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Equality, justice and the social contract


“Equality” and “justice” are much talked about in politics; but it isn’t always clear just what these words mean. In this essay, I’ll look at different senses in which the words are used, and at the idea, favoured by many on the left, of “social justice.” I’ll also take a look at the “social contract” which is supposed to underlie political society.


As a first cut at answering the question “What is equality?” I’ll simply quote John Locke’s view on the matter.

  1. [Equality is…] “…that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.” – Second Treatise of Government, §54.
  2. “A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” – Second Treatise of Government, §4.

So, in a state of equality, no individual is subject to another, and no-one is sovereign over another. And the power which one has over another must be counterbalanced by equal and opposite power, which the other has over the one. For Locke, in a nutshell, equality is political equality.

And here are views on equality from four fine thinkers of the past.

  1. “Equality consists in the same treatment of similar persons…” – Aristotle.
  2. “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” – Milton Friedman.
  3. “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.” – Friedrich August von Hayek.
  4. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell.

For a view from the political left, I’ll give you words of the American labour leader and pacifist, Eugene Victor Debs. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

Debs, presumably, was talking about the capitalists of his day. But such a criticism could be just as easily levelled at today’s ruling classes, including the politicians and their cronies.

Kinds of equality

So, what kinds of “equality” are commonly put forward as desirable for all? First, political equality, as understood by Locke; no sovereignty over others, no subjection to others.

Second, moral equality. Under this kind of equality, right and wrong are the same for everyone. This leads to the idea of the rule of law.

Third, equality of opportunity. The idea here is that people should receive opportunities to advance themselves by using their talents and abilities. And, in particular, they should not be denied opportunities because they have, for example, the wrong skin colour, religion or gender, or because they don’t belong to the right family.

Fourth, favoured by many on the far left, is equality of outcome. This is the idea that rewards should be similar for all, regardless of talents or of how well an individual applies them.

Areas of inequality

Those, that claim to favour equality, perceive problems of inequality in many diverse areas. The most obvious is economic inequality. Some people are paid more than others; and there are those that think this is wrong in itself, even when the individual justly earns everything he receives. There are even some that go further, saying that it’s wrong for some people to possess more wealth than others.

Other areas in which they see inequality as an issue are: Gender inequality (which, in virtually every case today, proves to be an accusation of mistreatment of women by men). Racial or religious inequality, for example failure to allow civil liberties to those of particular races or religions. And social inequality, such as a ruling class holding back the prospects of certain classes of people. Among such claimed divides we may include capitalists against workers, the “toffs” against the “plebs,” and the rich against the poor. Then there is international inequality, which is said to unfairly favour those who live in relatively well run countries against those who live in relatively badly run ones. And there are more, such as claimed inequalities in education and in health care.

Looking at these shades of inequality, I see that those that make inequality out to be a problem often want to go well beyond equality of opportunity, towards something much closer to equality of outcome. Which, as Hayek pointed out, can only be accomplished by a tyranny; and one that has no compunction about taking resources from the talented, the hard-working, the honest and the deserving, and re-distributing them to the mediocre, the lazy, the dishonest and the undeserving.

Last on the subject of equality, those that promote equality (or, conversely, claim to oppose inequality) show themselves up as hypocrites. They don’t seem to understand that political action to bring about “equality” requires a huge inequality of political power. And they are, frequently, among the richest and the least productive in society – for example, politicians that are paid huge fees to give speeches.

Worse, the political actions they favour are often based on a “zero-sum” view of society. That is to say, they think that the only way to benefit the people they claim to want to help is to take resources away from other people and re-distribute those resources. And they focus, not on helping those few individuals who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, but on forcing one group of people to help another. They demand sacrifices from other people, but not from themselves. Moreover, they often take away from people the opportunity to help themselves, and end up doing more harm than good; minimum wage laws being a case in point.


Here’s my first cut, based on the ideas of three thinkers from the past, at an answer to “What is justice?”

  1. “Justice is the constant and perpetual will to allot to everyone his due.” – Ulpian, a Roman jurist of the 3rd century AD. This idea was picked up again in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian I, and included in his Corpus juris civilis.
  2. “The universal law of justice is: act externally in such a way that the free use of your will is compatible with the freedom of everyone according to a universal law.” – Immanuel Kant. My interpretation of what Kant is saying here, in his Germanic professorial way, is in essence “don’t take away others’ freedom of action.”
  3. “Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.” – Epicurus. I find this a deep insight; not only is justice a two way process, but it’s also about not harming others.

My own view incorporates a bit of all three, and says: “Each individual, over the long term and in the round, deserves to be treated as he or she treats others.”

William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, also had something to say about justice. “Justice is justly represented blind, because she sees no difference in the parties concerned. She has but one scale and weight, for rich and poor, great and small.” Here, he is referring to the common personification of justice as “Lady Justice.” Lady Justice carries three objects: a blindfold, a pair of scales and a sword. The blindfold represents impartiality and objectivity, as Penn suggests. The scales represent the weighing of the evidence in every case. And the sword is the instrument of punishment.

For a view of justice from the left, I’ll give you words of Malcolm X. “I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based on the color of the skin…”

As to the relation between equality and justice, I offer the following from John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism: “Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice.” Here, I think, Mill has rightly understood the link between equality and justice. It’s what an individual deserves which matters for the purpose of justice, not – for example – what that individual needs.

Kinds of justice

What kinds of “justice” are put forward as desirable? First, there is objective, individual justice; in which, broadly, individuals are to be treated as they treat others. I think of this as a second function of Lady Justice’s scales, in that it balances the interests of the individual against the interests of others.

Second, there is the kind of justice delivered by honest courts of law. This is divided into restorative justice – that is, compensation to the victim or victims of a harm – and retributive justice, that is, criminal punishment for intentional harms.

Third comes “social justice.” Mill, above, was clear that social justice is in reality no different from objective, individual justice. Yet those favouring “social justice” generally use a looser definition. Wikipedia, for example, describes it as the “fair and just relation between the individual and society.” But the words “fair” and “just” are not elucidated.

Then there is distributive justice – for example, promoting a “fair” distribution of income or wealth. Mill, again, had this right; and yet, the supporters of distributive justice do not tell us exactly and without doubt what they mean by “justice,” or who has the right to determine what is “fair.”

And then there are imbecilities such as “environmental justice” and “global justice,” which seem to be no more than excuses for forcibly imposing equality of outcome.

Social justice

I’ll offer you two cynical views on “social justice,” with both of which I can agree.

  1. “Let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn.” – Walter E. Williams.
  2. “Either ‘social justice’ has the same meaning as ‘justice’ – or not. If so – why use the additional word ‘social?’ … If ‘social justice’ means something different from ‘justice’ – then ‘something different from justice’ is by definition ‘injustice.’” – Janusz Korwin-Mikke.

These, however, are not the views of the promoters and supporters of social justice. And the United Nations is perhaps the worst culprit at promoting injustice in the name of “social justice.” For consider the following statements from a 2006 report entitled Social Justice in an Open World: The Role of the United Nations.

  1. “Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth…”
  2. “Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.”

It’s clear that this kind of “social justice” is no more than an excuse for totalitarian government powers. And, when implemented, it leads to a three-class society. On one hand, there is the productive class of honest, economically active people, who are drained of our earnings and denied the wealth we deserve. On the other, there is a recipient class, partly of the lazy and dishonest and partly of the stupid, who are spoon-fed drips of wealth that they do not earn. And between and above the two is a ruling class, that creams off for itself much of the wealth generated by the productive, and feeds the remainder to the recipient class in exchange for their political support.

The social contract

For any idea of “social justice” to be meaningful, there must, first, be a society. That is, people must have formed a political society. And the root, from which such a society is commonly seen as arising, is the so called social contract.

Here’s the idea behind the social contract. We, the individuals who are forming the political society, consent to submit to the authority of a government. We give away some of our freedoms, and we take on obligations to other members of the society. In exchange, we – in theory – receive protection of our remaining rights.

The consent of an individual to such a social contract may be explicit or tacit. But all political governments today behave as if this consent is tacit and implied. For example they assert that, by remaining in the area controlled by a government, an individual consents to submit to that government.

Thinkers of the past have taken differing views on the social contract. Thomas Hobbes, a monarchist at heart, argued that government should have all but absolute authority. John Locke, on the other hand, saw government merely as a neutral judge, doing no more than protect life, liberty and property. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that government should act according to the “general will.” That is, individuals should be subordinated to the will of “the people” as a whole. And Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, generally considered the first anarchist, took a different view again; that the social contract is a contract between individuals, and doesn’t involve government.

I’ll give you here the views of Locke and Proudhon, the two with whom I can agree:

  1. “The only way whereby anyone divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.” – Second Treatise of Government, §95.
  2. “The social contract is an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society. In this, the notion of commutative justice, first brought forward by the primitive fact of exchange, is substituted for that of distributive justice.” – General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century.

“Commutative” means “working either way round,” while “distributive” justice is justice imposed from the top. So Proudhon is telling us again, as did Epicurus, that justice is a two way process.

In more recent times, John Rawls’ so called “Original Position” has been used to try to justify a leftist view of the social contract. In this thought experiment, a group of people aim to agree on a political and economic structure for themselves. Each of them is behind a “veil of ignorance,” meaning that they don’t know what their own abilities or characteristics will be, and so whether or not they will be favoured by a particular social structure. Rawls argues that they will use a strategy called “maximin,” in essence aiming to maximize the payoff in the event of the worst possible outcome. From this he deduces that (beyond a basic minimum set of rights and liberties) any inequalities that do exist must benefit the least advantaged. This is usually interpreted as supporting a system of economic egalitarianism.

My own reaction to Rawls’ thought experiment is: I can just about accept the “maximin” strategy. So, I see the argument for egalitarianism. However, left to myself, I would choose a social structure based on political equality rather than economic equality. That is, I would pick, as my preferred social structure, John Locke’s kind of equality, in which no individual is subject to another, and no-one is sovereign over another.

Difficulties with the social contract

On the social contract, I’m in broad agreement with Locke and Proudhon, and I disagree with Hobbes, Rousseau and Rawls. When I try to list my specific difficulties with the social contract idea, I come up with at least the following.

  1. Where is my signature on the contract?
  2. Who, exactly, are the parties to the contract?
  3. What, precisely, have I promised, and what have I been promised?
  4. What if the government fails to deliver its promises?
  5. What if it fails to respect my natural rights?
  6. What if it gets taken over by one or another dishonest criminal gang?
  7. What if it singles out some (types of) people for better or worse treatment than others?
  8. What if those in political power seek to enrich themselves and their cronies at my expense?

The underlying conflict: bottom up versus top down

When talking of equality, justice, the social contract and related matters, there are two fundamentally opposed points of view. One is a bottom up approach; the other a top down one. To illustrate the differences, I offer the following table.

General Approach Bottom up Top down
Thinking method Evidence based Faith based
Natural social organization Horizontal, decentralized Hierarchical, centralized
Political outlook Individualist Collectivist
Preferred political flavour Freedom Authority
Natural characteristics Honesty and integrity Dishonesty and corruption
View on social contract Voluntary and explicit Tacit
View on equality Moral and political equality Equality of outcome
View on justice Objective, individual justice “Social justice” et al.
Preferred economic system Free market, laissez faire (e.g. Austrian) Controlled/managed (e.g. Keynesian)
Preferred means of income Work and trade Theft or fraud

My own view

My own view on the matters I discuss here is founded on the bottom up approach, as opposed to the top down approach favoured by the enemies of liberty.

For me, the sense in which we are all equal is that we are all morally equal. I express this as: “What is right for one to do, is right for another to do in similar circumstances, and vice versa.” This has two implications. One is political equality, in John Locke’s sense; no subjection of one to another. The other is the rule of law.

My argument for this view is to say to my opponents: If not, then exactly who is to be allowed moral privilege over others? How much? When? Why? Who are you to decide? And why should you yourself not be thrown down to the very bottom of the heap?

As to justice, I see rights (human rights) and ethical obligations as two sides of the same coin. To every valid right, there corresponds an obligation. The particular obligation, which maps to the right to justice, is Confucius’ Golden Rule. In its negative form, this rule says “do not harm others,” and this is consistent with Epicurus’ view on justice, above. In the positive form, which I characterize as “Treat others at least as well as they treat you,” this leads to a view of justice as the idea that no-one should, over the long run, be treated worse than they treat others. But in practice, people will not be inclined to treat well those that treat them badly; so for me, justice boils down to the idea that, over the long run and in the round, you deserve to be treated as you treat others.

On the subject of the social contract for governance, I see peace and justice as valuable to human beings. And so, it’s good for groups of people to contract together to secure these ends. Unlike the situation in a political state, however, I don’t see why every individual in a given geographical area needs to sign up to the same contract.

I envisage the new form of the social contract to be more like an agreement between individuals and an insurance company, than submission to the authority of a political government. I expect that the contract will be voluntary and explicit, never tacit. And it will be a business contract like any other. For example, it will clearly state the deliverables. It will state the terms and conditions for payment. And it will cover such issues as renewal and termination options, procedures for dispute resolution, and an agreement on the handling of breaches by either party.

In conclusion

I’ve examined various views on the subjects of equality, justice and the social contract; and I’ve reached my own conclusions. In summary, for me, equality is moral and political equality. Justice is the condition in which, over the long run and in the round, each individual is treated as he or she treats others. And I see a need for a new kind of social contract for governance, which will be voluntary, and will take the form of a business contract like any other.

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