Last week, Peter Heck spent a couple pieces on social justice Christianity, arguing first that “Jesus is a better cure than social policy” for racism, and second that “Biblical justice is different from social justice.” Rather than getting into the question of how much I agree or disagree with his arguments, I am going to take a different tack, one which I hope will be profitable in the current environment of our large Madisonian republic, which needs persuasion among reasonable people.
Still my argument could be controversial. I propose that the sort of free society that conservatives wish to preserve in America is closer to one that achieves truly dynamic social justice than one built on left-wing policy.
I’m not going to debate the merits of social justice, which, like every ideology from feminism to conservatism, means different things to different people, while also being characterized by certain common denominators. For my purposes, it will be enough to assume the following:
- That the conception of social justice I have in mind here is the one as conceived in Catholic social teaching, of which two principles are relevant:
- The life and dignity of the human person
- The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable
I do believe that it cannot be disputed that, both in theory and empirically, human life and dignity is respected in the sort of free society that the American Founding first established than in any alternatives that have existed in human history, but for my argument here, I am more focused on the second principle. I also assume that
- Whether justice is the correct virtue to be described by the principle of “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable” or instead a virtue such as compassion or charity, to devote special attention to the conditions of the poor and vulnerable is a necessary condition for a good society. That is to say, we may call this social compassion, social charity or something else than social justice, but it is just as important to whether ours can be called a good society, regardless.
This principle has been adopted by the philosopher John Rawls and reconstructed in his own words as the maximization of the position of the worst off in society. Don’t worry, I’m not going any further in accepting Rawls’ conceptualization, which is both logically problematic and practically ridiculous. But let us accept the premise that our society ought -- among other “oughts” -- to maximize the position of the poor and vulnerable.
Having accepted these two assumptions, I ask what society best accomplishes this aim. I answer: the one that rapidly, vastly and irrespectively improved the conditions of its all its members. American society, and Western society more broadly, has done that in an unprecedented manner over the last three centuries. The rest of the world has begun to follow to a degree easily perceptible even over the span of a recent decade.
The problem with what most adherents to a philosophy of social justice advocate for today is that they are static solutions. They look at a snapshot of our moment in time, arguing for what should be instead. This is a mistaken approach to the problems they see because it omits time.
Everyone’s condition changes, absolutely and relatively, over time.
It hasn’t always been this way, at least to any noticeable degree. Prior to about 1700, everywhere the elites stayed the elites for generations and everyone else simultaneously was stuck below them. Shake-ups occurred only by revolution or by invasions, both of which altered who possessed which pieces of the pie, but kept both the pie and the pieces the same size. The stations of most people stayed the same; when they changed, they changed not through justice or any other virtue, but through luck.
Most of today’s commentaries on inequality obscure a vital fact: aggregated statistics don’t follow real people. To take the most extreme example, imagine two people, one of whom is a member of the richest 20 percent of society and the other who is a member of the poorest 20 percent. Flip them -- the first falls to the bottom and the second rises to the top. Is the problem still inequality? If so, for whom and when?
The situation just described is somewhat rare, but movement through economic quintiles is more frequent than news stories lead us to believe. Thomas Sowell is one of the few economists who has sought to overturn the conventional wisdom. He expounds,
An absolute majority of the people who were in the bottom 20 percent in 1975 have also been in the top 20 percent at some time since then. Most Americans don’t stay put in any income bracket. At different times, they are both “rich” and “poor” — as these terms are recklessly thrown around in the media. Most of those who are called “the rich” are just middle-class people whose taxes the politicians avoid cutting by giving them that name.
There are of course some people who remain permanently in the bottom 20 percent. But such people constitute less than one percent of the American population, according to data published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in its 1995 annual report. Perhaps the intelligentsia and the politicians have been too busy waxing indignant to be bothered by anything so mundane as facts.
Alarmists are not talking about real flesh and blood people. They are talking about abstract categories like the top or bottom 10 percent or 20 percent of families or households. So long as all incomes are not identical, there will always be top and bottom 10 percents or 20 percents or any other percents. But these abstract categories do not contain the same people over time.
Behind both the statistics on inequality that are spotlighted and the statistics on ever-changing personal incomes that are ignored is the simple fact that people just starting out in their careers usually do not make as much money as they will later, after they have had years of experience.
Who should be surprised that 60-year-olds have higher incomes and more wealth than 30-year-olds? Moreover, that was also true 30 years ago, when today’s 60-year-olds were just 30. But these are not different classes of people. They are the same people at different stages of their lives.
At some times and places, there have been whole classes of people who lived permanently in poverty or in luxury. But, in the United States today, the percentage of Americans who fit either description does not reach beyond single digits.
What I am getting at is that what those who pursue social justice should value is the society in which the position of the poor and vulnerable is most improved not at a single point in time due, almost without exception, to some single social policy, but throughout their lifetime. This may be absolutely, relatively to others, or both. Such a society is one which
- Grows economically. Widespread, sustained and comparatively rapid economic growth is the predominant distinguishing factor in the vast improvement of the conditions of everyone, including the worst off, that we have witness in the last three hundred years.
- Makes opportunity for mobility available to everyone. Equality of outcome and even equality of opportunity are neither possible nor desirable because they undermine the dignity of the individual, but a society in which everyone is equal before the law -- de facto, not just de jure -- is much closer to our grasp and a necessary ideal to maximize the conditions of the worst off. Beyond that, a wealth of opportunity must be available to as many people as possible.
Simultaneously pursuing both of these conditions is the challenge of American statesmen in the 21st century, but both have expanded exponentially since the 18th century. The improvement in conditions increased exponentially not because its fruits were distributed to everyone, but because more and more people were included in the system of economic growth. Development economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James A. Robinson argue that the cause of recent societal success is inclusive economic and political institutions.
Again, the challenge of our statesmen is to preserve and extend our historically inclusive politics -- built on the values of individual rights and liberties, constitutional democracy and equality before the law -- and inclusive economics -- with a foundation of free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law. That is what a true conservative conserves and where a true progressive seeks progress.