Taking Back ‘Social Justice’

Review: Michael Novak and Paul Adams with Elizabeth Shaw, ‘Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is’

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Protesters gather outside the the North Carolina Museum of History / AP
July 23, 2016

The term "social justice" in today’s academic and political discourse has almost exclusively to do with governmental action and nothing to do with individual morality. It is, as a common textbook definition has it, "the fair distribution of advantages and disadvantages in society."

That definition, Paul Adams and Michael Novak argue, is only concerned with the physical allocation of goods, implying "that some extra-human force, some very visible hand, that is, some powerful agency—the state—should do the distribution." In that sense, the term works chiefly as a vague but ever-ready justification for expansions of state power over individual lives, new regulations of the private sector, and further expansions of welfare programs that show no evidence of past success.

That’s not how the term began. It was born, Adams and Novak insist, in discussions between Roman Catholic scholars and ecclesiastics, and made its earliest appearances in papal encyclicals. In its original context, social justice was not a societal or political condition—a state of affairs resulting from an equitable distribution of wealth—but a "personal virtue with social implications."

It was Adams who first had the idea of this book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. Long troubled by the way in which his academic field uses the term exclusively in the secularized and state-centered way, he decided to combine his own sociological analysis with various writings by Novak, who of course is a well-known Catholic defender of economic liberty. The result is a surprisingly formidable book—surprising because what you thought was going to be an essay on a single term expands into a wide-ranging treatise on individual morality and societal cohesion.

The authors’ chief obstacle, though, isn’t so much the widespread use or misuse of the term, but Friedrich Hayek’s evisceration of the whole concept. Hayek, in The Mirage of Social Justice (the second volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty), argued that social justice assumes human agency where none exists. Justice and injustice only make sense, he believed, in the context of human culpability: a person or group of people can be guilty of perpetrating injustice; a political or governmental system, considered in the abstract, cannot.

That is why social justice campaigners often have such a difficult time articulating what it is they want. On the one hand, many of their criticisms of society aren’t applicable to any one situation. The existence of poverty in American society, for example, though tragic, is not something any person or group deliberately brought about. If certain individuals are deliberately perpetuating the system, social justice advocates might have a point; but they would be obliged to demonstrate who the perpetrators are, what specific wrongs they have carried out, and on what grounds the perpetrators might be stopped and punished.

And even when social justice campaigners do highlight specific crimes or misdeeds—the brutality of police officers during an arrest, say—the remedies they propose go far beyond the specific misdeeds they decry. Indeed, they often insist that those specific misdeeds are only a small manifestation of the wider injustice they seek to remedy. But who has perpetrated the injustice? Society? Government? These are abstractions, and to hold them guilty of injustice, argues Hayek, is to anthropomorphize them and so indulge in nonsense. There is a well-intentioned but dangerous confusion at the heart of the social justice movement, which is why it sometimes explodes into irrational rioting.

Hayek concludes that social justice is an empty concept, useless except as a rhetorical cudgel. Novak’s answer is to define the term as a personal virtue with social implications, and to link it with other principles of Catholic social teaching—teachings on the common good, the right of association, the right to private property, and so on. Novak is thus able to rescue the concept from its modern secular advocates, and in the process suggest new ways for conservatives to make the case for traditionalist morality in the public sphere. Adams makes those arguments in the book’s final chapters. He contends, for instance, that the promotion of marriage—"traditional marriage," as it’s now called—may fruitfully be thought of as a matter of social justice. And indeed the statistical relationship between the dissolution of marriage, on the one hand, and deleterious sociological trends, on the other—poor educational achievement, unemployment, the abuse of children—makes that contention difficult to dismiss.

Non-Catholic readers may be inclined to skim the chapters discussing the papal encyclicals that first used the term and concept of social justice. That would be a mistake—first because Novak’s writing is consistently lucid and instructive, and second because it’s only by following the development of Catholic thought on social justice is the reader able to see why the term "social justice" was needed in the first place. Briefly: Two pontiffs—Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891) and, forty years later, Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931)—struggled to answer a question that in one form or another dominated Europe from the mid-19th century on: Would economic activity be governed by a centralized state, or not?

Both these men sharply criticized the new socialist ideology as inhuman and dangerous. But what should take its place? The answer was far from obvious, but both Leo XIII and Pius XI insisted on the need for political arrangements that would allow for human freedom while also encouraging "social justice"—a term that made sense in the context of these encyclicals but still lacked precise meaning.

It was not until Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus in 1991—published on the centenary of the aforementioned Rerum Novarum, and just as communism had been finally discredited—that the Vatican produced a satisfyingly nuanced answer to the question of whether Christians should embrace "capitalism." John Paul II argued that, yes, free markets preserve private property and create wealth for greater numbers than command economies have ever achieved, but he also insisted that the aim of free markets must be to foster an ordered freedom, not merely appetite, and that they must therefore be governed by moral and religious impulses.

All this is the basis of Novak’s redefinition of social justice. It isn’t some all-purpose justification for expansions of state power, he writes, but a virtue, "a set of new habits and abilities that need to be learned, perfected, and passed on to new generations." It is "that specific habit of justice which entails two or more persons acting (1) in association and (2) for the good of the City." Social justice, then, corresponds roughly to the practice Alexis de Tocqueville thought was the first and most important habit of a thriving democracy: the habit of forming free associations in order to achieve public ends. When citizens learn to practice social justice, the results are higher levels of employment and opportunity, lower levels of destitution and crime, fewer suicides, and educational advancement by greater numbers—in essence, exactly what today’s social justice campaigners would seem to want.

Social Justice Isnt What You Think It Is combines excellent scholarship with engaging prose and a genuine concern for human flourishing.

Still, I’m not convinced. The authors are right to reject "social justice" as the term is commonly used, but to my mind its proper meaning is sufficiently clear without the aid of the Catholic Church’s social teaching, and indeed without inventing a new virtue. Social justice refers to the degree to which a society or nation applies just laws fairly. Put aside the encyclicals and consider the Old Testament prophets. "Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?" the prophet Habbakuk asks God. "Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted." The prophet sees a city in which people are routinely swindled and in which official justice is fraudulent. The prophet is grieved, not merely by injustices perpetrated by individuals in specific situations, but by the state of injustice prevailing throughout his society.

If this more self-evident definition of social justice obtains, American society is, for all its flaws, essentially a just society. Its laws are mostly humane, and the enforcement of those laws is usually not arbitrary. And that, of course, is why social justice campaigners would never accept it: the progressive mindset is premised on the belief that American society is essentially unjust. (Somehow the term "social justice" is rarely if ever applied to non-western nations—North Korea, say, or Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe or Afghanistan.) But none of this is a reason to redefine the term in so lengthy and complex a fashion as Adams and Novak have done. You shouldn’t have to read Tocqueville and papal encyclicals to understand what social justice is.

I suspect Christians in all ages, Catholic and Protestant, have understood the nature of social justice well enough, not by reflecting on papal pronouncements but by considering the character of God and the biblical meaning of "justice" (that is, righteousness) itself. I think of question number 74 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a document published by Puritans in 1647. What, the catechism asks, is required by the eighth commandment, the commandment against stealing? What the commandment forbids is clear enough, but what does it require? "The eighth commandment requireth the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others." If I read Adams and Novak correctly, that’s social justice avant la lettre.

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