Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On "Social Justice"

What is "social justice" and how does it differ from normal justice? Courts adjudicate matters between people living in a society under a particular social contract. Is this not "social" enough to be considered social justice? And if that is "social justice", then why even add the "social"? Why not simply talk about justice, since old fashioned formal justice is already inherently social? Why did someone feel the need to create this term?

Last year Ryan Messmore wrote an article on the origin of the term. The term and concept seems to have originated with the writings of Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio who was an Italian Jesuit scholar. What Taparelli meant by "social justice" was that governments should recognize and respect various spheres of social life --  families, churches, organizations -- without disrupting or usurping them. He held that these ground-level associations were of primary importance whereas formation of states and countries were of secondary importance, and  that the latter should be built upon the foundation of the more fundamental former. True justice only can come about when these social associations are preceding and feeding into the government. This conception of "social justice" I have no problem with, and it seems to me that he is completely right. I might quibble with his choice of words used to coin the phrase, but if this is what people meant when they said "social justice" -- which essentially entails government yielding much of its claimed territory to more intimate social entities -- then I would be entirely in favor of "social justice".

Though, the origin of the phrase doesn't interest me as much as its popular usage and what people mean when they use it today. All kinds of people use the phrase -- environmentalists, politicians, Christians -- and it means slightly different things depending on the context, but in almost all cases it doesn't mean what it originally meant nor does it seem to add anything to the cause that is being advocated, but rather is often just a rhetorical tool used to appropriate the moral or intellectual high ground by force.

For example, in American politics the term is used almost exclusively as a euphemism for wealth redistribution. This is by far the most prevalent use of the phrase today. When it's used in this way the term's literal meaning is inverted. It is not just for the government to use coercion and force upon one individual or group of individuals to benefit another group of individuals. This is unjust, and when it isn't the government that is doing it, we imprison individuals for it and call it theft and larceny.

Not only that, but this is in direct contrast to what Taparelli meant, as it steps upon all intermediate social spheres of life and appoints the government the final arbiter of "social justice". Friends, families, soup kitchens, churches, local health facilities, private charities etc. should be primarily responsible for administering "social justice" through their own free will as collections of individuals. It is lazy and an abdication of duty to prescribe this job to the government, and it empowers the government to use coercion and force on groups of individuals whom it should not be exercising force upon. This is literally the opposite of "social justice" in every conceivable sense.

Yet the left squawks about "social justice" 24-7 and the right -- who is actually in favor of formal justice (which is social), as well as the "social justice" that Taparelli advocated -- never uses the term. I see why they don't because it has been appropriated by the left to mean something alien, but we on the right would do well to at least make it quite clear, as often as we are able to, that there is no "social justice" in wealth redistribution or in the tyrannical usurpation of freedom. And if the left wants to advocate wealth redistribution, then make them do it using language that actually fits the deed. "Social justice" doesn't belong to the left. The left doesn't even know what it is.

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