Saturday, 7 April 2012

On "Social Justice"

By way of a vaguely amusing introduction to a brief post to advertise some upcoming talk or other in which I have no interest, Brian Micklethwait notes the conflation of the word "conflate" with "conflagrate" in someone else's comment elsewhere ... which conflation I thought nothing of until I came to write this; it's an apt simile to describe what I think is the now historical significance of the term "social justice".

Charitably understood, the term "social justice" may refer either to a supposed subset of the broader concept of justice (e.g. as guaged by disparaties in income or in "opportunity" against an egalitarian standard), or to a broader condition of justice in the general, hence the modifier "social" (although it must be admitted that this would be tautological).

Intended as a subset of justice, "social justice" is typically given meaning in reference to the egalitarian and collectivist stipulations of the Left, although the Right occassionally partake of a similar notion under different terminology (e.g. nationalism or "compassionate conservatism"). In its' typical Leftist formulation, the term "social justice" offers a standard around which opposition to predatory politics (e.g. land expropriations) and comparative economic privation can coalesce. This can be seen in Taiwan to some extent with the pan-green movement and the Democratic Progressive Party.

Except that there is a problem.

The political methods of the Left have long been to appropriate the State as an instrument to redress disparaties in income or opportunity (however incoherently "opportunity" may be conceived*). The political principle by which these methods are put into practice is the elevation of the State's coercive power over and above the private property rights of the people. Stipulation to this principle therefore precludes any principled opposition to economic predation when it is leveraged through the coercive power of the State. All it allows for is contingent opposition; predation is only to be opposed when it is done by the other side.

Opposition politics in Taiwan, so long as it cleaves to the political methods and conceptual language of the Left, can never be more than a sublimated form of civil war balanced upon the precarious pivot of allegiance to an ambiguous R.O.C./Taiwan nationalism (the blue-green divide). For this reason, it can at best promise no more than politically contingent privilege - not freedom.

A society based on freedom, premised upon universal rights conceived in the negative regardless of identity politics can never be delivered by the DPP or the broader pan-green movement (to say nothing of the KMT). That is why J. Michael Cole is wrong and perhaps dangerously so, to suppose that...
"Ultimately, those who feel powerless against the wealthy will find common cause with those who oppose the government on matters of Taiwanese identity in the face of ongoing efforts by the authoritarian regime in Beijing to swallow Taiwan."
Identifying "the wealthy" as an enemy class, even if only by implication, is an error. The injustice of economic predation is made possible not by mere "wealth", but by the principled elevation of political power over universal private property rights. That the so-called "opposition" movement also stipulate to this principle when they conflagrate their supposed commitment to "justice" with forced egalitarianism ought to be transparently obvious. That was why I was interested to read commissar Turton make the following observation...
"I've talked to many of my students about this, and they all seem to think it is an injustice. Students will come out to protest when the injustice is clear and when they cannot be divided because the protests can be made to appear as if they support one party or the other... There seems to be a vast well of energy for student action in Taiwan that is curtailed by the effect of the Blue/Green divide..."
I wonder if he is right...

In any event, the laurels of conflation on which the term "social justice" rests are the dangerous tinder of envy and resentment that could, given enough economic "oxygen", inflame dangerous civil unrest in Taiwan.

It would be much cooler if the opposition movement were to realign along Liberal ideology emphasizing the depoliticization of society and the rational deconstruction of the State.

*I am opposed to Statist paternalism and reject the "equality of opportunity" calculus as incoherent nonsense (I will take on anybody who wants to argue the point). I am in favour of poor people increasing our opportunities through the voluntary arrangements of a free market.

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