Let's Justify Freedom
OCTOBER 01, 1968 by LARRY ARNHART
Mr. Arnhart is a sophomore at Harding College in Arkansas.
The road to socialism is paved with noble words. Every extension of state control flourishes in the public mind in proportion to the adjectives pinned on it. Libertarians, by contrast, have been the "realists," tending to shun pompous language in their argumentation. This characteristic is a virtue, but it can be an unnecessary hindrance. Libertarianism is dynamic, and it should be supported with the enthusiastic rhetoric it deserves. Libertarians stress freedom, and properly so, but they have neglected corollary ideals long monopolized by the collectivists. One of them is the concept of justice.
No other philosophy has a more valid claim to justice than libertarianism. Yet most of the interventionist nostrums have been proposed in the name of this ideal. Government has regulated prices, wages, farm production, electric power, and rat control to cure "injustice." It is time that individualists clarify and reclaim justice as a basic concept of the free society.
The classical definition of justice was submitted by Plato. In Book IV of his Republic, he asserted justice to be "everyone doing his own work, and not being a busybody…," and he added that each should receive his proper reward. Each should perform his own work and receive his own reward. Thus justice was not equality, though each should have equal access to justice. As Edmund Burke explained, "all men have equal rights; but not to equal things." This was not merely a principle for privileged elites. It did demand special rewards when they were earned, but the proper reward for some was a humble and quiet life. A simple peasant could find happiness without ostentation or material riches. The common goal was that each man be himself.
What Is Justice?
Philosophers have established various types of justice. The most misunderstood has been distributive justice. Egalitarians have interpreted this as state redistribution; but Book V of his Nicomachean Ethics contains Aristotle’s observation:
Distributive justice, which deals with common property, always follows the rule of proportion we have described. When, for instance, distribution is made to two or more people out of a common fund, it will be in accordance with the ratio of the contributions which they have severally made to that fund.
Would today’s social planners distribute government appropriations proportionate to each taxpayer’s donation? To those who remain convinced that redistribution from rich to poor is just, Aristotle would answer, "If it were, all the acts of a tyrant must of necessity be just; for he only coerces other men by superior power, just as the multitude coerce the rich."
State redistribution rests on the premise that government largesse and social justice are synonymous. They are not. Those championing justice as the sole purpose of the state have usually been adamant in excluding philanthropy as a governmental pursuit. How can astate redistribute private wealth while allowing everyone to do his own work and receive his own reward? A just state is a noninterventionist state. A government can plan the affairs of its citizens, or it can be just by restricting itself to those duties necessary for preserving order. To those who visualize a state both philanthropic and just, Bastiat would warn, "These two uses of the law are in direct contradiction to each other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free."
The state planner would respond that citizens can be both free and not free. At least they must yield some freedom to the state so that they might be "free" from hunger, unemployment, poor housing, inadequate education, and other such ills. In freeing its people from these "injustices," the planner believes, the welfare state promotes freedom as well as justice. The libertarian replies that this same reasoning could excuse any slavery as long as the slaves were economically secure. As George Santayana retorted, the collectivists talk of freeing the people, "but of freeing the people from what? From the consequences of freedom."
While Plato and Aristotle formulated their ideas of justice, multitudes were starving. Even more lived in ignorance, eking out a living through crude skills. Today a few nations are more advanced, but the ancient afflictions remain. The just state acknowledges these conditions, while accepting man and not the state as the appropriate agent for wrestling these problems. Since the state can produce nothing but force, it helps best by maintaining a just order. Man remains under the restrictions of nature and circumstance, but under political freedom he can struggle for new achievement and find satisfaction in his struggle. The just man does not expect immunity from the pains of life; he only asks government to refrain from adding to his distress.
The Libertarian Ideal
The first element of justice is the negative role of government, and the second is the positive role of the just individual. Each man is to do his own work; and each man, as he orders his own life without infringing on others, is just. This is the affirmation of the unique individual; it is the right to be oneself. Private property and economic competition allow man to pursue his material interests and receive what is due him from the free market, but libertarians know that this is only one side of his nature.1
A productive economy is a useful tool. But few are those who would deem it an end in itself, even if it is essential to most other ends. An enterprising entrepreneur may discover an innovation to increase his workers’ productivity and permit a shorter work week. His employees may then satisfy their interests in philosophy, art, music, or whatever their natures dictate. But until an efficient economy raises them from mere subsistence, their lives must be narrow and their freedom limited. Economic efficiency, though, will come from just individuals, not an unjust state.
Justice must be restored to its proper meaning. The equation of social justice and government philanthrophy is a blatant distortion. Compulsory redistribution by government in the name of social welfare is neither just nor charitable. Political promises to free the people from their maladies are equally false. Both of these sophisms would exchange genuine justice for an illusory substitute. The legitimate duties of the state are still summed up as justice — allowing each man to do his own work. This is the libertarian ideal. Let us propagate it and return justice to the lexicon of freedom.