The Nation's Pulse

Social Muddle

Business, justice, and the Gospel are already social.

By 12.2.11

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The adjective that economist Friedrich Hayek famously called a "weasel word" is alive and well in the feel-good phrases social business, social justice and the social gospel.

In all three of these phrases, the common weasel word sucks some of the essential meaning out of what it modifies by implying that business, justice, and the Christian Gospel are a-social, or even anti-social, until conjoined with a mysterious something else. If only the confusion were of merely academic interest. Unfortunately, the failure to see that business, justice and the Gospel are intrinsically social has led to all kinds of mischief in people's efforts to organize society -- most recently in the Circle of Protection promoted by Jim Wallis and his friends on the left.

First, consider business. This area of human endeavor brings together various people and capital to create goods or services for trade in a marketplace. In a free economy, people enter these relationships voluntarily in pursuit of win-win exchanges.

Now it's true that greedy, unscrupulous businessmen exist, but this no more contradicts the social nature of business than sinners in a church, square dance, or Rotary Club contradict the social nature of churches, square dances, and Rotary clubs.

The notion of social business adds to all of this a visibly charitable element. If done wisely, these business-charity hybrids serve a positive social good, but it's important to remember that the charitable element isn't uniquely social. Both charity as charity and business as business are social. Likewise, both encourage human flourishing if done thoughtfully and ethically, and both damage people and communities if done stupidly or wickedly.

The social gospel is a less trendy term than social business, but it's still a go-to word for some Christian pastors, as evidenced by a recent column in the Oregonian where United Church of Christ minister Chuck Currie links Occupy America, "the common good of all," a "new Great Awakening," and "the fundamental principles of biblical justice" with a call to "preach a Social Gospel."

I'm all for spiritual renewal and the common good, but the term social gospel leaves the impression that the ordinary Christian Gospel is some sort of Gnostic religion -- without a horizontal plane extending through the flesh and blood and toil of human society -- until properly incarnated by good-hearted socialists. The notion is odd in the extreme. Christianity played a pivotal role in the birth of political, economic, and religious freedom in the West, and was crucial in establishing institutions like the university and the hospital. At a more obvious level, the Gospel involves a billion or so people getting together every few days in things called churches in anticipation of what's supposed to culminate in an enormous cosmic wedding feast.

The third term, social justice, is unlike the other two in its having a justifiable raison d'être. It stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought and was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice. Unfortunately, this nuance and precision usually falls away in popular usage, and the term has been co-opted by the left to imply that ordinary justice is a mere tool of the ruling elite, with the real deal being "social justice."

This impoverished meaning needs to be addressed. If a society extends justice to the rich and well-connected but allows the poor to be bullied and swindled by corrupt players inside and outside of the government, the problem isn't unsocial justice but a lack of justice. If the poor in many developing nations can't get access to credit or the courts because they can't register their businesses, and they can't register their businesses because they don't have the bribe money and connections to navigate a byzantine regulatory maze, the problem is injustice, plain and simple. Such a society doesn't need a social brand of justice any more than a poor neighborhood without stores needs a social grocery store. The neighborhood needs an ordinary grocery store, and the unjust society needs basic justice. Grocery stores and justice are already intrinsically social.

More than accurate semantics is at stake here. Often the popular call for "social justice" boils down to an ill-conceived call for coercive wealth transfers -- for instance, getting rich countries to transfer more of their tax revenues to the governments of poor countries as foreign aid. It'd be nice if this approach actually helped the poor, since we've been using it for the past 60 years. Unfortunately, the statistical and narrative testimony on this strategy hovers between mixed and scandalous.

The reasons for this are complex but not so complex as to excuse the status quo. Much of the aid money gets quietly funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians. In other cases the aid money reaches its intended target but, since the aid money is fungible, it still supports bad actors. It does so by freeing a regime of the political necessity of paying for the schools, road projects and emergency relief already covered by the foreign assistance. This, in turn, allows the regimes to spend more of their tax revenues for enhancing their own wealth and power.

Worse, the small fraction of aid money that actually reaches its intended destination often puts indigenous producers out of business, since it's difficult to compete against free goods from abroad. Haiti's rice farmers, for instance, once exported rice, but today their livelihoods have been all but wiped out by subsidized U.S. rice dumped on the country as foreign aid.

Add to all of this international "social justice" the devastating cultural effects of America's welfare state. The neighborhoods flooded with 50 years of this domestic "social justice" now face far higher levels of criminal injustice and anti-social behavior than before the justice arrived.

Much of the problem stems from welfare's effect on the institution of the family. The percentage of children being raised by both of their biological parents in America's poorest neighborhoods used to be low and fairly comparable to what was found in middle and upper class neighborhoods, but the Great Society programs of the 1960s changed that.

As George Gilder put it in Wealth and Poverty, the underclass husband and father was "cuckolded by the compassionate state," a violation which has incited "that very combination of resignation and rage, escapism and violence, short horizons and promiscuous sexuality that characterizes everywhere the life of the poor."

Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson put it almost as bluntly in a 1989 journal article: "It has become increasingly socially acceptable for a young woman to have children out of wedlock -- significantly, with the help of a regular welfare check."

The plain testimony of history is that the left's strategy for saving the poor has been a tragic failure. It has stifled development in poor countries, bred a fatherless underclass in the United States, and all but bankrupted the European Union. Cloaking all of this in the guise of "social justice" serves only to perpetuate the tragedy. 

Understand, I'm not saying that the terms social business, social justice and the social gospel are covert signs used by a secret society of modern day socialists. People at almost every point on the political spectrum can be found using the terms. All the same, it's important to recognize that these terms, as often used today, share some of the same confusion that characterizes socialism. It's a confusion that sees business, profit and the market economy as intrinsically greedy and predatory; that undervalues the power of ordinary justice for liberating the poor; and that regards the problem of poverty in materialistic terms.

Sound economics and a sound vision of the human person suggest another approach, one that history tells us actually works: Set aside the paternalistic "Circle of Protection" that has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency, and focus instead on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world's poor.

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About the Author

Jonathan Witt is a former English professor and co-author of A Meaningful World (IVP). He also wrote scripts for three documentaries that have appeared on PBS, including The Call of the Entrepreneur and The Birth of Freedom. He is a research fellow with the Acton Institute and lead writer for the PovertyCure initiative.