The justice debate is all around us: sometimes it is about justice, sometimes about social justice. But no matter which term is used, the focus always appears to be the same: social justice in our society. A second, closer look shows which definitions, dimensions and desires various societal actors bring to bear on this goal. Whereas some view social justice as the comprehensive equality of normative rights as well as social and material goods, others doubt whether social justice can even be defined, never mind actually achieved. But what does justice mean for liberals? And when is a society or a state just in the liberal sense?

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Liberalism defines justice simply as follows: justice is a universal principle against which all political action can be measured and assessed in respect of its moral legitimacy[1]. First and foremost, this requires equal rules for everybody. Liberals believe that every person should be treated equally before the law. Equality before the law is a fundamental requirement for a society of free individuals. It follows that the government of a state may neither favour nor disadvantage any person without good reason and that the same rules must apply for all individuals. Equality before the law can be verified objectively.

Social justice

In contrast to justice, social justice is not concerned with universal principles and equal rules for everybody. Instead, it is based on the belief that there has to be some form of material redistribution – which, it should be pointed out, means that not every person is treated according to consistently applied rules. Redistribution is only possible when it is based on treating people unequally. The term “social justice” suggests that there is a comprehensive moral yardstick for redistribution. This would mean that every person receives a share of the world’s goods commensurate with what he or she deserves. But it is difficult to establish how much each person deserves, i.e. what the share of material goods should be. This understanding of social justice provides almost unlimited scope for redistribution from one group to another. In such a society, everybody is in a position to take, but everybody can also give – or be forced to give.

The final state, namely the satisfaction of all members of society, is never achieved, because as soon as one group has been accorded a privilege, it must also be given to the next. Eventually this means that specific groups are excluded, that one generation lives at the expense of the next or that public debt skyrockets. And it also means that all conceptions of “social justice” are linked to increasing paternalism in society.

Justice in social policy

In connection with social policy, there has been a constant debate about the extent to which inequality should be reduced or how much redistribution is necessary. Each change of market-generated income and asset distributions by political means is an instance of redistribution. The very existence of the state necessarily requires redistribution because taxes and other payments are taken and “public goods” made available in return. Without the state, might would make right and “redistribution” would be determined by power and force.

Justice as a universal measure of what each person deserves only makes sense when it refers not to arbitrary claims on others, but to the formal right to protection of one’s acquired private property. What a person deserves to have is what he or she acquired without violating the rights of others. Every individual has the same unalienable right to see his or her person and property protected. This is the liberal concept of justice. Only policies rooted in this understanding of justice protect the freedom of the individual from force and coercion.

The principle of the protection of individual property rights has also allowed liberalism to create a form of protection from coercive exploitation, which almost always makes use of the tools of political power. Throughout history, almost all of humanity’s great disasters of hunger and poverty were the result of the ruthless application of state power – not of too much freedom in the liberal sense. The victory over privation is one of the great triumphs of liberalism. In this sense, liberals can claim that their justice is “social justice”. Liberals bring the “social” aspect back to its original meaning, the sense in which Edmund Burke intended it. The material boons of a liberal state must remain tied to the principle of protecting freedom and general equality before the law.

In 1790, Edmund Burke formulated it as follows:

“The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice.”

After all, the word “social” is derived from “societas”, the Latin term for society. And all of society should benefit – not organised interests that abuse political power for their own purposes. This was what the creators of the “social market economy” meant by “social” when they said that a liberal state is not made strong by serving group egoism, but by resisting it. But in that case “social justice” would mean the opposite of what politics understands it to mean nowadays. It would simply be justice.

Liberals believe every person to be capable of achieving, while also expected a contribution in turn. Everyone is expected to employ their ideas and skills towards their own objectives. Personal effort and creativity inevitably result in inequality, because they lead to different outcomes for each individual. But anyone able to participate is in a position to rise up socially, based on his or her own efforts. A society is only socially unjust when it excludes individuals from participating. According to the liberal understanding, equality of opportunity focuses on citizens’ opportunities at the outset. Knowing that it is an illusion to think that all people are the same, the liberal concept of achievement and competition can only be justified when a society provides equal – or, at the very least, close to equal – starting conditions for all citizens.

The social market economy: a just economic order

In social market economies, a free market system is supplemented by a social aspect. The social aspect, as a kind of protection for minorities, flanks the inherently just and social system of the market economy, which furnishes market participants with a framework of action based on reliable legal systems. Participation in the market is voluntary and requires self-dependent action in accordance with the given rules. Social flanking then offers a minimum safety net for market participants unable to secure a livelihood based on their own efforts. A community based on the principle of mutual solidarity steps in for these market participants. But any claim on solidarity also requires a quid pro quo. It means that in the first instance, each individual has to make a contribution in line with his or her abilities. In a market economy, this means: first, everyone has to make an effort within the possibilities offered by a market economy. Welfare is available only to those unable to provide for themselves. Fundamentally, policies of redistribution should not be integrated into the market economy because they violate its autonomy, distort the pricing system and discourage individual responsibility. In the end, this stops the system from functioning.

Liberals therefore argue that the welfare state should be restricted to its core tasks. The liberal welfare state offers a normative foundation for social policy that relieves citizens from existential fears while leaving them space for action based on individual responsibility. This means that first and foremost, poverty and destitution have to be prevented. Only once a social safety net exists can people participate in freedom.

Liberal social policy is fair and just because it gives people the opportunity to lead self-determined lives, based on their own efforts. It provides safety where safety is needed. But it also prevents dependency; social dependency is not social safety. Liberal social policy is also liberal education policy, liberal labour market policy or liberal employment policy. It is the only way of ensuring that all citizens have the opportunity to participate.

[1]     Among others, see Friedrich August von Hayek: Die Illusion der sozialen Gerechtigkeit; Landsberg 1981, idem: Die Verfassung der Freiheit; Tübingen 1971.