I recently sat in on the Philadelphia Society’s annual meeting, an extended examination of the term “social justice.” In some ways, I like the term, given the way it is often used to remind us that every aspect of life is morally significant. At the same time, social justice sometimes serves as a substitute for careful thought, especially about economics. This short essay is my full evaluation and recommendation for the path forward. Do I get it right?
While the phrase “social justice” has been used since the Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli coined the term in 1840, Friedrich Hayek never could found a good definition, due to two persistent problems. First, strictly speaking, the concept is incoherent. As Russell Kirk argued in his lecture “The Meaning of Justice,” Aristotle’s definition of justice as the virtue of an individual in “giving every man his due” has shaped Western civilization for millennia. It makes no sense, however, to describe impersonal states of affairs as just or unjust. The second problem is that those who use the term nowadays intentionally leave it undefined. According to Michael Novak, vagueness about what social justice actually is serves the interests of the state, ever-eager to consolidate power by using any god term available. For this reason, conservative critics are much quicker to delineate the idea, e.g., Joseph Johnson in his book The Limits of Government: “social justice is the reduction of social and economic inequality by force of the state.”
At the 49th National Meeting of the Philadelphia Society, members and guests reexamined social justice, seeking to discern the extent to which it continues to result in coercion and consolidation, as well as the prospects for articulating a contrast narrative. Joshua Hawley put it well on Sunday when he reminded the assembly of the question the Dutch theologian and statesmen Abraham Kuyper frequently asked: “What is the soundness of the social order in which we live?” Conservatives have just as much interest in this question as liberals. Novak argues that in his day Hayek himself did not oppose many of the ends of social justice. The term was especially common at the end of the nineteenth century as shorthand for the need to ensure the health of the masses of peasants who uprooted themselves to become urban factory workers. The means, however, often neglected the basic principles that made the English-speaking world great. Novak believes that the best way forward is to redefine social justice as a subspecies of justice itself, dealing with both the skill of cooperating in labor with others and the goal of benefitting a community, not just oneself. As Lee Edwards emphasized on Saturday, the space of civil society between public and private is both enormous and important: “300 billion dollars, 350,000 churches, 1.5 million charitable organizations including 3,800 non-profit hospitals…”
Based on the readings and the presentations, I believe the redefinition of social justice needs to center on three principles.
The freedom of individuals to work and create value must be protected. In his keynote address, Samuel Gregg affirmed the basic goodness of work, grounded in a Judeo-Christian anthropology that understands men and women as stewards of God’s inherently good creation. The free market was birthed in the High Middle Ages as a means of supporting the travel and trade of pilgrims and merchants; it eventually galvanized the development of tremendous wealth and opportunity. Intervention that stifles ingenuity and competition is actually unjust and harms both the common good and the liberty of individuals. As Anne Wortham asked, “Why would anyone consent to the forced redistribution of their property?” Beyond being coercive, centralized planning is also inefficient, an idea addressed by the second principle.
The solution to problems must be local and self-interested. To illustrate this idea, Brian Lee Crowley recounted the accidental discovery of glass-making by Phoenician sailors, who while moored on a sandy beach propped their cooking pots on lumps of nitrum. As the nitrum melted and mixed with sand, a translucent liquid was formed, and the sailors perceived how to make an invaluable new material. Crowley emphasized that glass and many other innovations (electricity, railroads, corporations, automobiles) disrupt the status quo profoundly; any centralized authority would never be able to predict or control such innovations. For this reason, genuine competition and free enterprise are essential for the pursuit of knowledge. In the same session, Roberta Herzberg described how rare it was for aid programs to ask low-income communities what they actually needed, and “solutions” were usually foreign and disempowering. For these reasons, i.e., the limits of both human knowledge and human virtue, matters ought be handled by those closest to them. Catholic social teachers call this notion “subsidiarity,” and it applies to both the state and culture. The breakout panel Helping People Help Themselves provided vivid examples of both the benefits of subsidiarity and the dangers of ignoring it. Jennifer Marshall explained how for 60 years the federal assistance program Aid to Families with Dependent Children encouraged women to not find jobs and avoid marrying anyone with a job, despite the fact that marriage is a better social safety net than any bureaucracy. Contrast this with B. Wayne Hughes, Jr., the entrepreneur and philanthropist whose charity work focuses on the restoration of the whole person: legally, socially, and vocationally, something possible only through close relationships and accountability. This brings us to the third principle.
Faith and virtue must be preserved within civic society. The glorification of secularism and what John Richard Neuhaus calls the “naked public square” has not helped individuals, families, or the culture. Agreeing with Novak, Samuel Gregg argued that any appropriation of social justice under the larger cardinal virtue of justice must be supported and informed by natural law and divine revelation. Such appropriation would also necessarily resist the consolidation of power by the “value neutral” government, which fails to account for the dignity and moral dimension of persons in its social welfare programs, its education curricula, and its orientation toward charities and non-profit organizations. In conclusion, for social justice to be truly just, it must recognize the liberty of everyone to create, the priority of localized self-interest, and the value of virtue and faith.