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Transatlantic Blog

Reclaiming social justice

It seems that everybody wants more social justice. If you Google the term, you get 714,000,000 responses. The most commonly-read Conservative-supporting blog in the UK, Conservativehome.com, regularly calls on the Conservative Party to deliver social justice to take the wind out of the sails of the Labour Party. Influential Conservative MP Robert Halfon has called for a social justice rebuttal unit in Conservative Party headquarters and for a social justice unit in Downing Street.

Appeals to social justice, including from many Christians, are normally made to justify more government intervention, which is believed to benefit the poor – in particular, on behalf of schemes of redistributive taxation and welfare.

Followers of F. A. Hayek are sceptical. Indeed, there are Christian admirers of Hayek who speak of “social justice Christians” in a derogatory way. This is perhaps not surprising. Hayek wrote a withering critique of social justice in Law, Legislation, and Liberty. He argued that social justice required government intervention in ways that would undermine basic freedoms and that the whole idea of social justice is meaningless in a large, complex society where material outcomes are the result of free decisions made by millions of people and not determined by a single co-ordinating decision-marker. If income were to be redistributed to promote social justice, how could there be any agreement on the criteria used to determine who gets how much or how those criteria should be applied?

In his attack, Hayek took aim at Christian proponents of social justice. He suggested that several Christian denominations were adopting social justice as an item of faith. In Hayek’s words, the phrase “social justice” had been taken over by most “teachers and preachers of morality.” Hayek attributed this latter phenomenon to what he saw as the loss of faith in the supernatural by the most important Christian denominations. He made special reference to the Roman Catholic Church. He refers to leading Catholic thinkers of the mid-to-late nineteenth century and to official teaching documents of the Catholic Church, particularly Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Divini Redemptoris (1937). He also traces the origins of the concept back to nineteenth-century Christian thinkers such as Taparelli d'Azeglio who heavily influenced Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI.

When listening to statements from Catholic priests and bishops or the Vatican calling for more state intervention to solve this or that social ill, or yet more increases in government spending in the name of social justice, many readers might think Hayek had a point. However, there is another possibility. Perhaps both Hayek and many modern proponents of social justice (including in the Church) might have misunderstood the intended meaning of the concept in Catholic social teaching (as has also been explained in articles by Sam Gregg, a recent book co-authored by Michael Novak, and a stream of excellent work from Ryan T. Anderson).

Social justice is the responsibility of every member of society and every organisation in society.

Social justice developed as a concept in Catholic social thinking in the mid-nineteenth century, because it was thought that the general understanding of the scope of justice had become too narrow and had come to refer only to rules of just conduct and the fulfilment of contractual obligations. There had always been a wider understanding of justice in Catholic thinking which related to those actions of individuals and social groups that were intended to promote the common good of the whole community and elevate society to a higher state of virtue. This was often known as “general” or “legal” justice, though those terms (especially the latter) might be regarded as confusing. The originators of the term “social justice” intended that it should be the new name for legal justice. This had little, if anything, to do with the idea of the state redistributing income and everything to do with all actors in society behaving in such a way that they promoted the common good.

Thus, obligations of social justice take us beyond the contractual obligations into which we enter with other individuals. Social justice can be thought of as being brought about by those acts that promote the common good of the communities of which we are part.

Social justice found its way explicitly into Catholic social teaching documents upon the publication of Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. The term is mentioned nine times and, as one of its authors, Fr. Oswald von Nell-Breuning argued, “Quadragesimo Anno has finally and definitively established – theologically canonized, so to speak – social justice.” No wonder Hayek took aim at theologians!

Despite this, there was remarkably little clear discussion about exactly what the term was intended to mean, even by Fr. Nell-Breuning. Quadragesimo Anno did propose a significant guiding role for the state in economic life, whilst attenuating this with the principle of subsidiarity. But, when it comes to social justice itself, it is quite clear that this it did not relate to some grand plan to redistribute income according to pre-agreed principles. Like the virtue of solidarity, social justice is the responsibility of every member of society and every organisation in society. Perhaps this is even clearer in the 1937 encyclical Divini Redemptoris, which states, “In reality, besides commutative justice, there is also social justice with its own set obligations, from which neither employers nor workingmen can escape.”

It is not that there was no intended role for the state in bringing about social justice. However, the main subjects of social justice are individuals and groups within society.

What kind of actions may fall within social justice? The hijacking of the term by the redistributionists mean that the discussion of this issue has been limited. However, examples of social justice might include not discriminating in employment matters according to the colour of a worker’s skin. This may not be required by contract and, depending on the legal system, might not be required by law. But discrimination clearly undermines the promotion of the common good. To give another example, a business that rides roughshod over the informal property rights (which may not be formally registered) without due consideration, consultation, or compensation could be regarded as acting outside the precepts of social justice. A further example might be ensuring that workers could observe the Sabbath and attend Mass on feast days. These go beyond the obligations that individuals have to each other, and certainly beyond contractual obligations, but are necessary to promote the common good of society as a whole.

What would Hayek have thought about this idea of social justice if he had understood the way it was presented in the Catholic literature? First, he would not have agreed that there was some overriding principle of the common good that involved moving society as a whole towards a position of greater virtue. For Hayek, the purpose of justice was to enable a sophisticated social order to develop whereby different participants in the economy and society could pursue mutually compatible, but different, plans. However, he surely would have agreed that the state should not have a monopoly of justice and that the promotion of justice was the responsibility of all persons and social groups.

The rediscovery of the true meaning of this concept is important for two reasons. First, it takes the wind out of the sales of Catholics who promote widespread government intervention in the name of social justice – such people are misusing the term. Secondly, the common good cannot be promoted unless all institutions in society accept their responsibility for promoting it.

Philp Booth notes that his work on this topic has been done with Matias Peterson, a Ph.D. student at King’s College, London.

(Photo credit: spaztacular. This photo has been cropped and modified for size. CC BY 2.0.)


Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics, St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, which is the UK's largest Catholic university. He is also a senior academic fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).