The Mirage of Social Justice

“Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is”

Presenter: Michael Novak


Social justice is one of the terms most often used in ethical and political discourse. It is also a term used with the least care. I’ve searched in vain for definitions of it. In its fuzziness and warmth, everyone wants to cuddle it, but virtually no one will give you a forthright definition of it.

Sister Maureen, a recent obituary in the dialogue, The Woman Diocesan Paper, reported, and I paraphrase, gave her entire life as a nun for social justice. Sister Maureen, you read further, was a missionary in Africa for 46 years, cared for the sick, taught the young, bought assistance to the suffering and the poor. Are we to gather then that social justice is simply a synonym for living out the beauty of the beatitudes?

Again, I once heard a professor at the Catholic University of Ružemberok in Slovakia say that he thinks of social justice as an ideal arrangement of society in which justice and charity are fully served. This seems to mean that social justice is an ideal towards which some at least strive progressively to move society.

The American socialist, Irving Howell, once wrote, “Socialism is the name of our dream” — the very issue of dissent. He meant a dream of justice and equality and democracy. Is social justice also the name of a dream, but not exactly the socialist’s dream?

Quadragesimo Anno, the classic statement of social justice in the Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI in 1931 called social justice a law and a principle, and uses it as a synonym for the common good. But Quadragesimo Anno also tightly links social justice to the principle of association. He talks about the state, but very soon veers off towards the principle of association. It’s not clear the connection, but he does it. Very much as Alexis de Tocqueville calls the principle of association the first law of democracy.

On another plane entirely, is social justice a non-religious concept? Many secular sociologists and political philosophers use it that way trying to tie it down as closely as they can to the term of equality in the French sense of egalite, the equal sign, which is quite different from equitable, fair.

Has social justice become an ideological marker favoring progressives over conservatives, Democrats over Republicans, social workers over corporate executives?

So, for tonight I intend to do four things. I want to walk through the origin and early development of the term “social justice” to know where we’re going. It helps greatly to know where we’ve been. Second, I rooted out — actually Elizabeth Shaw and Mitchell Borsna, my assistants, have rooted them out — five different ways in which social justice is used in contemporary discourse, secular and religious. All might be better classified as misuses or evasions. Third, I would like to propose my own definition of social justice, one that I believe is true to the original understanding, ideologically neutral, and applicable to the issues of today — very, very nicely. Finally, I want to test out this definition and see if we can come to an understanding of how Friedrich Hayek, the famous foe of social justice, also acted as an exemplary model of social justice, properly understood.

So, the brief history. Let me go back to the locus classicus of Quadragesimo Anno written at the height of the Great Depression, a time of crisis for the Catholic world. Hitler was coming on stage in Germany, Mussolini had been ruling Italy for nearly a decade, Stalin was staging the systematic — for more than a decade. Stalin was staging the systematic starvation of nine million Ukrainians. The occasions of this encyclical was the 40th anniversary, thus its name, of the first of the papal documents on the social condition of labor issued by Leo XIII in 1891.

So, first, we should understand the eponymous new things in the cultural and economic life of the turn of the 19th century that prompted Leo XIII to write Rerum Novarum.

A quick aside. Popes are supposed to be concerned with the life of the spirit and with eternity. If you do not work in the light of eternity, there will be an important dimension missing in your life. This was Tocqueville’s point when he said that religion is the first institution of democracy. Unless you understand that every human being has a transcendent importance beyond any pragmatic or utilitarian consideration, you cannot plumb the full meaning of human rights. That’s the crucial frame of reference that religion supplies to democracy. For this reason, Tocqueville thought, in the United States as distinguished from Europe, religion and liberty remained friends, and the doctrine of rights received here its first substantiation.

In any case, with Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII marked a departure from the traditional consideration of eternal things to consider what was happening in the social economy of Europe. He did so because his people were living longer, subsistence farms could no longer sustain growing families, and people were being driven from the countryside. When a father died, the eldest son inherited the farm; the younger sons had to leave and find work elsewhere. They immigrated to America, north and south, and to the newly industrializing cities of Europe.

These vast migrations to urban environments had a devastating effect on traditional family life and, therefore, on the Christian faith because it’s normally transmitted through the family. So, in the name of the family, Leo XIII decided to address the social crisis of the 1890s. In particular, he came to a defense of the workers led, I’m happy to say, by our own Cardinal Gibbons here in Baltimore. At any rate, at an earlier time he would’ve had to address an encyclical mainly to farmers because farmers had been for centuries the occupation of 90 percent of the people.

In 1891, many of the world’s leading philosophers and greatest minds — John Stuart Mill and others — thought that socialism might well be the path of the future. To the contrary, Pope Leo listed a dozen reasons why socialism would prove to be not only evil, but futile. And I must say, if you read those reasons, they look very good after 1989.

Flash forward to 1931 and Quadragesimo Anno. Pius XI pointed out the many successful reforms undertaken in capitalist economies since 1891, but quite aware of the gathering storm, urged the nations to address more seriously the social crisis racking Europe. On eight or nine different occasions in the encyclical, he used the relatively new term “social justice” to designate his ideal. In other words, a sense of crisis and change was built into the term, or at least surrounded it.

The term and the basic idea had roots in Aristotle and in medieval thought. The core of the ancient idea called general justice may be adumbrated by the following: in times of war, occupation by a foreign army or exile, it was hard for individuals to live sound, moral lives. They needed to adjust to the new powers. Order broke down, Homo Homini Lupus, man is wolf to man, prevailed.

The ethics of individuals, wise men observed, are much affected by the ethos of the city in which they live. It’s hard to swim upstream. You can do it, but it’s pretty tiring. Thus, to make sacrifices, to maintain the health and strength of the city, seems to be a disposition that is good and virtuous and should have a special name, beyond the justice that consists of giving to each individual his due. The young men who died at Thermopylae, the 400, every last one of them, to hold off the Persians, Iranians, who were breaking through to take Sparta and Athens. They died happily it’s reported, and they died in defense of the city. Well, that’s a sense of justice that needs its own special name. That’s the reasoning here. This general justice, as it was then called, was not really sharpened or highly developed until the modern period. It pointed to a form of justice who’s object was the community, not just other individuals.

Nowadays, most parties speak fervently of social justice. Progressives everywhere speak of it. The communists love the term. Everybody uses it, but nobody defines it. Even in 1931, important commentators in Pius XI displayed considerable confusion. Let me quote the Jesuit priest who probably drafted the encyclical, a man who died not so terribly long ago at the age of 104, Oswald von Nell-Breuning. Nell-Breuning wrote, “The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno is finally and definitively established, theologically canonized, so to speak, social justice. Now it is our duty to study it according to the strict requirements of scientific theology, and to give it its proper place in the structure of the Christian doctrine of virtue on the one hand, and the doctrine of rights and justice on the other.” Note the fateful ambiguity. The two main alternatives are these: is social justice an abstract regulated by deal, a law, a principle, or is it a virtue? Some people who note a growing disparity of income in the United States say that any such inequality is a sin against social justice. Is that the true meaning of the term? Or is social justice, on the contrary, a virtue that individuals practice? Does the term refer to something inherent in society or to something inherent in individuals?

Hayek entered into this discussion in chapter nine of his little classic, The Mirage of Social Justice, a wonderful little book. The title shows you he didn’t think much of it. Hayek noted that in the classical tradition, justice is the second in the four cardinal virtues on which moral life hinges. And Latin, cardinal, as in cardinal virtues, means hinge. Practical, wisdom, courage, and temperance are the other three hinges. All the other virtues require the use of those is the idea.

Here we must make an abbreviated tour through the terrain of virtue. In the city of Athens — in ancient Athens — there were 30,000 inhabitants, mostly slaves. The consequence was that every Greek male who was free needed to learn the arts of war. He needed to know how to handle a dagger, a sword, and a spear, and he needed to know how to maintain an arm locked, unbroken battle line, a famous battle technique particularly for the Spartans. Such skills were crucial to defending the city, which was constantly in danger of being overrun by enemies far and near.

In addition, young men needed to learn the arts of peace. They needed to know how to persuade, how to make laws, and how to run an estate. By the time he was 18, a young Greek male was expected to have well begun learning these and other habits or skills.

Now, that is what is meant by virtue; that is, a kind of a habit or skill you are not born with — you might be, but usually not — and do not always use, but which you develop, and when called upon you can deploy. Use the example of learning a language. You don’t use it always. I try Italian in Italian restaurants in this city, and most of the waiters are Spanish. Virtue means those habits in particular that help a man to govern his passions and emotions so that he can act in a dependable way as a man of reflection and choice — good judgment, especially in practical things. Your particular package of habits defines your character. Until the 1930s, most education in America, especially in Sunday school, at the YMCA, YWCA, and through the McGuffey Readers in the schools — there were no public schools until 1837 remember — concentrated on training in character, a bringing up of Americans with sound habits. Why? Because if people do not know how to manage their passions and emotions when they make decisions, they cannot govern themselves. “Confirm thy soul in self-control,” runs the old hymn, “thy liberty in law.” It’s a different meaning of liberty from today. It’s do what you please. Do it — not what they meant. And if citizens who cannot practice self-control, cannot succeed in republican self-government, the American experiment in that case will fail. That’s why it’s always a fragile experiment.

To return to the main theme, virtue is something you have to learn, habituate yourself to, and master like a golf swing, though some people are naturals and hardly have to learn a particular habit. It’s their gift — David Kersen, for example. A virtue is a modification of the individual. It is a characteristic within an individual, permanent substrate and a disposition and ability.

Yet as Friedrich Hayek points out, most of those who use the term “social justice” do not talk about what individuals can do. They talk about what the government can do. They talk about social justice as a characteristic of societies, especially states. They mean, in particular, situations of inequality, to be remedied by state enforced redistribution.

In most modern, progressive usage, the cry for social justice is not a cry for greater virtue on the part of the citizenry; indeed, the citizenry is deemed to be without virtue to such an extent that the state must intervene to effect by coercion the redistribution that individuals lack, the virtue to put into effect on their own.

In brief, Hayek’s challenge is the following: either the modern term “social justice” refers to a virtue to be practiced by individuals, in which case it retains its claim to the traditional language of virtue, or else it refers to a general state of affairs in society, in which case it is not about individuals or their habits at all. And if social justice is not a virtue, its claim to moral standing falls flat. The rest is ideology.

Alas, I’ve not encountered a satisfactory answer to Hayek’s critique, except my own. It needs to be answered, and I think it can be answered because Hayek himself lived the answer to it, as I will describe at the end.

So, five common uses of social justice in the secular. I’m going to skip kind of rapidly through these. It’ll be in the text.

Let’s examine how the term “social justice” is used, or I should say misused and abused, in the contemporary academy and in the media. I’m able to count, because Mitch and Elizabeth could count, five different categories of this use, which recognize that to some degree, each category can and does spill into the others.

Distribution. Most people’s sense of social justice is generic amounting to nothing more than we find in the dictionary. Look in the dictionary under social justice. Quote, “The distribution of advantage and disadvantages in society.” Now, notice that dictionary definition introduces a new key term, not virtue, but distribution. As we see in the original notion of social justice, had very little to do with distribution. Worse, this newly-added term suggests an extra human force, some visible hand; that is, some very powerful agency, namely the state, that does the redistribution.

The second term to creep up is equality. Advantages and disadvantages presupposes a norm of equality by which division. And here’s a professor’s definition: “Although it is difficult to agree on the precise meaning of social justice” — boy, that’s an understatement, “I take it that to most of us, it implies, among other things” — notice this “equality of the burden of the advantages and the opportunities of citizenship.” It now means equality, and that the violation of it is intimately related to the concept of inequality. This definition expresses a whole ideology. 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” — quote, unjustly — “gained them to those who justly deserve them. And it also means creating and ensuring the processes of truly democratic participation in this decision making. It seems clear that only a decisive redistribution of resources and decision making power can ensure social justice in authentic democracy.” So, there.

Next, common good — the third term frequently used. 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 — common good. What’s the good of the city? What’s the good of Athens and Sparta? It’s a good term, but in practice it often hinges on the key question, namely, who decides what is the common today, here and, now in this matter?

In ancient society, often the wisest and strongest person was the ruler, and he it was he who made the important decisions, such as where we will camp tonight or near which sources 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.

But in contemporary times, beginning a century or two ago, that responsibility gradually shifted to the bureaucratic state. Decisions were made by committees, and sometimes by committees over committees. No longer today usually is there one clear person to be held responsible and accountable for these decisions. Quite quickly, the beautiful notion of the common good gets ensnared in red tape.

A central misuse of the term “common good” came clear to me for the first time when at the Human Right Commission in 1985 — an experience I shared with Walter Byrnes just a little earlier — I was prodding the Soviet delegation to recognize the right of spouses from different nations to share residence in whichever spouse’s nation they chose. I said, you want trust in nuclear policy? How are the American people ever going to trust your nuclear policy if we can’t trust you in marital policy? People are not going to accept this. But the Soviets staunchly resisted. The Soviet Union, they insisted, had invested great sums of money and much money 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, common good becomes an excuse for state control.

The progressive agenda — this is the fourth — the progressive agenda began with the lack of faith in the new discoveries and new vitalities introduced by what would soon become known as capitalism. Beginning in about 1600, European societies began to experience a turbulent, dramatic shift from agrarian societies to crowded, commercial towns — small towns at first. The first craftsmen of Italy and France and Germany set up their workshops in towns and small cities, which kept growing. As Max David says, “City air breathes free.” And in small cities and towns, they were much freer to pursue their skills, their arts, their crafts.

They didn’t live on the farms and make their living from the land any longer. They made their living from their wits [sounds like], from their crafts, from their skills, and they usually found it better to work near each other. They congregated in cities because that is where they would have to come to learn these skills, and that is where the market for their objects of beauty was. They went in as town dwellers, those who dwelled in towns, and thus became known as the bourgeoisie.

From Horace and Virgil on, there were those who didn’t like the world created by the middle man, the man of commerce, the first bourgeoisie. Such poets of pastoral life preferred to think that natural pastoral pursuits, such as farming and fishing or what God wants us to do. But the middle men who buy fish and the fruit of the land could transport them and sell them, buy cheap and sell dear, and that’s unfair. For centuries, there’s been a widespread attack on the bourgeoisie because of the supposed unfairness and inequity of commercial activity.

Slowly, therefore, a progressive agenda developed, first around labor. As the numbers in the range of new little factors increased and owners hired — in 19th century France, for example — more than 10, seldom 11 more than 50 workers. And I remember reading that in about 1830, there were no more than 20 such factories in all of France. But as they became more frequent, some of the workers became more wage dependent. Some writers now spoke of wage slavery, and people not working on their farms any longer no longer had control over the whole of their lives, the education of their children, being with the children, being with the spouse. But they had to go outside the home, and often for very long hours and so forth — the breakup of the family.

In contemporary times, definitions of social justice include a new one: reproductive rights. I don’t think I have to say more on that. And then there’s lovely quote from the Anglican Church in New Zealand: “How can the Church be taken seriously or receive any respect for its views on the far more important issues of poverty, violence, and social justice, when the public keep being reminded of this blot on its integrity, the continued discrimination against gays?” So, social justice is now reproductive ethics.

All four of these newly-invented demands fly increasingly under the flag of social justice. And there’s one more new word, a rather honorable old word used in a new way, to note. And it used to be a Tammany Hall thing. A fellow once said that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, underestimated the possibility of compassion. So, in addition to equality and the common good, with social justice was linked compassion.

As the Tammany Hall saying wittily suggests, more sins have been committed in the name of compassion in the last 150 years by the Nazis, by the Communists, by the African and Asian despots who justify their regimes as socialist, than by any other force in modern history. We must not allow that beautiful term, “compassion,” to blind us. Compassion comes in true forms and false forms. For example, why did the progressive program of compassion during the War on Poverty, beginning about 1965, so destroy families?

As it happens, AEI commissioned a special study on this very point in 1984, and it was published in 1986 under the title, The New Consensus on Family and Welfare. Its main point, those who do three simple things have a better than 95 percent chance of staying out of poverty. You have a five percent chance of falling into poverty if you do three things, and they’re not so hard: finish high school — it’s compulsory actually; two, work for at least 50 weeks a year, even at the minimum wage; and get married and stay married, even if it’s not on the first try. People who do these three things are 95 percent of the time not poor.

Now, another point I wanted to bring in, but I’ll do it more briefly, is that the wreckage of the family that I mentioned, this tremendous increase of out of wedlock births represents the largest scale of abandonment of women by men in human history. And this abandonment is now spreading to rural areas, not just in the cities. It’s happening out in Ohio and Iowa, all across the country. My good friend Charles Murray had a famous article on out of wedlock births in Ohio over 20 years ago. And today it’s just worse.

However, here, too, we’re up against the law of unintended consequences. I meant to say, the War on Poverty was not an unmixed blessing disaster; it really did work very well for the elderly in the United States whose condition since 1965 is far better than it was before. Sixty-five no longer counts as elderly. Now, people speak of the elderly-elderly, over 85, or at least it’s not what the elderly used to be. Well, I’m not sure about that. However, here, too, we’re up against the law of unintended consequences. The original premise of social security arrangements was that there would be seven workers for every receiver of benefits. Today, however, we are no longer having the required number of children. We’re getting to the point where there are about two workers for every retiree. It’s, therefore, already clear that we are not going to be meet the obligations that we have assumed. That sort of Damocles hangs by an even more frayed thread in Europe.

And now — I’m getting close to the end — the new virtue of association. Well, this has been a fairly broad search into what people mean by social justice today, almost of all of which fall prey to ideology and stunted understanding. But in the words of Leo XIII, “New times demand a new response,” so let’s see if we can construct an approach to social justice for today’s world which recovers its original understanding, but does not fall prey to those same ideological traps.

It’s highly instructive to re-read Rerum Novarum in the light of the events of 1989 — 1891 to 1989. Certainly these events were fresh in the mind of John Paul II in 1991 as he wrote 100 years after. He read and he repeated the warnings of Leo against the growing socialist state of the 1890s. According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, John Paul II says, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled by the state, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political, and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself, and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good.

That is what I have called, as John Paul II called, the subjectivity of society. He meant that each society has its own spirit, its own history, its own inter-life. He was thinking obviously of the Poles at first, but he said the same thing in Cuba later. And he tried to call each nation to that particular spirit which is what teaches young people the habits that you need and so forth. And he called that the subjectivity of society, and this is quite different, a little bit hard to measure. It can be done, but not as easily.

And together with the subjectivity of the individual — and by this he meant how devastating it was to be working at the great factories in Novi Svet in Krakow, the great steel centers the Soviets made — be laboring at these furnaces and heavy lifting, and the calluses, and the dirty clothes, and then watch the steel go out on to the lot and sit there and rust because nobody wanted it. They didn’t care about a market. They didn’t have to sell anything. They were paid just the same whether they sold or did not sell. And John Paul II was struck by how this damage of the spirit of the workers. They’re not just parts of a machine; they’re persons. That is, it injures their personal aspirations and their sense of good work and so on.

I know from the experience of my own family over the past four generations, as many of you must know, too, from your own families — how stressful this great transformation has been. My family served as serfs on the largest estate on the Hungarian Count Jacqui (phonetic), whose ancestor was a hero in turning back the Turks near Budapest in 1456. On the family coat of arms, they have a hand holding by its hair the hair of a bloody Turk. In those days, men were men. I’m kidding.

They were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my family. And as near as I can determine, they were not able to own their own land until the 1920s. For purposes of taxation, I saw this on the list on the castle wall of Count Jacqui which stands there still — the largest castle in all of Europe. For purposes of taxation, men, women, and children were counted annually in the same column as cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock. Those were the assets of the town.

My ancestors were taught to accept their lot. Their moral duties were fairly simple: pray, pay, and obey. What they did and gained was pretty much determined from above. Beginning about 1880, however, almost two million people from the eastern counties of Slovakia began migrating to America and elsewhere, one by one, along chains of connection established by families or fellow villagers. In other words, there wasn’t a mass migration of two million people. It was a migration of two million people, but it was one by one, in shades. Farms could no longer sustain the growth and population. Usually the sons left first, and they sent back for their wives later.

In America, my grandparents were no longer subjects all of a sudden. They became citizens. If social arrangements were not right — and they often were not right — they now had a duty and human necessity to organize to change them. Now, they were the sovereigns, no longer subjects. Now they were free, but also saddled with personal responsibility for their own future. They needed to learn new virtues, to form new institutions, and to take their own responsibility for those institutions, which they had inherited from America’s founding generation.

In this context, the term “social justice” can now be defined with rather considerable precision. Social justice names the virtue in the panoply of historical virtues, a set of new habits and abilities that need to be learned, perfected, and passed on. New virtues with very powerful social consequences, and now you especially needed them because you had democratic societies in which people were citizens. They had the ability and the society had the necessity of them learning these new habits.

This new virtue came to be called social for two reasons: first, its aim or purpose is to improve the common good of society at large — maybe just a village, maybe banding together to dig a well, or, in my wife’s family’s case, one week to put up a barn together, and the next few weeks, to put up a school. They talked about the individual, but what they did day to day was all in association, and they couldn’t have survived without it.

So, the first aim is improve the common good of society at large, perhaps on a national scale, like the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts or something, or even on an international scale, but certainly on a range of social institutions outside the home. A village or neighborhood may need a new well, or a new school, or even a church. When they came here, there was no church from the ninth century for them to inherit, the 15th century or whatever. If they wanted a church, they had to build it. No Holiday Inn waiting for them when they arrived.

A village or neighborhood — well, workers may need to form a union and to unit with other unions. Since the cause of the wealth of a nation — and I read about that in the Guns of Lattimer, a book about the formation of the United Mine Workers by these very same Slovakian immigrants. This exceeded that generation after the Molly McGuires.

Since the cause of the wealth of nations is invention and intellect, new colleges and universities needed to be founded, and no one saw this more clearly than Abraham Lincoln. All these are social activities, the social activities of a free and responsible people.

In America, the new immigrants formed athletic clubs for the young, for the adult males, social clubs, to play checkers, cards, or horseshoes. For the women, associations tend to the needs of neighbors — bake sales, sales of quilts and everything imaginable. In Catholic neighborhoods, they began Wednesday night Bingo games to raise funds to pay off the church mortgage or to build a school. The immigrants formed insurance activities and other associations of mutual help to care for one another in the case of injury or premature death. By the way, some of these fraternal societies have scores of millions of dollars in assets, which they saved up from these insurance societies and still sell. In a word, Tocqueville was correct when he called the voluntary forming of associations by citizens to meet their own social needs the first law of democracy. But this new virtue was called social for a second reason. Not only is its end, its purpose, social, but so are its constitutive practices. The practice as a virtue of social justice consists in learning new skills of cooperation and association with others in order to accomplish ends that no one individual can achieve on his own.

At one pool, this new virtue is a social protection against automic (phonetic) individualism. Americans are not really automic individuals. We belong to too many societies and get too many telephone calls. They have to go to too many meetings. That’s at one pole. At the other pole, it protects considerable civic space from the direct custodianship of the state. Most of the colleges and universities in the United States were built by associations at the start, not by the state. Every little town in Ohio wanted them. In 1872, there were more colleges and universities in the state of Ohio than in all of Europe combined, and almost all of them were built by private citizens.

In the absence of the art of association, the practice of modern citizenship is almost impossible. Without it, there’s only the state. Without its civil society, it has no vivacity. The public square is empty and the citizens huddle in solitary privacy. Yet, well before 1776, the Americans were a people, knit together by habits of association where the French lagged behind, trapped in solitary individuals easily led into mobs. Quoting from Tocqueville, “When the Revolution started, it would have been impossible to find in most parts of France even 10 men who before the Revolution were used to acting in concert and defending their interests without appealing to the central power for aid.” That’s in his book, L’Ancien Regime.

Again, it should be noted that this new definition of social justice, that is social in its purpose and its constitutive practices — is ideologically neutral. People on the left can do it, people on the right can do it, and they do. And if you change sides, as I did, you get mail from both sides. Once you get on the mailing list, you just live forever. It’s like the old chairman of the Democratic National Committee who lived in Boston. There was a group of us gathered, and he pointed out how many voted at one time or another at school — Harvard in Cambridge — anywhere in Boston. I said, you’re probably still voting when we need you. Once you’re on those lists, you never get off. Not even death is enough to get you off the list.

Again, it should be noted that this new definition of social justice is ideologically neutral, practiced by those both on the left and on the right. In a word, the breakdown of the old order called for new habits and building new social organisms, what Edmund Burke [called] little platoons to meet new needs. This explains why this new virtue arose only in the 19th century. It also sheds light on the one of the most distinguished sobriquets of Leo XIII, the pope of association. And, by the way, his successor, Pius XI, talks a bit about the state, but you can see going over to associations is the only way to move the state.

Now, it’s the ending — Hayek, a test case. Everyone knows that Friedrich Hayek was an enemy of what he called the mirage of social justice. His point was that traditionally, social justice in the Catholic tradition — and Hayek was a Catholic. I mean, he didn’t — once a Catholic, always a Catholic. He didn’t believe in God. He said he wanted to, but he said some people are born with a taste for music, an ear for music, and he was just born without an ear for religion. He wished he had it, but he didn’t.

So, social justice in the Catholic tradition, Austria’s tradition, was always treated as a virtue. Nowadays, however, it’s treated as an ideal social plan executed by government and the duty of the citizens to increase the power of the government to do good. Hayek thought that the aggrandizement of government was the road to serfdom. Does not the old practice of individual virtue, which was the original meaning of social justice, become lost in the mirage; that the huge bureaucratic state would do more good than harm?

But what did Hayek do about this problem? He became an exemplary practitioner of the virtue of social justice. He took on responsibility for forming associations all around the world, creating institutions that distinguished true freedom from false, the distinguished legislation from law, and that were aimed at building a new world, universally of freedom and family improvement and prosperity and progress. For example, Hayek founded the Mont Pelerin Society, an international body of scholars of liberty and law and the free and prosperous economy, as the alternative to socialism. Note, he founded an association for the betterment of the entire world. Now, if that’s not the practice of the virtue of social justice, whatever is?

Hayek also traveled indefatigably around the world, seeding the growth of small think tanks on every continent, and encouraging scholars and practitioners in the exercise of truly liberating forms of law, liberty, and the building of free economies. He did all this for the sake of doing justice to the humanity of all human beings everywhere on earth. If this is not a practice in social justice, what is?

Hayek found that he could not call himself a conservative because he didn’t want to conserve the old world — the old world had ended in fascism and communism — but to help give birth to a new world, a world of liberty and prosperity. Nor could he call himself a progressive because that term had been appropriated by socialists and their fellow travelers.

And so, we end with this: social justice is not what most people think it is — building up state bureaucracies which are necessarily expensive beyond original forecasts, inefficient, and impersonal. True enough, government programs can do some real good, as the authors of The New Consensus on Family and Welfare showed. But the programs very quickly reach a point of diminishing returns with the multiplication of new and unforeseen problems.

Thomas Sewall points out, if you add up all the money Congress has designated for the relief of the poor every year, the total returns turn out to be more than would be required simply to give each poor family some $30,000 in cash. Just give it to them directly, in which case you’d wipe out poverty overnight. Obviously not every poor family in the United States is receiving $30,000 per year; that would put every family in American comfortably above the 2010 federal poverty level of $22,000 per year. Sewell explains his paradox in this way: trying to alleviate the lot of the poor through government is like feeding sparrows by feeding the horses. Government bureaucracies consume most of the money, and relatively little of it passes into the hands of the poor.

So, on the contrary — I conclude — social justice is a virtue of specific characteristics, skill informing associations, for the larger purpose of benefitting human beings both near and far. Both of these characteristics are social in nature — skill informing associations and the aim of benefitting the larger human community, even if it’s only painting the swings at the school playground or something like that. And this virtue of forming associations, as much as possible without turning to government, is a practical way of building a better world. Without the practice of this virtue, merely feeling compassion is a mirage.

And the virtue of social justice combats the effects of ever larger governments, which waste money, smother individual freedom and initiative and hard work and civic responsibility. The widespread practice of social justice protects limited government by making behemoth sized government increasingly unnecessary.

Of course, a rather large and strong government is still necessary for a small number of important tasks, such as national events and protecting the value of the national currency, which has not been very well protected. And when government grows too large, its people lose their freedoms and their intense desire to exercise creativity on their own. That is why a government too large is as ugly to behold as it is unsustainable.

Social justice learned and practiced by individuals, a social virtue both in its method and in its purposes, is a habit truly worthy of the noble name of virtue. It is among the habits of the heart that Tocqueville so highly praises.

Thank you very much.

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