social justice from the citizen’s perspective

I believe that each of us is responsible for forming a view–even if it’s tentative and evolving–of social justice. This is our theory of how rights, goods, and powers should be distributed in our society and who should be able to change that distribution in various ways. Any decent theory must address much more than equity, because liberty, community, harmony, diversity, sustainability, efficiency, and democracy are also values worthy of consideration.

Classical liberals offer reasons not to ask the question of social justice. I ultimately disagree but believe that their concerns should influence us. We should make sure to ask the question of social justice in the right way. It is interesting, too, that Gandhi anticipated several of the main concerns raised by such classical liberals as Friedrich von Hayek. (As is often the case, the libertarian right and the highly participatory left share some common concerns.)

Here are the objections:

  1. Adding the word “social” to a personal belief is pretentious and arrogant. To say that your view represents social justice–instead of talking about what you think is “‘moral’ or simply good”–means substituting your “individual judgment” for what the society has come to believe collectively. Talk of social justice is “ultimately the result of a contempt for what really is a social phenomenon and of a belief in the superior powers of individual human reason” (Hayek, The Constitution of Justice, p. 65).
  2. We don’t know enough to define social justice. We are too cognitively limited, too biased. We cannot see moral advances that may arise in the future. We should respect local norms and diverse cultural heritages. As Gandhi said in opposition to a specific plan for Indian independence, “the only universal definition to give [the word “independence” or swaraj] is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’” They will desire something in 10 years that we cannot imagine now.
  3. By asserting a view of social justice, we implicitly adopt the perspective of the state and imply that the state is responsible for achieving justice. “Seeing like a state” may not be an inevitable result of discussing social justice, but authors as diverse as Martha Nussbaum, Philip Pettit, and John Rawls exemplify this move: they argue that if social justice demands something, then the state is responsible for it. That means that they talk like state-builders or advisers to states.
  4. People differ in interests and values. Consensus is neither likely nor desirable. No conception of social justice imposed by a state on a whole society is really compatible with our fundamental plurality. For example, since we disagree about the value of toleration, state-imposed toleration will not satisfy everyone (even if it’s better than state-imposed censorship and oppression).
  5. “The state” is an abstraction. Actual states (even dictatorships) are always complex amalgams of people, rules, and physical assets–such as guns and filing systems–with multiple power centers. And the people who work for or within a state also belong to other social institutions, including markets and families. So no state acts simply according to its official doctrines and policies.
  6. Even if we know what a state should do, it’s hard to see how we can make an actual state do it. To imagine an ideal state is like assuming a can opener on a desert island. The practical question of how to found, reform, or revolutionize the actual state is unavoidable.
  7. It’s not clear that what makes some states work better than others is the degree to which they embrace abstract theories of social justice. If you’re a libertarian or a social democrat, you have good reasons to consider Denmark one of the best societies in the world. It optimizes liberty and equality pretty well. That’s because its institutions are more capable and less corrupt than most other nations’. Much depends on basic efficiency and integrity.
  8. Steps toward social justice can be dead ends. Motion in another direction sometimes leads to greater social justice. For instance, if you lived in 19th century Scandinavia, you might have assumed that equity required curtailing the power of capital. Instead, a social system that made capital very comfortable seems to have created the comity that then allowed labor and capital to negotiate a more equitable distribution. The road that led to equity did not start off in that direction.

One conclusion–Hayek’s, for example–would be to discourage talk of “social justice.” You should say what you like, or what you believe is good, not what is “socially just,” because that is just a sign that you are seeing like a state.

I draw a different conclusion. We should not evade the question with which I began this post: What is social justice? It’s our obligation to reason about who deserves what across the whole society and even the globe. In all likelihood, reality will not meet our respective standards of social justice, and then we should try to change things.

But the point of the question is to guide our own behavior. We don’t (and shouldn’t) have the opportunity to pick a perfect social democracy, a pure free market, or a theocracy. Institutions are (and ought to be) plural, evolutionary, overlapping, impure, and internally inconsistent.  It’s a pitfall to imagine ourselves as the designers of brand-new societies or as voters able to choose among different systems. We are people embedded in complex systems who have limited reasoning capacity, limited empathy, limited imagination, limited resources, and limited leverage. In engaging the institutions we have, we should consider opportunities to advance social justice. When we talk about social justice, we are saying, in effect, “My fellow members of this specific community, this is how I think that the whole system should be organized, and that has the following implications for what we should do next.”

See also against state-centric political theoryGandhi on the primacy of means over endspolycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economyThe truth in Hayekwe are for social justice, but what is it?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.