Most Americans started their school day with saying the Pledge of Allegiance which contained the words, “with liberty and justice for all.” We are taught growing up that justice is a good thing because it is. Children are heard on playgrounds saying, “That’s not fair,” when they are wronged. This points to the fact that everyone knows at some level that some actions are good and other actions are evil. What is justice?
Different philosophers have given nuances to our idea of justice. Plato describes justice as a kind of harmony. When each part of society is doing what they ought to do we call it a just society. The basic idea that justice communicates is that people ought to get what they deserve. You ought to punish the guilty and not the innocent. This is justice.
What is social justice? For the uninitiated, some would think it is simply wanting justice in the society. This is not how the term is used by the social justice champions in our country. Instead, what is advocated is a distribution of advantages and disadvantages to promote equality. These words are loaded with importance to understand social justice today.
Of course, social justice advocates say that our benevolent government should ‘level the playing field’ and redistribute resources away from those that have things and give them to those who do not. The Bible has a word for such redistribution. It is called stealing. Needless to say it is strongly condemned. Stealing is inherently unjust as it takes what belongs to one person without their consent and gives it to another. The policies that advocates of social justice promote which call for redistribution are not just.
In fact, the commandment “Thou shall not steal,” presupposes that God has a robust view of private property rights. This admonition not to steal is universal. It applies to all people, regardless whether they are stealing in the name of the state.
What could be wrong with promoting and protecting human equality? Again, without making any distinctions, it would be easy to go along with this idea. However, we should recognize some facts about mankind and then make our policies which correspond to these. One, which is evident from the Bible, is that all mankind is equally created in the image of God. Every human from the moment of conception is intrinsically valuable and equally bear God’s image. There are certain natural rights that emerge from this. Thomas Jefferson explains in the Declaration of Independence that among these natural rights are ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ These rights are not given by the government, but exist prior to the government and come from natural law.
These rights are those mankind has which the government has the responsibility to protect. We all equally have these rights. The government only exists in order to protect these rights of man. When it fails to do so, government may either be altered or, in extreme cases, abolished.
Note something about these rights as they relate to government. They are what are called negative rights. People, including those within the government, may not infringe upon them unless we have violated another person’s rights. Negative rights emphasize our freedoms. We are free to live, speak, and practice our religion as long as we have not violated the liberties of others.
When social justice advocates say equality they conflate several ideas. We can agree that everyone is equally valuable as human beings. However, when saying we should ‘distribute advantages equally by taking things from one person and giving them to another,’ they not only violate natural rights, they ignore certain truths about reality. One is the fact we’re not all equally gifted. Some people are better at sports than I am, others better at math, others better at many other things. Some of these gifts are natural talents, and some have been cultivated with work. In addition, every human has a different motivation to work. Some of us work hard, some of us do not. The reality is there are differences between people. These differences are rewarded depending upon how much value they offer to society.
What can we glean from this as it relates to public policy? As equally created in God’s image, the government should provide us protection from other people infringing on our liberties. Government should not, however, guarantee equality of results among all people. The reason is results or outcomes are based on the reality that we are all different in meaningful ways. If someone has a greater talent, works harder than others, and provides a good or service extremely valuable to the world, then they should be rewarded. It is up to the government to ensure nobody infringes on this. However, the government should not infringe upon this person’s property- either the labor or the rewards for the labor.
Redistribution is not only unjust, it leads to greater poverty among those who need it most. There are many reasons for this. Here are two that are most evident:
- Redistribution of wealth reduces the incentives of everyone involved. Those who have wealth do not use it to create new jobs or start new businesses. This means that those who are poor have less choices for jobs due to new businesses never being created. Those who could gain wealth from working harder or inventing things do not because of government redistribution.
- Consider that the poor in America are wealthier than the middle class in other countries. Not only are the poor in America wealthier in terms of income, the poor’s living standards are significantly higher that socialist countries that promote redistribution like social justice advocates desire. Economist Ryan McMaken created the following graph that shows how the poor in America compares with the median income of other countries[i]:
Christians should seek justice and care for the poor. The proposals of those advocating social justice, rooted in the idea of government redistribution, results in injustice and a greater number of people living in poverty. The empirical data shows this. In countries where there is the most economic freedom, we find the most wealth and least poverty. Where there is the least economic freedom and government redistribution, we find the most poverty. Contrast North Korea and South Korea. If you are looking at the two countries from outer space at night you’ll see the difference. South Korea shines brightly, North Korea is cloaked in darkness. South Korea is free and prosperous. North Korea is very opposite. The prosperity of South Korea is linked to their freedom which has provided them the resources to turn lights on at night. The North has neither the freedom or the resources.
We should remember the Pledge so many of us said as children. Recognize how justice goes hand-in-hand with liberty. When the government protects our liberty to the fruits of our labor this is a justice different than what social justice advocates desire.
-Bernard J. Mauser, Ph.D.
[i] Ryan McMaken, “The Poor in the US Are Richer than the Middle Class in Much of Europe,” Mises Wire, (10/16/2015).