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Justice versus Social Justice

  • Leonard Read

There was a time when people understood justice far better than we do today. Aristotle’s definition was “Justice is to give every man his own.” Cicero’s was almost identical. America’s Declaration of Independence reflected that tradition in asserting inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

What does that traditional American view of justice consist of? It is almost entirely a matter of defending “negative rights” — freedoms from encroachment on our inalienable rights. Government is to protect citizens from others’ encroachments on our rights (e.g., by defending property rights against force and fraud), yet citizens are also to be protected from government encroachments. Such rights, which can be held by everyone at the same time, are best illustrated by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

However, over time, that understanding of rights as freedoms from others’ abuse has been giving way to “positive rights” — rights to be given things (e.g., housing, food, education, income, etc.). Unfortunately, creating positive rights to be given things via government requires that other people’s negative rights be violated, since the government has no resources it does not first take from others, regardless of whether they consented. Further, not everyone can have such positive rights at the same time, as acquiring the resources to provide someone what they did not acquire through voluntary arrangements reduces the ability of those taken from to acquire those same things.

In recent times, the erosion of negative rights to create positive rights for some — violating the traditional understanding of justice — has used the language of “social justice,” which rhetorically hides the evisceration of the traditional meaning of universal justice (e.g., a government of equal laws rather than the favoritism of men) by keeping the word justice, but adding a new modifier.

Leonard Read, one of history’s most prolific defenders of liberty, recognized this battle between negative rights and positive rights, and the huge but hidden transformation it involved, for what it was. And in “Justice Versus Social Justice” (in his 1973 Who’s Listening?), he analyzed the conflict, starting from Aristotle’s definition of justice, in powerful terms.

Since the battle is still being played out, with the real justice represented by negative rights on the losing side, Read’s understanding is an invaluable part of shifting the scales back in that direction, and merits close attention.


What is justice? “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society” (James Madison, Federalist 51)…

[J]ustice and so-called social justice are opposites…to promote the latter is to retard the former.

[O]nly individuals experience justice or injustice… Justice cannot be rendered to everyone in general, only to each one in particular.

[J]ustice prevails in personal relations, that is, in the absence of injustice. Understood in this manner, justice is indeed the end of civil society.

Government in its ideal concept can have no other end than a common justice, for this is the end of civil society of which government is the arm or agent. The Goddess of Justice is blindfolded; if she peeks, she cheats…This is the meaning of “A government of laws, not of men.”

I have a moral right to my life, livelihood, liberty. Is this just? Yes, if one can concede a similar right to every other individual. I can! Try it in reverse: I have a moral right to take the life, livelihood, liberty of another. Just? Only if I can rationally concede the right of murder, theft, enslavement to everyone else. I cannot concede this right to anyone; thus, it is neither good nor just.

The institution of freedom, if properly defined, suffices to render justice to each individual. John Stuart Mill said: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

We now come to what is euphemistically referred to as social justice, though it is in theory and practice the very opposite of justice…a device that politicians and social planners find convenient to gain votes and power.

Social justice has no case except the lust for position; it has no rational content and simply manifests the little-god syndrome.

In the practice of so-called social justice, the individual is ignored…Social justice is the game of “robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul.” This form of political behavior seeks the gain of some at the expense of others… it is the thwarting of justice that begs our censure.

Test social justice…to perceive the difference.

If you would not condone others coercively taking from you to feather their nests, you could not, perforce, take from them to feather your own.

Social justice involves…depriving others to gain one’s ends.

Social justice promises to reward the idle by punishing and restraining those who have exercised creative energy.

So-called social justice is man’s greatest injustice to man, antisocial in every respect; not the cement of society, but the lust for power and privilege and the seed of man’s corruption and downfall.

[S]ocial justice in no way fits the claim of its advocates: an expression of mercy and pity. These virtues are strictly personal attributes and are expressed only in the voluntary giving of one’s own, never in the seizure and redistribution of someone else’s possessions.

Morally and ethically motivated citizens can condone a philosophy of so-called social justice only if they fail to see its terrible injustice.

If people thought as carefully about the massive misrepresentation that is entailed by claims of “social justice” as Leonard Read, we would not be so far down the path to eviscerating justice in the name of a “new and improved” justice. Yet, having moved down that path, the only route to improvement is to recognize the rhetorical cheat and reverse course. Leonard Read’s contrast between justice and social justice is a good start toward real progress in that direction — progress that entails undoing the “progressive” political redefinition (or better, mis-definition) of justice.


Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.

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