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Social Justification
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Social Justification

Catchy phrases enable political decisions that don't actually have any merit.

A climate change rally in New York. (Photo by: John Senter III/UCG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.)


So I wrote my normie column this week on Biden’s and Trump’s shared love of “Buy American” policies.

(What do I mean by my “normie” column? I mean the one that starts in the LA Times and has to be about 750 words with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s therefore very hard to squeeze in long parenthetical asides and non-sequiturs that have as much to do with my main point as the pope reading the instructions on how to replace the carburetor on a Dodge Charger from the Vatican balcony.)

I also just finished a conversation with Coleman Hughes for The Remnant in which we talked a lot about race and identity politics. One of his critiques—and mine!—of a lot of talk about institutional racism is that it gives the self-appointed police of racial bias an open-ended writ to do things they couldn’t otherwise justify.

I didn’t bring this up in the podcast, but I think “Buy American” stuff works very much the same way. Let’s say there are two vendors of widgets and the government needs a lot of widgets. You’re in charge of widget procurement. If you said you wanted to go with Acme Widgets instead of Widgets “R” Us, even though Acme makes inferior and more expensive widgets, people might ask you, “Why?”

If you answered, “Because Phil Acme is a member of my country club,” reasonable people would say, “That’s an unacceptable reason.” If you answered, “Because the Acmes are Catholic and I’m Catholic,” reasonable people would also object. Ditto: “Because Phil’s daughter is hot and I need an in to ask her out,” or, “Because those guys at Widgets ‘R’ Us are Democrats and I’m a Republican,” etc.

But under the logic of “Buy American,” if you said, “Because Widgets ‘R’ Us is a Canadian firm and Acme is all-American,” lots of people would say, “Sounds good.” If Acme’s widgets were so inferior or so expensive that using them would get people killed or bust the budget, there might be some pushback. But the point remains: “Buy American” presumes that it’s justifiable, to one extent or another, to use a subpar product—in terms of price or quality—simply because the owners are American.

Before I get to my main point, let me enlist Frederic Bastiat for a moment. Bastiat is most famous for making an economic argument about the “seen and unseen.” In his famous parable of the broken window, Bastiat tells the story of a youth who breaks the window of a tailor’s shop. In response, someone says (I’m paraphrasing), “Well, that’s too bad, but such accidents are good for industry because they create work for the glass workers.” A fool notes that if windows never broke, glaziers would be out of work. 

Bastiat then says, “Now, this formula of condolence contains a whole theory that it is a good idea for us to expose, flagrante delicto, in this very simple case, since it is exactly the same as that which, unfortunately, underlies most of our economic institutions.”

He goes on to point out that the money the tailor has to spend to replace the window can’t be spent on all sorts of other things that would actually be productive. When your Dodge Charger’s carburetor conks out, how much solace do you take in the fact that you’re making work for your mechanic? I mean, you might have a newfound appreciation for the pope’s recent pronouncements, but you’d probably still rather have the $1,000 you shelled out for the replacement. You probably had better uses for that money in mind.

In other words, the logic of Buy American programs rests largely on the broken window fallacy. We see where the extra money we’re paying is going and say, “Aha! Look at all the good that we’re doing.” What we don’t see is where all that wasted money might have been spent more productively. I could go on, but I just noticed that our own Scott Lincicome just published the Mother of All Buy American Eviscerations.

So let me get back to my broader point. When it comes to economic decision-making, Buy American, common good capitalism, economic nationalism, ESG, anti-racism, etc. all fall under the same logic as social justice.

Social justice is word magic. There is no universally agreed upon definition of social justice—and that’s why people use it. In common political parlance, social justice basically just means whatever “we”—the enlightened, the good, the progressive, etc.—think is the correct vision of how society should work. But you can’t really have a definition of it, at least not one that limits the ambition of social justice activists, because the whole point is that social justice activists get to decide on the fly what is or isn’t socially just. 

Social justice, as Friedrich Hayek argued brilliantly and at great length, is almost the opposite of actual justice. “[O]nly situations that have been created by human will can be called just or unjust. … Social justice,” Hayek wrote, “does not belong to the category of effort but that of nonsense, like the term ‘a moral stone.’” 

If I steal from you, the government, through authorized and legitimate authorities, will look at the evidence and—after a fair investigation and trial—punish me and force restitution. That’s justice.

If you’re poor, the government can give you money to make you unpoor. As a policy, that may be right or wrong—we can debate that another time. But while you may call that “social justice,” it has nothing to do with justice. Taxing millions of people who’ve never met you, who don’t know your name, and who had nothing to do with making you poor, isn’t justice of any kind. Words like compassion, charity, obligation, decency, and a bunch of negative terms like waste, folly, and fostering dependency might apply. Again, we can argue about the merits of economic redistribution. But economic redistribution isn’t justice. And putting the word “social” in front of it doesn’t change that fact.

Lots of folks think high unemployment is “unjust.” But how so? Who, specifically, is being unjust? The companies that can’t afford to hire more workers and stay profitable? The whole concept of justice makes a claim that a specific person or group of people has done something wrong. Social justice assumes that large numbers of people should be punished or otherwise held accountable for things they didn’t do.

But we can continue that another time, too. My point is that these buzzphrases—from Buy American to social justice—are designed to empower decision-makers to make political decisions that cannot be justified solely on the basis of efficiency or merit. Rules that require selling X to the highest bidder or granting a contract to the lowest bidder can be objectively judged and justified by Republicans and Democrats, whether they be Christian or Jew or atheist. Such rules are especially important when the person making the decisions isn’t spending their own money but everyone else’s. The moment you start introducing gauzy, poetic, elastically defined concepts into the decision-making process, what you are actually doing is saying the decision-maker can make the decision however they want, or close to it. 

When we lived under monarchs, everyone understood that the king or queen got to decide such things because they were anointed by God to make the decisions. This is what John Locke and others called “arbitrary power,” and our whole system was intended to restrain or eliminate arbitrary power. Concepts like social justice are a way to sneak the concept of arbitrary power back into our political system. We all intuitively understand the problems with the logic of the Divine Right of Kings. What a lot of people miss is that the same logic applies when we divinize our political preferences.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.

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