July 13, 2023 Reading Time: 7 minutes

The concept of social justice implies that societies can be ranked from least to most moral, implicitly evaluating outcomes rather than processes or institutions. In practice, social justice is inherently Marxian, assuming it is morally preferable for wealth to be allocated in favor of virtuously productive workers, rather than to capitalists, who Marx defines as unproductive, exploitative parasites who contribute nothing to society, unjustly taking the lion’s share of what is produced. This purportedly moral dimension has enabled social justice to outlast other Marxian fallacies, such as as the labor theory of value.

Jesuit priest Msgr. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793-1862) originated the term social justice in his 1883 magnum opus, A Theory of Natural Law. Though appeals to social justice can be distressingly vague, the concept invariably purports to offer a basis for the moral evaluation of society, approaches to social organization, individual choice and action and the like by dividing society into oppressors and oppressed. Feudal and socialist societies do exhibit this dichotomy, but note that under capitalism, all exchange is voluntary, so it becomes problematic to conflate wealth distribution or income inequality with social injustice. The ideal of social justice is equal distribution of wealth, income, power, privilege, and opportunity, whereas any inequality of income or wealth is automatically condemned, regardless of how it arose.

It is often asserted that since wealth accumulation may have resulted from such various pernicious institutions such as slavery, imperialism, peasant/worker exploitation, or other immoral historical circumstances, any remaining inequality must ipso facto derive from a morally tainted origin, thus justifying coercive redistribution. Because of the importance social justice places on equal distribution of wealth and income, it is often conflated with economic justice.

Social justice is often asserted in terms of positive, as opposed to negative, rights. Negative rights are stated in terms of what others may not interfere with. For example, the right to own property is a negative right, because it is only operative to the extent that others, including the government, are prevented from interfering. Positive rights have become a fixture of progressive political advocacy. It is asserted that we have a right to a minimum income, housing, healthcare, education, etc. All these things have to be provided by others, providing them is not simply a matter of preventing others from interfering with our rights or property, but require compelling employers, landlords, medical practitioners, etc., to deliver what we need or want on demand. In other words, positive rights are the right to enslave others for our purported benefit.

Social justice is informed and inspired by religious precepts encouraging voluntary charity. For example, the Quran enjoins Muslims to give alms to the poor as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632) was himself a merchant and entrepreneur who managed the business affairs of his first wife Khafdijah bint Khuwaylid (555-620). The Prophet strongly supported private property and recognized that an unequal distribution of wealth and income could arise from a variety of factors, including superior work ethic. As with many other religions, charity is one of Islam’s positive moral obligations for believers, but most Islamic governments have followed the Western practice of co-opting private charity with coercive redistribution.

Social justice began to be distinguished from conventional morality in the nineteenth century. John Stuart Mill clearly didn’t advocate for wealth redistribution when he suggested that “Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost degree to converge” 

From its founding by the Reverend John Wesley (1703-1791), Methodism emphasized social justice, particularly advocating the abolition of slavery. A recent (2016) edition of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church reflects more contemporary views that forced redistribution is unobjectionable, even mandatory, as long as it serves a good cause:

“We hold governments responsible for the protection of the rights of the people to free and fair elections and to the freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, communications media, and petition for redress of grievances without fear of reprisal; to the right to privacy; and to the guarantee of the rights to adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care.”

Governments are not held responsible for protecting private property, but must be relied on to ensure the equitable provision of adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care—meaning they are required to penalize some in order to benefit others.

Social justice has long been a central feature of Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903, reigned 1878-1903), who had studied under Monsignor Taparelli, published the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes, 1891) rejecting both socialism and capitalism as materialistic philosophies, but also defending both private property and the right of workers to organize and join unions. Pope Leo suggested social cooperation should avoid both the class conflict hypothesized by Marx and the cut-throat competition of capitalism. He proposed a role for the state in promoting social justice by protecting individual rights, but saw a broader moral role for the Church in advocating for and ministering to the poor and disadvantaged. This went beyond the Church’s traditional collection and distribution of alms, pointing to an explicit political role for the Church in advocating on social issues, which today seems unexceptional.

Pius XI’s (1857-1939, reigned 1922-1939) Quadragesimo Anno (On the Reconstruction of the Social Order, 1931, literally In the Fortieth Year, referring to the fortieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum) argued for minimum wage legislation and proposed that social justice should be exhibited both in individual behavior and in the progressive social order the Church was morally obliged to advocate (Pius XI 1931). If a so-called living wage does not exceed the value of a worker’s labor, the concept cannot be considered objectionable. The problem with living wage legislation arises whenever the mandated minimum wage exceeds the value of the worker’s labor—this almost invariably results in unnecessary worker unemployment, which Marxists mistakenly construe as a failure of capitalism. In the rare event that employers can be coerced into paying a wage that exceeds the value of the worker’s labor, the so-called living wage effectively robs and enslaves the employer.

John Paul II’s (1920-2005, reigned 1978-2005) encyclicals, particularly Laborem Exercens (Through Work, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The Social Concern, 1987), and Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year, 1991, referring to the hundredth year after Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum), were more broadly supportive of private property and free enterprise than those of many of his predecessors. John Paul lived under communism in Poland, worked to end it, and lived to see its collapse. He was a forceful proponent of property rights, consensual market exchange, voluntary charity, and social cooperation as routes to both a moral life and material prosperity.

Benedict XVI’s (1927-, reigned 2005-2013) encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love, 2006) asserts that the aim of secular government is justice, while the goal of the Church is charity. Lay Christians’ role is to guide democratic governments to serve social justice. Unfortunately Pope Benedict failed to address whether the government could be morally justified in exercising coercion to achieve social justice aims for some at the expense of others, or what moral limits might apply, if any.

Economist Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992) explicitly rejected social justice in Law, Legislation, and Liberty

There can be no test by which we can discover what is ‘socially unjust’ because there is no subject by which such an injustice can be committed, and there are no rules of individual conduct the observance of which in the market order would secure to the individuals and groups the position which as such (as distinguished from the procedure by which it is determined) would appear just to us. [Social justice] does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense, like the term ‘a moral stone’

According to John Rawls, principles of social justice provide “a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and … define the appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens of social co-operation.” Note, however. that Rawls includes forced income redistribution as an appropriate burden of social co-operation. It is difficult to take seriously anyone who is so blithely unaware of the incompatibility between coercion and co-operation. Rawls conflates and confuses the standard justice of private property, due process, and the rule of law with his new expression of social justice, purportedly acknowledging that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.” Nevertheless, Rawls’ view is that far from protecting rights inviolably, as he claims in one place, social justice overrides the rights of some in order to benefit others, the purportedly disadvantaged class-conscious vanguard of progressive thought.  

Appeals to social justice first appeared in UN documents in the second half of the 1960s, when social justice increasingly became a “substitute for the protection of human rights at the initiative of the Soviet Union, and with the support of developing countries, the term was used in the Declaration on Social Progress and Development, adopted in 1969.” The UN defines social justice as “the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.”

The UN narrative suggests that, “from the comprehensive global perspective shaped by the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, neglect of the pursuit of social justice … translates into de facto acceptance of a future marred by violence, repression and chaos.” Never mind that the current reality of forced redistribution already mars the social fabric with violent repression. “Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.” Perhaps the only real problem with government income redistribution is its overwhelming incoherency. Redistribution is conceived of as a positive obligation and routine activity of government. “[T]he notion of social justice is relatively new. None of history’s great philosophers—not Plato or Aristotle, or Confucius or Averroes, or even Rousseau or Kant—saw the need to consider justice or the redress of injustices from a social perspective. The concept first surfaced in Western thought and political language in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine. It emerged as an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity. Following the revolutions that shook Europe in the mid-1800s, social justice became a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists…. By the mid-twentieth century, the concept of social justice had become central to the ideologies and programmes of virtually all the leftist and centrist political parties around the world.” Apparently we need the UN, not only to assure world peace and prevent World War III, but also to implement the virtuous dictatorship of Eleanor Roosevelt by proxy. Self-determination is thus a primary right only insofar as the democratic process selects UN-approved leftist or centrist governments, rather than those which promote the backward view of protecting private property.

A further problem with social justice, most clearly seen with Rawls’ inconsistent discussion, is that it alternates between merely supplementing fundamental values such as human rights and private property, and completely overriding them. However, whenever this is raised as an objection, advocates like Rawls simply retreat to the position that there is no conflict between social justice and conventional private property rights. Then they opportunistically resume arguments for redistribution and higher government spending for social programs. The underlying problem with social justice is the failure to distinguish between negative rights, which protect liberty and property, and positive rights, which provide a license to violate established negative rights.

Robert F. Mulligan

Robert Mulligan

Robert F. Mulligan is a career educator and research economist working to better understand how monetary policy drives the business cycle, causing recessions and limiting long-term economic growth. His research interests include executive compensation, entrepreneurship, market process, credit markets, economic history, fractal analysis of time series, financial market pricing efficiency, maritime economics, and energy economics.

He is the author of Entrepreneurship and the Human Experience and Executive Compensation. Both books can be purchased through Amazon either in hard copy or as a Kindle eBook.

He is from Westbury, New York, and received a BS in Civil Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology, and an MA and PhD in Economics from the State University of New York at Binghamton. He also received an Advanced Studies Certificate in International Economic Policy Research from the Institut fuer Weltwirtschaft Kiel in Germany. He has taught at SUNY Binghamton, Clarkson University, and Western Carolina University.

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