Many affirm that the quality of a social system is measured by its commitment to justice. The attractiveness of such view cannot hide the fact that measuring a system by its goals has proven to be a great mistake.

That a given abstract concept is desirable or eye-catching  cannot guarantee that the processes we put in place are effective in bringing about the goal. As economic and social systems emerge out of the action of many actors, over whose goals we have no control, to create systems based on abstract goals such as equality or justice can be costly.

We have seen in history how systems based on lofty goals have produced hellish conditions to those targeted as beneficiaries and even worse effects on those targeted as culprits. The nature of processes is much more important than the abstract lofty goals we envision.  Hammering a vision into reality often ends up breaking down the pot of society.When we see the goal as the target it is easy to justify whatever means needed to bring the illusion to bear.  Ironically, such approach is often willing to do injustice to accomplish justice and to oppress to bring about equality. The Soviet regime enforced inequality by privileging members of the party who in turn allowed a vanguard to be “more equal” than they were; all for the future goal of equalization. At the bottom remained the great majority of the population who were given a promise for a future that they would never see and could not be brought about.

The Cuban nightmare was based on revolutionary justice willing to confiscate property, kill and deport people, all in the name of the ultimate goal. Those who were able to leave, or were kicked out, with nothing of their own are now the ones sending money to Cuba to try to help the ones left to build the justice of socialism there. Every experiment built on “justice” has ended in disaster, whether religious or revolutionary justice. The mirage has never materialized.

Processes ought to be judged by their effectiveness in accomplishing specific objectives not by the goals attached to them. One of the reasons why the nature of a process is more important than the goal is that process emphasizes on the reality of things. It works out systems based on what is tried and works, channeling energies toward what can be attained and giving people results that incentivize more activity. Even if the result takes trial and error and the returns take time, there is an engagement with reality that fosters action. Those who achieve get effective returns while those in systems based on goals get medals as “heroes of the revolution.” Another reason why results-oriented systems are better is that they are not dependent on definitions. Abstract philosophical discussions are hard to find in systems too busy building things that work. On the other hand, just to define what is “justice” is a daunting and divisive task. To convince those whose definition is different to acquiesce and join the party is difficult enough but even if such task is achieved you still do not have justice in the here and now.

Let us take “social justice.” We  could be here writing for hours to try to define what it is. After all attempts we might have to settle  with accepting that it can only be reduced to the common denominator of an aversion to deep inequalities.  But a reaction against the unattractiveness of a condition still cannot make that condition disappear! Supporters of economic systems as different as those supported by Fidel Castro and Milton Friedman often react with equal disgust at gross inequality but that reaction is just that, an emotion that may open the door to action.[1]  It is in the nature of the economic processes they may support as a remedy that we will find, or not, a positive outcome to attend the need, not in the emotive reaction and the desire to change things for the better by uplifting an abstract goal.

The great difference among those who lament the same condition lies not in the goals (as they might be the same) but in the nature of the systems as systems. There are those who choose to personify “society” and collectivize decision making. Then, invested with power and resources taken from others, they try to plug every whole. The nature of the process is secondary to the attainment of the goal. That is why socialists often tell us that socialism has never been really tried, it remains an enticing goal impervious to reality. Others prefer systems that work by allowing free actors to cooperate naturally and freely as to pursue better results. They see the trade-offs in a process that is tangible, one that advances from reality itself.  And that is why it works…


[1] See Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice (New York: Touchstone, 1999) pp. 3-5.

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