Decades of trained fire from high-profile insiders who span a wide range on the political continuum have failed to stanch the drip-by-drip decline of higher education in the United States.   The litany of complaint includes soaring costs, curricular incoherence and emptiness, politicization of classrooms, thickening bureaucracies, grade inflation, incentivized moral turpitude, and inept and pusillanimous leadership from college presidents and their see-no-evil boards of trustees. Higher education implies hierarchy, the striving for knowledge and the distinction of accomplishment that goes with it. Excellence, by definition, can be neither wholly inclusive nor wholly equitable. Informed by a cultish fashion of disbelief, levelers have sapped standards and betrayed the ethos of a liberal arts education.  Professors, we are told, must not think of themselves as occupying positions of authority.  Achievement as measured by objective criteria has run afoul of anti-racist discourse.  Entire disciplines have surrendered to egalitarian imperatives like “social justice” whose magical force draws strength by incantation of verses from one or another sacred text of Critical Theory.

Once under the spell of social justice, colleges and universities have engineered sectors of their campuses into bastions of blithering idiocy.  Social-justice illusions pervade campus culture. Social-justice initiatives have created programmatic centers that hot-house aggrieved students in a soil fertile with arrogance and ignorance. The ability of faculty and undergraduate activists to tip the horn of plenty toward their causes have decisively altered academic culture away from genuine learning and critical thinking toward shallow and often venomous groupthink. Outspoken dissenters from fashionable trends become targets of intimidation by squadristi dispatched to the scene of the thought crime.  Under fire, conservative minorities on campus retreat into self-censorship to survive.  Parents encourage them to fly under the radar so they can safely exit after four years with their devalued degree. Administrators had ample warning about the barbarians at the gates decades ago. They did not ignore them; they invited them in.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Examine listings for jobs in higher education.  How many current advertisements prejudice the pool of applicants by demanding a commitment to social justice as a prerequisite of application?  Finalists for positions invited to campus have to pass muster with feckless educrats who know little about quality scholarship in any discipline but run acid-tests to ensure that candidates’ political sentiments are in order as a condition of being hired.  Having the best training in your discipline or the mind of the highest quality in your area of expertise no longer suffices to get you through the door. Examine the profiles of faculty on college and university websites.  How many professors openly announce to the world, as if to slam their door to certain kinds of students, their political commitments to social-justice causes or label themselves social-justice advocates?  Examine the descriptions of courses in the college catalogue. How many professors deploy the concept of social justice or such cognates as “environmental justice,” “gender justice,” and “economic justice” as central themes, examined uncritically, yet worthy nonetheless of focus in a course designed to achieve idealized ends. Although the term “social justice” originated in the nineteenth century, during an age of ideology, professors who study the premodern world announce that their courses will investigate how peoples of the remote past “cope[d] with the conflicting demands of authority and social justice.”  Examine the list of student organizations. How many of the typically well-funded rainbow groups and their administrative allies beat the drum of social justice in their public statements and programmatic activities?   

College and university presidents and their boards of trustees pander to social-justice faculty and students because they fear them or share their illusory sentiments. When surrounded by hostiles, our guardians of the light appear to possess neither the wisdom nor the courage of Madame Roland before the guillotine. “O social justice, how many crimes are committed in thy name!”   A modest knowledge of history, one might have thought, should have erected them up with sufficient backbone to engage their captive audiences at a critical teaching moment in candid conversation about the dangers that inhere in the term that is anything but innocent. Like many of the totem words to which college officials must now pay homage, the term “social justice” proves most alluring when it remains undefined and unstudied.  Social justice’s unspoken premises provoke envy and place under suspicion desirable things that scent of inequality. Social justice can drive sheepish multitudes into insidious acts toward the advancement of imperious ends.  The politics of social justice not only threaten academic freedom but the vital principles of a free society.

Every totalitarian movement in history has marched under the banner of social justice. It has justified bloody transformations of society by war and revolution and the coercive remaking of human beings into dutiful wards of the state. Regimes committed to the cause of social justice have piled up millions of corpses—the majority of them non-white, by the way—in attaining and holding on to power. In countries like the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea, the claims of social justice have justified the state’s indulgence in mass terror.  In the final stages of a forty-year career at an allegedly elite liberal arts college, I encountered increasing numbers of advisees who justified their decision to major in a specific field by pronouncing their commitment to social justice. In every case, I challenged them, “Why not justice?” The typical response was silence.

More than a half century ago, Friedrich Hayek, the greatest anti-Keynesian economist of his day and one of the most erudite and profound intellectuals of the twentieth century, regarded the term “social justice” as an utterly vacuous concept, hardly deserving of pride of place in a college’s mission statement.  The term as originally understood resembled the ancient understanding of distributive justice in which the shares of something are distributed by power to persons in proportion to their perceived merits or just deserts.  Updated to fit the conceits of modern times, social justice spoke to “the aspirations which were at the heart of socialism.”  As demands for social justice swept into public discourse, Hayek in his seniority determined that “the greatest service I can still render to my fellow men” would be to discredit the “thoughtless or fraudulent” Western intellectuals who enlisted the term in their work.  Like other members of the so-called Austrian School of economics, about whom majors in economics at elite colleges may never learn, Hayek respected the complexity and heterogeneity of social phenomenon, the humility of not knowing or of not having adequate information in deciding what to do. Reason alone could not always serve as an adequate guide to justice. Hence the appreciation in his thinking of the role in history of organic growth and contingency, what he called, somewhat misleadingly, the spontaneous order.   

The content of many of the most time-tested laws in human history of wide applicability emerged not from some god-like lawgiver but from the deliberation of intelligent observers on preexisting patterns of habit and customary behavior favorable to group success. To a great extent, the establishment of positive law derived from evolutionary processes that sanctified customary rules discovered by experiment and accident, by trial and error, in ever changing circumstances through the interactions of ordinary people trying to learn better ways to live their lives. Whether seen as divine or natural in origin, such an understanding helped keep rulers under the law instead of above it.  In competitive situations, the general rules of conduct in one society proved more advantageous to its strength and well-being than the rules of conduct in another society.  Justice, as originally understood, applied to an established order; in its application justice preserved and restored.  Justice referenced time-tested rules of conduct that governed persons in their relations with others.  It was the job of rulers to ensure that each person in their society had what properly belonged to him, to render to every person his due (suum cuique). Thine-and-mine questions became central to the implementation of justice in any society. Just rules of conduct enshrined a process by which facts could be ascertained in order to determine to whom particular things belonged.  What is had been and because of it earned a title of respect.

Property derives from the same root as proper. It denotes legally enforceable claims between persons with respect to things. One of the more telling signs of the transformational worldview that helped usher in the modern obsession with social justice was the widespread replacement in texts during the eighteenth century of the more restrictive word jus, which expressed the ideas of both justice and law, with the more permissive word “right.”  Little wonder then in our own time social justice activists seek to advance their campaigns by insisting on the creation of a panoply of new rights whose net effect is to put much of which most persons now enjoy at risk. Without secure private property rights, for example, the entrepreneurial activity essential to economic growth must flounder because how they are defined and secured affects the ability of persons to allocate resources.

Free markets best coordinate the information needed for the efficient allocation of resources through the information-rich, impersonally delivered measure of value (not of merit) known as price. Although the free market is not perfect, it can self-correct errors. In a free society, Hayek maintained, human flourishing depends on rules of conduct that encourage “the pursuit of unknown individual purposes” in a market order. Justice consists largely of providing negative liberty, of prohibiting certain types of behavior. Social justice, in contrast, consists largely of positive action in enjoining humans on what course of conduct they must pursue to reach the imperative of a predetermined goal. “The pursuit of the ideal of justice (like the pursuit of the ideal of truth),” wrote Hayek, “does not presuppose that it is known what justice (or truth) is, but only that we know what we regard as unjust (or untrue).” Thus, to produce a beneficial order of actions, just societies recognize secure domains for persons into which the state cannot reach. Social justice insists, however, that the personal is political.

Reasonable expectations with regard to the security of property, its inviolability by the state and the upholding of contracts, freely entered into, promote initiative and risk-taking.   Hayek regarded the belief in social justice not only as a dangerous impediment to general prosperity but as a dire threat to the generally applicable rules of just conduct that promoted it.   Social justice implies statist direction of society.  The sphere of personal freedom, the “range of the permissible,” shrinks before commands issued by a centralized power which seeks to remold malleable human beings into a preferred configuration. Not only do the premises of social justice deny the existence of a human nature, but as Hayek’s good friend, the French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel maintained, the logical outcome of the society engineered by the sovereign power in the name of social justice begets the absurdity that “everything would be arranged justly so that no one would have to be just.”

Justice requires persons to act justly according to uniform rules of conduct. Social justice exists somewhere in the stratosphere independent of just human beings. Despite— or perhaps because of— the indefiniteness of the concept, social justice moves authorities to coerce persons into doing what they are commanded to do. Whereas a just society looks to enforce the rules of conduct in an equitable manner under the law, social justice demands new laws to punish the unintended consequences that flow to persons from their adherence to just rules. Ills and inequities in society do not necessarily fall into the category of injustice. For social-justice activists, however, they do, and in response to their calls for social justice, authorities pay out shares of the social product according to some arbitrary, politically determined formula that privileges one group over another. Social-justice warriors want nothing less than the power to determine the distribution of rewards to groups according to their preferred criteria while holding with disdain the complex of rules and behaviors that allowed for the accumulation of wealth they seek to redistribute. 

The results of redistribution will assuage some only to madden many others.  In no case will it satisfy everyone’s definition of equity since the criteria of merit to measure the payout ever changes, and any broadly acceptable standard of fairness would require omniscience in the dispenser.   Moreover, as Jouvenel pointed out, “Every allocation of reward which is, as it must be to be just, founded on equality under a certain aspect, will be hierarchical and contrary to equality, under another aspect.”   The arbitrariness of social justice surfaces conspicuously in discussion about reparations for slavery and in debates about the relative remuneration to bestowed on groups for performing certain kinds of work.  In practice, the enactment of social-justice legislation in democracies amounts to the taking of tax dollars from a wide swath of citizens to bestow them on narrow but powerful interest groups who will reciprocate for the statist largess by casting votes to keep their beneficent legislators in office.

Though often couched in the language of “equal opportunity,” the bulldozing necessary to level the playing field in the name of social justice becomes a nightmarish formula for perpetual revolution in quest of an impossible equality of condition.  Just rules do not guarantee equal results. Even when located at the same starting line, runners in a race bring different endowments and capacities to the contest.  The state cannot outlaw luck inherited as a result of the gene pool. But the unequal results that must result from a race freely run on a level playing field can end up furnishing ammunition to the radical egalitarians who now insist on additional interventions by authorities to make the race more equitable.  What is, is wrong, they declare, and must be replaced by what ought to be.   Hence, the winner of the first race must wear leg weights in running the second race; or the runner who ended up last in the first race must be permitted to have a head start in the second.  But those alterations still do not yield the desired result, necessitating heavier handed ministrations. But every race falls short of that equality which is constructed in the abstract. The greatest beneficiary from the running of repeated races becomes the state, which now has amassed powers to do far more than it was originally intended to do, even to take and redistribute arbitrarily what you thought you properly owned.  “While an equality of rights under a limited government is possible and an essential condition of individual freedom,” Hayek observed, “a claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.” 

Justice represents a disposition of mind molded into virtue by force of habit; social justice represents a gelatinous obsession hardened into preference by diktat. Regardless of whether morals derive from nurture or nature, or, more likely, from the dynamic interaction of both, a viable moral order in a free society requires institutional reinforcement.  Under a deluge of social-justice directives, the moral fiber of the country must fray as its citizens’ hold on private property weakens.  Clearly defined rights to private property internalize externalities, compelling individuals to accept full responsibility for their own actions. In owning or controlling property, the state constructs social programming that creates free riders.  The power to tax tends to disburdens the state from the accountability of cost. Take health care. The state socializes externalities that were previously internalized by individuals. Human beings who increasingly fail to bear the full consequences of their actions tend not to pay careful attention to the costs of their own risky behavior, to face, as it were, the moral hazard embodied in the recognition of what is properly their own and taking responsibility for its costs whether in success or failure.  In the absence of such discipline, the line between liberty and licentiousness might well become fatally blurred.

Writing in the sixteenth century, long before the concept of social justice became in vogue, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne deposited traditional wisdom for those who would seek to bring heaven to earth. “It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it: it is very easy to beget in a people a contempt of ancient observances; never any man undertook it but he did it; but to establish a better regimen in the stead of that which a man has overthrown, many who have attempted it have foundered.”  Finding a way to extricate from the rubble those who remained behind in that which was overthrown in the name of social justice has proven to be no easy task.

Headshot of Robert L. Paquette

Robert L. Paquette received his PhD in history with honors in 1982 from the University of Rochester. In 2007, he co-founded The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization and now serves as its president and executive director.  He taught at Hamilton College for thirty-seven years. There he held the Publius Virgilius Rogers Chair in American History for seventeen years until January 2011, when he resigned the title in protest of the educational direction of the College. In 2012, the American Freedom Alliance awarded him the Heroes of Conscience Award. In 2014, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the American Conservative Union Foundation awarded him the Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick Prize for Academic Freedom

Paquette has published extensively on the history of slavery.  His Sugar Is Made with Blood (1988) won the Elsa Goveia Prize for the best book in Caribbean history. He co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas (2010).  His most recent book, The Denmark Vesey Affair:  A Documentary History (2017), coauthored with Douglas Egerton, received a Choice Outstanding Title Award.