Francis E. Mahaffy
The advocates of what is called social justice conceive of it as relating primarily to the economic status of the individual. It is unjust, in their view, for some to have great wealth while others have only the bare essentials. It is unjust for the price, rent, or interest rate to be “too high.”
Profits are often accepted as necessary though it is unjust for them to be “excessive.” Private property is not usually condemned in toto by these writers, though many of them class it as a necessary evil.
An excessive amount of private property, however, is generally condemned as unjust and a warrant for the increasing interventions of the welfare state.
Many people advocate social justice from religious motives. Some religious people have made the illogical jump from the need to manifest a loving concern for those in physical need to the advocacy of political means to accomplish this end. Professor Brown writes:
“If any man is hungry, this is both a religious and a political concern, and out of a religious concern for one created in God’s image, political means must be devised for ensuring that everyone gets enough bread—which is a suitable enough definition of the art of politics.”4
Such thinking is on a level with alchemy. Bread—meaning all the economic production by which men’s creaturely needs are supplied— can be legislated into scarcity. But legislation cannot produce bread, any more than incantations can produce gold.
When the matter is examined, it is obvious that this concept of social justice is destructive of real justice. By prefixing the adjective “social” to the concept of justice the result is a destruction of proper justice and a perversion of true social concern. Social concern or fraternity is the responsibility of the individual and of voluntary associations of individuals.
It often springs from religious or humanitarian motives. But it loses its religious significance and changes its nature the instant it becomes a political matter. It is a human and religious duty to care for one’s parents, to support the sick, and to alleviate suffering and famine. This duty is always in the realm of private and personal relationships and can never be properly effected by impersonal political means. This state cannot love our parents; it cannot clothe the naked and visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction as commanded by Christ. All it is able to do is to use the arm of force to redistribute income.
This personal concern and sympathy that leads to material and spiritual help to the afflicted and needy is not a matter of justice; it is in the realm of the spirit, not of the law.
The beggar on the streets of an Eastern city does not have a “just” claim upon our alms. The leper in an African hut does not have a “right” to the services of the medical missionary or to the medicines sent by charitable Christians. The help given lies in the realm of charity, and charity is no longer charity if it ceases to be voluntary. It is unfortunate that some Africans and Asians are unable to properly clothe and feed their children or to earn wages of more than five cents an hour, but it is not necessarily a matter of injustice.
Love and sympathy for those in need is an obligation laid upon the Christian, but to invoke coercive political action to accomplish this distorts Christianity. Political implementation of religious duty removes material assistance from the realm of love to that of force and makes a mockery of Christian charity. The term “social” as it is used by some people to describe the fraternity that should exist among men is a term that loses its meaning when it is conceived of as the demand of justice rather than as the fruit of love.
Justice vs. Charity
The term “justice” should not be confused with “charity.” Justice, unlike charity, is the province of the state. Justice is blind. It guards the property and protects the life of all alike. It does not discriminate between people. The economic status, religion, color, or personality of the individual is of no concern to justice. Justice is the execution of the law which treats all men equally. In its exercise the state has the monopoly of the use of force. The one who resorts to violence of one kind or another in his dealings with his fellow men—the murderer, the thief, or the contract breaker—is the recipient of the justice wielded by the power of the state. The state has the power of the sword to execute justice.
Some feel that this idea of justice is a cold, heartless concept. They want the state to produce social and economic justice as well. They want justice to include a more equal distribution of the goods of this world. They want charity and sympathy to be effected by the power of the law. In the process of broadening the meaning of justice to include these political activities, real justice is destroyed. The use of force to take from some to give to others is the very opposite of justice.
Economic equality or economic redistribution cannot be effected by force apart from an unequal, and thus unjust, treatment of individual citizens. When this becomes the policy of the state, justice no longer prevails. The adjective “social” destroys the noun “justice.”
Nor may the concept of justice be broadened to include a just price or wage. Economic remuneration is not given on the basis of the intrinsic worth of a person but rather on the basis of a man’s evaluation of the specific services rendered by another. This subjective evaluation may differ widely in individuals. One writer describes a contributor to The Freeman as the world’s outstanding economist, while another thinks the contributors to this journal expound the cause of a decadent liberalism.
It is not a matter of injustice that consumers evaluate a vulgar Hollywood production more highly than a work of fine art, or the comic sheets than the works of Shakespeare. This lies within the realm of subjective value judgments and tastes which are not the province of the state or of justice to regulate. When the state determines the economic renumeration of its citizens through control of prices, wages, and other means, this remuneration usually favors those who support the regime. This is not justice but legal plunder.
The Restricted Use of Force
Contrary to popular opinion, it is only by restricting the state to the administration of justice and the securing of individual liberty that proper scope can be given to social concerns. When the state takes over the sphere of charity and seeks to replace personal love and sympathy with impersonal, mechanical redistribution by force, the individual and voluntary associations of individuals are no longer able properly to fulfill their religious obligation in this sphere. When the financial and medical care of our aging parents becomes a matter of supporting them by taxes from everybody with a large fee removed for administration costs in the process, it becomes increasingly difficult for children to show filial love and care for their parents in obedience to the divine injunction. When excessive taxes are used to support the advance of socialism in Africa and South America through our government-to-government foreign aid, the individual is deprived of a considerable amount of his means for the voluntary support of charity. Private colleges and schools, hospitals, and other works of philanthropy and charity suffer as a result.
When the state assumes the task of promoting social justice, it leads to conflict on the part of various groups and individuals to get their hands on this “economic justice.” Subsidies are disbursed in terms of political power; seldom is there concern with the character of the individual recipient. Voluntary charity, however, is highly discriminating.
While charity may be given to those whose plight is the result of their own dissipation, folly, or sin, yet it is usually given with care and from a personal knowledge of the circumstances of the individual recipient. Private charity tends to encourage thrift and virtue while distribution by the power of the state, as is becoming ever more evident, encourages vice and indolence. Why should a man seek a job when he can receive sufficient relief from the government while unemployed?
Why should mothers of illegitimate children change their habits when they are paid in proportion to the number of offspring they bear and all stigma is removed? The distribution by force leads to the idea on the part of the recipient that what he gets is his due. W. G. Sumner has well said:
“The yearning after equality is the offspring of envy and covetousness, and there is no possible plan for satisfying that yearning which can do aught else than rob A to give to B; consequently, all such plans nourish some of the meanest vices of human nature, waste capital, and overthrow civilization.”5
Only when the state is restricted to the administration of justice, and economic creativity thus freed from arbitrary restraints, will conditions exist for making possible a lasting improvement in the welfare of the more miserable peoples of the world. It is often this very lack of justice in the poorer countries that keeps the people in their low economic state. An English economic advisor to an African state was shocked at the prevalent low wages and succeeded in securing a minimum wage law for the land. The result was that thousands of workers who had earned forty to fifty cents a day were put out of work. Only the more efficient and essential workers remained and the whole economy suffered.
It had been interventions in the market by the government, a lack of justice, that had kept the wages down in the first place by preventing capital accumulation and investment. Further intervention, in the form of the minimum wage law, only aggravated the situation, removing the one chance many had for some economic improvement.
Were justice present in these lands, there would be no shortage of investment capital, for there would then be no fear of unjust confiscation or nationalization. Justice is the one condition that will lead to economic improvement. Where there is little justice, there is little charity.
Only where there is justice and freedom will there be the opportunity for extensive charity.
When seen in its proper light, it is genuine social concern, sympathy for the less fortunate, and love for his fellow man that prompts the advocate of limited government to seek to restrict the state to the province of justice. It is because he realizes that the only true and adequate charity, fraternity, or social help springs from individual loving concern for another that he wants this sphere free from political control.
He opposes the concept of social justice because he wants true justice and because he wishes to see economic and social improvement in the world. He is convinced that economic improvement cannot be effected by coercive redistribution but will follow justice and freedom. He recognizes that charity and fraternity cannot be legislated; to attempt to do so is to destroy them. It is because of his concern for justice as well as his concern for social improvement that he objects to the distortion involved in the concept of social justice. He agrees with the words of Frederic Bastiat:
“Governments never take any action which does not rest upon the sanction of force. Now, it is permissible to compel a person to be just, but not to force him to be charitable. The law, when it seeks to get action by force where morality brings it about by persuasion, far from elevating itself into the domain of Charity, falls into the field of Spoliation….”6
The proper domain of law and of government is justice. ***
4. Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism (Oxford, 1961), 202.
5. William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (Caldwell, ID:
6. Frederic Bastiat, “Justice and Fraternity,” first published in the Journal des
Economistes (Paris: June 1848).
Francis E. Mahaffy, B.D., is pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian church in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois. He is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He served for many years as a missionary in Eritrea, Ethiopia.
Article from Chalcedon.edu; Symposium on Christian Economics, Vol. 2 No. 1.