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September 27th 2009 print

Jason Soon

Left Forum: “TEH left”

A very convenient rhetorical strategy is to make mocking references to ‘TEH  left’ (misspelling intended) anytime any critique of a thinker or movement identified with the left is attempted.

Left and Right 

The Left are frequently very touchy about being talked about or generalized about in any way. A very convenient rhetorical strategy which has been most prolifically used and propagated by postmodernist left blog Larvatus Prodeo is to make mocking references to ‘TEH  left’ (misspelling intended) anytime any critique of a thinker or movement identified with the left is attempted. It becomes difficult to critique a philosophical tendency that claims not to exist. Yet left-wingers are usually happy to perpetrate the most blatant strawmen on their philosophical rivals as evidenced most recently in the celebration of Kevin Rudd’s essay on ‘neoliberalism’, which was long ago taken apart by Henry Ergas, though this has not stopped the sycophantic celebrations of the Prime Minister as a contemporary philosopher-king. 

But then philosopher-kings are what the left wants to see in political leaders and to a great extent this is the strongest difference between the Left and the Right to the extent that these philosophical traditions exist in some coherent form. This explains in particular the very unique notion of ‘social justice’ that lies behind many of the contributions to The Australian’s recent series on defining the left. 

Understanding the term ‘social justice’ and in particular how it differs from plain old ‘justice’ exposes the philosophical fault lines between the contemporary mainstream left and right. 

Plain old ‘justice’ is about due process and equal treatment before the law. It’s an important enough principle to uphold. 

People enter into contracts and make trades including agreements to sell commodities or labour services (these mutually beneficial processes acquiring a sinister taint in the Marxist narrative of ‘alienation’). The resulting distribution of incomes and wealth that cumulatively result from this trucking and bartering (to quote Adam Smith) over time are not the concern of plain old fashioned justice. Plain old fashioned justice would have something to say about whether the transactions are consensually entered into, without force or fraud. Justice would have something to say about the enforcement of the resulting contracts before the law without fear or favour. In the words of Hayek, justice refers to such ‘rules of just conduct’, ‘those end-independent rules which serve the formation of a spontaneous order’. 

But the notion of social justice is something different, a category mistake, as Hayek recognized. Social justice is the strange notion that the uncoordinated results of these numerous trades should be redistributed so that the final distribution of income and wealth in a society fits the ideal as decreed by some philosopher-king/social engineer, out of some conviction that not to do so would be ‘unjust’. 

Let us note what isn’t being criticized here. The notion that we may all be better off making provision for some collective arrangements because uncoordinated individual trades do not fully capture individuals’ willingness to pay for particular goods (i.e. the public goods problem) isn’t what is being criticized here. Nor even that some of these collective arrangements may well take the form of transfer payments to people unable to earn a sufficient market income to support themselves and their families to a minimal living standard. Contrary to our Prime Minister’s characterization of Hayek’s vision as a ‘Brutopia’, even the strongest critic of ‘social justice’ accepted the case for a degree of poverty amelioration by the State. 

Rather, what is being criticized here, which underlies the ‘light on the hill’ invoked by so many on the left whether in social-democratic or more radical incarnations, is the conflation of the very notion of justice into what is a question of social utility. 

Insofar as the notion of social justice appears to derive from some strange anthromorphic conviction that somehow the blame or credit for the distribution of income and wealth arising over the course of numerous trades can be laid at the feet of some single entity with one will of its own , it is the left’s form of creationism. Such creationism is in contrast to the more evolutionistic vision of a spontaneous order or an invisible hand as articulated by classical liberal thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith. 

The resulting metaphors of the various creeds do not just make for pretty pictures but have quite concrete policy conclusions. 

For the classical liberal or Burkean conservative the evolutionistic metaphor leads to a ‘precautionary principle’ (strangely honoured most by the right in its application to the body politic while most loudly invoked by the left for the natural environment) against excessive interventionism, and a sense of the realistic limits of political or collective action. 

Meanwhile, the natural counterpart to the left’s creationism in politics is an unrestrained political prometheanism. This prometheanism unfortunately infects not just the radical left but even the social democrats who have grudgingly come to accept the free market as the goose that lays the golden eggs for redistributing. This prometheanism accounts for their zeal for coming up with countless ways of micromanaging the economy and society. There has been a surfeit of such schemes under Rudd with the various ill-fated  –Watches, the ill-conceived scheme to regulate the Internet and most recently the grand plans to supplant the process of competition in telecommunications with a lavishly funded National Broadband Network. And this – the twitchy hyperactivity of the philosopher-king – is what makes the Rudd government a left-wing one despite his earlier claims to being ‘fiscally conservative’. 

Jason Soon is a Sydney-based economic consultant. He also runs the
Catallaxy blog