A Certain Social Justice

This article quotes President Obama’s declaration that ‘inequality’ is ‘the defining challenge of our time.’ I agree, though not in the same sense as many of my more liberal friends. The evaporation of our manufacturing sector and the absence of an alternative source of relative prosperity for our working classes, the discrepancy between inflation and the minimum wage, the prevalence of single motherhood, and our torrential incarceration rates, among other festering social ills, together thrust a moral imperative for reform upon the ruling classes. Their hedonism, materialism, and self-interest represent the most inert obstacles to needed change. If this is the sentiment that the President means to convey, and I think it is, then we have little to quibble over.

But we mustn’t assume that ‘social justice’ necessarily implies ‘equality.’ This is not a novel observation. A rich tradition of social thought, extending from the writings of Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke to Plato’s Republic, has articulated classical conservatism’s prudent riposte to the Enlightenment’s insistence that ‘all men are created equal’: So they are, but they are not entitled to equal things. Rather, they are entitled to the rights, privileges, and comforts of their station in society, provided they meet the obligations appertaining thereunto.

This is the traditional justification for the maintenance of a landed class. The gentry’s claim upon political power does not inhere in their genetic superiority to those below them on the socioeconomic totem pole. Their hereditary possession of property, allowing them as it does the leisure to read, write, and reflect, outfits them for political office and the privileges that accompany that weighty responsibility. It lies with them to vindicate or undermine their privileges by administering government for good or for ill. Let us argue over which tendency predominates today.

We can all agree that the ‘rights, privileges, and comforts’ of every class in 21st century America entitle them, at the very least, to a basic living wage. All deserve warmth. All deserve shelter. All deserve the opportunity to seek out gainful employment. All deserve the assurance that, though their material possessions may prove meager in comparison to their compatriots, they needn’t fear for their daily existence. These are not ‘privileges’ in the sense that they must be earned. They are ‘privileges’ in the sense that any society as wealthy as America that professes an interest in promoting ‘social justice’ should aspire to provide them.

From what little I know of the Great Society, this was the aspiration that animated Lyndon Johnson’s administration. As the article observes, the installation of electricity in Appalachia (not to mention the Texas Hill Country, during LBJ’s tenure in the United States Congress), alongside the reduction of the national poverty rate, testifies to some progress towards these objectives. We should continue to wage war upon the oppressive yoke of poverty, within the parameters set forth above.

But too often I see activists juxtapose the wealth of one class with that of another. I am by no means reluctant to condemn the concentration of material wealth within an increasingly small portion of the population. I am even more critical of the ostentatious outlets which our aristocracy discovers for their wealth. Notwithstanding, we can only ameliorate those discrepancies. The discrepancies, to one degree or another, must exist.

That’s the only check I would apply to some of the more zealously liberal combatants in the wars on ignorance, poverty, and ‘inequality.’



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