In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Catholic Social Teaching and Hayek's Critique of Social Justice
  • Philip Booth (bio) and Matías Petersen (bio)

1. Introduction

Controversy surrounding the meaning of social justice has dominated many discussions of political economy, at least since F. A. Hayek published The Mirage of Social Justice as the second volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty in 1976. The subject divides political economists, philosophers, and theologians. It is also used to place a divide between Christian social thought and those Christians who might be sympathetic toward Hayekian thinking. Indeed, some argue that, since Hayek regarded social justice as a mirage (amongst many other negative descriptions), his thinking on matters of politics and economics is incompatible with a Christian view of social policy and political organization. However, there are several points of misunderstanding in these debates. For example, it is not clear whether Hayek's critique of social justice's Christian origins was well founded. Nor is it clear whether Christian supporters of social justice have really understood Hayek's views on some practical aspects of political economy.1 It seems that many of these conversations have been taking place at cross purposes. [End Page 36]

The literature on Hayek's critique of social justice is vast.2 This article fills an important gap by returning to the original works on social justice that Hayek cites from Catholic social thought and comparing the meanings expressed in those works with his critique. In particular, we focus on the relationship between Hayek's writing and Catholic thought on social justice from 1860–1939.3 In doing so, we provide a platform that ought to facilitate dialogue between different groups who work in the fields of political economy, political theory, and moral theology: groups that often talk past each other by using similar words with different meanings.

We argue that Hayek missed what might be described as a moving target, and that, in doing so, he misrepresented the teaching of the Catholic Church and nineteenth-century theologians on the matter. We also argue that Hayek's criticism of the early use of the phrase by Catholic writers was unjustified, even if his criticism of what the term came to mean in secular thought is accepted. Indeed, it is not clear whether Hayek understood what was meant by the originators of the term social justice. We then discuss whether Hayek's thought in general is compatible with the notion of social justice as it was used in Catholic social teaching in the prewar period.4 We think this debate is important for two reasons. First, in intellectual and wider circles, proponents of a free economy who sympathise with Hayek and those who engage with Catholic social thought (whether Catholics or otherwise) tend to talk past each other because of incorrect preconceptions about the social justice debate. Second, a rich dialogue could have developed between Hayek scholars and those involved in developing Catholic social thought about the idea of social justice (even if given a different name), which could have led to a shared and richer understanding of the responsibilities of different groups within society.

The article proceeds as follows. First, we briefly summarize Hayek's critique of social justice. We then trace the origins of social justice in Catholic social thought and relate this to the authors to whom Hayek refers in Law, Legislation and Liberty. This is followed [End Page 37] by a consideration of the development of social justice in Catholic social teaching up to the end of the 1930s, after which point Hayek does not refer specifically to writers in the Catholic social teaching tradition. Finally, we argue that it should have been possible for those steeped in the tradition of Catholic social thought and classical liberals such as Hayek to develop a constructive dialogue about the meaning of social justice in the decades that followed.

2. Hayek on Social Justice

The second volume of Hayek's Law, Legislation and Liberty is a systematic critique of the concept of social justice. Writing in the mid-1970s, Hayek argued that social justice had "conquered" public discourse and imagination. Not only had Socialists and other political movements embraced social justice as a key political...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 36-64
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.