(Originally published in the Chalcedon Report of April, 1988.)
We must realize that the popular phrase “social justice” is not merely a variant of justice—like civil justice or criminal justice. It is not the kind of justice one obtains when one’s property has been damaged. Or the kind of justice one sees when a robber is sent to jail. Social justice has nothing to do with justice as we know it. It represents a break with the Hebrew-Christian tradition of our ancestors and the rule of law.
Traditional justice is the received reality of a fallen civil society. It is rule-centered. Sobran, Oakshott, Hayek and others have called this a nomocratic viewpoint. Its root is law. The relationships between men are clearly defined by the traditional duties. It is God-revealed truth. Biblical law embodies the Sinai commandments, the admonitions of the prophets, the teachings of Christ, and the authority of the apostles. Traditional justice is thus Hebrew-Christian.
Traditional justice assumes a fallen, and permanently imperfect world where law is needed in order to encourage virtue and limit vice. For this reason, traditional justice relies on moral structures: family, civil force, church, constitution—in order to maintain just order. Since man is fallen, it recognizes that mere abstractions and ideals cannot govern man; but personal relationships, social duties, and civil authority, informed by Scripture and the Holy Spirit, must restrain his evil. Traditional justice is an unending process and is profoundly anti-Utopian. There will never be a point on this side of eternity when law will not be needed. The best world that the traditional justice view can create is a world where human beings are safe and free to conduct themselves together in an orderly fashion, pursuing their God-given gifts, and restraining their sinful tendencies. It is not a perfect world—it is a world with warts. But it is a world where one can be happy, productive, free, and content. Even if it is a world where one must inevitably suffer and die.
The social justice view is a new and radical view of the nature of justice. It is the common view of all left-of-center ideological positions. It is “end centered”—what Sobran, and others, call teleocratic. What matters in such a justice worldview is the end; the ideal, the vision of the future world. It is in this emerging world order where the social justice advocate sees true justice. Our task, he believes, is to bring about a new order of things. We are to judge all current systems by the end desired. Our duty is not to “revealed law” or even “natural” laws, but to revolutionary goals and to the vehicles that bring those goals about. The vehicles are usually a party, or a bureaucracy, or an army—but always statist. The old definitions of order and justice are made obsolete by the new vision: property rights give ground to “just” distribution; natural abilities give way to quotas; religious instruction gives order to “public education for productive democratic citizenship.” The world of social justice is of necessity revolutionary; for it must restructure the old traditional justice order by means of suspending the old duties and right relationships. And it must be coercive, for it must do this with or without the consent of those whose incomes are to be redistributed; and whose children are to be instructed in the new order. The worldview is Utopian. Justice is the creation of social structures which achieve the ideal state. The best world imaginable, and therefore attainable, is one of socialism, egalitarianism, and salvation through social structures. The aim of social justice is the establishment of the millennium—without God.
Traditional justice, on the other hand, will eschew visionary millennialism. It will support the establishment of a moral, non-coercive society which defends the family and the dignity of property rights.
Social justice, according to the values of traditional justice, is merely institutionalized injustice.
Social justice is a myth … a dream … a vision … a phantasm. It is not something of this world; but a thing that has descended from the imaginary realms of idealistic wishes. It is the enshrinement of ideals which are in part Hebrew-Christian—but which are incarnated in our time among the collectivist liberals, especially among the Marxists.
The society dedicated to traditional justice takes upon itself the role of steward of civilization. It wants peace, prosperity, and civil order; but it recognizes that the only means we have for obtaining such virtues is through law-centered liberty. Traditional justice gives vitality to the language of civil life.
Social justice dreamers desire to implement mercy and compassion in the world. Unfortunately, what they desire bears little resemblance to the Hebrew-Christian virtue of mercy. Such mercy is always a concept offset by the holy perfection of a just God. The “mercy” of the peace activist brings slavery and socialist warfare to the world. The “mercy” of the looting welfarist brings unproductive laziness for some and unbearable taxation for the productive. The “mercy” of the criminal justice liberal brings release for murderers, robbers, and rapists; and grants agony to a society crying for justice.
This is not Hebrew-Christian mercy; this is mercy at all costs. Mercy without end. The mandating of mercy without a prerequisite legislation of true justice is a form of injustice.