Michael Jackson was a very wealthy man. And there are millions without shelter, education and nutrition. Is this unjust? To answer this question we must ask ourselves another: Did Michael Jackson acquire his wealth unjustly? Of course, not. Michael Jackson thrilled billions with Thriller. They flocked to the stores to buy the album. This is how and why he got rich. There was no injustice at all.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Let us be very clear in our thinking: Justice is an attribute of individual conduct. Further, the free marketplace has nothing to do with either justice or injustice. As long as the rules of just conduct are being followed, the resultant “distribution of wealth” in a free society can only be called “natural”. This distribution can neither be called “just” nor “unjust” because individual shares are neither intended nor foreseen. There is no one “distributing” anything. And chance plays a big role.
So what about the fate of the poor? The fact is that modern capitalism is mass production for mass consumption. The masses gain as consumers. Henry Ford invented the Model T in 1908. Within 25 years, every American had a car. Very few Indians had cars 20 years ago. Or phones. Or TV sets. Since “liberalization” began, free markets have allowed Indians to succeed as consumers. None can deny the fact that free enterprise has hugely empowered the poor Indian during these last 10 years. My prescription for improving the lot of the poor is free markets. Period.
Advocates of “social justice” differ. They champion “redistribution” through state action. Thus, their ideas lead to heavy taxation and even heavier state expenditure. Whereas classical liberals conceive of a civil government that only acts against the unjust and nothing more, those who advocate social justice also advocate a role of the State that goes well beyond governance. They call themselves “socialist” but they are really étatists—worshippers of the State.
Unfortunately, heavy taxation and an overweening state are actually bad for the market economy. Savings decline. Investments decline. The poor suffer. And if the State engages in monetary inflation to fund itself, the poor lose even more. As Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek says, “Rules of just individual conduct are as indispensable to the preservation of a peaceful society of free men as endeavours to realize ‘social justice’ are incompatible with it.”
Hayek goes further: He says, “No one has yet found even a single general rule from which we could derive what is ‘socially just’ in all particular instances that would fall under it.” Welfare is such a loose concept that “some will put it here and some will put it there”. Amartya Sen will champion nutrition, Jean Dreze employment generation, and Manmohan Singh education. A fourth person might find something else, say, healthcare. The decline of the modern West is indeed such a story, thanks to ideas of social justice, which produced the “Illfare State”.
Hayek also offers an explanation for the popularity of social justice: The idea appeals to our primitive instincts. Whereas liberalism is modern and individualistic, social justice yearns for a return to the happy days of hunter-gatherer tribes where there is the “leader” who shares the prey with all members. Yet, we emerged from primitive society only by disregarding the principles that held the old tribes together. The pioneers abandoned the old closed groups and sought unknown people they could trade with. This is how we created cities and towns, settled agriculture, and the Great and Open Society. Social justice is “atavistic”. As a theoretical concept, Hayek calls it “intellectually disreputable”.
This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that, while eminent étatists champion social justice, there is little real justice in India. The National Human Rights Commission registers 75,000 cases a year—against the State’s police! There are at least 30 million cases pending in courts. Murders and rapes go unpunished. Injustice rules the land—and these étatists wave the flag of a phoney justice, a mirage, an illusion, a trick. They must be defeated.
It is undoubtedly true that millions of Indians are miserably poor. However, their only hope lies in economic freedom, free trade, private property and an equal justice. Under these conditions, none of which exists today, each can try and improve his position. That is, the individual matters; not the State. All that a civil government can do is apprehend the outlaws and the unjust, maintain the peace, keep accurate land records, build roads, roads and more roads, and manage the cities and towns. Even if it performs these tasks tolerably, the poor will slowly but surely climb out of poverty. Recall that in the US, black slaves made it big in show business and sports. Even these avenues are not fully open to India’s poor today.
Lastly, we undermine ourselves and civil society when we do not champion the case for private charity and philanthropy. Where taxation is heavy, private charity is low. All the money is taken by the State and usually wasted. Government is not charity. It cannot “attempt to purchase the affections of the populace by gratuitous alienations of the public revenue”. Social justice is a sham. Say no to it. Loudly.
Sauvik Chakraverti is an author and columnist. He blogs at sauvik-antidote.blogspot.com. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org