Wrong About Rights
How the New Social Justice Betrays Justice & Subverts the Just Society
On February 20, 2011, the Rhodes College chapter of GlobeMed, a network of globally conscious university students, commemorated the UN World Day of Social Justice by inviting students and faculty to complete this sentence: "Everyone has the right to ."
Generously interpreted, a few of the responses could qualify as expressions of genuine rights, for example: "Everyone has the right to be." "Everyone has the right to an opinion." These answers at least convey the idea that human beings possess Creator-endowed rights to life and to freedom of thought and expression.
But most of the responses revealed an entirely different train of thought. These included: "Everyone has the right to clean water." "Everyone has the right to health care." "Everyone has the right to go to bed with a full stomach." "Everyone has the right to free education." "Everyone has the right to shoes." While these things are certainly desirable and good—sometimes even necessary for survival—they aren't rights. They are provisions.
Provisions are the result of an individual's (or a group's) productive labor. As such, they cannot be laid claim to by others as their right. If Joe is hungry and has no money, Jack may freely give him some vegetables from his garden, but in that case, Joe has received a benefit from Jack, not something that was his by right. The same holds true, on a larger scale, when a moral and prosperous society provides for the needs of its poorer members. Thus, however well-meaning the GlobeMed students may have been, they and their respondents were confusing rights with provisions.
Deceptive Rhetorical Shift
They aren't the only ones. This confusion has become part of the social justice colloquy. Consider the children's book, Social Justice: How You Can Make a Difference, in which author Lynn Bogen Sanders teaches, "Social justice is the idea that every person should have fair and equal rights, like having a safe place to live or being able to go to school." In one sentence she equates the Western principles of human rights and equal standing under law with provisions commensurate with a certain standard of living.
Consider also the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which identifies social justice as its core value. It defines social justice as "the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities." So far, so good. But then it explains that it fulfills that mission by ensuring that clients have access to food stamps, health care, and other "financial benefits that are rightfully theirs."
Rightfully theirs? By what construal of the concept of justice do the fruits of one person's labor rightfully belong to someone else? Not by any legitimate one, yet all these entreaties for social justice follow the same rhetorical blueprint: Begin with rights; then shift to provisions, and operate as though they were rights.
To be sure, providing needy people with a place to live and access to food is a laudable pursuit; Christians may even see it as a moral duty. But it is not justice.
Well, then, what is justice? According to Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson, the concept of justice in a society can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who defined justice as "seeing that each person gets his due."
The positive sense of "getting one's due" is evidenced in the concept of a just wage: an employee gets his due when he is paid what his labor is worth. The negative sense is associated with the concept of retribution, that is, of applying appropriate punishment when a moral or ethical boundary has been crossed. This is what we mean when we speak of a criminal being brought to justice. Even the vague notion of karma stems from the same idea—that individuals ought to receive what their actions deserve.
The important point to note here is that true justice is grounded in moral law. When a wrong has been committed, justice demands that the perpetrator be called to account. Stealing is wrong; therefore, a thief gets his due by being prosecuted for his crime.
Thomas Patrick Burke, president of the Wynnewood Institute, explains in an article for Modern Age (Spring 2010) that this classical understanding of justice lay behind the original idea of "social justice," a term Burke traces back to the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli D'Azeglio in 1843. Drawing upon the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, D'Azeglio had argued that laws should be just and that they should be applied impartially. When the law proscribes unjust actions and punishes violators impartially—that is, without respect to the offender's standing in the social hierarchy—there is justice in the social order. Social justice.
"Social Justice" Redefined
But over time, according to Burke, different interpretations of social justice arose among conservatives, liberals, and socialists; and for a time, the differing viewpoints vied with one another in the arena of ideas. After World War II, though, "the socialist conception of it won out over its rivals and gained solitary possession of the field. The term now stands for a very particular view of what is right and wrong in society."
That particular view has nothing to do with true justice and everything to do with disparity of power, wealth, or whatever coveted resource happens to be in view. It arises out of the vague feeling that something is wrong when there is a gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots."
But rather than look into the matter to determine whether some true injustice lies beneath a particular disparity (Was there theft? Is there ongoing oppression?), proponents of the new social justice pronounce the disparity itself to be the injustice. In a feat of monumentally poor thinking, reminiscent of the child who wails "No fair!" when his brother has toys he doesn't, they assert that the mere fact that some people "have" while others "have not" constitutes a condition of social injustice demanding redress.
Two Options for Action
Now, if the Rhodes College students feel distress over poverty and want to help, that's a noble sentiment. But wisdom requires pressing beyond feelings to careful thought about what action to take.
Let's assume the students truly want to help. In the face of true need, there are two approaches they could take. Dr. Walter E. Williams, economics professor at George Mason University, outlines them memorably in a 2007 article titled "Compassion versus Reality" (posted on creators.com). On the one hand, he writes, "There are people in need of help. Charity is one of the nobler human motivations. The act of reaching into one's own pockets to help a fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable." That is option number one, and its virtue is obvious. But on the other hand, Dr. Williams continues, "reaching into someone else's pocket is despicable and worthy of condemnation." That is option number two, and its lack of virtue is equally obvious.
Self-governing societies have essentially the same two options. The first approach prioritizes and respects individuals' freedom. Under the model of economic freedom, individuals are at liberty to donate, volunteer, or serve their fellow man out of their own personal resources. Private charities, relief organizations, and compassion ministries operate on this model, and their works are praiseworthy and laudable.
The other option involves relying on government agencies to distribute goods and services to the "have-nots." This model, prioritizing equality of outcomes, is built on an entitlement-oriented paradigm ("They have a 'right' to it!"). But because government-administered social justice programs are funded with tax revenues, they amount to large-scale versions of option number two: the government takes from some people (through taxation) in order to give to others.
Note well: governments themselves do not produce anything; they can only take from those who do and redistribute the goods to others. Therefore, governments don't do charity—giving to others from one's own pocket. Governments do redistribution—giving to others from someone else's pocket. As despicable as we recognize this practice to be at the individual level, it is no less so at the government level.
The kicker about redistributive programs is that they operate by inherent injustice. Economist Ben O'Neill of the University of New South Wales elucidates:
Since the program of social justice inevitably involves claims for government provision of goods, paid for through the efforts of others, the term actually refers to an intention to use force to acquire one's desires. Not to earn desirable goods by rational thought and action, production and voluntary exchange, but to go in there and forcibly take goods from those who can supply them! ("The Injustice of Social Justice," posted on Mises.org, March 16, 2011)
In most settings, forcible taking is called "theft," yet much of what flies under the banner of social justice does exactly this.
State Programs Fail
But, well-meaning people will ask, shouldn't we help the poor among us? Indeed we should, but the question to consider is whether doing so primarily through the government is effective.
Social entitlement programs are championed on the premise that government, being bigger and having access to greater resources than individuals and private groups, is in a better position to help the poor. But is that premise borne out in reality? To find out, the World Bank commissioned a study of more than one hundred countries over a thirty-year period. In the final report, On the Relevance of Freedom and Entitlement in Development, published in May 2011, the researchers concluded unequivocally that entitlement-oriented paradigms do not generate prosperity:
These results tend to support earlier findings that . . . the expansion of the state to provide for various entitlements, including so-called economic, social, and cultural rights, may not make people richer in the long run and may even make them poorer.
Thus, while it may seem expedient for a society to collectively work to alleviate poverty through government agency, in reality this approach does not work.
So what does work? In a word, freedom. The World Bank researchers also reported that their
empirical analysis suggests that, for a given set of exogenous circumstances, the respect for and promotion of economic freedom and civil and political rights are on average strongly associated with a country's per capita income growth over the long run. In contrast, in most estimates, the extent to which the state expands its scope to provide entitlement rights does not add significant explanatory power in estimating countries' growth performance over the long run. In the estimates where it does, the results would suggest a negative effect of entitlement rights on economic growth.
In other words, as they more succinctly put it: "Economic freedom and civil and political liberties are the root causes of why some countries achieve and sustain better economic outcomes."
Entitlement-oriented arrangements, on the other hand, "may be deceptive and even self-defeating in the long run." That is because government-administered social justice programs effectively turn the fruits of one man's labor into spoils that others will fight over. This is both unjust and unhealthy for any society, and calling it "justice" is an egregious misnomer. To bury redistribution under the terminology of rights and charity is to mask systemic injustice and set in motion a kind of societal suicide. That way leads—to borrow the words of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek—down "The Road to Serfdom."
Yes, we should help the poor among us. Charity is good, but it is truly charity—and truly helpful—only when it operates within the context of justice and liberty. Liberty itself does not create prosperity; it merely frees people up to generate prosperity for themselves and their families and communities. "In a free society," wrote Walter Lippmann in 1937, "the state does not administer the affairs of men. It administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs."
That's liberty. Liberty is risky, but it's the only soil out of which prosperity will grow. •
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