All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1965

Selective Justice

Miss Shenoy, from Ahmedabad, India, is a B.Sc. (Econ.) student at the London School of Economics.

The essence of the argument for “social” justice is that the same rules that apply to everyone else need not be applied to one minority—the “rich.” The rich, because they are rich, ought to be called upon to pay differential rates of taxa­tion—both on income and on wealth. Where compensation for some state activity is involved, it is generally agreed that full market prices need not be paid, especially if the indi­viduals involved are wealthier than others. In the case of strikers, it is agreed that they should not be held liable for acts against property (and persons) that in other con­texts would result in stiff penalties. All this represents a very great change of attitude from, say, about fifty years ago—and it goes under the heading of the achievement of social justice.

I wonder, though, whether these advocates of “one law for the poor and another law for the rich,” real­ize that they are adopting, in es­sence, the basic principle of all to­talitarian regimes everywhere? The essence of the South African argument for apartheid is an at­tempted justification for applying different rules to blacks and whites. In Hitler’s Germany, it was agreed that since the Jews were different, it was justifiable to treat them ac­cording to rules that did not apply to the non-Jews. In the communist countries, the people singled out for differential treatment are gen­erally termed “capitalist exploit­ers” or “landlords” (which is why so many Western intellectuals find it difficult, really, to condemn com­munism in its entirety). And in a host of new recruits to the totali­tarian camp, from Ghana to Indo­nesia, it is an accepted principle that authority may deal with the “enemies of the state” or the “ene­mies of the people” as they see fit and that the rules that normally apply to other people need not ap­ply to these individuals.

But observe the inconsistency here: if Jews are subjected to different rules from those apply­ing to the non-Jews, this is called anti-Semitism; if blacks are sub­jected to different rules from the whites, this is called racism; but if the groups against whom dif­ferential rules are to apply are designated as “the rich,” “capital­ists,” “landlords,” and the like—then it is no longer discrimina­tion: it is social justice!

The essence of justice, however, as opposed to “social” pseudo jus­tice, is that the same rules should apply to all: the wrongness of the act should be defined in terms of the act and not in terms of who does it. The application of the rules must be defined independ­ently of the circumstances of those to whom the rules are intended to apply. Yet it is of the essence of the concept of “social justice” that we must know who a person is before we can determine what rules to apply to him. Before as­sessing tax liability or the pay­ment of compensation, the income and wealth of the individual must be known (is he “rich” or “poor”?). If those committing crimes against person and prop­erty are strikers, they cannot be treated as others doing the same acts would be treated. The prin­ciple is the same as that of Hit­ler’s Germany: bef ore we know what rules apply, we must know whether the subject is a Jew or not. Or of Verwoerd’s South Af­rica: is the man black or white? Or, indeed, of the communist coun­tries: is the culprit one of the “pro­letariat” or does he belong to the “exploiting classes”?

Again, the notion of “social jus­tice” embodies a principle which, if applied in our daily life, we would have no hesitation in term­ing immoral. What would a father have to say if his son came home with his friend’s book, and ex­cused his action thus, “Oh, it’s all right, Dad—he can afford it!”? Yet, how many of us lend sanc­tion to a progressive income tax or to confiscatory death duties on the grounds, “They can afford it”?

“Social justice,” in short, seems to be simply a way of providing a respectable cloak for the basic principle of injustice.

  • Sudha Shenoy, PhD (1943–2008) was an economist and economic historian. From 1986 to 2004, she worked as a lecturer in economics at the University of Newcastle in Australia. She was an Honorary Associate in Economic History at the School of Policy and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Shenoy’s father was Professor Bellikoth Raghunath Shenoy, an eminent Indian economist who studied under Friedrich Hayek at the London School of Economics.