the impossibility of omniscience in human behavior means no amount of prediction or planning can control for all possible contingencies, especially what N. N. Taleb calls “Black Swans.”

In Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek makes the distinction between organized societies (taxis) and societies based on spontaneous order (kosmos); or, societies governed by a focus on particular ends and societies governed by general rules of conduct (rules that have proved adaptable to the unknown or unpredictable results of conduct).

Take, for example, the current social justice idea of equality of outcomes, rather than equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity, as a rule, allows for the most number of people in a society to improve their lives. What this rule can do is, according to Hayek, “No more than increase the opportunities for unknown people.” Rules apply to probable effects or outcomes, not particular ends. In other words, there wouldn’t be a need for rules if we could know everything.

We can’t know everything.

Not everyone, of course, will succeed in improving their position or life in a society ruled by equality of opportunity. Good people fail, bad people succeed and damnit life is unfair! Well, duh. Equality of outcomes is a focus on a particular end for a particular group of people. In theory, it sounds noble, but in practice it’s impossible because we can never have knowledge of all the possible outcomes of each individuals’ choices in life. There are unknowns, no matter how many academic studies are done or how much data is crunched in the Googleplex. Not every result, contingency, or outcome can be planned for to ensure that this particular end is achieved. Hayek: “Government would have to handicap the different individuals so as to compensate for individual advantages and disadvantages.” It’s almost like he read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” [Note: if you haven’t, do.]

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States states that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.” This is one of the foundational premises of the country, along with freedom from the establishment of a government religion, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. In other words, this is a rule providing opportunities for unknowable probable outcomes.

Social justice warriors, on the other hand, have a particular end in mind: they want to prevent any possible offence that free speech may cause on select groups of so-called “marginalized” people. So in order to reach this particular end, they push for censorship of any speech that doesn’t promote this particular end, even though censorship goes directly against this foundational general rule of the republic. They assume that they have omniscient knowledge of all the possible effects of any individual action in regards to free speech and that all these possible effects can be planned for and controlled in order to reach their particular end of an offence-free society. Of course, this assumption is absurd, as is the idea of liberals arguing against free speech, pushing censorship (especially now on social media) and even violence as a means to a particular end. The USSR and Mao’s China embraced violence as a means to a particular end and well over a hundred million people paid the price.

We can easily apply this same analysis to the Second Amendment as well, or any of the others. The Bill of Rights is a simply a system of rules of conduct based on the impossibility of omniscient knowledge of all human actions. In that sense, it’s brilliant in its focus on rule-guided action rather than particular-end based commands and means.

Indeed, justice itself is a general principle (see Plato’s Republic); without the ability to agree on a general principle of justice, justice isn’t justice. Social justice, on the other hand, is action or command focused on a specific end or outcome for a particular group of individuals. According to Hayek, “A command regularly aims at a particular result or particular foreseen results.” A rule, on the other hand, “refers to an unknown number of future instances and to the acts of an unknown number of persons, and merely states certain attributes which any such action ought to possess.” The principle of justice either applies to all members of the great society, or it’s not justice. Of course, it’s possible to argue that justice isn’t being applied to all members of American society, but social justice isn’t justice at all. It’s not a rule, it’s a command focused on a particular outcome for a particular favored group or groups.

The notion that government can determine both the opportunities and outcomes for everyone in a society is the very antithesis of the definition of a free society. As Hayek concludes, “the role of government in that process cannot be to determine particular results for particular individuals or groups, but only to provide certain generic conditions whose effects on the several individuals will be unpredictable.”

Unfortunately, the media, academia, Big Tech, and even many in government positions have given up on the foundational ideas of a free society, in order to embrace particular ends defined by social justice ideology. Identity politics, victimology, obsessions with redressing past evils, without a common set of rules focused on allowing each member of a society to pursue his or her own purposes (within the framework of the rules) without coercion, harmony in a society is impossible.

What we end up with is “open conflicts of interest,” which is what we have now. The future may be impossible to predict, but in our current atmosphere of open conflict of particular interests, it’s pretty clear that we’re heading toward the end of a free society. Hayek believed that it’s the concept of social justice that “necessarily leads to a gradual transformation of the spontaneous order of a free society into a totalitarian system conducted in the service of some coalition of organized interests.”

Intellectuals, journalists, and academics would do well to remember that they’re almost always the first ones lined up against the wall by the social justice revolutionaries they so naively idolize and admire. As Lenin once said, “we’re not shooting enough professors.”

Writing. Literature. Philosophy. Culture. Ph.D. U of Arizona.

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