First Things and Encounter Books are excited to be hosting an upcoming event with Michael Novak and Paul Adams, at which they will be discussing ideas from their new book Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is. This is not the first time Mr. Novak has addressed the topic of social justice at First Things. In the December 2000 issue of the magazine he used Friedrich Hayek's criticisms of the term as a springboard from which to come to a clearer understanding of its meaning.
Hayek recognized that at the end of the nineteenth century, when the term “social justice” came to prominence, it was first used as an appeal to the ruling classes to attend to the needs of the new masses of uprooted peasants who had become urban workers. To this he had no objection. What he did object to was careless thinking. Careless thinkers forget that justice is by definition social. Such carelessness becomes positively destructive when the term “social” no longer describes the product of the virtuous actions of many individuals, but rather the utopian goal toward which all institutions and all individuals are “made in the utmost degree to converge” by coercion. In that case, the “social” in “social justice” refers to something that emerges not organically and spontaneously from the rule-abiding behavior of free individuals, but rather from an abstract ideal imposed from above.
In December 2009, Mr. Novak once again considered the nature and origins of social justice as part of a three-part series on basic concepts in Catholic social thought.
Two radically opposed social ideals were propagandized during [the late nineteenth century]. One was the socialism of Karl Marx and those of similar mind; the other was the radical individualism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. On the whole, the European continent leaned toward the first ideal and away from the second. Leo XIII, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), made it his aim to lean against both.
Leo understood that these new times demanded a new response. The old social order was fading fast, and a new one of some sort was swiftly arising. What shape it would take was not yet clear, however. The pope noted that because the family has always been the most central and intimate institution for handing down the faith, the new fractures and stresses in the family demanded that the Church enter into the battle for the shape of the future. Leo XIII saw that new institutions and new virtues among individuals would be required for the new times. For specific reasons that he carefully spelled out, he feared the socialist state. He also feared the radical individualism that, he predicted, eventually would drive the undefended individual into the custodianship of the state.
We invite you to come and hear Mr. Novak's thoughts on this topic, which is at the center of contemporary American political discourse, and yet remains widely misunderstood. To learn more about the free event and register to attend, please click here.
Elliot Milco is an editorial assistant at First Things.