The last point I’ll make is that Friedrich Hayek wrote a really powerful little book called The Mirage of Social Justice, in which he picked up on the way the term “social justice” was being used in the first half of the 20th century. He said “social justice” had become a synonym for “progressive,” and “progressive” in practice means socialist or heading toward socialism. Hayek well understood the Catholic lineage of social justice, how the term had first appeared in Catholic thought, until almost 100 years later it became dominant on the secular Left.
The Popes, Hayek noted, had described social justice as a virtue. Now, a virtue is a habit, a set of skills. Imagine a simple set of skills, such as driving a car. The social habit of association and cooperation for attending to public needs is an important, newly learned habit widely practiced, especially in America. Social justice is learning how to form small bands of brothers who are outside the family who, for certain purposes, volunteer to give time and effort to accomplishing something. If there are a lot of kids who aren’t learning how to read, you volunteer for tutoring.
Tocqueville said the most fascinating and insightful thing about America: namely, that wherever in France people turned to l’Etat, and wherever in Britain people turned to the aristocracy, in America people got together and formed associations. They hold bake sales to send missionaries to the Antipodes, to build colleges. They invent a hundred devices to raise money among themselves. That’s what a free people do. That’s what a democracy is.
The first law of democracy, Tocqueville wrote, is the law of association. If you want to free people, for them not to be swallowed up by the state, you have to develop in them the virtue of cooperation and association. It’s not an easy virtue to learn at first, but it soon becomes a vast social phenomenon.
It’s not at all uncommon for 30 college students to show up for a presidential campaign in, say, New Hampshire and organize the whole state for their candidate. They’ve never done that before, but they know how to use a Rolodex, and they can very soon organize an entire state. It’s a skill they learned. It’s one of the great skills of Americans.
In America, we mostly go to meetings. Parenthood, you discover, is essentially a transportation service. Your kids go to so many meetings in a day that you need a sign on the refrigerator telling you which times everybody is scheduled for what and where they have to be. Americans are good at going to meetings, and that’s a tremendous skill to have. You can send a group of Americans in the Peace Corps, even a dozen of them, and they’ll figure out what they need to do and organize themselves how to do it. You don’t have to write detailed orders from headquarters. Association is a tremendous skill to have, but it’s essential for democracy.
And that’s what, in a word, social justice is–a virtue, a habit that people internalize and learn, a capacity. It’s a capacity that has two sides: first, a capacity to organize with others to accomplish particular ends and, second, ends that are extra-familial. They’re for the good of the neighborhood, or the village, or the town, or the state, or the country, or the world. To send money or clothes or to travel to other parts of the world in order to help out–that’s what social justice is: the new order of the ages, Rerum Novarum.