Social Justice: Who Gives, Gets, Decides?

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Do you have friends and colleagues who invoke the principle of "Social Justice" to justify new entitlement programs like the trillion dollar health care bill? Do their explanations of what constitutes Social Justice sometimes sound vague or situational, a bit like Justice Potter Stewart's infamous definition of what constitutes pornography? I can't define it but I know it when I see it.

The phrase Social Justice was coined by a Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli in the 1840s. The economic inequalities generated by the industrial revolution deeply troubled him. Reaching back to St. Thomas Aquinas, Taparelli tried to codify the moral obligations of good Catholics to share the bounty generated by new means of production. His work influenced Pope Leo XIII, who penned the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor). While endorsing the right of workers to form unions, the encyclical is clear in its support of private property. "Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner". Social Justice, then, was born as a call to render unto God, not Caesar.

This state of affairs was not to last. An outspoken advocate of Social Justice during the 1930s and early 1940s was another priest named Father Coughlin. Anticipating Rush Limbaugh by more than half a century, Father Coughlin had a regular radio audience estimated at nearly one third of the American public. An early advocate of FDR's New Deal, Coughlin elevated the principle of social justice from a moral imperative to a political demand. As the Depression dragged on, a disaster he blamed on "an international conspiracy of Jewish bankers," Coughlin turned on FDR and began extolling more aggressive leaders promising hope and change. "We maintain the principle that there can be no lasting prosperity if free competition exists in industry!" Coughlin cried. His exemplars? Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

Google the term Social Justice and you'll find that most definitions fall along a scale anchored by pious charity on the one hand and redistributive fascism on the other. Wikipedia defines Social Justice as the concept in which justice is achieved in every aspect of society, rather than the administration of law. Lawless justice apparently requires progressive taxation, income redistribution, and even property redistribution. The goal is not just equality of opportunity but equality of outcome. While many advocates of Social Justice abjure naked force, most are happy to launder that force through the unbridled will of the majority. Taking from those who find themselves on the short end of the electoral stick and giving to those who can muster a majority is the primary tool for delivering Social Justice.

When I asked a well-to-do Progressive friend whether Social Justice would be served confiscating her vacation money and giving it to the poor she allowed that it would be. Yet she added that she would oppose it on the grounds that this would violate her property rights. And if Congress passed a 100% surtax on all vacation travel, using the money to provide subsidized healthcare? Would that be Social Justice, a violation of property rights, or both? After all, vacations are widely recognizes as a luxury while most proponents of Social Justice believe that healthcare is a basic human right. Don't rights trump luxuries?

Pinning her down was hopeless. There didn't seem to be any fixed principle with which one could balance the rights of some people to keep the fruits of their labors and the rights of others to redistribute those fruits as they saw fit. The concept of "fairness" crept into the conversation, but defining fairness proved even more elusive.

I eventually gave up. Fixed principles seem to present an inherent conflict with just about any theory of Social Justice I could find. Ensuring Social Justice when economic progress keeps turning yesterday's luxuries into today's basic human rights apparently requires activists to remain forever vigilant, tirelessly looking for new things to redistribute.

In the end, we came right back to where we started. I can't define Social Justice but I know it when I see it. To that practitioners can add another timeless phrase, this one from Robin Hood. Stick ‘em up!

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here.  If you would like to have his weekly columns delivered to you by e-mail, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.

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