Horwitz on Two Versions of Social Justice

Steven Horwitz says there are basically two versions of social justice: One that calls for (more) massive “redistribution” of wealth, and one that calls for institutional reforms. He favors the latter, where, he says, “the focus is on structural and institutional causes and reforms. The belief among the adherents of this notion of social justice is that the problems faced by the least well-off are the result not of individual bad behavior by other members of society, but of deeper, institutional factors that make the resulting injustices toward the least well-off ‘social’ rather than individual. For example, racial disparities cannot be solved just by individuals having more enlightened views on race, but instead require deeper structural changes to political, social, and economic institutions. Working for social justice means both prioritizing the well-being of the least well-off (whether in terms of class, or race, or gender, etc.) and advocating for the structural changes that would end the injustices they face.”

Here’s how I would put the point. If “justice” mainly refers to the actions of the individual, “social justice” refers mainly to the social institutions that achieve, or undermine, justice for the members of that society. Insofar as the “least well-off” are made worse off by unjust institutions, of course we should care disproportionately about them (even as we can about just institutions for everyone).

In this sense, “social justice” to me is synonymous with achieving institutions protective of individual rights. What are some of ways in which our society is unjust? The drug war harms people over non-rights-violating behavior, especially minorities, and generates extreme social harms such as a violent black market and police corruption. The government-run education system often fails especially minority students. Price controls screw up labor markets. The corrupt plea bargain and sentencing systems often result in dramatic overpunishment for real crimes and lengthy prison sentences for acts that shouldn’t even be crimes; this disproportionately affects minorities. Police unions and qualified immunity incentivize abusive policing, which often falls especially hard on minorities. If achieving social justice means ending institutionalized injustices, I’m all in.

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