Religion & Liberty Online

What the pastor taught the professor about social justice

I’m a middle-aged professor who regularly does a presentation on social justice. As a dedicated believer in the power of free markets, I tend to focus on social justice as distributive justice. In other words, what are the arguments we have about how we slice the economic pie? What kind of a statement is being made by Occupy Wall Street when they posture class conflict as a battle between “the 1%” and “the 99%?” Those are the sorts of things I have tackled.

My answers have typically been aimed at proving how the free market performs better and for more people than many tend to believe. I talk about how capitalist economies tend to be dynamic. Part of that involves demonstrating that people move in and out of the income quintiles. Some move up. Others move down. Some stay. The point is that the cake is not simply baked. Not all of the richest remain on top. Nor do all of the poorest remain where they were.

I also spend time discussing the benefits of what I call “freedom pie” versus “equality pie.” A system premised on equality tends to produce a smaller, but equally sliced pie, while a system premised on freedom is more likely to yield a much larger pie where even the narrower slices are larger than the other pie’s equal ones. I think that the reality of freedom pie vs. equality pie is the driver behind John Rawls’ difference principle that allows exceptions to absolute equality of resources in his famous theory of justice.

Based on what I’ve said so far, you get the idea. My talk on social justice is really about distributive justice and why free markets deserve more credit than they get.

During the recent Acton University in Grand Rapids, I offered a session along the lines of what I have described. Talks typically go for 45 minutes with another 30 minutes of questions. In all the years I have been lecturing and leading discussions around the country, it has been very rare that I have been surprised by a question or a comment. But this year I was, and it improved my thinking.

An African-American pastor (bi-vocational, I think, based on his comments) raised his hand. He affirmed what I had said about free markets. I specifically recall him saying, “You’re right about people moving up and improving their lives over the years. I’ve seen those times in my own life when the comma moved on my income” (great expression, “when the comma moved”).

But he went on to criticize my presentation on social justice for being too narrow. By way of example, he pointed out that for African-Americans who have succeeded in the market in a variety of endeavors, there are some things that may not change as much as their income. He discussed encounters with law enforcement, informal barriers in the area of housing, and a few other things.

I instantly realized my mistake. When I listened to people talking about social justice and read about it, my natural assumption was that we were talking about the way the social pie is sliced. I failed to take into account that many social justice concerns might revolve around things that might more easily be grouped under the headings of “equal freedom” and “social respect.” This pastor helped me see my way to a more full-orbed vision of social justice.

While policy wonks (both the statists and the free marketeers) may often focus relentlessly on tax rates and entitlement checks, the reality is that many people simply want what we might call “ordinary justice.” They want to be treated as equal persons created by God with the same dignity and rights.

If government doesn’t get that right, it fails. And if individuals don’t get it right, we do, too.

Image: AJEL, Public Domain (CC0)

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is a professor of political science and the dean of arts and sciences at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in religion & politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.