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Monday, November 16, 2015

Social Justice versus the Left

In the Zero-Sum Game of Politics, Someone Has to Lose

Why are demonstrators from the Black Lives Matter movement interrupting the campaign rallies of Bernie Sanders? After all, Sanders is the presidential candidate who is farthest to the left, making him the most likely to be sensitive to the concerns of an organization known for its radical activism. Wouldn’t it make more sense to disrupt and co-opt the public appearances of candidates perceived to be the least sympathetic, such as Rand Paul?

Jamelle Bouie of Slate tries to explain it this way:

In this environment, if you’re trying to make a splash, you go with Sanders, especially when he’s more open to change and adjustment than the alternatives. Disrupting Sanders gives you more bang for your buck: It keeps you in the news and puts indirect pressure on other campaigns that know they’ll have to answer to the movement’s questions.

Bouie may be right, but I suspect there’s something more fundamental going on here.

Scarce Resources

The left is full of sincere, concerned people who, like many on the right, hope to use political power to advance their particular agendas.

Political power requires physical violence or the threat of physical violence to achieve particular ends. 

Black Lives Matter is self-described as “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” The organization tries to draw attention and public resources to the problems of police brutality and social injustice toward African Americans.

Environmentalists on the left want to use political power to protect our natural resources and battle global warming. (I’ve always found it curious that leftist environmentalists seem to recognize the scarcity of natural resources, yet don’t appear to be aware that the resources required to protect nature are scarce, too.)

The Labor Party pursues political power to promote the interests of certain workers. And more traditional socialists seek to use political power to achieve “collective justice and individual freedom” — two goals that are not exactly compatible.

And the wish list from the left — feminists, Marxists, social democrats, progressives — goes on and on. Nevertheless, the resources needed to reach these objectives, if they are even reachable, are scarce.

The Market Is a Positive-Sum Game

In a free market — where there is private property, free association, reciprocity, and fair play — exchange will only take place if both parties believe they will be made better off by it. Of course, one or both parties may be wrong, and losses do happen, but it’s in everyone’s self-interest to engage in trades that make themselves better off. In that sense, trade in a free market is a positive-sum game — one that allocates scarce resources in a way that both parties gain.

Politics is the opposite. Unlike markets, political power requires physical violence or the threat of physical violence to achieve particular ends. That’s because the only way one person can gain from a political encounter, regulatory or redistributive, is for the other side to lose.

Politics Is a Zero-Sum Game

For example, every year, federal, state, and local governments take income from us in the form of taxes to be used in ways we usually don’t know about and probably wouldn’t approve of. Most of the time, the tax revenue collected this way isn’t earmarked for a particular purpose — we don’t pay separate foreign-invasion taxes, or corporate bailout taxes. Special interests vie for a piece of this pie or, even better, for the power to decide how the pie gets sliced.

Only when state authorities decide who, in their opinion, should control resources does the question of social justice become meaningful.

Politics doesn’t have markets where buyers peacefully compete with buyers and sellers compete with sellers in trades that generate prices that reflect the relative scarcity of inputs and outputs (PDF). Instead, politics has special interests claiming that their political agendas are more important than everyone else’s.

Environmental sustainability and redressing racial injustice and making America safe for democracy can’t all be the nation’s top priority. Why should the mere opinion of environmentalists prevail over those of labor-union leaders? Natural beauty and pristine wilderness is our most valuable resource? Really? Says who?

Social Justice Is Also a Zero-Sum Game

The free market generates order in a way that is largely unplanned. It’s true that some participants gain more than others owing to effort, alertness, resourcefulness, good connections, and good luck. But the overall outcome, where intervention and cronyism are absent, is not the result of anyone’s design. No person or group is responsible for the particular pattern of consequences in a free society, including inequalities in wealth or income. And as Angus Deaton, the most recent recipient of the Nobel prize in economics, has argued, such inequalities can be and have been narrowed more effectively through greater economic freedom and growth than through political redistribution.

But in a redistributive society, things are fundamentally different. Only when state authorities decide who, in their opinion, should control resources does the question of social justice, in the sense of seeking redress against those responsible, even make sense. That’s because it’s only when the distribution of resources is the result of conscious planning that there’s actually someone to blame: the planners.

I’ve borrowed this way of framing the problem of social justice from F.A. Hayek, most recently in my entry on the dynamics of interventionism in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics, edited by Peter J. Boettke and Christopher J. Coyne. I term it the “self-fulfillment thesis,” in which “the abstract idea of social justice … only becomes coherent once the state becomes involved in redistribution.”

So, why do marginalized groups on the left choose to bother candidates on the left, such as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who are most favorable to redistributive policies?

There’s more going on here than the better media exposure or consciousness raising that Bouie suggests. It’s a naked grab for power — the essence of politics. The activists see those candidates as most likely to expand political power enough to forcibly redistribute the massive resources needed to achieve large-scale redistributive goals.

The problem for those on the fringe is that Sanders and Clinton have different goals than they do. And that’s the trouble with zero-sum games.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.


  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.