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The High-Liberal vs Collectivist Justice Contrast

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There are several different conceptions and realms of justice than is commonly understood. In common understanding, justice is taken as granted in terms of equality or equity of all people and we don’t scorn over the details over how different conceptions of an economic system might relate to different societal norms of justice. This introduction will not seek to impose an arbitrary definition of justice as that is exactly what this piece will aim to decipher – over the difference in what is justice in a society – as defined by a devout high liberal in Hayek, as compared to a stern collectivist like Marx. These two opposite ends of philosophers have both, shaped our discussion, and discarded certain elements from it, as a result of their individual contributions to societal discourse.



The High Liberal Approach to Justice:


Friedrich Hayek was an Austrian economist/philosopher whose views have continued to deeply influence how society views different notions of justice, the structure of the state in a just society, and the role of an individual in such a society. Hayek was born in Austria to a medical practitioner father and was introduced to academia at an early age through his family’s social standing in Austria. Hayek’s views today have deeply influenced political thinkers, as the political elements of his philosophical outlook have been incorporated by major political factions.


Hayek’s philosophy categorizes justice as freedom – the right to live in a free society, is in Hayek’s opinion - “just”, while the compulsion to live in a society that’s not free is “unjust” (Hayek, 1944). Hayek’s writings place great stress on individual utility to be achieved by a system of government and society that allows for the greatest level of individual action. This is seen at its most basic approach within The Road to Serfdom,  when Hayek compares government allocation of resources even within the most limited of spheres, to being a move towards total government control. Hayek’s presentation of state building and decision making focuses greatly within individual choices – he doesn’t present the government as a know-all body, but rather a collective of individuals who aren’t by any means significant than the normal individual making decisions for everyone else. He presents a simple question – how are these individuals capable of deciding for everyone else and how do we assure that everyone is satisfied with those decisions made? This is related to justice, as he implies by the name of his book, that if one were to continue to remain silent then we would be intensely close to “serfdom” – wherein the government could demand anything out of us and push us back to feudalism.


Hayek’s views can be understood once we get to know his specific molding of institutions of government in his view and over what he views as society’s main objective. We have characterized Hayek’s justice as liberty because Hayek is essentially opposed to the idea of social justice that we know the term “justice” as. That, in Hayek’s mind, isn’t justice at all – It is rather just when individuals can make individual choices without any fear of retribution or harm. He views government as an imposition rather than a means to achieve justice that’s only purpose in his society is to provide for security and economic freedom – nothing beyond that. This limited view of government, shapes Hayek’s idea of justice significantly.


Hayek (1960) goes further into the notion of “social justice” as we know it in The Constitution of Liberty, wherein he breaks down different elements of justice and why he believes in a certain school of thought. He divides justice into two major forms: commutative justice and distributive justice – the former is justice in regards to signed agreements or contracts that need to be enforced, and the latter is when the central authority of the state interferes to correct the economic distribution of society. Hayek expresses opposition to this quest for distributive justice because of two reasons: his conception of laws in a society, and his conception of the role of a government in a society. In Hayek’s terms of imposing a “Rule of Law” – there are no opportunities to enforce equity as a moral or philosophical approach – there is only “equality” and that is achieved by the same laws on everyone. The second strand of his opposition to distributive justice comes in regards to the state of the state as if distributive justice is to be implemented – it has to be done by the state. In Hayek’s view – how is the state capable of doing such and what decision-making powers does it pool together that individuals don’t have? He doesn’t regard it as the role of the state to determine the degree of the distribution that society needs as again – he doesn’t regard that such a monolithic determination will be free.


Hayek’s opposition to modern-day social justice initiatives leads one to believe that in the high-liberal context – justice means freedom. If you have the freedom to make individual choices and engage in a free-market economy – then you are living in a just system and are not on the “road to serfdom” – as Hayek would put it. Individual conscience is what will allow people to be free and live in a just society. Hayek’s opposition to the normal term of “social justice” shouldn’t discard from the fact that he did keep a standard up to what rights he considered that individuals were endowed with – and how the protection of those rights, albeit not social justice as we know it – can be construed as the approach towards achieving justice. His justice approach is a form of political justice – over a just state of government – and that, in his eyes – is one that doesn’t act.



The Collectivist Approach to Justice:


It would be fair to state that the collectivist approach to justice is quite different from what the high-liberal perspective is. It differs almost completely over how a state is constituted, its duty towards the welfare of its citizens, and its scope of actions. This section will deal with perhaps the most well-known collectivist in all of human history – Karl Marx. Marx’s name is synonymous with collectivism, and more so “communism” – a socio-political belief towards collective political and societal action. Marx was born in Prussia, Germany, in 1818 – and was formally educated in law and philosophy. His writings with his comrade, Fredrich Engels have garnered significant political and philosophical interest.  


Marx’s idea of government, illustrated in his writings, can be summed simply – there are initially two groups in society – the ruling bourgeoise and the stricken proletariat. The proletariat reaches a breaking point, wherein it cannot sustain the attacks imposed by the bourgeoise any longer and organizes a working-class revolution. This leads to a transition from a capitalist society to a communist one, explained in great detail by Marx (1875) in The Critique of the Gotha Program.


This government, once built, will strive to provide for every individual as per their needs. This is part of Marxist philosophy that states “From each according to his ability– to each according to his needs”. In Marxist terms, justice is achieved when the proletariat complete a working class revolution and provide for a new society where there is no exploitation of labor, wherein there is no alienation from labor, and wherein there is protection for labor. There cannot be justice in a capitalist system – as the capitalist system is built on the moral ground of exploitation – of wherein labor is exploited and workers are subjected to inhumane conditions, whilst one individual who hasn’t put in any personal labor – gets most of the gains.


A state structure, the issue that Hayek brought up, is in Marx’s opinion only optimal when communist – it cannot be just when Hayek’s ideas are implemented. Marx therefore, views justice as equity and opportunity – unlike liberty as Hayek does. The allocation of resources to the state is seen as fair in Marxist philosophy because after all – the people are the state – it is after a proletariat revolution that the state is built and any allocation it makes will be for the people themselves. Also, unlike Hayek, this baseline philosophy of Marxist governance allows for perusal of other societal aspects of justice on individual topics without suspending debate.


Contemporary Debates about this Issue:


Hayek’s opinion has been echoed by a number of current authors, and it would be a significant mistake to discard his theory of what justice should be in society based on its incongruity with the previous works of justice that have been perused and presented.


Hayek’s influence can be seen with authors like Tomasi (2012), who although might not have the same degree of ideological purity as some high liberals desire – is clearly influenced by it to a significant degree. The maintenance of social order, which Tomasi focuses on, is a core component of justice – as there cannot be order if there isn’t justice. He believes that this should happen rather organically through the market and not through direct government intervention. This supports Hayek’s argument over how the state and society are essentially independent although society elects the state – and that state shouldn’t intrude in the personal sphere.


Neufeld (2016) is another author that builds on Hayek’s work – critiquing not collectivists, but rather mainstream theorists of justice like John Rawls over the need of financial success to gain true liberty. As with Hayek’s implication of liberty as the ultimate form of justice, Neufeld disregards the political role of government in a state.


Gilabert (2015) presents a quasi-Marxist view into this exploration of justice, as he states over how the “Abilities/Needs Principle” – one that stresses on equity – should form the ethical heart of society and how society needs to incorporate values like solidarity, fair reciprocity, and meaningful work. The principle that Gilabert (2015) refers to focuses on the larger view over how in a society – and as members of a unit – we owe an individual responsibility to those that have less than us or need a stronger hand. This supports the Marxist idea of a societal structure and adds to contemporary discourse on the matter – of how, as a society – we owe a moral duty to help one another and to not let each other, in the name of individualism – to fall into individual ruin.


Broader Themes of Justice:


Although these are just two individual authors, it’s not difficult to view of what a core position they occupy in the debate regarding justice today. Their impact is heavily felt in the political realm more than the philosophical one even, and has helped shape everyone’s notion of what justice is supposed to mean to an extent. For example; Hayek’s notion of “Rule of Law” and individual responsibility today shapes an extremely important part of how almost a half of the population thinks. Hayek’s views go towards everything – including elements like racial justice, climate justice, and disability justice. The high-liberal approach of refusing government intervention intrudes on the efficacy of a society to preserve its most vulnerable and to safeguard these important elements of justice. It is perhaps therefore, with good reason, that when specific policy details regarding justice for the vulnerable comes up – the high-liberal perspective gets less and less dominant. This is because a policy engagement with something that essentially states there is no policy isn’t possible nor reasonable. However, the political influence of this philosophical outlook shouldn’t be discarded as although this might not be the most sought-after approach in terms of other spheres of justice – it should definitely be taken as relevant in the political sphere of justice and what a “just government is”. Is a just government one that looks to treat you in an equitable manner or is it one that doesn’t mind for your individual condition but rather provides liberty to everyone? Hayek clearly believes in the latter, but it goes on to show how his determination of the role of the state structure impacts all other themes of justice that exist, and while opposing a monolithic view of government – he creates a monolithic view against government in the process.    


In regards to Marx, Marx has been very relevant when it relates to the pursuit of justice in almost every strand. There are philosophers espousing climate Marxism, disability justice Marxism, and a feminist Marxism. The connotation that there is a class of individuals who are dominating the sphere of the society as the bourgeoise is a legitimate philosophical argument. Although Marx focuses on the economic resources relating to the bourgeoise, it might be possible to interpret the bourgeoise as different power groups in different contexts – one particular group that holds all the power and imposes a form of iron fist rule on the proletariat. Marxist philosophy has also been generally incorporated by other schools of justice as one to oppose the ruling class and bring to attention the injustices happening in society that might not be vivid to everyone.




The contrast highlighted by both of these theorists could not be clear – one stands for a role of government that’s limited to sitting aside on the sidelines essentially doing nothing – while the other views government as the primary representation of the people that will make the decisions as it sees fit. In my opinion, justice can only be achieved when we are at least able to maintain a safe space for all groups of people – those that agree that the structure of the state for the pursuit of justice is as they would like it to be, or at least close to it. We need to work with individuals and groups that maintain both these philosophical strands to come to a real-world policy approach wherein the state protects and preserves justice for all those disenfranchised but doesn’t seem like an imposition on people. Philosophical strands can be interpreted and worked with – but practical achievement of justice is not something that merits compromise.






1) Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press


2) Tomasi, John . 2012. “Democratic Legitimacy and Economic Liberty.” Social Philosophy and Policy  29 (1): 50-80.


3) Marx, Karl. 1867. Das Kapital, Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meisner


4) Hayek, F.A. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press


5) Neufeld, Blain . 2016. “Freedom, Money, and Justice as Fairness.” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics  16 (1): 70-92.

6) Marx,Karl. 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, Moscow: Progress Publishers


7) Gilabert, Pablo . 2015. “The Socialist Principle “From Each According To Their Abilities, To Each According To Their Needs.” Journal of Social Philosophy  46 (2): 197-225.


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