An Access Advertising EconBrief:
What Does ‘Social’ Mean Today?
For decades, European political parties have rallied around the banner of “social democracy.” Today, Catholic churches throughout the world solemnly urge their congregants to work for “social justice.” Businesses have long been advised to practice “social responsibility.” Certain investment funds are now organized around the principle of “social investing.” Celebrities advertise the possession of a finely honed “social conscience.”
The rhetorical weight carried by the word “social” has never been heavier. Judging by this, one would suppose that the adjective’s meaning is well-defined and universally understood. Assuming that to be so, it should be relatively easy to explain its meanings above, as well as many other similar ones.
That turns out to be far from true. A great economist and social theorist called “social” the great “weasel word” of our time. In the words of the old popular song, how long has this been going on?
Well over two hundred years, believe it or not. The great English philosopher Lord Action accurately observed that, “Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas.” Those people who invoke the word “social” as a holy sacrament will be outraged to learn its pedigree. For the rest of us, though, the knowledge should prove illuminating.
“What is Social?”
One man above all others made it his business to learn the history and meaning of the word “social.” F.A. Hayek was a leading European economist before World War II, and among his friends were the Freiburg School of German economists who styled themselves the “Soziate Marktwirtschaft” or “Social Market” economists. Why, Hayek wondered, didn’t they simply call themselves “free-market” economists? What magic did the word “social” weave to gain precedence over the idea of freedom?
Over the years, Hayek morphed from world-class economist to world-renowned social philosopher. His fascination with the rhetorical preeminence of “social” eventually produced the article “What Is ‘Social?’ What Does It Mean?” It was published in 1957, then reworked and republished in 1961. In it, Hayek performed feats of semantic archaeology in order to expose the pedigree of “social” in economics and political philosophy.
Hayek’s research produced a scathing assessment. He declared that “the word ‘social’ has become an adjective which robs of its clear meaning every phrase it qualifies and transforms it into a phrase of unlimited elasticity, the implications of which can always be distorted if they are unacceptable, and the use of which…serves merely to conceal the lack of any real agreement between men regarding a formula upon which… they are supposed to be agreed.” It is symptomatic of “an attempt to dress up slogans in a guise acceptable to all tastes.” The word “always confuses and never clarifies;” “pretends to give an answer where no answer exists,” and “is so often used as camouflage for aspirations that have nothing to do with the common interest… .” It has served as a “magical incantation” and used to justify end-runs around traditional morality.
Whew. Can one word that is thrown around so casually and so widely really justify this indictment? Let’s briefly take one example of its usage and try on a few of Hayek’s criticisms for size.
The Example of “Social Justice”
A popular reference source (Wikipedia) has this to say about the concept of “social justice.” “Social justice is justice exercised within a society, particularly as it is applied to and among the various social classes of a society. A socially just society is one based on the principles of equality and solidarity;” it “understands and values human rights as well as recognizing the dignity of every human being.”
The origin of the phrase is ascribed to a Jesuit priest in 1840. It was used to justify the concept of a “living wage” in the late 19th century. The Fascist priest Father Coughlin (curiously, his Fascism goes unremarked by Wikipedia) often employed the term. It became a mainspring of practical Catholic teaching and of the Protestant Social Gospel. Social theorist John Rawls developed a theory of equity intended to give substance to a secular version of social justice.
We can easily locate all of the characteristics identified by Hayek even in this short précis. The definition of “social justice” as “justice exercised within a society” is tautological; this expresses the communal syrup that the word pours over every subject it touches. The “principles of equality and solidarity” sound satisfactorily concrete, but the trouble is that there are no such principles – unless you’re willing to sign off on the notion that everybody is supposed to be equal in all respects. “Solidarity,” of course, is the complementary noun to “social;” each purportedly sanctifies without really saying anything substantial. As such, solidarity became the all-purpose buzzword of the international labor movement. It implies fidelity to an unimpeachable ideal without defining the ideal, just as “social” implies an ideal without defining it.
The reference to “human rights” may well seem obscure to those unfamiliar with the age-old left-wing dichotomy between “property rights” and “human rights” – a false distinction, since all rights are human rights by implication. There may some day be a society that recognizes the dignity of every human being, but the sun has not yet shone on it. Thus, social justice illustrates Hayek’s reference to an underlying lack of agreement masked by a façade of universal accord. The roll call of dubious subscribers to the concept, ranging from Fascists to socialists to left-wing extremists and simplistic activists, dovetails perfectly with a concept of “unlimited elasticity,” which masquerades “in the guise acceptable to all tastes” as a “magical incantation” used to justify dubious means to achieve allegedly noble ends.
The Basic Uses of “Social”
Devotees of the various “social” causes have used the word in certain basic recurring ways. Each of them displays Hayek’s characteristics. We can associate these generic uses with specific “social” causes and government actions.
First, there is the plea for inclusiveness. As originally developed, this had considerable justification. As Hayek admitted, “in the last [19th] century…political discussion and the taking of political decisions were confined to a small upper class.” The appending of “social” was a shorthand way of reminding the upper classes that “they were responsible for the fate of the most numerous and poorest sections of the community.” But the concept “seems somewhat of an anachronism in an age when it is the masses who wield political power.” This is probably the dawn of the well-worn injunction to develop a “social conscience.” We associate the mid-19th century with famous “social” legislation ranging from the end of debtor’s prisons and reform of poor laws to the repeal of the Corn Laws in England.
Second, “social” is a plea to view personal morality abstractly rather than concretely by assigning to it remote consequences as well as immediate ones. For example, traditional ethics implores the businessman to treat his employees and customers fairly by respecting their rights and not hurting them. But “social responsibility” demands that businessmen know, understand and affect the consequences of all their buying decisions as well. They should refuse to buy inputs produced using labor that is paid “too little,” even though this benefits their own customers and workers, because it ostensibly hurts the workers who produce those inputs.
This stands the economic logic of free markets on its head. Businessmen are experts on their own business and the wants of their customers. Free markets allow them to know as little as possible about the input goods they buy because this economizes on information – which is scarce – and on the use of businessmen’s time – which is likewise scarce. But the illogic of “social responsibility” demands that businessmen specialize in learning things it is difficult or impossible for them to know instead of things they normally learn in the course of doing business. This is so absurdly inefficient it is downright crazy; instead of doing what they do best, businessmen are supposed to divert their attention to things they know little about and disregard the value generated by the free market.
The crowning absurdity is that “socially responsibility” expects businessmen to accept on faith the assertions of activists that buying goods produced with low-wage labor hurts the workers who produce those goods. And this is dead wrong, since it does just the opposite – by increasing the demand for the goods labor produces, it increases the marginal product of labor and labor’s wage. The same illogic is sometimes extended even farther to consumers, who are even less well placed to gauge the remote consequences of their personal buying decisions and, thus, are even more at the mercy of the bad economics propounded by “social” theory activists.
Thirdly, “social” theory demands that government also reverse its traditional ethical role by treating individuals concretely rather than abstractly. The traditional Rule of Law requires government to judge individuals by abstract rules of justice – and that the same abstract rules apply to all individuals. But “social justice” requires government to judge individuals according to their respective merits, which requires treating different individuals by different rules; e.g., repealing the traditional Rule of Law. Contemporary examples of this repeal abound: affirmative action, bailouts for firms adjudged “too big to fail,” eminent domain for the benefit of private business, augmented rights granted to certain politically identifiable groups while basic rights are denied to others, and on and on, ad nauseum.
Finally, “social” theory clearly implies the upsetting of traditional morality by the substitution of “social” criteria for traditional moral criteria. Although it seems superficially that traditional moral criteria are without rational foundation, this is misleading. In fact, those criteria evolved over thousands of years because they were conducive to a successful order within humanity. As the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset reminds us, “order is not a pressure imposed on society from without, but an equilibrium which is set up from within.” The word “equilibrium” implies the existence of change which culminates in a new, improved order. Social evolution is thus comparable to economic equilibrium, in which new goods and services are subject to a market test and accepted or rejected. Surviving moral criteria are abstract rules that may not benefit every single individual in every single case but that have demonstrated powerful survival value for humanity over thousands of years. And these rules are subject to a powerful evolutionary test over time.
In contrast, “social” theory substitutes the concrete, ad hoc rules adapted to each situation by self-appointed social theorists. These self-appointed experts reject free competition in both economics and political philosophy; thus, these social theories do not receive the same rigorous evolutionary tests that vetted traditional morality.
Both the impersonal workings of the free economic market and the abstract, impersonal workings of the “market” for morality and social philosophy seem to be harsh because there is no inherent spokesman or advocate to explain their operation to the public. Economists have failed to perform this task for free markets, while the influence of moral arbiters like clergymen and philosophers has waned in recent decades. The plans of “social” theorists appear to be kind because they are designed with appearance in mind rather than to actually attain the results they advertise.
Corollaries to the Uses of “Social”
Certain corollary effects of these uses are implied and have, in fact, emerged. When the appeal to the communal of “social” effects of our actions predominates over our personal actions, our personal responsibility for our own lives and welfare erodes. And sure enough, the widespread reluctance to take responsibility for individual actions is palpable. Why should we take responsibility for saving when the federal government takes our money by force for the ostensible purpose of saving and investing it for our individual retirement uses? Thus does saving decline, asymptotically approaching zero. Why should we accept responsibility for our own errors when we are forced to take responsibility for the errors of others by taxation, criminal justice, economic policy and a host of other coercive actions by government? Hence the growing tendency to claim universal “rights” to goods and services such as food, health care, housing and more.
The irony is that each of us is the world’s leading expert on our self. “Social” policy forces us to shoulder responsibility for people and things we aren’t, and can never be, expert on, while forswearing responsibility for the one person on whom our expertise is preeminent. In economic terms, this cannot possibly be an efficient way to order a society.
This leads to another important point of information theory. The demands of “social” theory imply that certain select individuals possess talents and information denied to the rabble. These are the people who decide which particular distribution of income or wealth is “socially just, which business actions are or aren’t “socially responsible, what linguistic forms are or aren’t “socially aware,” and so forth.
The elevation of some people above others is practiced predominantly by government. In order to reward people according to merit, government must in principle have knowledge about the particular circumstances of individuals that justify the rewards (or deny them, as the case may be). In practice, of course, government is so distant from most individuals that it cannot begin to possess that kind of knowledge. That is why the concept of group rights has emerged, since it is often possible to identify individual membership in a group. Race, gender, religion, political preference and other group affiliations are among the various identifiers used to justify preferential treatment by government.
The blatant shortcomings of this philosophy have now become manifest to all. One need not be a political philosopher steeped in the Rule of Law to appreciate that envy now plays a pivotal role in politics and government. Rather than concentrate on producing goods and services, people now focus on redistributing real income and wealth in their own favor. This is the inevitable by-product of a “social” theory focused on fairness rather than growth. The laws of economics offer a straightforward path toward growth, but there is no comparably unambiguous theory of fairness that will satisfy the competing claimants of “social” causes.
And once again, the shortcomings of “social” theory as magnified by a further irony. For decades, government welfare programs have been recognized as failures by researchers, the general public and welfare recipients themselves. Only “social theorists,” bureaucrats and politicians still support them. This is bad enough. But even worse, the rejection of free markets by “social” theorists has eliminated the only practical means by which individual merit might be used as the basis for compensatory social action. Although you are the world’s leading expert on you and I am the leading authority on me, you will sometimes gain authoritative information about me. By allowing you to keep your own real income and the freedom to utilize it as you see fit, I am also allowing to conduct your own personal policy of “social justice.” This concept of neighborhood or community charity is one form of tribalism that has persisted for thousands of years because it is clearly efficient and has survival value. Yet it is one of the first victims of government-imposed “social justice.” Bureaucrats resent the competition provided by private charity. Even more, they resent watching money used privately when it could have been siphoned off for their own use.
What is the relation between the adjective “social” and the noun “socialism?” Socialism had roots traceable at least to the Middle Ages, but its formal beginnings go back to the French philosophers Saint-Simon and Comte in the 18th century. It was Saint-Simon who visualized “society” as one single organic unity and longed to organize a nation’s productive activity as if it were one single unified factory.
It is this pretense that defines the essence of socialism and the appeal of its adjectival handmaiden, “social.” Participation in the sanctifying “social” enterprise at once washes the participant clean of sin and cloaks pursuit of personal gain in the guise of altruism and nobility. It makes the participant automatically virtuous and popular and “one with the universe” – well, part of a subset of like-minded people, anyway.
Socialism sputtered to life in 19th-century revolutionary Europe and enjoyed various incarnations throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. It has failed uniformly, not just in achieving “the principles of equality and solidarity” but in providing goods and services for citizens. Failure was most complete in those polities where the approach to classical socialism was closest. (In this regard, it should be remembered that the Scandinavian welfare states fell far short of Great Britain on the classic socialist criterion of industrial nationalization.) Yet socialism as an ideal still thrives while capitalism, whose historical preeminence is inarguable, languishes in bad odor.
Hayek’s criticisms of “social” explain this paradox. Socialism’s shortcomings are its virtues. Its language encourages instant belief and acceptance. It smoothes over differences, enveloping them in a fog of good feeling and obscurantism. It promises an easy road to salvation, demanding little of the disciple and offering much. Words are valued for their immediate effects, and the immediate effects of “social” are favorable to the user and the hearer. True, it is an obstacle to clear thinking – but when the immediate products of clear thinking are unpalatable, who wants clear thinking, anyway?
“Social” keeps the ideal of socialism alive while burying its reality. As long as “social” prefaces anything except an “ism,” the listener has license to dissociate the adjective from the noun and luxuriate in the visceral associations of the former while ignoring the gruesome history of the latter.
Just One LIttle, Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weenie Word
F.A. Hayek closed his essay on “social” by saying, “it seems to me that a great deal of what today professes to be social is, in the deeper and truer sense of the word, thoroughly and completely anti-social.” Hayek was right that “such a little word not only throws light upon the process of the evolution of ideas and the story of human error, but … also exercises an irrational power which becomes apparent only when… we lay bare its true meaning.”
Who would have dreamed that one word could say so much?