The good citizens of Chicago experienced several days of protests this month surrounding the NATO summit. The demonstrators took to the streets to denounce everything from climate change to the military to “the rich” to capitalism itself.
There was a common noble yearning underlying their eclectic set of grievances, however: a demand for “social justice.”
While this hallowed demand allowed them to claim the moral high ground, the demonstrator are really motivated by something far more base: crass materialism and covetous greed.
Here is what I mean:
In countless debates and conversations with modern proponents of social justice, I have noticed that they are less interested in justice than in material equality. They borrow the language of justice and the common good but have either forgotten or rejected the classical meanings of those terms.
In the classical tradition of reflection on justice (especially seen in Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and their intellectual descendants) it is clear that inequality—in the sense of unequal wealth or social status—is mostly compatible with justice, because justice is “to give to each his due.”
What one is due, of course, differs from person to person—in addition to those things due everyone: life, dignity, and liberty for example.
When we speak of the idea of the common good, we need to be open-minded about the most likely way to bring it about. The common good is, after all, a range of conditions, not a set of policies. It cannot be achieved by way of the “commonality of goods” proposed by socialists, but rather through the institutions that the socialists worked so hard to discredit.
Let me list some of the conditions that are especially important for human flourishing:
- Rule of law in the sense of courts acting in a non-arbitrary manner; secure private property in the means of production.
- Stable money to serve as a reliable means of exchange
- The freedom of enterprise that allows people to start businesses to pursue their dream
- The freedom of association that permits people to reach mutually unforced agreements for employing or being employed
- The enforcement of contracts to ensure that people keep their reasonable promises and that disputes are arbitrated justly.
- Vibrant trade within and among nations to permit the fullest possible flowering of the division of labor.
These institutions must be supported by a culture that regards the human person as possessing an inherent dignity and creative potential, and believes that transcendent morality trumps the civil authority’s attempt to redefine morality.
This is the basis of what we call freedom, and it encourages what we call the common good.
The common good is incompatible with the violation of the right to economic initiative. And this isn’t just a private idea of mine, or even something restricted to economists and Tea Party activists.
I emphasize this fact because many people carry around the notion—perhaps only vaguely held—that any truly thoughtful and compassionate church leader takes a dim view of the free economy.
For the sake of space, let me offer up just a single prominent counterexample. Pope John Paul II grew up under Soviet communism, and he also had plenty of opportunities to view the softer socialism of various Western European countries.
He was deeply concerned with the poor and suffering of the world, as was evidenced both by his writings and his punishing travel schedule; he visited more developing countries than any pope before him.
This is what John Paul wrote of economic initiative:
“It is a right which is important not only for the individual but also for the common good. Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen.”
Unfortunately, many contemporary proponents of social justice miss the importance of economic freedom and are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism.
They then compound their error with incoherence, since they seem to think the key to happiness is giving people more stuff—by enlisting the coercive power of government. Their exclusive focus on income and wealth as the sources and markers of equality is, ironically, merely another variety of the greed and consumerism that they are quick to excoriate.
This is not really social justice; it’s materialism. And it certainly isn’t generosity, since these people’s focus is on giving away other people’s money.
True justice and the common good do not require equality in the sense of economic sameness. My friend and colleague Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what truly promotes human happiness is not unearned income but rather a system that frees and encourages earned success—a system, in other words, that doesn’t multiply disincentives to achievement, doesn’t suffocate ambition.
If that is not a description of the market economy I do not know what is.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is the president and co-founder of the Acton Institute and author of “Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy” (Regnery, 2012)