Of all the watchwords in today’s political discourse, “justice” is perhaps the most popular. We hear it in arguments favoring a “just wage” and in such expressions as “social justice,” “climate justice,” and “economic justice.” “Justicespeak” drives debates, channeling conversations and ensuring that those who wield the word have an automatic advantage against their political opponents.
After all, anyone who frames an argument in terms of justice has gone on the offensive, positioning any opponent as a defender of “injustice.” This may be a clever move, but it is unconvincing as an argumentative tool. And it is silly.
Does any reasonable person really support injustice? The proof would seem to be in the pudding. It is in the recognition that one’s justice claims are partial and contested that constructive policy can be crafted, among equals who debate based upon substance rather than through superficialities and insulting barbs.
Indeed, one of the fallacies of justicespeak is that it so often masks the real tradeoffs that have to be made in public policy decision-making.
Take, for example, the Holy Father’s most recent encyclical, Laudato Si’. It sets forth a theo-political agenda “on care for our common home” that draws in large measure from Pope Francis’ earlier apostolic exhortation of November 2013, The Joy of the Gospel.
It will be recalled that The Joy of the Gospel embraces a “social justice” that calls for the resolution of the “structural causes of poverty.” The Pope refers to inequality as the “root of social ills,” though he fails to precisely explain the nature of his seemingly unwavering concern for equality.
One is left with the impression that the Pope considers a society of unequal wealth and a relatively high standard of living less reflective of Gospel values than a society that shares equally in poverty. Why this should be so is unclear.
Surely, there is at least a reasonable case to be made that humanity would be better served by an expanded pie of economic opportunity for all rather than surgically recutting the pie’s slices to rigidly adhere to “equality.”
Arguments grounded in justicespeak tend to create straw-man arguments and fictional realities. The Joy of the Gospel, for instance, imagines that ours is a world free of market regulation, or nearly such. It worries about those champions of the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation,” those who “reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”
Of course, no one, except perhaps a few on the anarchist and libertarian fringes, opposes any state intervention in the economy, and to suggest as much is to needlessly indulge one’s imagination with phantoms that do not exist. Contrary to the Pope’s fears, a market of unequal wealth is not, as The Joy of the Gospel suggests, “unjust at its root.”
It is unfair to denigrate those who seek to liberate themselves from undue government regulation so that they can realize their full potential and creative genius. Is it reasonable for the Pope to chastise those entrepreneurs and small businesspeople who seek to do so as adherents of harsh “laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” as he does in The Joy of the Gospel? Who is he to judge?
One of the linchpins of Laudato Si’ is a particular permutation of justice, this time, “distributive justice.” “[W]henever this is violated, violence always ensues,” or so the Pope suggests. Yet, violence has been with humanity since the Garden of Eden, and if by distributive justice is meant greater market regulation and wealth confiscation from wage earners, then how, exactly, is this “just”?
This brings to mind what mid-19th-century French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat identified as one of the great conceits of socialism. In his reckoning, socialism seeks to appropriate the coercive machinery of the law in a way that makes people the playthings of central planners. Bastiat called this the “conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.” This is the ultimate dehumanization.
The point is not whether what United States President Richard Nixon purportedly said about Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios III applies to the Pope — President Nixon was said to have referred to Makarios as “Castro in a cassock.”
It is that claims to speak for justice must not be taken at face value. Such incantations may or may not be attached to political projects that actually uplift the poor, but there is certainly no direct relationship between the two.
Claims to speak for justice are not the end of the road, only the beginning.
The Pope’s upcoming visit to the United States should be assessed against this background.
Let us discuss policy, not cant. Let us reject the cozy comforts of justicespeak in favor of tough, conscientious policymaking.
In doing so, we may find that we do the greatest service to the poor, even if we are lambasted as “unjust.”