My Aesthetic Philosophy In Two Sentences
Carryl Houselander On the Bohemians

Conservatives And Social Justice

Sunday Night Journal — November 13, 2011

The eccentric right-wing TV/radio personality Glenn Beck attracted a great deal of wrath a while back when he warned people to flee any church that preaches “social justice:”

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

He was denounced furiously, with some reason. And then one of those tiresome media and internet tempests ensued, people shouted superficial talking points at each other for a few days, and the whole thing was forgotten.

Beck’s opponents were right to condemn the clearly absurd notion they took from his remarks, which was that Christianity has nothing to do with social justice. But Beck, in his goofy way, did have a point. In many contexts, the terms “social justice” and “economic justice” are indeed code words, in that the justice they prescribe is a pretty specific set of policies which can fairly be summarized as support for the modern welfare state, and sometimes, depending on who’s talking, for pure socialism. And it's also true that some Christians have substituted this political program for the faith. So it’s not without reason that one who disagrees with the program reflexively tunes out anyone who uses the terms.

But to stop there is merely reactionary. Obviously the terms in their literal meanings refer to something that has to be taken seriously when we think about politics, especially when we think about politics from a Christian perspective. What, in fact, is the point of politics, if not to foster social justice? Or, to use a less politically charged term, the common good? I assume no one reading this, and few people anywhere in the Western world, would argue that the point is to gain as much power as possible, or to subjugate and plunder other peoples for the glory and enrichment of one’s own country, both of which seem to have been uncontroversial answers to the question in many times and places. It is probably because of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian philosophical and religious traditions that they are now generally disgraced, though still practiced (obviously).

It’s especially important for conservatives to articulate principles of social justice. We live in a more or less capitalist society—I say “more or less” because capitalism, unlike socialism, does not have a specific and generally agreed-upon definition. It is less a system than socialism, in that it is not first a fully thought-out intellectual creation, but rather a messy mixture of ideas and historical developments. An ideology of pure capitalism exists, but it’s somewhat of an after-the-fact thing. And its proponents don’t seem to think that American society, for instance, really meets the definition. Other non-ideological capitalists often seem to think that “capitalism” means nothing more than private property and markets that are free within the limits of laws against fraud, breach of contract, etc.

But at any rate, whatever you want to call the system, conservatives are in general defenders of it. If they wish to preserve it, they should wish to reform it. The uncritical defenders of an institution are often a greater danger to it than its open enemies. By digging in their heels and refusing to acknowledge its defects—which, in the normal way of human things, will get worse if no active effort is made to repair them—they weaken it, and strengthen both the arguments and the animosity of those who wish to do away with it.

The attack on capitalism from the left tends to be simplistic, emotional, and often at least implicitly revolutionary. It goes against the American grain in being fundamentally hostile to capitalism. And so even when it’s correct in identifying this or that problem, as in the Occupy movement’s protest against the current trend for the rich to get richer and for the middle class to become poorer, it loses popular sympathy, as well as persuasive power, by going beyond specific problems and plainly wishing to replace the whole system with something else entirely. Americans by and large do not want that; they want reform, not revolution, and they certainly do not want the sort of revolution envisioned by those who, strangely, still seem to look to the leftist ideologies of the early 20th century for a solution, in spite of their vast record of crimes and failures.

Reform must, by definition, begin with what is here. So those who understand the thing that is to be reformed, and who wish to see it reformed, ought to be in the forefront of the attempt to understand and address its problems. Human nature, of course, tends to produce a different result: the desire to defend the institution becomes an unwillingness to acknowledge its faults, and then an active attempt to ignore and conceal them. That has been the response of a lot of conservatives to the current economic crisis, and it’s a mistake.

Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when I was abandoning my own youthful leftism, I thought the neoconservative defense of capitalism was a needed corrective to the prevailing doctrines of welfare-state liberalism, not to mention the revolutionary delusions of the far left. The prosperity of the ‘50s and ‘60s had been taken for granted, and when things turned sour in the mid-’70s there was a need to examine the welfare-state presumption that business was the problem and government the solution, and to make the case that government redistribution of wealth was only feasible and useful if there was wealth to distribute. Someone said—and I think Ronald Reagan may have used it in a speech, though I don’t know that it was his line originally—that it was time to stop worrying so much about how to distribute the golden eggs and start worrying about the health of the goose.

All right, then: within the framework of the question “how can we maintain our prosperity?”—that is, assuming a reformist rather than revolutionary goal—those were valid arguments. But many who made them stuck there. They dug in their heels. They over-praised capitalism. They minimized its defects. They constructed a sort of academic’s fantasy about how and why it operates, speaking of “the circle of exchange” rather than of war and Darwinian struggle, as actual capitalists often do. And in the current crisis they don’t seem to have anything useful to say. As middle class and poor Americans have to struggle more and more to stay where they are, and the rich enjoy wealth and privilege which make them in many ways more distant from the masses than kings of old, the intellectual defenders of capitalism have little to offer beyond their old formulas of lower taxes and less regulation. Does anyone seriously believe that such things, even if one grants that they are good policies, will do much to stop the erosion of the American middle class? I doubt it. And conservatives who focus on those things only provide cause for others to think that they either do not understand or do not care that it is getting harder and harder for Americans to earn a middle-class living.

I know there are exceptions—Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, for instance—but for the most part the more visible conservatives and neoconservatives seem to just keep repeating formulas that seem irrelevant at best: that people move in and out of the category of “wealthy,” that any tax increase will crush the incentives of “job creators”—as if insanely well-paid CEOs haven’t been busy for many years now sending every job they can to China—that the top 5% of taxpayers pay 40% of the income taxes (or whatever the number is), etc. Long-time Catholic neoconservative George Weigel seemed almost a parody of the breed when, upon the publication of Caritas in veritate, he rushed into print to tell Catholics which parts of the encyclical were not actually representative of Benedict’s thought and need not be given much attention.

All of this is just a prelude to saying how pleased I was to read this piece by Ryan Anderson of the Witherspoon Institute, which is a sort of social conservative think-tank. Reviewing a recent book from the American Enterprise Institute, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, by Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks, Anderson criticizes the failure of capitalism’s apologists to go beyond the not-necessarily-true argument that capitalism is just because, in the long run, almost everybody benefits. I’ll quote one passage, which I think will cause anyone interested in this subject to read the whole piece:

Perhaps most disconcerting, however, is that Wehner and Brooks offer no principles of justice on how individuals should deploy their wealth, and in a book titled Wealth and Justice this is disappointing. Supporting free markets and limited government doesn’t even begin to address the question of how citizens should behave in the market: Can a citizen be guilty of injustice in how he uses his wealth? Do citizens have duties—in justice—to distribute their wealth? Wehner and Brooks are silent.

In justice. One doesn’t have to believe that the government should micromanage the economy to hold that some positive assertion of the demands of justice, independent of the workings of the market, must have a place in a healthy economic order. I think Ryan Anderson is a young man: a hopeful sign, if true.

And while I’m at it: in searching for the Glenn Beck quote above, I found this solid Christian response to him, from the prominent Southern Baptist Albert Mohler.

Justice is our concern because it is God’s concern.

Another hopeful sign.


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I just read Boomerang by Michael Lewis. I don't usually read books by journalists and people in think tanks - they have too much information and become tiresome. This one is very good. He travels through Iceland, Greece, Germany and finally California, asking how these countries could have built up the debt bankruptcy they have. Near the end he says (as many other have done, but perhaps less tellingly) that the public blame the government and Wall Street, and Wall street blames the public and the government, etc. None of them see that this problem is the result of their wanting their behaviour to have no consequences. I can strongly recommend it: aside from anything else, it is very funny.

I am not interested in what conservatives write any longer. That might be just a psychological condition, just about me. But it might be because, as you say, they are not answering or even asking the troubling questions of the past couple of decades. For instance, 'instant credit', as it emerged in the 1980s: was it problematic, and if so, how should it have been regulated?

I don't think I've ever read a book by a think-tank person. Journalists, yes. That does sound interesting though I'm so pressed for time that I don't know whether I'd want to spend it on that. I do think that's the root of the problem--"wanting their behaviour to have no consequences."

I read the more-or-less conservatives at Front Porch Republic occasionally. But, you know, how many times does one want to read the same melancholy complaints about technology, gigantism, alienation, loss of community, loss of place, etc etc? I get it, I pretty much agree, now what? Some of the sort of traditionalist/social cons like that guy I linked to are still interesting, but the ones who just preach free markets and low taxes seem pathetically out of touch.

I have zero time for the low tax/spending cut sort of "conservative" any more.

As far as the FPR fellows go, I think that at this point in the game they're writing mainly as diagnosticians. After all, their specific critique, that of the conservative who is both anti-statist and anti-corporatist, is not partcularly well-known in wider society, and has only just recently started to get any sort of "legs" in the media. I think it's still a little early, generally speaking, for the "We know that -- now what?" response. Fact is, lots of folks really don't yet know that there's such an alternative to the standard left/right binary.

Right--"I get it", not "We get it"--I was only speaking for myself. I'm all for them saying it, but don't really need to keep reading it for myself. Not that that's all there is on FPR.

I'm somewhat of the same mind about the distributists. I'm all for the effort, but am not interested in reading that much about it. I was sorry to see, on the Caelum et Terra blog, that there seems to be some factionalism developing there: "left distributists" vs. "right distributists." Not surprising, though, I guess--it's sort of a natural hazard for intense political minorities.

"I'm all for them saying it, but don't really need to keep reading it for myself."

Makes sense. I guess for me, I'm not long enough out of the neo-con mentality yet for the thing to have lost its lustre.

We were saying a lot of the same things in Caelum et Terra 20 years ago, so the basic view is pretty familiar to me.

Very good post, Maclin. If more conservatives had such insights maybe they wouldn't be viewed so harshly by those who do value justice...

Thank you. Here's a piece by Ramesh Ponnuru where, although he's not talking about justice per se, he takes the Republicans to task for having nothing to say about wage stagnation.

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