What is a Just Politics?

This past weekend the Center For Cultural Leadership held our annual West Coast symposium, this year on the topic of "social justice." These are my prepared remarks, which were then followed by a stimulating group conversation. Sadly, to get in on that you need an invitation. Support CCL and you just might get one next year!

You may well be scratching your head at the (assigned) title of my presentation: “What is a Just Politics?” From a conventional perspective it sounds like asking “What is a square circle?” or “What is a four-sided triangle?” It seems oxymoronic because politics is usually the art of compromise; it is how we organize society without killing each other. The search for purity or rectitude in politics thus seems a bit like a fool’s errand. (Something Libertarians and certain Tea-Party types might need to reflect on.)

However, justice is conformity to a standard, and the fact is that in a constitutional republic there are standards for politics, standards sets forth in our foundational documents. And at a mere superficial level there are ways our politics conceivably deviates from those standards. For one example, a somewhat pressing need in our system is better protection for the integrity of our voting system. It is unconscionable that Iraq or a backwater, Stone-Age country like Afghanistan holds more transparent elections than the United States of America. They ink-stain the fingers of people who voted. They seem actually committed to the principle of “one person, one vote.” Moreover, not requiring identification to vote is a key ingredient for an “unjust” politics. Few things are more bizarre than this gaping hole in America’s electoral procedure. You need an ID to buy a beer or board an airplane, but not to help steer the direction of the country? It is so absurd it is no wonder the only counter-argument is to talk about the red-herring of racism. (And, by the way, what could possibly be more racist than to suggest that black people are incapable of having ID?)

But those are mere procedural concerns with respect to our politics. They do erode the justice of our political system, but they are but surface issues. The more important worries are decidedly more subterranean and ideological. They clearly emerge with our current infatuation with something called “social justice.” 

Indeed, the rhetoric of politics in our time gives the illusion that we care deeply about justice. No proposed government action, no civic action, no corporate mission statement, is complete without affirming our commitment to something called “social justice.” It’s a concept so vague Jonah Goldberg’s definition is probably the best we can do: Social justice is just a euphemism for “do-goodery.” It is an “empty vessel to be filled with any and all leftist ideals, and then promptly wielded as a political bludgeon against any and all dissenters.” 

And the real problem is that it quite literally champions injustice in the name of its opposite. Let me explain.

Over half a century ago C.S. Lewis wrote a breathtaking essay called, “On the Humanitarian Theory of Justice.” His concern was specifically related to criminal law and the untethering of “justice” from the concept of “punishment” or “just desserts.” Instead of retribution, the humanitarian theory is concerned with “rehabilitation.” Instead of talk of “punishment” we should talk with the nicer, more loving vocabulary of “therapy.” Lewis pointed out that if criminal sanctions are divorced from the concept of what we actually “deserve,” if we abandon, in other words, the concept of Lex Talionis (“Eye for an eye,” arguably the most foundational legal maxim in human civilization), the result will be unimaginable tyranny. For the “sanction” of undergoing therapy (or “sensitivity training” or re-education camps) will be just as coerced as a prison sentence; only those carrying it out will be therapists and doctors doing it for “our own good,” and its duration will be unknown and completely arbitrary. Paying off restitution is a pretty simple formula: getting “cured” is wholly in the eyes of the one doing the curing.

The notion of “social justice” as it is used today is simply the civil law correlary to Lewis’s criminal law context. Like the “humanitarian” theory Lewis’s battled, we view justice as not a matter of ethics but ontology. That is, instead of viewing justice as a matter of human behavior or rectifying the consequences of wrongful actions between man and man, justice is now about rectifying states of affairs that have no perpetrator. We all know the concept of a “victimless crime.” We are now obsessed with the novel concept of a “perpetratorless crime.” Think of it: we are a society of victims—victims of “structural” or “institutional” injustices, racism, so-called “micro-aggressions” (a vogue term meaning “having your feelings hurt”), bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, discrimination, poverty—but we are woefully short of actual perpetrators. Who, exactly, is responsible for these social “injustices”? What have they done? What should their sentence be? Who will impose it?” We are talking about allegedly “unjust” states of affairs with no one in particular committing any actual observable injustices. When justice is conceived in other than retributive terms, it becomes an instrument of raw, arbitrary tyranny.

The reality is that there are, for lack of a better term, societal outcomes that are “natural.” They are simply the outworkings or products of free human interactions. The economic inequities produced by a free market, for example, are the result of factors so numerous they are, for all practical purposes, infinite. Personal choices, good or bad, wise or foolish, the social status one is born into, whether educational opportunities are pursued, the presence or absence of good role models—all these things contribute to a variety of outcomes in life. Outcomes for which nobody in particular is “at fault.” Yet advocates of social justice contend that we must rectify these sorts of natural outcomes. And to do that, a perpetrator must be identified and forced to pay the necessary restitution. In the case of the “social justice” issue of poverty, the obvious culprit should be those who aren’t poor. The “injustice” is ontological, a state of affairs, not ethical, the result of a person being wronged. But finding someone blameworthy in these sorts of natural societal outcomes becomes something completely arbitrary. Punishing a successful person simply because he’s successful and, well, available, is a strange notion of “justice.” Historically, one would call punishing somebody not guilty of a crime “injustice.” But if it is done with the right motives—that is, if it supplies the remedy for social injustice—it is a matter of (as our President once put it) “basic fairness.”

We ought to see that this drive for social justice is, at bottom, a theological impulse. What the advocates of social justice are really saying is that natural outcomes—that is, outcomes not produced by actual culpable human behavior—are intolerable. These outcomes must be smoothed out and made more equitable. In other words, it is not “injustice” that makes them unhappy; it is the providence of God with which they are unsatisfied. The sovereignty of God in their view is producing the wrong outcomes. We know better. More than that, this is an attack of the ethical goodness of God; he is either incompetent or morally perverse. Our moral sense must gain priority over his.

So the solution is what it has always been in the progressive view of things. Since Hegel modern progressivism has clearly understood that the State must embody the divine; the State must replace God and become its own providence, ordering all things to suit its whims.

But the State is not God. It doesn’t have the goodness, the omniscience, nor the omnipotence to justly order all natural societal outcomes. And when it tries, it should not surprise us that it makes a mess of things. Idols always do a very bad job playing God. In this case the State must find someone to bear the brunt of the “restitution” necessary, and by definition this must be something arbitrary—or, to put a fine point on it, something unjust. So the rich man—or, even more in vogue, the hateful, bigoted Christian must be made to pay for the injustice and disorder hindering our egalitarian utopia, even if he or she isn’t guilty of anything in particular. A Christian baker forced to attend “sensitivity training,” a Christian photographer put out of business, a Christian florist who loses her livelihood, all are made the scapegoat in the literal Old Testament sense of the term. We will lay our sins on them and they must be exiled to pay for our “social injustices.”

It is almost enough to remind us of another time and place where a civil authority fancied itself divine. The Roman Empire was itself wracked with social disorder and then, as now, it was members of the Christian community that were made scapegoats. They were enemies of humanity for not acknowledging and worshiping the State as God and bowing to its efforts to effect the “common good”—efforts that involved, among other things, the eradication of “undesirables.” The parallels are uncanny. We, too, have been declared enemies of humanity, no less by a sitting “Justice” of the United State Supreme Court for not bowing to the State’s whims. A reporter for the newspaper of record, The New York Times, says that we must be “stamped out, ruthlessly.” Given that the collective memory of life under Nero still exists, we might nervously wonder what he means by “ruthlessly.”

On the surface, this is all quite depressing. The word justice has been co-opted and put into service as its very opposite: the righting of every imaginable “wrong” by way of sacrifice—not blood sacrifice, yet, thankfully, but sacrifice nonetheless. And it is only going to get worse before it gets better.

But there is a silver lining, something to encourage us. Whenever an idolatrous State starts blaming Christians, specifically, for hindering its social justice aims, history indicates that we are doing something very right. 

And, contrary to those who constantly claim to be on the “right side of history,” history actually tells us who wins in the end. And it isn’t them.