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Do We Need Social Justice?

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The concept “social justice” means different things to different people. Justice is often equated with social equality, a mistaken notion if there ever was one. In looking for a helpful way to explain the meaning of justice, baseball comes to mind. Rarely are teams equal in ability. This is especially true with the younger age groups. What if umpires had the jurisdictional authority to level inequities at the request of a manager who believes that the opposing team has better players? Both teams know the rules going into the game. Umpires are present to ensure that the rulebook is followed to the letter. As long as the players and coaches follow the rules and umpires enforce the rules, justice prevails even if there are inequities. It is not the job of an umpire to eliminate disparities. Who would ever want to play the game if the rules always change at the discretion of an umpire?

In reality, the cry for “social justice” is a call for the State to do something to fix economic and relational inequities without any regard to a universal principle of justice. By describing justice in social rather than legal terms, our attention is immediately drawn to national problems that can only be fixed by a civil government with enough power to enforce its policies. So then, advocates of “social justice” believe that the State plays the major role in rectifying so-called social problems because they are national in scope. Antonio Martino points out, however, that the expression

social justice . . . owes its immense popularity precisely to its ambiguity and meaninglessness. It can be used by different people, holding quite different views, to designate a wide variety of different things. Its obvious appeal stems from its persuasive strength, from its positive connotations, which allows the user to praise his own ideas and simultaneously express contempt for the ideas of those who don’t agree with him.[1]

Anyone who criticizes policies that carry the label “social justice” are immediately considered to be callous, insensitive, uncaring, and lacking in compassion. Those who oppose “social justice” policies are not against treating people in a just way. They firmly believe that most if not all social justice policies that involve the State are wrong and, in the long run, do more harm than good.[2] Attaching the “social justice” label to a program does not make it a just and helpful program anymore than attaching a Mercedes Benz hood ornament to a Volkswagen will make it a luxury car.

Foes of sophisticated and expensive governmental programs designed to help the poor and implemented by distant bureaucratic agencies may be right on target with their opposition. They have history on their side. Confiscating literally trillions of dollars in taxes from one segment of society and redistributing the collected revenue to another segment of society and calling it “social justice” does not mean that it is in fact the just thing to do. “Social justice” is not in operation when the State takes upon itself the right to confiscate so-called excess capital from the rich to care for the poor, especially when the Bible opposes confiscatory taxation and such policies do not work.

Attempts to solve problems by declaring war on them by the national government has been an ongoing theme in politics since the mid-1960s. As you might expect, wars are expensive, and there are many casualties. “Overall, civilian social welfare costs increased by twenty times from 1950 to 1980, in constant dollars. During the same period, the United States population increased by half.”[3] When the Food Stamp Program began in 1965, 424,000 people participated in the program (that’s less than 9,000 people per state, a manageable number for private welfare agencies to handle).[4] At the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in 1968, participation increased to 2.2 million. The number doubled during the first two years of Richard Nixon’s presidency (1969-70). By the end of Nixon’s first term in 1972, the number of food stamp recipients had increased five-fold. “By 1980, more than twenty-one million people were receiving food stamps, fifty times more people than were covered during the Johnson presidency.”[5]

Using the State to satisfy a concept of “social justice” did more harm than good because it lured people into programs that made them dependent upon the State. Undoubtedly there were poor people in 1965 who needed food and shelter, but creating a government program in attempt to satisfy the need was the wrong solution.

Keep in mind that the money actually spent on these programs is only a fraction of the money collected.

In 1982, the total U.S. welfare bill at all levels of government (federal, state, and local) came to 403 billion dollars. If we take figures from the Bureau of the Census (August 1984) which state that the number of people living in poverty in the U.S. was 15.2 percent of the population or 35.3 million people, an amazing fact emerges. Had we simply divided the 403 billion dollars this nation spent on poverty at every level of government among the estimated number of poor people, each poor person could have received $11,133. For a family of four, this would have totaled $44,532. Since the official poverty level per family for that year was $9,287, it is clear that America’s fight against poverty involves enormous overhead costs. Most of the tax dollars collected to fight poverty end up, Thomas Sowell notes, “in the pockets of highly paid administrators, consultants, and staff as well as higher-income recipients of benefits from programs advertised as anti-poverty efforts.” Clearly, the bucket used to carry money from the pockets of the taxpayer to the poor is leaking badly. Many think the real beneficiaries of liberal social programs are not the poor and disadvantaged but the members of the governmental bureaucracy who administer the program.[6]

Those who administer these programs have a vested interest in their survival and expansion. Winning the war on poverty is not the goal, perpetuating the programs is. “Less than 25 percent of all the tax dollars allocated to fight poverty at every level of government reaches the poor. The other 75 percent goes to pay overhead.”[7]

Advocates of “social justice” programs implemented by the State at the expense of the mainly productive members of society will claim that there are success stories. Few would dispute the claim. When so much money is being poured into these programs, someone is bound to benefit. But if that same money—including the revenue lost in overhead expenditures that never reach the poor—were saved, invested, and spent instead of taxed, many more people would benefit, and we would have fewer social-welfare slaves.

Endnotes
1 Antonio Martino, “The Myth of Social Justice,” in Three Myths by Arnold Beichman, Antonio Martino, and Kenneth Minogue (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1982), 23. Quoted in Ronald H. Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church (Milford, Michigan: Mott Media, 1983), 5-6.
2 “AFDC was to take care of widows with small children. . . . Nothing in the New Deal [Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Workman’s Compensation, and Unemployment Insurance] provided help just because a person was poor or hampered by social disadvantages. . . . By the fifties it had become embarrassingly, outrageously clear that most of [the women receiving benefits] were not widows. Many of them had not even been married. Worst of all, they didn’t stop having babies after the first lapse. They kept having more. This had not been part of the plan.” Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 17-18.
3 Murray, Losing Ground, 14.
4 Typically social welfare programs begin small, but before too long, they expand well beyond their initial intended purpose. When a behavior is subsidized, you more often than not get more of it.
5 Ronald H. Nash, Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate Over Capitalism (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1986), 176.
6 Nash, Poverty and Wealth, 177.
7 Ronald H. Nash, Why the Left is Not Right: The Religious Left—Who They Are and What They Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 183.

Article posted May 26, 2009

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