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Social Justice, Rights, and Isolationism

Mises Daily: Tuesday, May 30, 2000 by

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In my previous columns on language, I suggested that our friends from the left have hijacked vast verbal territory, and used it against us. That is, they have taken words such as "profiteer," "rent seeking," etc., and used them as sticks with which to beat us and undermine our political economic perspective.

I urged that we strive mightily to safeguard our own vocabulary. I did so on the ground that we are in a battle of ideas with them, and if there are certain words we are precluded from using, or can only use in a certain way, "their" way, victory will be just that much more difficult.

Let us now consider a few more words which we may have, even unknowingly, incorporated into our language, much to the detriment of promoting the free and prosperous society.

Social Justice

We all know what "they" mean by "social justice." This is not just justice as applied to social issues, but in addition, or instead, a particular world view with regard to them. For example, in popular parlance, to take the "social justice" point of view now implies in debates over egalitarianism that one advocate the coercive transfer of funds from rich to poor, in total disregard of the property rights of the former.

In the environmental area, the advocate of "social justice" must of necessity support all sorts of socialist, interventionistic, and regulatory schemes having to do with water, global warming, forests, species extinction, plastics, etc. The free enterprise environmentalist vision, where markets and private property are seen as the solution to environmental problems, not their cause, is strictly ruled out of "social justice" court.

There are two possible responses to this linguistic development. We can blithely stand by, accept this usage, and adamantly maintain that we oppose "social justice." Or, we can take the stance that we, too, support "social justice," only have a rather different perspective on that issue. I support the latter course of action. It doesn’t sound too good to the ear to be on record as opposing justice, any kind of justice.

Rights

From time immemorial, human rights included the right not to be murdered, not to be raped, not to be trespassed upon, not to be robbed, not to be kidnaped, etc. These are the classical "negative" rights.

Our friends on the left, however, have more recently discovered a plethora of new rights: the right to such things as food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Since rights by their very nature come with a proper admixture of equality (we all have an equal right not to be murdered, robbed, etc.), the socialists have, not unexpectedly, included this in their rights definitions. That is, we implicitly have an equal right to food, clothing and shelter. In terms of medical care, this accounts for the positively frothing at the mouth of any suggestion that there be "two tier" (e.g., more for rich, less for poor) health services.

But our camp has not rejected rights, holus bolus, in response to this undermining of rights language. We have not painted ourselves into the corner of opposing rights. Rather, we have continued to champion them (converting them into "negative" rights); in this way we can, reasonably in the eyes of the public, continue to attack leftist "rights" categorized as positive "rights." My suggestion is that we adopt a similar tack with regard to "social justice."

Isolationism

Isolationism has had a bad press amongst our liberal dominated media. The word conjures up visions of turtles tucking their heads into their bodies or ostriches their heads in the sand.

But in the U.S. there is a long and glorious isolationist tradition, starting with the father of our country, George Washington. In his Farewell Address, our first president warned of against entanglements with foreign powers. "The Great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign Nations," he said, "is in extending our comercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible."

Would that we as a country had taken his advice more to our hearts. The history of the 20th century would have been a far different one had we not attacked anyone who had not first attacked us.

But this concept has been misused when mindlessly transferred into the economic realm. The claim, here, is, "You isolationists are hypocritical. You want America to have nothing to do with foreign powers. Well, why shouldn’t this apply to economics? If it did, and you wanted to be logically consistent, you would have to oppose not only foreign wars, but also the economic integration brought about by free trade."

The answer is that there is an unbridgeable gap between economic isolationism and military isolationism. It is not only logically coherent to separate the two, it is of the utmost importance to support the former while continuing to oppose the latter. That is, a consistent libertarian position would support free trade with all and oppose all military adventurism in other countries.

There is simply no case for a Pax Americana: allowing the U.S. government to serve as world policeman. If Clinton is worried about innocent people being killed, let him repeal his drug policy and thus radically reduce drive by shootings in such places as Washington D.C. and the Bronx.

But opposition to troops abroad does not at all imply antagonism to trading with people in other countries. One is peaceful and economically productive, the other is not. Indeed, the best way to oppose the senseless killing brought about by war is not only to keep our soldiers at our borders, but also to encourage--by unilaterally at one fell swoop eliminating all tariffs and other trade barriers--commerce though out the world. Countries which trade with one another, other things equal, are less likely to go to war with one another.

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Professor Block teaches economics at the University of Central Arkansas. Send him MAIL.

More Walter Block Columns are available at the Walter Block Archive