Crider argues that a better conception of social justice addresses oppression and equality of human dignity.

Paul Crider is a semiconductor process engineer and has a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of California‐​Berkeley. He writes on topics from the case for open borders to ethics and libertarian political philosophy.

Libertarians have been largely hostile to the concept of social justice since at least Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty (CoL, 1960) and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU, 1974). I think this is a mistake, not because these libertarian luminaries were wrong, but because we now have a better conception of social justice. Both Hayek and Nozick targeted social justice as distributive justice, i.e., how wealth is divided among people. Social justice can instead be understood as the struggle to free individuals from oppressive relationships.

Social Justice as Distributive Justice

Hayek famously referred to the “mirage of social justice,” and opposed it in several places. Hayek suggested

a demand for equality is the professed motive of most of those who desire to impose upon society a preconceived pattern of distribution. Our objection is against all attempts to impress upon society a deliberately chosen pattern of distribution, whether it be an order of equality or of inequality. [CoL 87]

A naïve first pass at distributive justice is material equality of outcomes. Given the inherent inequalities between individuals, Hayek argued that attempting to impose a far‐​reaching material equality would require unequal treatment before the law. This would be a cure worse than the alleged disease. For his part, Nozick argued that material equality or any “end‐​state principle” of distributive justice will run against deep intuitions we have about how an “identifiable differential contribution [should] lead to some differential entitlement.” [ASU 198]

But distribution according to merit doesn’t work either. This particular “preconceived social pattern” suffers similar knowledge problems as those Hayek famously identified for the planned economy: we can’t reliably determine merit:

[Distinguishing between merit and luck] is possible only where we possess all the knowledge which was at the disposal of the acting person, including a knowledge of his skill and confidence, his state of mind and his feelings, his capacity for attention, his energy, and persistence, etc. The possibility of a true judgment of merit thus depends on the presence of precisely those conditions whose general absence is the main argument for liberty. It is because we want people to use knowledge which we do not possess that we let them decide for themselves. But insofar as we want them to be free to use capacities and knowledge of facts which we do not have, we are not in a position to judge the merit of their achievements. To decide on merit presupposes that we can judge whether people have made such use of their opportunities as they ought to have made and how much effort of will or self‐​denial this has cost them; it presupposes also that we can distinguish between that part of their achievement which is due to circumstances within their control and that part which is not. [CoL 95]

Nozick in ASU drew on and concurred with Hayek’s analysis of distributive justice. But he added that even if we wanted to impose an ideal pattern of material distribution, such a pattern would be unstable. Free actions of individuals would immediately deviate from the design:

[N]o end‐​state principle or distributional patterned principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference with people’s lives. … To maintain a pattern one must either continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish to, or continually (or periodically) interfere to take from some persons resources that others for some reason chose to transfer to them. [ASU 163]

Hayek thought hard about the kind of rules a society should have if it wanted prosperity and he was concerned about the dispersed and often tacit nature of knowledge. Nozick was a sharp theorist of natural rights and private property and a defender of their consequences. These thinkers came at libertarianism from very different directions, but both decisively refuted social justice, which they interpreted (along with John Rawls and other “high liberals”) as distributive justice. Combine this with the common sense suspicion that a distribution‐​based understanding of social justice would lead to a lot of redistribution and it’s easy to see why libertarians aren’t keen on the whole notion.

Social Justice as the Abolition of Oppression

But Hayek and Nozick are not alone in their dissatisfaction with social justice as distributive justice. Elizabeth Anderson is no libertarian, but she is the kind of liberal a libertarian can feel comfortable chatting with. She even affirms a robust conception of economic liberty as “an important domain of agency,” including the freedom to create, own, and operate the means of production. In her essay, What is the Point of Equality?, Anderson lobs a broadside against contemporary “egalitarian” theories of social justice every bit as devastating as anything Hayek or Nozick could muster. (She cites both of them). But she then presents an alternative “relational equality,” which understands social justice as, negatively, the abolition of “oppression—that is, forms of social relationship by which some people dominate, exploit, marginalize, demean, and inflict violence upon others.” And positively:

[E]galitarians seek a social order in which persons stand in relations of equality. They seek to live together in a democratic community, as opposed to a hierarchical one … that no one need bow and scrape before others or represent themselves as inferior to others as a condition of having their claim heard.

Anderson refers here to the “five faces of oppression” cataloged by Iris Marion Young in Justice and the Politics of Difference (JPD). Young was a feminist and critical theorist who believed there was far more to social justice than just distribution. It’s worth describing these forms of oppression:

Exploitation: Young describes this as when “some people exercise their capacities under the control, according to the purposes, and for the benefit of other people.” [JPD 49] Young is unfortunately heavily influenced in this by Marx, so it’s hard to take her idea of exploitation too seriously. But exploitation as a concept is salvageable. The estimable libertarian economist, Michael Munger, has worked out a compelling conception of exploitation based on the idea of “euvoluntary” exchange, which, roughly, appends to the common sense notion of voluntariness some consideration of power imbalances between the parties to the exchange, or differentials in the variety and quality of options open to each party. A drowning person is not on equal footing with someone on land with an extra flotation device to sell.

Marginalization: “Marginals are people the system of labor cannot or will not use.” [JPD 53] Or, more cheekily, to be marginalized is to fail to be sufficiently exploited. More seriously, if exploitation is being taken advantage of by way of gross power imbalances, marginalization is to be excluded from worthwhile employment or other remunerative opportunities, whether by direct discrimination, systemic or institutional racism (sexism, etc), onerous regulation, or by some other means.

Powerlessness: Young’s concept of powerlessness is a little vaguer. It refers specifically to the lack in one’s work of the kind of autonomy, development opportunities, and social status that professionals have. I think this combines well with her concept of domination, which goes beyond one’s labor life. To be dominated is to lack the ability to determine one’s actions, to participate in the determination of one’s actions, or to have no influence on the conditions of one’s actions.

Cultural Imperialism: “Cultural imperialism involves the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm.” [JPD 59] White Christians in America, for example, see their culture all around them, in entertainment, in politics, in history class, in national holidays, etc. Members of the dominant group are free to live as individuals, while members of culturally marginalized groups are often essentialized and stereotyped. A white Christian male who goes on a killing spree is a “disturbed individual” though a Muslim (or just Arab‐​looking) man who does similar is an “Islamic terrorist” who exemplifies the “violent nature of Islam.”

Violence: “Members of some groups live with the knowledge that they must fear random, unprovoked attacks on their persons or property, which have no motive but to damage, humiliate, or destroy the person.” [JPD 61] This was the essence of the lynch mobs of Jim Crow, and the Black Lives Matter movement today speaks out against the attenuated but real legacy of this. This has been the case for gays and transgender people and, at different times in our history, Jews and other groups. Arguably this is one aspect of rape culture.

I anticipate the objection from passionately individualist libertarians that oppression as I’ve described is collectivist. I talk about groups suffering these injustices, but groups are composed of individuals, and it’s the individuals that matter. Though I suspect libertarians often don’t appreciate how important group affiliation is for an individual’s sense of identity, I’m sympathetic to this objection. But however rugged one’s individualism, it doesn’t stop oppression from taking collectivist forms. Arguably collectivism is what lies at the root of much oppression. But pretending collectivism doesn’t exist is no way to combat its oppressive effects.

The state perpetrates each of these forms of oppression, as Kelly Vee has described in an article for the Center for a Stateless Society. But what I want to press home is that these forms of oppression are not intrinsically linked with the coercive power of the state. Few libertarians apart from anarchists will dispute the need for some kind of criminal justice system, for example, but how and why the heavy fist of American criminal justice lands disproportionately on black lives is conceptually a matter of social justice, and not the power to coerce per se.

The state often abets and exacerbates oppression, but oppression can also arise independently of the state. Understanding that exploitation and marginalization are genuine forms of social injustice enables libertarians to productively participate in important conversations even when these injustices have nothing to do with the state. And of course just because social injustices have been diagnosed doesn’t mean government policy is the appropriate medicine. Talking the talk of social justice might at least afford us more sympathy when we go on to argue against state‐​based solutions.

But redistribution isn’t going away any time soon, and the view of social justice I’m defending has implications for redistributive policies. The guaranteed basic income has recently become popular among some libertarians as a possible alternative to the existing welfare state. As often presented, this is a defensive compromise: redistribution is bad, but a basic income would be less bad. But a basic income would remove the paternalistic and condescending aspects of status quo welfare: drug tests, having to prove you’re looking for a job, items proscribed from food stamp purchases, knowing looks from neighbors, etc. More positively, a basic income would go a long way to enabling people to avoid or escape oppressive relationships. For example, leaving an abusive partner when you have foregone a market career to raise children, or quitting a job with an authoritarian boss when you have no savings cushion. This isn’t redistribution as distributive justice; it’s redistribution to liberate individuals from oppressive entanglements.

There is an unfortunate—and ironically statist—tendency among some libertarians to only be interested in those injustices committed by the state. But of course hatred and greed and the quotidian injustices that result from these base emotions are entirely private. Likewise racism, sexism, and other kinds of social justice -isms are not caused primarily by the state. But the difference is that from these private forms of social injustice emerge society‐​spanning patterns of inequality. Not inequality of income, which is largely morally irrelevant, but a deeper, far more troubling inequality in the very dignity of being citizens and human beings. This is the kind of inequality that the original classical liberals revolted against, the inequality of privileged lords and priests who were seen as better than peasants and shopkeepers. This is the inequality libertarians can fight against today.