International Elevated Thought Conference


Social Justice: Not What You Think It Is

December 29, 2009 32 min read Download Report

Michael Novak




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Abstract: For its proponents, "social justice" is usually undefined. Originally a Catholic term, first used about 1840 for a new kind of virtue (or habit) necessary for post-agrarian societies, the term has been bent by secular "progressive" thinkers to mean uniform state distribution of society's advantages and disadvantages. Social justice is really the capacity to organize with others to accomplish ends that benefit the whole community. If people are to live free of state control, they must possess this new virtue of cooperation and association. This is one of the great skills of Americans and, ultimately, the best defense against statism.


Let us begin by asking what most people think social justice is. After that, let us review how the term arose. It is a Catholic concept, later taken over by secular progressives. What social justice actually is turns out to be very different from the way the term is now used popularly.


When the Academics Take Over: Five Common Usages of Social Justice


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Distribution. Most people's sense of social justice is generic, amounting to nothing more than what we find in the dictionary under "social justice": "The distribution of advantages and disadvantages in society." Now, notice that the dictionary definition introduces a new key term, "distribution." Alas, the original notion of social justice had very little to do with distribution. Worse, this newly added term suggests that some extra-human force, "the visible hand," does the distribution: that is, some very powerful human agency, usually the state.


Equality. Furthermore, the expression "advantages and disadvantages" supposes there is a norm of equality by which to measure disadvantages. Consider this professorial definition:


    Although it is difficult to agree on the precise meaning of "social justice" I take that to most of us it implies, among other things, equality of the burdens, the advantages, and the opportunities of citizenship. Indeed, I take that social justice is intimately related to the concept of equality, and that the violation of it is intimately related to the concept of inequality.[1]


This definition expresses a whole ideology: that equality is good and ought to be enforced. And note what has happened to the word "equality." In English, equality usually suggests fairness, equity, or the equitable; but what is equitable is often not to give people the same portions, but rather to give what is proportionate to the efforts of each.


In European languages, most thinkers followed the model of the French term égalité. Égalité means the "equals sign," égal. "This" on one side is equal to "that" on the other side. Égalité is a quite different notion from the English "equitable." This French/ Continental usage is captured in the American Sociological Review:


    As I see it, social justice requires resource equity, fairness, and respect for diversity, as well as the eradication of existing forms of social oppression. Social justice entails a "redistribution" of resources from those who have "unjustly" gained them to those who justly deserve them, and it also means creating and "ensuring" the processes of truly democratic participation in decision-making.... It seems clear that only a "decisive" redistribution of resources and decision-making power can "ensure" social justice and authentic democracy.[2]


In brief, shifting to the French égalité changes the entire meaning of equality from equity or fairness to arithmetical uniformity.


This is really a dreadful change, because where people take equality very seriously, they soon insist on uniformity. In the Inca society under Spanish rule, the first utopia was attempted. People were assigned by social class certain colors of robes to wear, and regimented hours were established for everything that was to be done throughout the day--even lovemaking hours, with great emphasis on bringing forth more children.[3] If you are going to make everybody equal, you really have to make uniform crucial items of daily life.


Common Good. Social justice is typically associated with some notion of the common good. "Common good" is a wonderful term that goes back to Aristotle, but in practice, it often hinges on a key question: namely, who decides what is the common good? In ancient societies, often the wisest and strongest person was the ruler, and it was he who made the important decisions, such as where we will camp tonight or near which source of water we shall build our village. The person with the greatest strategic and tactical sense of what is safe and the greatest ecological sense of where there will be good community life would make these decisions.


In contemporary times, beginning a century or two ago, that responsibility gradually shifted to the bureaucratic state. Decisions became too numerous for the ruler himself to make, and they became delegated to a variety of organizations. Further, such decisions came to be decided by many people at once. No longer is there one clear person to be held responsible and accountable for these decisions. Quickly, the beautiful notion of the common good gets ensnared in red tape.


A central misuse of the term "common good" became clear to me for the first time when, at the Human Rights Commission in Bern, I was prodding the Soviet delegation to recognize the right of married couples, one of whose partners was from one nation, the other from another, to share residence in whichever nation they chose. The Soviets staunchly resisted--in the name of the common good. The Soviet Union, they insisted, had invested great sums of money and much effort in giving an education to each Soviet citizen. The common good, they said, demands that these citizens now make comparable contributions in return. Therefore, the Soviet partner could not leave. Individual desires must bow to the common good of all.


In this way, the common good becomes an excuse for total state control. That was the excuse on which totalitarianism was built. You can achieve the common good better if there is a total authority, and you must then limit the desires and wishfulness of individuals.


As a result, there are many occasions when one must argue for individual rights against the argument of the common good. Most people speak of "common good" when they mean something noble and shiny and good, something motherly. But who decides what the common good is, and who enforces the common good? These are fundamental questions.


The Progressive Agenda. The progressive agenda begins with lack of faith in the new discoveries and the new vitalities introduced by what would soon become known as capitalism. Beginning in about 1600, European societies began experiencing a turbulent, dramatic shift from agrarian society to crowded commercial towns.


The first craftsmen of Italy and France and Germany set up their workshops in towns and small cities, which kept growing. They didn't live on the farms or make their living from the land. They made their living from their wit, from their crafts, from their skills, and they usually had to work together. They were known as town-dwellers, those who live in towns, and they became the first bourgeoisie.


If you were told, "You have such bourgeois taste," you may have been uncertain what that meant, but you knew it wasn't meant as a compliment. But if you think about it, the people of best taste in the world have been the bourgeoisie. Who makes the best wines, the best cheeses, the best lace and millinery? Who makes the best cutlery or fashions the best wooden tables? All the beautiful things of Europe have been made by the bourgeoisie.


In their little ateliers, even the painters had their schools, their little factories for paintings, if you wish, in which apprentices would fill in the background work, which the master would finish. Thus, painters in the 19th century--in fact, from the 16th century on--often created in workshops, not one person alone, and they congregated in cities, because that is where they would have to come to learn these skills, and that is where the market for portraits was.


From Horace and Virgil on, there were those who didn't like the world created by the bourgeoisie. Such poets of pastoral life preferred to think that farming and fishing are what God gave us to do. But the middlemen, who buy their fish and transport them and sell them, "buy cheap and sell dear" in a way that's unfair. For centuries, there has been a widespread attack on the bourgeoisie and the unfairness and inequity of a commercial system.


There began to be developed a progressive agenda, first around labor. As you increase the numbers and the range of these little workshops and they hire more than 10--maybe 50--workers, the factory system began to grow. Now, for the first time, you were cutting off from their farms working people who used to be farmers, so they no longer grew their own food. They worked in the factory. Neither in the country nor in the factories did they work only eight-hour days. Nobody worked in the fields for only eight hours; they worked from sunup until sunset, and they did the same in the cities and in the factories too.


The problem is that workers were now entirely dependent on their wages. It used to be that those who had a roof over their heads and enough to eat weren't poor. When the Bible says, "The poor ye shall always have with you," it suggests that's a rather good, normal condition. If you have a roof over your head and enough food, you're living the good life. But in the new towns and cities where workers became wage-dependent, some writers now spoke of "wage slavery." Workers became so dependent on their employers that they lost their rural independence. They lost the solidity of their old way of life.


In this context, the progressive agenda was to "right" some of these wrongs. It meant being on the side of labor, the proletariat, as Marx put it. "Proletariat" is a word invented to mean people who work in factories, something that they thought hadn't existed before.


However, in 15th-century Venice there was a huge factory for making cannon, the best cannon in the world. In Spain, there were other factories making cannon; some people thought the Spanish cannon superior. Some scholars even argue that during the 500-year sea war between the Muslims and the Christians, the Venetian and Spanish cannons tipped the balance until even the Muslims conceded the point and began to bribe engineers and others, pay them very well, and brought them to Byzantium, Turkey, to open operations there. There were already factories in earlier ages--and incidentally, contrary to Max Weber, these most often grew up in Catholic countries first.


Not to take on too many themes at once, I want to point out that if you read the definitions of social justice that appear in more recent writings, they go on to include one of the main elements of the new progressive agenda, "reproductive rights." As one group puts it:


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