During the State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama reused a lot of the same material from his previous State of the Union addresses.  He spoke about rebuilding American infrastructure, creating better schools, and creating an environment where people can get back to work.  But, one of the main themes in this address was the necessity for an atmosphere of “fairness.” 

Obama stated,

We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.  What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values.” 

This “fairness” that the president speaks of is known by many names, but the most common one is known as social justice.  Social justice is a concept with a long and rich history, stretching as far back as great philosophers like Plato and theologians like Thomas Aquinas.  The term can be simply defined by referring to its two component words: “justice,” having to do with the application of moral concepts and laws, and “social,” as having to do with society or societal concerns. Social justice is, at its most basic level, the application of moral concepts to issues of societal importance.

The term social justice, unfortunately, has been abused over the last few decades.  Most conservatives don’t want to go anywhere near it because the definition has completely changed.  It reeks of big government.  Glenn Beck spent an entire episode of his Fox News show describing how the term social justice had become code for progressive social and economic policy. Even the overview of social justice that I linked to in the previous paragraph included in its conclusion the following concepts:

  • Historical inequities insofar as they affect current injustices should be corrected until the actual inequities no longer exist or have been perceptively “negated”.
  • The redistribution of wealth, power and status for the individual, community and societal good.
  • It is government’s (or those who hold significant power) responsibility to ensure a basic quality of life for all its citizens.

The above definitions welcome a host of policy options that conservatives tend to oppose: affirmative action, progressive income taxation, socialized medicine, and the rest.

But here’s a question to consider.  Why?

Why are those particular beliefs the ones we commonly attach to social justice?

Consider, for example, the issue of economic justice – social justice specifically applied to economic issues.  This is usually juxtaposed with some sort of redistributive financial scheme, as Elizabeth Warren made fairly clear in this video from last September.

I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.’  No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there?  Good for you.  But I want to be clear.  You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.  You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.  You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.  You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

This is social justice, as conceived by the liberal definition above, in action. Bluntly, it translates into “you owe the rest of us because you succeeded.”  There is a strong moral claim to be made that people who are more wealthy or more successful in a particular area should give from their skills or resources to others who are in need. But here is where liberals and conservatives part ways – liberals have no problem maintaining that it is just to legally compel people to give of those resources through taxation or other government policies.

Conservatives, on the other hand, generally recognize that in order for a gift of time or talent to have moral value, it must be voluntary. Progressive taxation doesn’t equal morality, for example, because it removes the freedom of conscience required for people to make that decision for themselves. Being forced to pay by law isn’t a moral choice. It is, at best, amoral on the part of the person being taxed and immoral on the part of government to tax in an unreasonable or excessive way.

Jews and Christians should recognize this freedom of conscience well. The year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25, commonly adopted by liberal social justice advocates, was a period in which the nation of Israel addressed economic needs within its own community.  It was not a time of radical equalizing as some have claimed, but rather was a time in which people were called by God (NOT the government) to attend to human needs. And in Matthew 19, when Jesus told the rich man that he would need to sell all his possessions in order to enter heaven, he was testing the rich man by giving him a free choice between his much-loved wealth and his faith – much like Abraham was tested when God asked him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.

How then do we then put into words a conservative model of social justice to respond to Elizabeth Warren? It might sound something like this:

“Why yes, Mrs. Warren. You’re right. I should help someone worse off than I am – the ‘next kid who comes along’ as you put it. But let’s get one thing straight. We ALL had access to the same common roads, the same emergency responders, and the same public resources. And we ALL had different choices to make while benefiting from those exact same common resources. The only difference between those who didn’t build something and those of us who built something was the CHOICES we made about what to do while benefiting from those resources. I wholesale reject your notion that what I created is somehow less meaningful because of that.  At the end of the day, I chose to spend my considerable time, energy, and resources to build my idea into a reality. Yes, some people do truly need help, and it is because of the choice that I made to build up my idea that I am now in a position to help them. I will not help them because your laws force me to, or your judgment pressures me to. I will help them because they are fellow human beings in need, and it is simply the right thing for me to do.”

Conservatives already have all the moral and ethical tools they need in their arsenal to being the work of reclaiming social justice in meaningful and compelling ways. Government policies designed to “help” the poor and minorities have often had terrible consequences. Instead of falling into the trap of being labeled as ‘anti-poor’ or as ‘racist’, conservatives need to fight back with real world numerical evidence demonstrating how welfare dependency has escalated and subsequently destroyed families and communities all over the world.

Now is the perfect opportunity for conservatives to reclaim the mantle of social justice. In the face of what already is and will continue to be heavy opposition during the election, it is even more important for us to challenge the narrative that will inevitably be thrown against us. Conservatives are not anti-poor, anti-minorities, or anti-government. They are for equal opportunity, for equality based on content of character, and for liberty.

David Giffin :: Emory University :: Atlanta, Georgia :: @D_Giffin