The prob­lem with ‘so­cial jus­tice’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Jonah Gold­berg

Noah Roth­man, a bril­liant young writer and ed­i­tor at Com­men­tary Mag­a­zine, has just pub­lished his first book, and it’s about non­sense.

Let me be clear: The book isn’t non­sense. It’s crisp, in­sight­ful and pas­sion­ate. The topic, cap­tured in the ti­tle, “Un­just: So­cial Jus­tice and the Un­mak­ing of Amer­ica,” is non­sense be­cause so­cial jus­tice is non­sense.

Now, when I say “non­sense,” I mean non­sen­si­cal, as in lack­ing in­te­rior logic and def­i­ni­tional rigor. A few years ago, while work­ing on my book “The Tyranny of Clichés,” I put on my prospec­tor’s hel­met and mined the lit­er­a­ture for an agreed-upon def­i­ni­tion of so­cial jus­tice. What I found was one de­posit af­ter an­other of fool’s gold. From la­bor unions to count­less uni­ver­si­ties to gay rights groups to even the Amer­i­can Nazi Party, ev­ery­one in­sisted they were cham­pi­ons of so­cial jus­tice. The only dis­agree­ments hinged on who is most in need of this pre­cious re­source.

Com­mon to al­most ev­ery def­i­ni­tion of so­cial jus­tice is some ver­sion of “eco­nomic jus­tice,” which usu­ally means what philoso­phers call “dis­tribu­tive jus­tice” — i.e., tak­ing money from the haves and giv­ing it to the have-nots. But what it’s re­ally about is power. Its ad­vo­cates want the power to do what they want, and if they say it’s for so­cial jus­tice, that’s sup­posed to make it OK.

For in­stance, the Green Party plat­form on so­cial jus­tice is nearly 60 pages (and 17,000 words) long. Among its planks: stop­ping speech that per­pet­u­ates “op­pres­sion and abuse,” re­form of the Bureau of In­dian Af­fairs, sovereignty for Hawaii, com­pen­sa­tion for gays and les­bians who’ve suf­fered from “in­jus­tice,” the en­cour­age­ment of young peo­ple’s po­ten­tial “to the great­est ex­tent pos­si­ble,” and rein­vest­ment of a “sig­nif­i­cant por­tion” of mil­i­tary spend­ing on “fam­ily sup­port, liv­ing-wage job de­vel­op­ment and work train­ing pro­grams.” So­cial jus­tice isn’t a the­ory, it’s a wish list.

And here we get to the crux of the is­sue. Con­ser­va­tives who read the so­cial jus­tice lit­er­a­ture can be for­given for think­ing the term is re­ally just a Tro­jan horse for so­cial­ism, and in ear­lier eras it has been. But while it’s true that many of to­day’s so­cial jus­tice war­riors ad­vo­cate for so­cial­ism, the an­i­mat­ing pas­sion stems from iden­tity pol­i­tics.

To put it bluntly, his­tor­i­cally op­pressed or dis­ad­van­taged groups want pay­back in the name of so­cial jus­tice. Mr. Roth­man calls this “re­tribu­tive jus­tice.” Ac­cord­ing to this view — which ob­vi­ously has more than a lit­tle truth to it — whites have his­tor­i­cally en­joyed priv­i­leges non-whites did not, and there­fore non-whites are owed some­thing and “white priv­i­lege” must be over­thrown. The ar­gu­ment fol­lows the same form for males, het­ero­sex­u­als, etc.

Among the myr­iad prob­lems with this world­view is that in­di­vid­ual cir­cum­stances are boiled away. The white de­scen­dant of a North­ern abo­li­tion­ist is as “guilty” as any other ben­e­fi­ciary of white priv­i­lege. Vast ab­stract cat­e­gories of hu­man be­ings are swept up into no­tions of col­lec­tive guilt — or vic­tim­hood.

This is partly why philoso­pher Friedrich Hayek loathed the con­cept of so­cial jus­tice. He saw it as the very nega­tion of plain old jus­tice. Tra­di­tion­ally, a per­son is only sup­posed to be re­spon­si­ble for the wrongs he or she com­mit­ted against a spe­cific per­son. If Per­son A does some­thing ter­ri­ble en­tirely un­be­knownst to Per­son B, it is un­just to hold Per­son B ac­count­able solely be­cause of the color of his skin. It’s even more grotesque to hold Per­son B ac­count­able for the things done by Per­son A if Per­son A lived 300 years ago.

When Mr. Roth­man ap­peared on MSNBC’s “Morn­ing Joe” to dis­cuss his book, the re­ac­tion from crit­ics on the set and in so­cial me­dia of­ten boiled down to the claim that he can’t crit­i­cize so­cial jus­tice be­cause he doesn’t be­long to a cat­e­gory of peo­ple in need of so­cial jus­tice. A white guy’s ar­gu­ments can be dis­missed out of hand be­cause of the color of his skin.

And this gets to the heart of why so­cial jus­tice is non­sense. So­cial jus­tice is a kind of mag­i­cal in­can­ta­tion that ren­ders in­con­ve­nient im­ped­i­ments to its cham­pi­ons’ agenda il­le­git­i­mate. Free speech is good un­less it hurts cer­tain groups. Prop­erty rights are fine ex­cept when so­cial jus­tice dic­tates that some­one else needs your stuff more. The right to con­front your ac­cuser is negated by the need to “believe all women.”

Even facts are ir­rel­e­vant in the face of so­cial jus­tice. As the United Na­tions put it a decade ago: “Present-day be­liev­ers in an ab­so­lute truth iden­ti­fied with virtue and jus­tice are nei­ther will­ing nor de­sir­able companions for the de­fend­ers of so­cial jus­tice.”

In other words, if you believe the rule of law and sim­ple truth should de­ter­mine who’s right, you’re the en­emy of so­cial jus­tice. I, for one, find those terms ac­cept­able.

Jonah Gold­berg is a fel­low at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and a se­nior ed­i­tor of Na­tional Re­view. His lat­est book is “The Sui­cide of the West.” Email: gold­bergcol­[email protected]; Twit­ter: @Jon­ahNRO.

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