Kenneth McDonald is a Toronto free-lance writer. This article first appeared in The Toronto Sun, July 10, 1980.
Dear to the hearts of socialists is the phrase “social justice.” It strengthens belief in their cause and gives them a stick to beat their opponents with. Like many high- sounding phrases, however, it is never defined.
Social embraces society, its organization, and all the people who live in it. Justice is a rendering of what is due or merited, as in “Render unto Caesar the things which are Cae sar’s.”
Who is to decide what is due to all the people or what they merit? Will Tom decide what sort of house Dick ought to live in? Will Dick determine the reward that Harry should get from his labor? Will Dick and Harry combine to order Tom’s affairs? Experience tells us that any such attempts would be resisted. Good fences make good neighbors.
How is it, then, that otherwise sensible people, who are on excellent terms with their neighbors, will raise no objection to a comparable interference in their lives by politicians and civil servants they have never met, in short, by the state?
They have been led to believe not only that the state is wise and just but also that it has wealth of its own. They are encouraged to forget that it consists of politicians and civil servants who are people much like themselves and every bit as prone to error.
Social justice means what the socialists want it to mean and that, usually, is “fair shares,” not equality of opportunity but equality of result.
Tom, Dick and Harry live by a free exchange of the goods they make or the services they provide. In the process they create the wealth of the society they live in. The money they save (financial capital) is converted into the productive capital (land, tools, machines, factories) that keeps the wealth growing.
The state’s job is to set the rules of exchange and to see that they are obeyed. But when the state, which produces nothing, uses its arbitrary power to change the results, exchange is neither as free nor as productive as otherwise. The society’s wealth ceases to grow because more and more of its people are assured of rewards whether they produce or not.
Suppose that the same principle were applied to games. The supporters of an unsuccessful team would demand social justice for their side and that the results be adjusted to equalize wins and losses. Without competition there would be no point in playing. Yet we have come to admit the same principle to the much more important game of life.
Baseball and other games are played to rules that everyone understands. Umpires and referees are employed to enforce them. In the game of life, too, there are rules that everyone used to understand. Heading the list is: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.”
Now the politicians and civil servants who are supposed to enforce the rules have changed them. In the name of social justice they take what some have earned and give it to others. When it is no longer politic to increase the take they print money instead. The recipients are persuaded they need sweat no more.
But the game of life is like any other game. The challenge and the joy are in the playing. By trying to fix the outcome the state spoils the game for everyone.