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Part II: “…Of moral obligation and social justice.”

Part II

Continued from this essay.

To be fair, I generally refrain from explicit use of term ‘social justice’, because as Hayek argued, it can be rather imprecise. (Though many of my views are broadly left of center, I don’t self-identify as ‘progressive’ either but that’s another story.) There are many conceptions of justice just within the liberal tradition, some which overlap and others which don’t; For example, take the views of Robert Nozick, John Rawls and Michael Walzer in the seventies. I have much sympathy for Leszek Kolakowski’s position in an article penned for First Things: “Social justice” merely expresses an attitude toward social problems. It is true that more often than not the expression “social justice” is employed by individuals or entire societies who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives. But, as the old saying goes, the abuse does not abrogate the use.” [Italics added.]

(In a tremendous article for, Glenn Beck’s partisan historians, Michael Lind exposes the intellectual roots of Beck’s conflation of fascism with liberalism and demolishes those arguments, in addition to explicating out the difference between Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Modern Liberalism.)

To shift from the abstract to the concrete, as Jesse Larner wrote in a critique of Hayek for Winter 2008 issue of Dissent: “…various episodes of Labour government in Britain—and the British Labour party of the 1920s and 1940s was no watered-down “third way” Blairite party—did not destroy British democracy. Nor did the New Deal in the United States.” One major failing of this attempt to indict by way of terminology is that it remains purely in the realm of political rhetoric and makes only a superficial attempt to correspond to any reality. Larner referenced economic historian Rick Tilman who pointed out civil liberties in the United States actually expanded dramatically from the New Deal through the Great Society. Leading Larner to conclude “Democracy turned out to be a lot stronger than Hayek expected. Perhaps he never quite escaped his Austrian roots.” (Interestingly, Tony Judt deals with this issue of Austrian roots in his essential lecture “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy.”)

As for Glenn Beck’s perspective on the recent political scene, if the designation of ObamaCare as the onset of totalitarianism is true, we would have to conclude that almost every other developed country in the world is a bona fide totalitarian state. I would hasten to that this isn’t some dramatic insinuation but a logical extrapolation from the views commonly held by not just the rank and file but Conservative leadership. They don’t just believe that expansion universal healthcare, by whatever means, leads inevitably to totalitarianism, which is empirically false, but that it is totalitarianism. By doing so, they trivialize the very notion of totalitarianism; much in the same way they have anesthetized and romanticized violence. But given their support for perpetual war, torture and warrant-less wiretaps, it all makes sense. Despite this, don’t forget “the abuse does not abrogate the use.” We should no more allow Father Coughlin’s accusation of a Jewish plot against America taint social justice anymore than we allow the Glenn Beck’s wild accusations against the Obama Administration taint anti-totalitarianism.

Beck isn’t interested in, nor does he appear to have a capacity for, serious engagement with ideas. Instead, he simply resorts to a crude game of ‘pin the label’ which allows him to make tenuous, contorted connections, all in the service of his ideological impulses, not to mention bizarre personal neuroses. If one really wants to indulge this type of thinking, then the term “State’s Rights” has much more pernicious associations of much more recent vintage, then does social justice and it’s significantly easier to make connections between those pushing that agenda in the sixties and their contemporary counterparts.

Despite all their rhetoric, Beck and his followers claim that they do want to help the poor, just that it should be funneled through private organizations, particularly churches. There is nothing wrong with churches helping the poor obviously. However the basis for such assistance would be based on the arbitrary standards set by the institution. Given the extensive list of people and lifestyles not approved of by the Right, or the ‘Real Americans’, it’s easy to predict that many would be excluded from this charity : Would one of Beck’s approved institutions assist poor gay people? (Or for that matter, the people of Canaan?)

Furthermore, public authorities have often had to step in because of the failure/inadequacies of institutions like the family, church, neighborhood. In response to Nathan Glazer’s article “The Limits of Social Policy”, Lewis Coser wrote: “It isn’t that family neighborhood, and ethnic associations broke down because the public authorities took over, but rather that public authorities – and God knows they didn’t take over enough-because these traditional institutions had decayed in the wilderness of the modern city.” This makes sense in a country where among the believers, the prophet with the loudest voice is Ayn Rand, not Amos.

But where does this leave us? Let’s revisit Kolakowski: “Without the market, the economy would collapse (in fact, in “real socialism” there is no economy at all, only economic policy). But it is also generally recognized that the market does not automatically solve all pressing human problems. The concept of social justice is needed to justify the belief that there is“humanity”—and that we must look on other individuals as belonging to this collectivity, toward which we have certain moral duties.”

Taken a step further, it illustrates the hubris in taking a leap from methodological uncertainty to a sort of metaphysical impossibility, even among the well-intentioned, not many of whom are ascendant of the Right. Indeed, in Politics as Vocation Weber wrote “Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”

Now, the question of whether churches are somehow obligated to advocate for social change is one I’m not particularly concerned with; those are pastoral and theological issues. Nor should it be assumed from this article that adherence to any sect or belief in any creed necessary for any moral sense; Indeed, John Rawls argued that justice, as conceived by modern liberalism, is essentially practical and political, not metaphysical; the primary requirement is empathy, another evil liberal code word.

What I am interested is the impact of a specific religious culture/conception on society writ large; what I am saying is that the concept of social justice, despite the insinuations of Glen Beck and his ilk has proven to inspire great utility and an honorable legacy that should not be discarded. Those who preached and marched and died for social justice are not hated because of any propensity to totalitarianism but because of their positions on civil rights, the culture of violence and the welfare of the poor. Ultimately, when we view the long arch of history, that places them firmly on the side of the angels.


A writer, Matthew Hunte lives in St. Lucia. He graduated from the University of the Southern Caribbean in 2005. This is crossposted from The Busy Signal.

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