The Poverty of Social Justice Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 07 February 2011

Several years ago, the editor of a Catholic encyclopedia asked me the write a dozen or so entries on Catholic social teaching, including one on social justice. I read into the literature. But I found that social justice, if it can be said to exist at all, is a pretty threadbare idea.

Before you write in: Catholic social teaching tells us we have responsibilities of solidarity towards others, especially the poor. We all need to reflect seriously on that and act. But Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and the whole Christian tradition until recently talked simply about justice, which always involves social relations and, therefore, doesn’t need to be revved up with “social.”

This whole question matters a lot because, besides the obvious urgency of supporting the poor, Catholics have been told for a half century that “social justice” is an equal part – alongside pro-life activities – of protecting all human life. And we should vote accordingly (almost always to the detriment of pro-life candidates). The problem is, it’s relatively easy to figure out how to protect babies in the womb: don’t abort them. How to help the poor is much less clear, especially in political terms.

Old school Catholics learned that justice comes in three forms: commutative, the just exchange between two parties, on which all other forms depend; distributive, which requires that goods and services be reasonably distributed in the community (This is different from redistribution; redistributionist schemes in the twentieth century led to quite unjust, even tyrannical regimes); and the general justice enshrined in law.

Social justice crept in under the same assumptions as socialism, Marxism, and other kinds of social engineering: the belief that there is some “scientific” analysis of society that allows us to establish “programs” and “systems” (two words that always demand close scrutiny) that will produce social justice. In this perspective, all that is missing is will – and advocates usually suggest that dark forces, namely business people, are the only obstacles.

This picture used to be quite potent, even within the Church. But in the current economic crisis, the dogs of social justice are not barking much. In Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, the term social justice appears in only two places. The first, not until twenty-five sections into the document, points to the changed circumstances for social justice (e.g., globalization means jobs sent overseas help the poor elsewhere, but what of workers in the developed countries?); the second mostly identifies social justice with what are sometimes called “pre-political” values like trust and solidarity. No facile social justice claims. There’s wisdom in Benedict’s limiting himself to general principles.

     The Slaughter of the Innocents (Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Because as you may have noticed, even in the voluminous debate on a large question like the current economic crisis, there’s not much agreement. Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate, Princeton economics professor, and New York Times columnist, is apoplectic, arguing that the massive stimulus (over $800 billion dollars) was woefully inadequate. Other distinguished eminences are equally passionate that massive expenditures not only did little, they’ve put us further from restarting business growth, job creation, and debt reduction.

That’s the wonky approach. If you want to argue justice – social or otherwise – things are even cloudier. Liberals and conservatives alike were enraged at Wall Street bailouts, while people were left without jobs on Main Street. The jury is still out on efforts to create or to preserve jobs directly – as in the General Motors bailout. Certainly, “Cash for Clunkers” shows on a small scale that you can use $5 billion of taxpayers’ money and do nothing but encourage people to buy cars a little earlier.

But here’s the rub for justice, at least on the old model: how is it just to bail out one industry and not another? Why do auto workers in Detroit or builders of solar panels get financial favors while, say, the poor readers, writers, and editors of The Catholic Thing and the taxpayers themselves can’t catch a break? Is it just that some people – a cynic might say those with political connections or better lobbyists or some ideological advantage – get different treatment under the law?

Private organizations don’t know much more about social justice. Catholic Charities USA, which I give to at the end of every year in support of its relief work, has made it a goal to cut poverty in half by 2020. A pious wish, and I’d be delighted if it happened. But can they do it?

When President Johnson inaugurated the “war on poverty” in the mid 1960s, the poverty rate was about 15 percent. It’s fluctuated of course – descending to a little over 10 percent, back to near 15 percent, and currently 14.3 percent – mostly because of the economy rather than anything social justice advocates have done.

Spending trillions on poverty was bound to have some effect, bad in terms of welfare disincentives, as well as good. (We’ll leave constitutionality and the wisdom of expanding governments that spread anti-Christian values for another day.) But does anyone know how to cut poverty in half? That means a historically unprecedented 7 percent. Statistics are never simply scientific and certainly can’t predict the future, but there’s no policy wonk in Washington or Harvard’s Kennedy School who would bet the mortgage on that.

If social justice is just a matter of lobbying and convincing people in business and government to give up their selfish ways and to adopt “programs” and “just structures” that eliminate poverty – obviously not all the ones that have failed to date – why is cutting poverty in half highly unlikely?

As I say, advocates tell us our concern for all human life demands working towards social justice. I myself would be happy with justice. But while we grapple with problems no one knows how to solve, there’s no excuse for failing to confront the greatest justice issue of our day, which we do know how to fix: the slaughter of the innocents.

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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