Sometimes little gifts pop up in unexpected places. This video of a lecture by Milton Friedman is one such gift. Given in 1978, not only is the discussion on “Is Capitalism Humane?” wonderful, but it both supports an argument I’ve been making for some time now on “social justice” and does so by following the same principle. Here is a great example to follow, especially for the many Christians who have recently been exercised in knee-jerk fashion against all things “social justice.”
On the first front, Friedman, one of the leading free market thinkers of our era, clearly sees “social justice” as a good thing. He does not see it as a label by which to polarize the discussion and demonize others. Instead, he sees it as a laudable goal in itself. The error he addresses in not the end, but the means by which some people try to get there: leftism or Socialism, etc.1
Note, therefore, that Friedman does not confuse, conflate, or combine the two. The goals of equality and social justice, he says, are fine objectives. But the cannot be achieved through Socialism. This means there is a clear distinction between social justice and means of obtaining it, or at least increasing it. Our job, then, is to demonstrate how the advance of the free market and freedom increases the end of social justice, not to demonize the whole project of social justice.
Toward this end, we need to inquire and discuss how the two systems compare.
In the lecture, Friedman does this by addressing the question of whether Socialism and capitalism are neither human or inhumane, moral or immoral, in and of themselves. We must instead look at their results.
I do not agree fully with the preceding thesis: Socialism as an economic and governmental system is instituted theft, and therefore is immoral. Capitalism can also be immoral when wed to the state or overregulated by it, etc. Capitalism, however, as least has a chance at being a moral system.
All that aside, Friedman’s supporting statements are as true as they are revealing. These I strongly support. The results do in fact differ, and the more consistent any society is with either system, the more they will differ, especially when the capitalism involved is a strongly moral version. I am highlighting today, however, that one of the “fine objectives” of such a free market system—again, this is per Friedman, mind you—will be greater equality and social justice.
Milton Friedman says,
Socialism, which means government ownership and operation of means of production, has appealed to high-minded, fine people, to people of idealistic views, because of the supposed objectives of socialism—especially because of the supposed objectives of equality and social justice. Now, those are fine objectives; and it’s a tribute to the people of good will that those objectives should appeal to them.
Note that: for Friedman here, equality and social justice are not synonymous, and social justice is not by definition a leftist program or idea. Instead, it is a “fine objective” and that should, in fact, appeal to us.
The question, then, is how we get to that result. Friedman proceeds,
But you have to ask the question, does the system, no matter what its proponents say, produce those results? And once you look at the results, it’s crystal clear that they do not. . . .
Where are social injustices greatest? Social injustices are clearly greatest where you have central control. The degree of social injustice and torture . . . and incarceration . . . in a place like Russia is of a different order of magnitude than it is in those western countries where most of us have grown up, and in which we have accustomed to regarding freedom as our natural heritage.
Social injustice in a country like Yugoslavia, which is a much more benign communist state than Russia, and yet you ask Djilas who languishes in prison for having written a book; you ask the people at the University of Belgrade who have been sent to prison, or many others who have been ejected from the country. Social injustice in China, where you have had thousands of people murdered because of the opposition to the government?
Again, you look at the question of inequality, of equality. Where do you have the greatest degree of inequality? In the socialist states of the world.
Freidman recounts personal trips to Russian and Poland where he witnessed the inequality of the ruling class, with exclusive perks and wealth, compared to the working masses who had a very low standard of living. Likewise, the wage gap between a foreman and laborer was greater there than in the U.S.
These are all real issues that need to be addressed, not summarily dismissed. Moreover, there are dozens more related issues under the general headings. Most of them are valid. The question is how best to achieve them. So, the comparison continues:
Capitalism, on the other hand, is a system of organization that relies on private property and voluntary exchange. It has repelled people—it’s driven them away from supporting it—because they have emphasized self-interest in a narrow way; because they were repelled by the idea of people pursuing their own interest rather than some broader interest.
Yet if you look at the results, it’s clear that the results go the other way around. . . . If you look, you will find that freedom has prevailed where you’ve had capitalism, and that simultaneously so has the well-being and the prosperity of the ordinary man. There’s been more social justice and less inequality.
Again, see that the goals of social justice and equality are not leftist issues by definition, to be dismissed at all, let alone by the mere label. Instead, they are goals to be achieved through freedom and free markets.
Morality and free-market social justice
Friedman further explains why these disparate results occur in either case. It is because of the values at the root of each system of thought. As he puts it, the results come about,
. . . because each system has been true to its own values . . . the values it encourages, supports, and develops in the people who live under that system.
He further explains that it is important to distinguish between two sets of moral considerations: those which pertain to the individual in their private lives, and those that pertain to government and relations between people.
The latter perspective includes what is called social justice. Under Socialistic schemes, this involves a government or social system in which you do “good” (we may also say “justice”) to others whether they want you to or not, as you see their good, and to force them to do “good.”
The right approach, rather, Friedman states, is more like the Golden Rule. It is to respect the dignity and individuality of the fellow man. It is not to treat him as an object to be manipulated and controlled for your purposes, but as a person with his or her own values and own rights, to be persuaded, not coerced or brainwashed.
He goes on to teach that no systems, whether socialistic or capitalistic or whatever, can escape the fundamental reality of self-interest; they just change the nature of self-interest. Free systems will give positive sanctions. Coercive systems use fear and threat.
In a free market, the sanction for a worker is to avoid getting fired. In a communist country, it may be more likely to avoid getting fired at, Freidman quipped. Beyond the joke, the goal that transcends either system includes increased justice in relations between people, even if one approach fails badly. That is how we should view the definition of social justice. Biblical, free market systems increase equality and social justice; coercive systems destroy them and the possibility of achieving them.
Friedman sums: “Whenever we try to do good using force, the bad moral value of force triumphs over good intentions.” This is true no matter what the good intentions are, including the “fine objectives” of equality and social justice.
The right approach for us, however, is not to demonize “social justice,” but to highlight the disparity between socialistic systems and a biblical free market. The imperative for Christian leaders then becomes teaching how to increase social justice through those biblical means.
Our goal should be to demonstrate the free market principles of the Bible and how, when implemented, those principles lead to an increase of the values held dear by advocates of social justice (among other things, of course). This process will by definition also correct any such values which conflict with biblical principles of the market and freedom.
Unfortunately, it seems too many have chosen to demonize the label rather than the more difficult (and in perhaps more uncomfortable to them, personally) task of demonstrating the biblical way to the “fine objectives” we all should desire.
Many Christian leaders I see slamming “social justice” today would do well to take another piece of sage advice Friedman offers: quit judging people’s motives. Give the benefit of the doubt, praise good intentions, and instead of judging motives, judge the outcomes of the systems and the moral principles at the root of the systems.
(h/t to The Atlas Society for this abbreviated video of Friedman’s lecture.)
- I suspect there may be other material from Friedman somewhere else where he uses the label in a more polarized way. I am not sure. If so, then we would at worst see him as inconsistent in his treatment of terminology. That possibility aside, the reality is that we have what he said here. This must then be taken very seriously. I contend we should make it the baseline for the discussion of “social justice.” [↩]