Commentary Magazine


Topic: Social Justice

More on Social Justice

Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff has written a dissent from my defense of the term “social justice.” I admire Mirengoff, and his response is intelligent and worth reading. And because the topic is one I find philosophically interesting and arguably of some (marginal) political importance, I want to respond to some of the points made by Mirengoff. 

1. He writes “If justice is an individual-centric concept, then there is no room for the concept of social justice.” Social justice is, I think, different than justice, but not “superfluous.” It is, as a friend of mine said, a softer concept than justice, but certainly not (as Mirengoff seems to argue) antithetical to it.

What I have in mind with the term is what we believe a society owes to others; the belief that living in a human society entitles our fellow human beings to some degree of sympathy and solicitude–and that a failure to grant these things is a failure of social justice.

It’s also worth remembering that society includes entities other than individuals—such as families, the fundamental unit of society, and institutions like churches and civic groups—that can also be treated justly or unjustly. If justice is, as Mirengoff writes, properly understood only as “an individual-centric concept,” then “social justice” concerns itself with these other important social entities. This broader understanding is, I think, consistent with various currents within conservatism.

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Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff has written a dissent from my defense of the term “social justice.” I admire Mirengoff, and his response is intelligent and worth reading. And because the topic is one I find philosophically interesting and arguably of some (marginal) political importance, I want to respond to some of the points made by Mirengoff. 

1. He writes “If justice is an individual-centric concept, then there is no room for the concept of social justice.” Social justice is, I think, different than justice, but not “superfluous.” It is, as a friend of mine said, a softer concept than justice, but certainly not (as Mirengoff seems to argue) antithetical to it.

What I have in mind with the term is what we believe a society owes to others; the belief that living in a human society entitles our fellow human beings to some degree of sympathy and solicitude–and that a failure to grant these things is a failure of social justice.

It’s also worth remembering that society includes entities other than individuals—such as families, the fundamental unit of society, and institutions like churches and civic groups—that can also be treated justly or unjustly. If justice is, as Mirengoff writes, properly understood only as “an individual-centric concept,” then “social justice” concerns itself with these other important social entities. This broader understanding is, I think, consistent with various currents within conservatism.

As I argued in my original post, we all agree that social injustice exists; it make sense, therefore, to believe social justice does as well. Why wouldn’t taking a stand against state-enforced apartheid or Uganda’s harsh anti-gay laws or North Korea’s persecution of Christians qualify as standing up for social justice–that is, insisting that a society’s laws and institutions be more just? When Nelson Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa, he was not only defending individual rights (though he was surely doing that); he was also saying it was a transparent violation of the moral ideals of a just and good society, something that sets socially and culturally pernicious norms and expectations. I certainly don’t see how advocating social justice in these terms takes us further down the road to serfdom.

2. Mirengoff writes, “The pursuit of social justice may also lead to action that is inconsistent with justice.” Agreed. But that’s true of compassion, decency, fairness, equality, the public good, freedom, and even justice itself. Any phrase is subject to abuse; that doesn’t mean the phrase is itself meaningless.

Stephen Douglas used the concept of “popular sovereignty” to defend the expansion of slavery. George Wallace used the concept of “states’ rights” to enforce racial segregation. And the left has appropriated the words “choice” and “liberty” to justify allowing abortions at any point in pregnancy for any reason. Does that mean we should give up on these concepts or cede them to the left? I would say no, that it is better to rescue them.

3. This discussion is reminiscent of the debate about whether conservatives should use the word “compassion” in the context of politics and political philosophy. Some on the right strongly believe that compassion has virtually no role in a conservative governing agenda because it can lead to all sorts of mischief. Others felt like using the phrase “compassionate conservatism” was an insult, since conservatism didn’t need the modifier. And still others believe compassion is what liberals care about, so leave it to them.

My view has long been that conservatives ought to claim the term, since conservatism, in concrete ways, improves the lives of our fellow citizens, including and often especially the poor and most vulnerable members of society. For example, during the welfare debate in the mid-1990s, I argued conservatives should make it clear that our approach was far more compassionate to the poor. (It turned out it was.)

Conservatives, rather than denigrating the ideas of compassion and social justice, should embrace them and show how conservatism properly understood actually advances them.

4. Mirengoff writes, “When [a laudable charitable project] travels under the banner of social justice, it gains extra moral authority that it does not deserve.” But the left already uses the term “social justice” with some effectiveness precisely because it does carry moral authority.

It’s a term that many people are instinctively (and I think correctly) drawn to. Rather than conservatives being seen as the enemies of social justice, I would suggest they be seen as its authentic champions. Why not counteract what Mirengoff calls “false advertising” with true advertising?

The differences Mirengoff and I have are more about semantics than about ends; but in politics and political philosophy, semantics matter. 

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In Defense of Social Justice

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written an excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. It lays out a conservative social justice agenda aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. The pillars of this agenda include personal moral transformation, material relief, and opportunity.

Specific polices are of course crucial, and what Brooks lays out is commendable. For now, though, I want to focus on the underlying case for a social justice agenda.

The term itself is not one you often hear from conservatives, perhaps in part because of the brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s distaste for it. Hayek believed the idea of social justice was a mirage, an “empty formula” and “hollow incantation,” and impossible to define.  (You might enjoy watching this 1977 Firing Line conversation between William F. Buckley Jr. and Hayek on social justice.)

On the matter of social justice, Hayek had in mind distributive justice. “There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes,” Hayek put it. “Considerations of justice provide no justification for ‘correcting’ the results of the market,” he said elsewhere. “Only human conduct can be called just and unjust,” Hayek argued. (Hayek himself did not oppose a comprehensive system of social insurance and favored a guaranteed minimum income. His fear was that the concept of social justice would lead to “centrally planned distribution according to merit,” in the words of the philosopher David Schmidtz. “He thinks a merit czar would be intolerable.”)

Professor Hayek’s insights about spontaneous order, the virtues of dispersed decision making, the dangers of collectivism and centralized planning, and the limits of social knowledge are tremendous contributions. But I do think that the term “social justice,” as defined by Hayek, is too constricted and incomplete; that it’s a term conservatives should not only refuse to cede to the left but one they should embrace.

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Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written an excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. It lays out a conservative social justice agenda aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. The pillars of this agenda include personal moral transformation, material relief, and opportunity.

Specific polices are of course crucial, and what Brooks lays out is commendable. For now, though, I want to focus on the underlying case for a social justice agenda.

The term itself is not one you often hear from conservatives, perhaps in part because of the brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s distaste for it. Hayek believed the idea of social justice was a mirage, an “empty formula” and “hollow incantation,” and impossible to define.  (You might enjoy watching this 1977 Firing Line conversation between William F. Buckley Jr. and Hayek on social justice.)

On the matter of social justice, Hayek had in mind distributive justice. “There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes,” Hayek put it. “Considerations of justice provide no justification for ‘correcting’ the results of the market,” he said elsewhere. “Only human conduct can be called just and unjust,” Hayek argued. (Hayek himself did not oppose a comprehensive system of social insurance and favored a guaranteed minimum income. His fear was that the concept of social justice would lead to “centrally planned distribution according to merit,” in the words of the philosopher David Schmidtz. “He thinks a merit czar would be intolerable.”)

Professor Hayek’s insights about spontaneous order, the virtues of dispersed decision making, the dangers of collectivism and centralized planning, and the limits of social knowledge are tremendous contributions. But I do think that the term “social justice,” as defined by Hayek, is too constricted and incomplete; that it’s a term conservatives should not only refuse to cede to the left but one they should embrace.

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin reminded me of Irving Kristol’s rejection of Hayek’s denial of the idea of social justice in his 1970 essay “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness.” Kristol pointed out that Hayek, for whom Kristol had great respect, preferred a free society to a just society “because, [Hayek] says, while we know what freedom is, we have no generally accepted knowledge of what justice is.”

“Can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe it is also a just society?” Kristol asked. “I do not think so. My reading of history is that, in the same way as men cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.”

Kristol praised American society when it was

still permeated by the Puritan ethic, the Protestant ethic, the capitalist ethic – call it what you will. It was a society in which it was agreed that there was a strong correlation between certain personal virtues – frugality, industry, sobriety, reliability, piety – and the way in which power, privilege, and property were distributed. And this correlation was taken to be the sign of a just society, not merely of a free one. 

So denying the possibility of a common idea of justice is not one I’m prepared to accept. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament don’t seem to accept it, either. In his book Generous Justice, Timothy J. Keller writes that the words “social justice” appear more than three dozen times in the Bible. (Dr. Keller argues that “social justice” is the best English expression we have for the relevant Hebrew words. The most accurate translated text for Psalm 33:5, for example, would be, “The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.”)

Whether or not one finds this persuasive, social injustice exists; so, I would argue, does the concept of social justice–and any society that fails to dispense some measure of sympathy and solicitude to others, particularly those living in the shadows and who are most vulnerable to injustice, cannot really be a good society. A decent civilization needs to have something to say to them. So should the conservative movement. Which brings me back to the essay by Arthur Brooks.

“The conservative creed should be fighting for people, especially vulnerable people, whether or not they vote as we do,” Brooks writes. “This is our fight, and it is a happy one. After all, as Proverbs 14:21 reminds us, ‘He that despiseth his neighbor, sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he’.”

Whether this effort travels under the banner of social justice or some other name, to do justice and to love mercy is what is required of us, as individuals and as a society. Or so it seems to me.

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Social Justice: A Solution in Search of a Problem

The left has always had a knack for the high-sounding phrase, such as New Deal, Great Society, etc.  One that is increasingly in vogue these days is Social Justice.  It sounds noble—everyone’s in favor of justice, right?—but when you look closely, it’s nothing more than the old redistribution of income in the name of “equality.” The left argues that free markets inherently produce unequal results and these inequalities need to be corrected for justice to be achieved.

Over at the Library of Law and Liberty, my friend David C. Rose, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, brilliantly eviscerates the whole notion of Social Justice. He calls its basic assumption into question:

But is the premise actually true? Do free market societies inevitably produce unjust outcomes, or are social justice theorists incorrectly inferring injustice from what is actually innocuous inequality? In my view the latter is true and the former is false, so social justice theory amounts to a solution in search of a problem. As such, it constitutes a massive straw man argument against the free market society. Making matters worse, it is a particularly attractive straw man argument because it comports well with incorrect but very plausible folk wisdom about what a market economic system is and how it functions. An affirmative defense of this claim is beyond the scope of this essay, but it will become clear below that an affirmative defense of this claim is not required to reject social justice theory. 

You can read his short essay here. It is well worth your time.

The left has always had a knack for the high-sounding phrase, such as New Deal, Great Society, etc.  One that is increasingly in vogue these days is Social Justice.  It sounds noble—everyone’s in favor of justice, right?—but when you look closely, it’s nothing more than the old redistribution of income in the name of “equality.” The left argues that free markets inherently produce unequal results and these inequalities need to be corrected for justice to be achieved.

Over at the Library of Law and Liberty, my friend David C. Rose, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, brilliantly eviscerates the whole notion of Social Justice. He calls its basic assumption into question:

But is the premise actually true? Do free market societies inevitably produce unjust outcomes, or are social justice theorists incorrectly inferring injustice from what is actually innocuous inequality? In my view the latter is true and the former is false, so social justice theory amounts to a solution in search of a problem. As such, it constitutes a massive straw man argument against the free market society. Making matters worse, it is a particularly attractive straw man argument because it comports well with incorrect but very plausible folk wisdom about what a market economic system is and how it functions. An affirmative defense of this claim is beyond the scope of this essay, but it will become clear below that an affirmative defense of this claim is not required to reject social justice theory. 

You can read his short essay here. It is well worth your time.

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