We should note with the title of Novak's article, which is Social Justice: Not What You Think (click here for a link to the article), is the claim about who has the right to define the term Social Justice is boldly set forth. Novak is basically saying that the common conception of what is Social Justice, which, as he reports on in his article, has been strongly influenced by liberal, progressive, and socialist influences, is wrong. Social Justice can only be, according to Novak, (click here for bio), what it was originally proclaimed to be by those Catholics who first coined the term. And spoiler alert here, Novak proclaims that 'Social Justice' is about virture displayed by community or other voluntary associations, not 'total state control.' Note that the term 'state overreach' was not used because that does not describe the totality of governmental control seen by Novak.
We will start with a dictionary definition of Social Justice. Novak writes that the commonly used definition is the following:
The distribution of advantages and disadvantages in society.
Novak proceeds to emphasize the word 'distribution' and connects that to the concept of equality as being litmus test for what is right and wrong in definition of Social Justice. But before evaluating his line of thought here, it might be useful to look at some other dictionary definitions of the term 'Social Justice.' From the definition provided by a Google search, we get the following:
Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society
The above definition is taken word for word from the online Oxford Living Dictionary (click here).
The online Business Dictionary defines Social Justice in the following way (click here for the source):
The fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, religion, etc., are to be treated equally and without prejudice. See also civil rights.
The Meriam-Webster online dictionary describes Social Justice in terms of egalitarianism (click here for the source).
So Novak's understanding that Social Justice has been defined in terms of equality is not wrong. But note how he finds fault with this modern understanding. He states that the English understanding of equality revolves around fairness. However, the French have fouled things up and their view of equality well described in an article from the American Sociological Review as:
As I see it, social justice requires resource equity, fairness, and respect for diversity, as well as the eradication of existing forms of social oppression. Social justice entails a "redistribution" of resources from those who have "unjustly" gained them to those who justly deserve them, and it also means creating and "ensuring" the processes of truly democratic participation in decision-making.... It seems clear that only a "decisive" redistribution of resources and decision-making power can "ensure" social justice and authentic democracy.What Novak is objecting to consists of the word 'distribution' in the definition of the term 'Social Justice' and how it is being associated with the idea that resources and power need to be redistributed. To Novak, the English version of fairness means that the distribution of resources is based on fairness and that fairness looks at 'efforts' exercised in gaining those resources.
So the above points out the first problem with Novak's opposition to the modern, more common notion of the term 'Social Justice.' As Novak becomes fixated in the word 'distribution' in the definition and then becomes agitated that the French view of equality that demands the redistribution of material goods, the other aspects of Social Justice are being overlooked. Remember that the Oxford Dictionary definition included the following with the word 'distribution': opportunities and privileges. Here we should remember that the Social Justice demanded by the Civil Rights Movement not only included a redistribution of resources, it included a redistribution of opportunities and privileges meaning the elimination of discrimination that prohibited Blacks from enjoying the same opportunities and privileges that Whites enjoyed.
In addition, we might look more closely at Novak's knee-jerk reaction to the redistribution of wealth. For the redistribution of wealth is to the distribution of wealth what the revision of history is to the history's original reports. Just as revision of history is needed when the original accounts of history are flawed, so a redistribution of wealth is needed when the original distribution of wealth is flawed. And a flawed original distribution of wealth is what the definition of Social Justice cited from the American Sociological Review is presuming.
Now Novak goes on to say that his French idea of equality involves an 'arithmetical uniformity.' And thus Novak goes on to state that the modern concept of the term 'Social Justice' involves uniformity and thus fails to recognize our differences.
From there, Novak complains that Social Justice has been linked to being part of the common good. He then, and rightfully so, notes the problem with defining the common good is with who gets to determine what is the common good. For Novak, those who should determine what is the common good are those community elites who are the wisest and whose decisions bring the greatest good to the community. At this point, we come to the crux of Novak's problems with what is normally referred to as Social Justice. For Novak complains that the 'bureaucratic state' has replaced local elites as the arbiter of what is good and just. We should note here that Novak uses the concept of bureaucratic state as representing the government because bureaucrats have been employed to help the ruler because there are too many decisions for him to make by himself. This is the center of Novak's article because it is here that Novak starts drawing the battle lines for who has the responsibility for caring for people.
It is at this point that Novak identifies the problems with progressives. It is their opposition to Capitalism. And for Novak, that Capitalism depends on the skills of the members of a given community. And progressives' opposition to Capitalism shows disregard for the many contributions of the bourgeoisie. However, there looms the question of whether, with their contributions, the bourgeoisie have 'unjustly' acquired resources that were deserved by others.
From here, Novak talks about what poverty is not. For as Europe became industrialized, people no longer grew their own food as they do on farms. And in the Bible, if you had a roof over your head and food to eat, you were not poor. But we should note that what might qualify as not being poverty in rural areas, does not necessarily hold for people whose homes are in close proximity and where other needs come into play. In addition, he mentions the independence that those living in rural areas had that factory workers did not. And so the cause of the proletariat became associated with Social Justice but without mentioning the plight of many who belonged to the proletariat.
Novak goes on to scapegoat the progressive version of Social Justice for many of our current ills. This scapegoating included the inclusion, by some, of reproductive rights for women as well as LBG's War on Poverty. These parts include reproductive rights and LBJ's War on Poverty. He states that all of this was done in the name of compassion and then goes on to say that Hitler's Germany, Lenin's Russia as well as other tyrants. were created in the name of compassion, which is blatantly false.
At this point, Novak proceeds with what he claims is the original definition of Social Justice. This original definition comes from his own Catholic Church. From the Italian priest, Luigi Tarappelli, who described the concept of Social Justice as a virtue and was to be reacquired from Aristotle and Acquinas, to Pope Leo XIII, who apparently made the distinction between civil or local society and the totalitarian state. While making that distinction, Leo XIII attacks Socialism because its notion of equality denies the apparent difference in abilities between men. Here, equality is being equated with uniformity. But something else should be noted. that elite-centered rule is ironically the point of Leo's opposition against the Socialists. So while the Pope opposes the total state power he attributes to Socialism, he also seems to favor elite-centered power when he says:
Therefore, let it be laid down in the first place that in civil society, the lowest cannot be made equal with the highest. Socialists, of course, agitate the contrary, but all struggling against nature is in vain.Novak then gives us a choice between deciding to rely on local or voluntary associations that work together to exhibit the virtue of Social Justice vs reliance on total state control. Novak cites Tocqueville to support his point. But unfortunately, the conservative reliance on Tocqueville overlooks his racism. For where does Tocqueville note that democracy in America was a partial democracy not enjoyed by Native Americans, Blacks, and women. Thus the associations that Tocqueville was so enamored with in America excluded certain diversities.
Thus, for Novak, Social Justice is the work of voluntary associations people participate in to help others. This reliance on voluntary associations is seen in stark contrast with any state intervention. And in a sense, Novak has a point. When we look at the Civil Rights Movement, it consisted of many voluntary associations people made to work for justice by working for equality for Blacks in America. But the Civil Rights Movement had to appeal to the federal government for help because its efforts were opposed by other voluntary associations of people who opposed equality and integration. And they did so while claiming that diversity had made the members of their own race superior to Blacks.
Outside of the valid point Novak makes, what he seems to be doing is to substituting one version of elite-centered rule for another. Novak opposes absolute state power and control and rightfully so. But asking the state for help in some matters is not identical with giving the state total control. Thus, Social Justice is accomplished by both the voluntary associations Novak mentions as well as by the State. And State help is necessary when opposition to Social Justice comes from other voluntary associations.
In addition, Novak's problem with equality seems to go beyond opposition to uniformity as well as the redistribution of wealth and power. Novak seems to accept the original distribution of wealth under Capitalism and he does so without critical thought. His reliance on Tocqueville and Hayek seems to forget that Social Justice is opposed by private sector elites seeking wealth and power. The collision between those seeking wealth and power and the marginalized who are seeking a fairer distribution of wealth and power must be decided by the state. And, again, such does not necessarily give the state total control.
As for determining what is a fair distribution of wealth, part of that should rely on the needs of all of our economic system's stakeholders, not just the bourgeoisie. For in allowing the bourgeoisie alone to determine what is a fair distribution of wealth is to put them into a conflict of interests situation. For what they want for themselves can competes with what is needed by other stakeholders, especially workers.
As for a redistribution of power, we should note that what we honor in society we reward with power. So if we want work and labor to be honored, how much power should be given to workers vs how much power should be given to the bourgeoisie? And this is especially true when we think of publicly owned companies. For when shareholders tell business decision makers to adopt policies that are only designed to increase short-term profits, then other stakeholders and externalities are being ignored and sometimes to the detriment of the whole system. That is one of the lessons of the actual and virtual deregulation of our financial sector that led to the economic collapse of 2007-2008. And we should note that the absence of regulations that could have prevented the collapse was involvement by the state.
Also, we should note that Novak employs black-white thinking to the detriment of his cause. For in defining Social Justice as a virtue exercised by voluntary associations led by private sector elites, he presents a false dichotomy between reliance on such associations or reliance on total state power. There is no recognition given to the need for some state control. Likewise, his description of more progressive view of equality with uniformity or Socialism with total state power not only assumes that Socialism is a monolith, but that any redistribution of power or wealth denies diversity in people's occupations and abilities. In addition, Novak seems not to be able to distinguish between progressives and Socialists. Furthermore, Novak's concept of Socialism is antiquated. And since Novak is fond of pointing out historical problems of different positions, we should note how his own Roman Church once cut a deal with a fledgling Nazi government because it opposed Socialism.
But Novak's black-white thinking does not end there. For the title of the article itself does not allow us to try to merge conservative and progressive ideas of Social Justice. He doesn't seem to recognize that both the state and voluntary associations can work together to bring about Social Justice as was done during the days of the Civil Rights Movement.
We should also note that Novak makes no mention of the representative state, he only recognizes the bureaucratic state. And yet, our nation includes both representation and bureaucracy. This failure to acknowledge this mix and what seems to be the assumption that nothing good can come from state bureaucracy, further points to his black-white thinking.
Also, as pointed out before, Novak seems to have no problem with elite-centered rule provided that the elites come from the private sector. So his opposition to equality, even equality that has nothing to do with the redistribution of wealth should be understandable. And yet, he seems to not notice the results of favoring private sector elites, such as the ever growing wealth disparities that not only exist between the economic classes of our own nation, but between nations as well. At least, Hayek would would be proud of him.
One final point should be made. Novak's favoring of private sector elites having power all and doing so as Catholic, repeats a past mistake that was made prior to the French, Russian, and Spanish Revolutions. That mistake was the siding of one's faith with wealth and power. The result of that mistake was that those seeking Social Justice saw the Church as an enemy rather than as a source of possible influence.