On “social justice” — a reply to Peter Wehner (With Comment from Steve)

Peter Wehner has written a thoughtful response to my post which questioned his conservative case for social justice. I appreciate Pete’s kind words and his level of engagement with my argument.

I believe the examples Pete cites as worthwhile stands for social justice support my point that the concept is superfluous when it comes to arguing for causes that are truly just. Apartheid, harsh anti-gay laws, and persecution of Christians can all be opposed based on simple justice for the victims as individuals. The fact that there are many such individuals does not require us to invoke “social justice.”

Which causes might require us to invoke social justice because individual justice will not support them? Causes like amnesty for an enormous class of lawbreakers (individual justice militates in favor of punishing law breakers, not rewarding them), preferential treatment for certain classes (it is unjust to favor one individual over another due to, say, race), and the redistribution of income by the government (what just claim does a person have on a stranger’s money?).

Do these causes deserve to be couched in the language of justice, “social” or otherwise? No. There are respectable arguments to be made for each cause, but they are arguments based on compassion (e.g., we want to help the poor), or aesthetics (e.g., we like some racial diversity), or pragmatism (e.g., conservatives need to stop alienating Hispanics and anyway, we can’t deport millions of illegal immigrants).

I agree with Wehner that our disagreement is more about semantics (or packaging) than about ends. And I agree that semantics matter. That’s why the left pushes the concept of social justice — it enables leftists to claim that what seems unjust actually constitutes a form of justice. Then, a cause can be pitched not as a reasonable tempering of justice — something we might choose do, but only reluctantly and on a small scale — but as something demanded by justice, a near-imperative.

The best way to counter this gambit is to insist on clarity — on truth in advertising, if you will. For it is the left that has by far the most to gain from muddying the waters of “justice.”

STEVE comments: I am reminded here of the story, supposedly out of the Michigan legislature I think, of the state senator who said, “Some of my friends and for this bill, and some of my friends are against this bill, and I’m going to stick with my friends!”  Pete is a great friend and a wise man.  It would be embarrassing if you saw the mash notes of heated agreement we send each other frequently.  I’m often chagrined that he gets off a great analysis before I do: “Damn–Pete beat me to it again!”

But I have to line up closer to Paul here, with a very minor caveat.  The Roman Catholic tradition has a very rich original teaching on social justice that goes back 1,000 years, based, needless to say, on very different grounds than the Left today.  It is this that Pete chiefly draws from I think, and as such he’s on substantively solid ground, Hayek’s important caveats (which I mostly agree with) notwithstanding.  I have found it useful, when confronted with Leftist “social justice” mongers spouting the contemporary meaning, to lay down that the Catholic teaching is the only species of the idea that is respectable.  This is great fun to do, because Leftists hate the Catholic Church, and this attack confounds them greatly.

Otherwise, I’m with Paul on the semantic/rhetorical problem.  To employ the term “social justice” is to play in the Left’s sandbox I think.  I prefer my Justice, like my single-malt scotch, neat and straight up, with no modifiers before it.  (And then you can ask, “What is just about taking half of my earned income merely because you want to redistribute it?”)  The substance of what Pete brings to our attention is very much worth taking up, and we should think harder about how to talk about these matters effectively.  So by all means let this dialogue/deliberation continue.