During the recently passed Jewish holidays, I heard one rabbi after another speak of “social justice.” Uttered with remarkable sincerity, this expression and its meaning elude me. I recognize justice as the adjudication of competing positions in a court of law and in accordance with the Constitution and its precedents. But what is social justice?
I’m not naïve. From Sharpton to Wright, social justice has come to mean redressing the wrongs of the past in the form of government benefits or reparations. The expression has a hint of retribution as in, “You owe us.” In actuality, the words haven’t any real meaning. There are always those who grieve, and as long as the government attempts to satisfy those with a gripe, the plaintive cry for social justice will have irresistible appeal.
Justice is rarely social unless, of course, it is categorical. That was the case with the Holocaust. In most instances, justice is personal, e.g., seeking retribution for a contractual violation. Even if one were to attempt to redress the evil of slavery, how would one do so? Not every black person in the United States is a child of slavery.
Moreover, people do not live in slavery – here at any rate – and race is not a barrier to success, as President Obama and a host of corporate leaders demonstrate.
That the expression lives leads to confusion and discontent. There are principles on which the nation rests, such as the rule of law, respect for private property, free expression, and individual rights. But social justice is not among them, albeit its radical antecedent ensures its place in the contemporary protest movement.
For many, social justice is a form of egalitarianism. Why, people sometimes ask, should a few have so much and the many so little? This is the fairness gambit. Overlooked by acolytes of this position is that individualism on which this nation has put a premium is often at odds with economic equality. If people are free to pursue their goals, some are likely to be more successful than others.
The government has attempted to legislate a form of egalitarianism through progressive taxation. But even with a progressive tax designed to reduce the wealth of the most successful Americans, income disparity cannot be eliminated. Unless you change human nature and incentives as the Soviet Union unsuccessfully attempted, economic equality (read: social justice) is unattainable.
It is instructive that so-called progressives want to gain control of the state in order to bring about social justice. However, whenever this effort has been successful the progressives or radicals end up rewarding themselves and impoverishing those they claim to represent. Poor people are invariably subject to this political protest chant, but most know that it is a fiction borne of demagoguery.
Life is not fair – an observation everyone understands intuitively. The rich want something they cannot buy and the poor covet what the rich already have. If there is psychic justice, it is found in religion where every believer is equal in God’s eyes. But in the City of Man, social justice is a chimera, often sought but impossible to attain.
Perhaps it is time to inter this notion, bury it deep into the past. Of course, that isn’t likely to occur when so many are committed to its retention. They will parade across our streets calling for social justice as if they had any idea what it is they are seeking.
This is the lamentation of our age, a chant of frustration and desire and, as long as governments seek to address this apparent concern manifest as passion, there will be reinforcement for the employment of these empty words. Listen carefully and you will hear the words “social justice” at any protest rally. This is a case of reifying fake ideology.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and “America's Secular Challenge” (Encounter Books).
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