The Christian and Classical Idea of Social Justice

A friend of mine has the misfortune of owning a number of stone cottages. I say “misfortune” because the cottages are in Scotland, and their rents are fixed at the level of 1914. The cottages were built long before 1914–some of them are eighteenth-century work, with their pantiled roofs and thick rubble walls and irregular little windows; but they are good to look upon still, with their white door-sills and their little gardens along the path to the road. The law compels my friend to keep them in tolerable repair, if they are tenanted, and to pay most of what rent he receives either to local authorities or to the Exchequer, in the form of rates and income-taxes. But the rent of each cottage amounts to a mere five shillings a week–seventy cents, at the present rate of exchange. This is not particularly depressing to my friend, for the rents of his farms are fixed at levels no higher than they were during the Napoleonic wars, let alone the First World War. The cottages are a cause of expense to him, of course, rather than a source of income; but persons of his station are now resigned to being ruined, and for some of his cottages he asks no rent at all, letting them to old people who can afford to pay next to nothing. Some of his tenants, however, are better off, according to their lights, than my friend himself: they have risen in the economic scale while he has descended. His income is still much greater than theirs, but his expenses are much greater, and his responsibilities. These tenants now have better wages and shorter hours than ever they did before; they can afford their little luxuries, extending sometimes to television-sets. Some of them have come to look upon rent as a luxury–for, after all, many of their neighbors are the recipients of my friend’s charity, paying nothing for their cottages. Accordingly, my friend’s agent occasionally has his difficulties when he goes from door to door, on Mondays, collecting five shillings here and five shillings there. One morning the agent knocked at the door of a tenant who was in good health and employed at good wages. The tenant came to the door and announced that he had decided to pay no more rent; he could not afford it; prices were high, and he could use that five shillings himself.

“Will you be honest with me?” the agent asked.

The tenant said he would.

“Well, then,” said the agent, “how much do you spend a month on cigarettes?”

“Thirty shillin’s,” replied the tenant, in righteous defiance, “and not a penny more.”

When a man feels that he is entitled to withhold his rent, though he spends on tobacco fifty per cent more per month than he does for his cottage, his notion of Justice seems to be confused. This is not so serious a confusion, however, as the revolution of belief in nearly the whole of eastern Europe, where the possessor of property has come to be looked upon as an enemy of society, and is lucky if he escapes being driven out into the woods to die of pneumonia, or herded off to a labor- camp. My friend is in no immediate danger of such a fate, though, as things are going, the old farms that have been in his family for two hundred years will have to be sold at auction when he dies, and perhaps the roof will be taken off the big handsome house that his fathers knew before him. In Scotland, fortunately for my friend, the destruction of old institutions is gradual, not violent. But at bottom the same force which has effaced traditional life in eastern Europe is ruining my Scottish friend: a confusion about first principles. Among these principles which have sustained our civilization and our very existence ever since man rose above the brutes, the principle of Justice has been the great support of an orderly and law-abiding society.

From the time when first men began to reflect upon such matters, the nobler and more serious minds have been convinced that Justice has some source and sanction more than human and more than natural. Either Justice is ordained by some Power above us, or it is mere expediency, the power of the strong over the weak:

… the simple plan,
That they shall take, who have the power,
And they shall keep who can.

A great part of mankind, nowadays, has succumbed to this latter concept of Justice; and the consequence of that belief is plain to be seen in the violence and ruin that have overtaken most nations in this century.

Now our traditional idea of Justice comes to us from two sources: the Judaic and Christian faith in a just God whom we fear and love, and whose commandments are expressed in unmistakable language; and the teachings of classical philosophy, in particular the principles expressed in Plato’s Republic and incorporated into Roman jurisprudence by Cicero and his successors. The concept of Justice upon earth which both these traditions inculcate is, in substance, this: the idea of Justice is implanted in our minds by a Power that is more than human; and our mundane Justice is our attempt to copy a perfect Justice that abides in a realm beyond time and space; and the general rule by which we endeavor to determine just conduct and just reward may be expressed as “To each man, the things that are his own.”

Plato perceived that there are two aspects of this Justice: justice in private character, and justice in society. Personal or private justice is attained by that balance and harmony in character which shines out from those persons we call “just men”– men who cannot be swayed from the path of rectitude by private interest, and who are masters of their own passions, and who deal impartially and honestly with everyone they meet. The other aspect of justice, social justice, is similarly marked by harmony and balance; it is the communal equivalent of that right proportion and government of reason, will, and appetite which the just man displays in his private character. Socrates says to Glaucon, “And is not the creation of justice the institution of a natural order and government of one faculty by another in the parts of the soul? And is not the creation of injustice the production of a state of things at variance with the natural order?” The happy man, Socrates maintains, is the just man; and the happy society is the just society. It is the society in which every man minds his own business, and receives always the rewards which are his due. The division of labor is a part of this social justice; for true justice requires “the carpenter and the shoemaker and the rest of the citizens to do each his own business, and not another’s.” Injustice in society comes when men try to undertake roles for which they are not fitted, and claim rewards to which they are not entitled, and deny other men what really belongs to them. Quite as an unjust man is a being whose reason, will, and appetite are at war with one another, so an unjust society is a state characterized by “meddlesomeness, and interference, and the rising up of a part of the soul against the whole, an assertion of unlawful authority, which is made by a rebellious subject against a true prince, of whom he is the natural vassal–what is all this confusion and delusion but injustice, and intemperance and cowardice and ignorance, and every form of vice?”

It is perfectly true, then, both in the eyes of the religious man and the eyes of the philosopher, that there is a real meaning to the term “social justice.” The Christian concepts of charity and obedience are bound up with the Christian idea of a just society; while for the Platonic and Ciceronian philosopher, no government is righteous unless it conforms to the same standards of conduct as those which the just man respects. We all have real obligations toward our fellow-men, for it was ordained by Omniscience that men should live together in charity and brotherhood. A just society, guided by these lights, will endeavor to provide that every man be free to do the work for which he is best suited, and that he receive the rewards which that work deserves, and that no one meddle with him. Thus cooperation, not strife, will be the governing influence in the state; class will not turn against class, but all men will realize, instead, that a variety of occupations, duties, and rewards is necessary to civilization and the rule of law.

As classical philosophy merged with Christian faith to form modern civilization, scholars came to distinguish between two types or applications of justice–not divine and human justice, not private and social justice, precisely, but what we call “commutative” justice and “distributive” justice. “Commutative” justice, in the words of old Jeremy Taylor, three centuries ago, is “that justice which supposes exchange of things profitable for things profitable.” It is that righteous relationship by which one man gives his goods or services to another man and receives an equivalent benefit, to the betterment of both. Now “distributive” justice, again in Jeremy Taylor’s words, “is commanded in this rule, ‘Render to all their dues.’ ” Distributive justice, in short, is that arrangement in society by which each man obtains what his nature and his labor entitle him to, without oppression or evasion. Commutative justice is righteous dealing between particular individuals; distributive justice is the general system of rewarding each man according to his deserts. Both concepts of justice have been badly misunderstood in our time, but distributive justice has fared the worse.

Edmund Burke, a hundred and sixty-five years ago, perceived that radical reformers suffered from a disastrous misconception of the idea of justice. The followers of Rousseau, asserting that society is simply a compact for mutual benefit among the men and women who make up a nation, declared that therefore no man has any greater rights than his fellows, and that property is the source of all evil. Burke turned all the power of his rhetoric against this delusion. Men do indeed have natural rights, he answered; but those rights are not what Rousseau’s disciples think they are. The foremost of our true natural rights is the right to justice and order, which the radical fancies of the French revolutionaries would abolish:

Men have a right to the fruits of their industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things. He that has but five shillings in the partnership, has as good a right to it, as he that has five hundred pounds has to his larger proportion. But he has not a right to an equal dividend in the product of the joint stock; and as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil social man, and no other. It is a thing to be settled by convention.

This is the Christian and classical idea of distributive justice. Men have a right to the product of their labors, and to the benefits of good government and of the progress of civilization. But they have no right to the property and the labor of others. The sincere Christian will do everything in his power to relieve the distresses of men and women who suffer privation or injury; but the virtue of charity is a world away from the abstract right of equality which the French radicals claimed. The merit of charity is that it is voluntary, a gift from the man who has to the man who has not; while the radicals’ claim of a right to appropriate the goods of their more prosperous neighbors is a vice–the vice of covetousness. True justice secures every man in the possession of what is his own, and provides that he will receive the reward of his talents; but true justice also ensures that no man shall seize the property and the rights that belong to other classes and persons, on the pretext of an abstract equality. The just man knows that men differ in strength, in intelligence, in energy, in beauty, in dexterity, in discipline, in inheritance, in particular talents; and he sets his face, therefore, against any scheme of pretended “social justice” which would treat all men alike. There could be no greater injustice to society than to give the good, the industrious, and the frugal the same rewards as the vicious, the indolent, and the spendthrift. Besides, different types of character deserve different types of reward. The best reward of the scholar is contemplative leisure; the best reward of the soldier is public honor; the best reward of the quiet man is the secure routine of domestic existence; the best reward of the statesman is just power; the best reward of the skilled craftsman is the opportunity to make fine things; the best reward of the farmer is a decent rural competence; the best reward of the industrialist is the sight of what his own industry has built; the best reward of the good wife is the goodness of her children. To reduce all these varieties of talent and aspiration, with many more, to the dull nexus of cash payment, is the act of a dull and envious mind; and then to make that cash payment the same for every individual is an act calculated to make society one everlasting frustration for the best men and women.

How was it that this traditional concept of social justice, which took into account the diversity of human needs and wishes, came to be supplanted, in the minds of many people, by the delusion that social justice consists in treating every man as if he were an identical cog in a social machine, with precisely the same qualities and hopes as his neighbor? One can trace the fallacy that justice is identical with equality of condition far back into antiquity, for human folly is as old as human wisdom. But the modern form of this notion arose late in the eighteenth century, and Burke and John Adams and other conservative thinkers foresaw that it was destined to do immense mischief in our world. Condorcet, for example, eminent among the philosophers who ushered in the French Revolution, proclaimed that “Not only equality of right, but equality of fact, is the goal of the socialist art”; he declared that the whole aim of all social institutions should be to benefit physically, intellectually, and morally the poorest classes. Now the Christian concept of charity enjoins constant endeavor to improve the lot of the poor; but the Christian faith, which Burke and Adams held in their different ways, does not command the sacrifice of the welfare of one class to that of another class; instead, Christian teaching looks upon the rich and powerful as the elder brothers of the poor and weak, given their privileges that they may help to improve the character and the condition of all humanity. Instead of abolishing class and private rights in the name of an abstract equality, Christian thinkers hope to employ commutative and distributive justice for the realization of the peculiar talents and hopes of each individual, not the confounding of all personality in one collective monotony.

Karl Marx, casting off the whole moral legacy of Christian and classical thought, carried the notion of “social justice” as pure equality further yet. Adapting Ricardo’s labor theory of value to his own purposes, Marx insisted that since all value comes from “labor,” all value must return to labor; and therefore all men must receive the same rewards, and live the same life. Justice, according to this view, is uniformity of existence. “In order to create equality,” Marx wrote, “we must first create inequality.” By this he meant that because men are not equal in strength, energy, intelligence, or any other natural endowment, we must take away from the superior and give to the inferior; we must depress the better to help the worse; and thus we will deliberately treat the strong, the energetic, and the intelligent unfairly, that we may make their natural inferiors their equals in condition. Now this doctrine is the callous repudiation of the classical and Christian idea of justice. “To each his own”: such was the definition of justice in which Plato and Cicero and the fathers of the Church and the Schoolmen agreed. Each man should have the right to the fruit of his own labors, and the right to freedom from being meddled with; and each man should do that work for which his nature and his inheritance best qualified him. But Marx was resolved to turn the world inside out, and a necessary preparation for this was the inversion of the idea of Justice. Marx refused to recognize that there are various kinds and degrees of labor, each deserving its peculiar reward; and he ignored the fact that there is such a thing as the postponed reward of labor, in the form of bequest and inheritance. It is not simply the manual laborer who works: the statesman works, and so does the soldier, and so does the scholar, and so does the priest, and so does the banker, and so does the landed proprietor, and so does the inventor, and so does the manufacturer, and so does the clerk. The highest and most productive forms of labor, most beneficial to humanity both in spirit and in matter, commonly are those kinds of work least menial. Only in this sense is it true that all value comes from labor.

In the history of political and economic fanaticism, there are few fallacies more nearly transparent than the central principle of Marxism. But the publication of Marx’s Capital coincided with the decay of established opinions in the modern world, and with all the confusion which the culmination of the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of European influence had brought in their train. Thus men who had repudiated both the old liberal educational disciplines and the bulk of Christian teaching embraced Marx’s theories without reflection; for men long to believe in something, and the declaration that everyone is entitled by the laws of social justice to the possessions of his more prosperous neighbor was calculated to excite all the power of envy. The doctrinaire socialists and communists began to preach this new theory of justice–the dogma that everything belongs of right to everyone. That idea has been one of the chief causes of our modern upheaval and despair, throughout most of the world. In its milder aspect, it has led to the difficulties of my Scottish friend in collecting his rents; in its fiercer aspect, to the dehumanization of whole peoples and the wreck of ancient civilizations.

True distributive justice, which prescribes the rights and duties that connect the state, or community, and the citizen or private person, does not mean “distribution” in the sense of employing the power of the state to redistribute property among men. Pope Pius XI, in 1931, made it clear that this was not the Christian significance of the phrase. “Of its very nature the true aim of all social activity,” the Pope wrote, “should be to help individual members of the social body, but never to destroy or absorb them. The aim of social legislation must therefore be the re-establishment of vocational groups.” This encyclical, in general, urges the restoration of order, through the encouragement or resurrection of all those voluntary associations which once interposed a barrier between the Leviathan state and the puny individual. The state ought to be an arbiter, intent upon justice, and not the servant of a particular class or interest. The late William A. Orton, in his last book, The Economic Role of the State, discussing commutative and distributive justice in the light of Papal encyclicals, reminds us of how sorely the concept of distributive justice has been corrupted:

Distributive justice does not primarily refer, as does the economic theory of distribution, to the sharing-out of a given supply of goods and services, because the state has no such supply. Yet that is the conception which tends to develop in the late stages of all highly centralized societies, including our own: the notion that the masses can and ought to receive from the state goods and services beyond what they could otherwise earn for themselves. The popularity of this notion has obvious causes, ranging from genuine altruism through political expediency to undisguised class interest. It is noteworthy that, as organized labor becomes a major political force, it is no longer content–as Gompers might have been–to rely on the economic power of the trade-unions but goes on, while resisting all limits on that, to make demands for state action in the interests of wage-earners as a class. And the point is not whether those demands are justifiable as desiderata; quite possibly they are, since, like the king in wonder-working days of old, we would all like everybody to have everything. The point is that this whole notion of the providential state invokes and rests upon the coercive power, regarded solely from the standpoint of the beneficiaries. Furthermore, there are practical limits to this sort of procedure; and it is less painful to recognize them in advance than to run into them head on.

And Orton proceeds to examine the necessity of re-asserting moral principles in the complex economic negotiations of our time. It is impossible to determine a “fair wage,” or the proper relationship between employer and union, or the aims of social security, or the boundary between a just claim and extortion, or the proper regulation of prices, or the degree of freedom of competition, without reference to certain definitions that depend upon moral sanctions. Of those definitions, “justice” is the cardinal term. The Benthamite delusion that politics and economics could be managed on considerations purely material has exposed us to a desolate individualism in which every man and every class looks upon all other men and classes as dangerous competitors, when in reality no man and no class can continue long in safety and prosperity without the bond of sympathy and the reign of justice. It is necessary to any high civilization that there be a great variety of human types and a variety of classes and functions.

A true understanding of what “social justice” means would do more than anything else to guard against that bitter resentment of superiority or differentiation which menaces the foundations of culture. We hear a good deal of talk, some of it sensible, some of it silly, about the “anti-intellectualism” of our time. But it is undeniably true that there exists among us a vague but ominous detestation of the life of the mind–apparently on the assumption that what one man has, all men must have; and if they are denied it, then they will deny it to the privileged man. The late C. E. M. Joad, a writer scarcely given to reactionary or anti-democratic opinions, noted with alarm this resentment of the masses against anything that they cannot share; and they now have it in their power, he suggested, to topple anything of which they disapprove. It is not even necessary for the masses to employ direct political action; the contagion of manners works for them: formerly a class of thinker and artists could flourish in the midst of general ignorance, but now the mass-mind, juke-box culture, penetrates to every corner of the Western world, and the man of superior natural talents is ashamed of being different.

One could elaborate upon Joad’s suggestion almost interminably. The gradual reduction of public libraries, intended for the elevation of the popular mind, to mere instruments for idle amusement at public expense; the cacaphony of noise which fills almost all public places, converting even the unwilling into a part of the captive audience, so that only by spending a good deal of money and travelling some distance can one eat and drink without being oppressed by blatant vulgarity; the conversion of nominal institutions of learning to the popular ends of sociability and utilitarian training–all these things, and many others, are so many indications of the advance of the masses into the realm of culture. The nineteenth-century optimists believed that the masses would indeed make culture their own, by assimilating themselves to it; it scarcely occurred to the enthusiasts for popular schooling that the masses might assimilate culture to themselves. The magazine-rack of any drug-store in America would suffice to drive Robert Lowe or Horace Mann to distraction. Now we cannot undo the consequences of mass-schooling, even if we would; but what we can contend against is the spirit of vulgar intolerance which proclaims that if the masses cannot share in a taste, that taste shall not be suffered to exist. And this is closely bound up with the idea of social justice. If justice means uniformity, then the higher life of the mind which is confined to a few has no right to survival; but if justice means that each man has a right to his own, we ought to try to convince modern society that there is no injustice or deprivation in the fact that one man is skilled with his hands, and another with his head, or that one man enjoys baseball and another chamber music. We must go beyond the differences of taste, indeed, and remind modern society that differences of function are as necessary and beneficial as differences of opinion. That some men are richer than others, and that some have more leisure than others, and that some travel more than others, and that some inherit more than others, and that some are educated more than others, is no more unjust, in the great scheme of things, than that some undeniably are handsomer or stronger or quicker or healthier than others. This complex variety is the breath of life to society, not the triumph of injustice. Poverty, even absolute poverty, is not an evil; it is not evil to be a beggar; it is not evil to be ignorant; it is not evil to be stupid. All these things are either indifferent, or else are occasions for positive virtue, if accepted with a contrite heart. What really matters is that we should accept the station to which “a divine tactic” has appointed us with humility and a sense of consecration. Without inequality, there is no opportunity for charity, or for gratitude; without differences of mind and talent, the world would be one changeless expanse of uniformity: and precisely that is the most conspicuous feature of Hell.

I am inclined to believe, then, that the need of our time is not for greater progress toward equality of condition and distribution of wealth, but rather for the clear understanding of what commutative and distributive justice truly mean: “to each his own.” It is very easy to run with the pack and howl for the attainment of absolute equality. But that equality would be the death of human liveliness, and probably the death of our economy. I know, of course, that we have all about us examples of wealth misspent and opportunities abused. In our fallen state, we cannot hope that all the members of any class will behave with perfect rectitude. But it would be no wiser to abolish classes, for that reason, than to abolish humanity. We do indeed have the duty of exhorting those who have been placed by a divine tactic in positions of responsibility to do their part with charity and humility, and, before that, we have the more pressing duty of so exhorting ourselves. There are signs, in most of the countries of the Western world, that what remains of the old leading classes are learning to conduct themselves with courage and fortitude. If they are effaced utterly, we shall not be emancipated totally from leadership, but shall find ourselves, instead, at the mercy of the commissar. The delusion that justice consists in absolute equality ends in an absolute equality beneath the weight of a man or a party to whom justice is no more than a word.

At the back of the mind of the man who declined to pay his rent, I think, was the notion that under a just domination, all things would be supplied to him out of a common fund, without the necessity of any endeavor on his part. It is easy enough to describe the genesis of such concepts; it is much more difficult to remedy them. The real victim of injustice, in this particular case, was my friend the landed proprietor–though he never thought of complaining. No one subsidizes him; his garden lies choked with weeds; he has sold his Raeburns and Constables and his ancestors’ furniture to keep up his farms and pay for his children’s education; he continues to serve in local office at his own expense; he labors far longer hours than his own tenants; he can indulge, nowadays, very few of his tastes for books and music, though the cottagers can gratify theirs, in comparable matters, beyond anything they dreamed of in former days. My friend endures these things–and the prospect that when he is gone, everything which his family loved will pass away with him–because of the ascendancy of the idea that justice consists in levelling, that inherited wealth and superior station are reprehensible, and that society and culture can subsist and flourish without being rooted in the past. He himself, to some extent, is influenced by this body of opinion. Thus the unbought grace of life may be extinguished by the power of positive law within a single generation.

Probably the traditional leading classes of Europe were at their worst in the Russia of the czars. But what humane and rational man can maintain that the leading classes of Soviet Russia constitute an improvement upon their predecessors? And who dares maintain that all the graces and beauties of life have been nurtured there by the doctrinaire principle of equalitarian “justice”? Man was created not for equality, but for the struggle upward from brute nature toward the world that is not terrestrial. The principle of justice, in consequence, is not enslavement to a uniform condition, but liberation from arbitrary restraints upon his right to be himself.

There is no injustice in inequality, as such; the only unjust inequality is that in which a man is denied the things for which his nature is suited in favor of a man whose claims to those things is inferior. And precisely this latter sort of inequality is what the radicals would establish, depriving a great many men of the occupations and rewards to which their nature entitles them, for the sake of a ridiculous division of all things among all men. Socialism would deprive those persons who have a legitimate expectation of inheritance of the rights of heirs, one of the most ancient rights in all systems of justice. More, socialism would deprive those persons of superior talents of the rewards which their energies and endowments deserve. On this latter topic, one cannot do better than to read the books of W. H. Mallock, particularly A Critical Examination of Socialism (1908) and The Limits of Pure Democracy (1919).

Ability is the factor which enables men to lift themselves from savagery to civilization, and which helps to distinguish the endeavors of men from the routine existence of insects. Ability is of various sorts: there are philosophical ability, mechanical ability, commercial ability, directive ability, and persuasive ability. But all these are various aspects of the special talent, produced by intelligence, which is independent of routine or of brute strength. In any age, some men possess unusual abilities, which they may employ, if they choose–or if they are persuaded–for the benefit of everyone. But these men commonly are few in number; and though it is impossible to create such Ability by state action, it is altogether too possible that state action may succeed in extirpating the Ability of a whole generation–or, indeed, of a whole people. The thing has been done before.

There is only one way to find and encourage Ability, and that is to reward it. It does no good to punish men of abilities for not doing their very best; for then they either conceal their peculiar talents, or sink into apathy. This, too, is a very old story, and a perfectly true one. And I think that invariably a principal error of the masters of the total state is their failure to provide for the reward of Ability. When that reward no longer is forthcoming, a society stagnates.

The rewards of Ability are several. There is the reward of a good conscience, brought about by duty done. There is the reward of public praise, and that of power, and that of security, and that of advantage to one’s family and one’s posterity; and there is the reward of material gain. This last may sound mean, but we are hypocritical if we refuse to admit that it always has been the reward most likely to attract the great mass of men– even men of talent. Edmund Burke observes that ordinary service must be secured by the rewards to ordinary integrity. If we refuse to pay for service, then we are going to be afflicted with the service of men deficient in integrity, which is worse than no service at all.

Yet the total state, and in particular the sprawling socialist state of modern times, commonly refuses to pay for economic services in proportion to the abilities required to furnish those services; therefore the modern total state soon finds itself drained of men of integrity; and the state is served, instead, by the contact-man, the charlatan, the incompetent, the brutal, and the ruthless–by anyone but the man of ordinary integrity. In any state except the most thoroughly immoral, there always remain a few persons who will serve simply out of conscience, and a few more who will serve for praise or power. But these are not enough to sustain the intricate concerns of society, if those incentives which attract common integrity are lacking. Having failed to reward Ability, the state, fatigued, descends toward the routine of insect-life. In the long run, man (not being made physically or morally or psychologically for insect- life) fails to adjust satisfactorily to this attempt at supporting the state by mere routine, and then society disintegrates.

Why do the masters of the total state, and the men who would like to convert their free society into a total state, fail to recognize the necessity for rewarding Ability? It is in part the consequence, I think, of their notion that men are interchangeable units in a social machine, and that if one unit fails to function, another unit may be thrust into the vacated place. They think in terms of the “mobile labor-force” when they ought to be thinking in terms of particular persons with particular talents. Society is not a machine; it is, rather, a delicate growth or essence; and men of ability are not cogs in a machine, but the blood or life-spirit of society.

And in part their error is consequent from their false conception of Justice. Under the influence of Marx, the doctrinaire radical has maintained that the source of all wealth and power is Labor–the physical labor of the unskilled workman, if they are pressed to a closer definition; and therefore Justice dictates that all wealth and power should return to Labor. Yet this concept is ludicrously wrong. For it is not Labor which lifts man above ant-level; it is not Labor which is responsible for the world’s work; it is not Labor which elevates a society from savagery to civilization. The real factor which accomplishes these things is Ability.
It is Ability–the ability of the statesman, the scholar, the economist, the inventor, the scientist, the industrialist–which has brought to civilized peoples justice, tranquility, and prosperity. The savage has Labor, but his way of life prevents the development of Ability, without which Labor is mere clumsy and inefficient brute force. Men prosper in proportion as they participate in the rewards of Ability.

The advances made by men of remarkable talent are shared, in some considerable degree, by everyone in society, even by those who contribute only manual labor. As the workingman himself acquires Ability by increasing his skills and technical knowledge, he too receives the rewards of Ability. Thus the incomes of workingmen, in the past century, have increased proportionately far faster than those of any other class; and this is because the workingman, for the most part, has ceased to be a mere manual laborer, and has become a skilled participant in Ability.

An omnipotent state always can command Labor, for Labor can be exacted through force. The exercise of Ability, however, can be secured only through a system of adequate rewards. The experience of this century, particularly in Russia, has demonstrated how rapidly socialistic governments turn to force to compel labor. In England, the vaticinations of certain collectivistic writers, among them Mr. G. D. H. Cole, and Mr. P. C. Gordon Walker, and Mr. E. H. Carr, suggest that, given the opportunity, they would be anything but reluctant to apply compulsion to labor there. When the ordinary rewards for integrity are lacking, even the commonest forms of labor can be obtained only through compulsion. But can Ability, under such conditions, be obtained at all? There is good reason to doubt that the Soviets are obtaining the Ability necessary to give their experiment vigor, even the mere vigor of material production. And any careful observer of Britain today must be alarmed for the future. The serious journals in England have awakened to the danger of suppressing or ignoring Ability, but the process already is far advanced. Taxation that even Fabian economists call “savage,” death-duties that wipe out agricultural estates and family businesses, regulations and subsidies that are driving the population out of private homes and into state-built housing, a general fear that nothing a man does will endure and nothing that he saves will be worth anything to him–these influences, though moderated under the present Conservative government, continue to discourage the exertion, of private abilities.

Now the rewards of Ability, as I suggested earlier, are various. The society which desires its own survival will do everything in its power to increase these rewards, not to diminish them; for Ability, given its head, pulls the whole of society upward, intellectually and materially. But Ability discouraged will decrease its efforts proportionately, to the detriment of every class and occupation. We need to respect that reward of Ability which comes from a sense of duty done, and we need to recognize that reward which consists of public honor, and we need to appreciate fairly that reward which consists of just power. But beyond these rewards, which are desired by a comparative few, we need to insure that the ordinary rewards of ordinary integrity, material rewards for material accomplishments, are not neglected; it is for such rewards, after all, that most of the material business of life is carried on. This does not mean simply a sedulous attention to profits and salaries and wages, though of course direct monetary income matters. There exist concrete rewards, however, which are not expressed simply in terms of money. One of these rewards is the ownership of private property, in its many forms; another is membership in a reputable undertaking, as distinguished from impersonal employment by the all-embracing state; another is the sense of security and permanence of possession; another is the assurance that thrift and diligence will bring some degree of decent independence, as distinguished from the uneasy condition of pensioners of the state. All these things are among the material rewards of genuine Ability, and they have been recognized as the due of able men and women for many centuries. It has remained for the arrogance of the doctrinaire socialist and the state planner, in our time, to deal contemptuously with the traditional incentives to ordinary integrity. But they will be paid back in their own coin, once Ability has been reduced to mere Labor–labor with the mind as well as the hands, dull and routine. The total state can carry on, after a fashion, so long as a reservoir of Ability is supplied by the surviving private enterprises; but in proportion as state industry increases, private industry shrinks, and with it those abilities which make possible all the material achievements of our modern life, and most of our intellectual achievements. In the total state, everything may be dedicated to Labor; but with the crushing of Ability, that dedication will result in the rapid impoverishment of Labor, too, and probably in consequences yet more grave.

To whom, precisely, would this New Order be just? In the name of Justice, as in that of Liberty, every conceivable crime has been committed. The doctrinaire radical would risk the whole fabric of society for the sake of an abstract Justice which never existed and never can, and which would be hateful to the radical if ever it did arrive. But it is not only the doctrinaire radical who entertains curiously unreal notions of the meaning of Justice. The professor brought up in the doctrines of Manchester, but warmed by the climate of opinion into humanitarianism, may try to make the best of both worlds by

Rede-fining Justice. For an instance of this, we may take an odd little article by Professor Bruce Knight, published in Faith and Freedom (May, 1954)–not because of any merits of cogency, but because it suggests what a Babel our world is become. Professor Knight, in many respects a thoroughgoing disciple of the classical economics, is disturbed because “there are unjust inequalities in the personal distribution of the means of choosing,” and therefore recommends that we regularly take away from the prospering and give to the indigent, in hard money. This, he thinks, is distributive justice.

Now Professor Knight is falling into the trap of what President Gordon Chalmers of Kenyon College calls “disintegrated liberalism.” Mr. Knight carries down the doctrines of Bentham and James Mill, rigidly, to the present day–embellishing them, however, with a sentimental humanitarianism which inverts the original purpose of those doctrines. I am not reproaching Mr. Knight for being liberal, or for being humane. What alarms me is the degeneration of liberal economic doctrines into the praise of a “freedom” which makes men the wards of the state, and the corruption of the idea of charity by the invasion of compulsion and impersonality into a realm which ought to be governed by love. Mr. Knight’s confusion is the consequence, I think, of his ignoring the classical definition of justice and the Christian definition of charity. What Mr. Knight is preaching, behind his dialectic, is the redistribution of wealth, by direct grants of money from the public purse, to gladden the hearts of the poorer people (we are not told who the “poor” are, or how far this redistribution is to go), upon the principle of an alleged distributive justice. Mr. Knight believes that those who are more favored with the goods of fortune have a moral obligation (the adjective “moral” is mine, not his) to assist those who have fallen behind in the race for prosperity.

But Mr. Knight detests price-fixing, price-supports, state housing, state medical treatment, and even state education, since these tend to interfere with the freedom of the market, and sometimes do not succeed in aiding the poor at all. We shall subsidize the poor directly, then, thus preserving their “freedom of choice”–which is a dogma with the rigid Benthamite– the assumption being that nearly every man is fit by nature to choose for himself in all things.

This is specious reasoning: if one accepts Dr. Knight’s premises, these conclusions follow without much forcing; but I am afraid that his premises, however agreeable they may seem at first glance to religious and generous people, are perversions of true justice and generous people. I think that Mr. Knight, with the best will in the world, is invoking the dogmas of doctrinaire individualism to bring about practical collectivism. I do not want to live in either society; I do not relish the concept of society which looks upon us as so many equipollent economic units governed by sheer self-interest, nor yet the concept of society as an equalitarian tapioca-pudding.

I doubt if Mr. Knight foresees the practical consequences which would follow upon the adoption of his system. The doctrines he advocates, practically applied, would lead toward an actual collectivism which Mr. Knight himself could not possibly endure; and since collectivism destroys all the old motives to integrity, presently we would find ourselves saddled with force and a master, the utter negation of that ideal of “freedom of choice” of which Dr. Knight dreams.

Professor Knight’s initial blunder is his loose usage of the grand old word Justice. He does acknowledge that inequality and injustice are not identical; but he thinks that it is a chief function of the state to “equalize opportunities”; and this will be accomplished by taking away from the prosperous and giving to the poor until all opportunities are equal–whatever that may mean. I do not know, for my part, how we are to draw a line of demarcation between “opportunity” and “attainment,” or how a mere grant of money can bring men and women equality of opportunity. The real causes of inequality, in nine cases out of ten, are differences of intelligence, strength, swiftness, dexterity, beauty, perserverance, and other physical and moral qualities. How can money provide equal “opportunities” in this competition? Are we to give an extra-large grant to a stupid man, or an ugly woman?

But Mr. Knight does not descend to particulars, and I shall endeavor to emulate him. I think, in fine, that he has no very clear idea of what constitutes justice. He employs the Schoolmen’s “distributive justice” to advocate a levelling process which would have been infinitely repugnant to the Christian philosophers who made that concept part of our moral and juridical heritage. True distributive justice, as I have said already, does not mean “distribution” in the sense of employing the power of the state to redistribute property among men. I feel sure that Dr. Knight’s motive is altruism, not political expediency or class interest; yet, his proposals adopted, he would find himself swept aside brutally by men with very different motives, who would employ his altruistic notions of grants to the poor to establish, not equality of opportunity, but rather equality of condition; and, since enforced equality is an unnatural condition, ruinous politically and economically, this interim state of equality would soon be succeeded by a regime of central direction and compulsion.

I am not much afraid that Communists are going to conquer the United States from without, or that the American Communists are going to overthrow our liberties by boring from within. What I fear, rather, is the muddy thinking of gentlemen like Mr. Knight, who, with the best intentions in the world, would so confuse and injure the moral and political and economic system within which we exist, as to open the way for the doctrinaire radical and the ruthless adventurer. Mr. Knight’s notions are dangerous in this, that they tend to stir up a complex of envy and senseless resentment which no amount of money could satisfy. In Burke’s words, these schemes are “a monstrous fiction, which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality, which it never can remove; and which the order of civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it must leave in a humble state, as those whom it is able to exalt to a condition more splendid, but not more happy.”

Besides, I cannot imagine how “equality of opportunity,” in Mr. Knight’s sense, can possibly stop short of that absolute equality of condition which Mr. Knight himself confesses to be unjust. A man who drives a new Cadillac has rather a better chance for material success than a man who drives a decayed Chevrolet; a man who lives in a house with five bedrooms impresses his fellows more than a man who has but one bedroom. Are we, then, to give everyone the money to purchase these instruments of opportunity? And who is to supply the cash? And who is to make the “opportunities” of a Peiping coolie’s son equal to those of Master Kennedy? Or to send every clever East Side boy to Groton?

And there is another aspect of the idea of justice which we ought not to neglect, even though Mr. Knight ignores it. That is the juridical principle that no man ought to be judge in his own cause. Yet in any democratic state, the comparatively poor outnumber the comparatively rich; one man is one vote; and the very people who have the most to gain from Dr. Knight’s projected redistribution of “opportunity” would have it in their power to carry his leveling operation so far as they might please. Dr. Knight’s confidence in human rationality is nothing short of astounding, exceeding even Bentham’s and Mill’s, if he really believes that men who have been told that they have a right to a redistribution of money will restrain themselves out of an abstract regard for posterity, or for the theoretical working of the economy. A nation infatuated with such economic concepts will devour its own seed-corn.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Precisely the reason why we do not allow a man to be judge in his own cause is the reason why we dare not allow the recipients of charity to be the administrators of charity. It may be asked, of course, why the mass of men do not adopt some such scheme of redistribution immediately, the political power already being in their hands. And the answer to this question is that most men still believe that schemes like Mr. Knight’s are grossly unjust. Most men still are governed by prescription and habit, and they retain to our own day a prejudice against coveting their neighbor’s goods. If, however, professors like Mr. Knight keep assuring men that they have an absolute right to grants of money from the state, then presently men will proceed to act upon Mr. Knight’s precepts; and that will be the end of the “freedom of action” and the “market economy” which he extols.

My second profound disagreement with Professor Knight is this: he invokes the idea of charity to defend his notion of distributive justice, but he seems to have no clear apprehension of what religious charity really is. “Free men,” he says, “stand responsible for the consequences of their choices, not only to themselves and their families but to their fellow men in general. Otherwise social freedom is social nonsense. A free man is his brother’s keeper. The strong are responsible for protecting the weak, and the lucky are obligated to help the unfortunate.”

Now this is very true, according to the dictates of Christianity and most other religions. The question is one of degree and method. But we need to remember that Christianity looks upon poverty as no evil, and inequality as no evil, and obscurity as no evil, and even physical suffering as no evil. These things, in truth, may be positive advantages if we employ them for the improvement of the soul and the inculcation of obedience to God. Thus it is that, to the understanding Christian, charity works for good unto the giver; it is an opportunity for the sacrifice of self in obedience to the ordinances of God. The high merit of true charity is that it is voluntary, a deliberate act of will. If someone snatches our money and gives it to a beggar, we are not being charitable and neither is the thief: it is no virtue to be liberal with someone else’s money.

If our money is taken from us by taxes, that is no credit to our hearts, unless we personally approved those taxes; indeed, such compulsion may harden hearts to the very idea of personal and private charity. And the man who receives a state distribution of money as a right, from an abstract central authority, will not feel gratitude. Why should he? And how could he? We cannot really love abstractions; we can love only particular persons.

I think, then, that Mr. Knight–still with the best intentions in the world–would do us incalculable harm by distorting the Christian idea of charity out of all meaning. We have a way of forgetting, nowadays, what hell is paved with. Mr. Knight would destroy, in the name of charity, the ideal of charity. I am aware that we already employ the agency of the state, as Mr. Knight suggests, to relieve the necessities of the poor in certain respects–in schooling, in medical attention, even in food and clothing. We do so because it is convenient to have a regular and efficient means of supplementing private endeavor and private charity. We think that such supplementary activities, kept within proper limits, are for our common benefit. But here in America we have kept a jealous eye on the extension of these functions, and wisely. We have endeavored to relieve only cases of actual distress, not to afford everyone a largess to secure an indefinable “equality of opportunity.”

In some respects, Dr. Knight seems to have a Hegelian concept of the state, though in other matters he is a Utilitarian (and a curiously old-fashioned one, at that). He talks much and vehemently of “free choice”; but in the realm of moral action, where free choice matters most of all, he would reduce us to servility. His general yearning after freedom of choice is an abstraction so divorced from reality that I really am puzzled to find anyone entertaining it today. It is as idealized and as false a concept of human nature as that held by William Godwin a century and a half ago. It is disintegrated liberalism.

Christian thinkers always have known that man is a creature of mingled good and evil, frequently weak of will, easily misled, and in need of the guidance of good persons. Man does not exist by pure rationality; he is governed, much more commonly, by immediate appetite, and he cannot possibly be expected to perceive even his own remote self-interest. Most of the leading lights of contemporary liberalism are anxious to disavow their old confidence in the automatic wisdom and virtue of the average man when he is divorced from tradition and leadership. I wonder, then, if Mr. Knight really finds it possible to believe what he writes when he insists that “We can hardly argue that taxpayers have a ‘right’ to control the form of aid if the aid itself is deserved.” For the only alternative to having some such control over charitable grants is to let the recipients spend the cash as their immediate impulse dictates. But whatever is eleemosynary tends to be held cheap. The British government, for some years, has made a free distribution of milk to families of school children during the summer vacation. I have seen row upon row of bottles of soured milk standing untouched on doorsteps. If the parents were given a cash grant, would they spend it on something better than milk? Well, that depends on whose betterment one has in mind. A great deal of it, I know, would go to purchase liquids of a different description.

We ought to concern ourselves with flesh-and-blood men and women and their needs, not with idealized abstractions. If the alleged “ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed” third of the American people were made the beneficiaries of a substantial cash grant, how would the money be spent? Upon the education and self-advancement schemes Mr. Knight seems to have in mind? I doubt whether we could expect so much. I am not aware that most rich people employ a cash windfall very prudently, and so I do not expect most poor people to exhibit superior wisdom or control. I have no objection whatever to a man spending his money, within the law, as he chooses–so long as it is his money.

Mr. Knight reduces to absurdity the concept of human nature popularized by the Utilitarians. This, after all, is not hard to do; the experience of the past several generations has given the Benthamites the lie. But I object to Mr. Knight’s endeavor to combine the silliest delusions of the Bleak Age with the most consummate follies of sentimental socialism. However generous of impulse, persons like Professor Knight contribute to the confusion of modern social thought, and to the degradation of the true meaning of words, by confounding charity with political compulsion, and justice with an undefined ideal of redistribution.

And what is the conservative program where the problem of social justice is concerned? Why, to endeavor to insure that there shall be some rational relationship between endeavor and reward. Material values, not to mention moral values, are somewhat confused in a society which tolerates a barbers’ association fixing the price of haircuts at two dollars, but let’s its liberal- arts colleges starve to death and its judges receive the emoluments of janitors. The first step toward recovery of values is to make it clear we are not Marxists, and have no intention of making one hideous equalitarian table-land of modern life. To each man, a just society preserves the things that are his own.


Adams, John. Works. Edited by C. F. Adams, io vols. Boston, 1851.

Burke, Edmund. Works. 8 vols. Bohn, London, 1854-57.

Chalmers, Gordon K. The Republic and the Person. Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1952.

Joad, C. E. M. Decadence. Gollancz, London, 1948.

Mallock, W. H. A Critical Examination of Socialism. London, 1908.

Mallock, W. H. The Limits of Pure Democracy. London, 1919.

Orton, William A. The Economic Role of the State. University of Chicago Press, 1950.

Published with the permission of Annette Kirk. This essay originally appeared in Russell Kirk, “Social Justice and Mass Culture,” The Review of Politics 16 (1954): 438-451, and it may also be found in his Prospects for Conservatives.

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk authored thirty-two books on political theory, the history of ideas, education, cultural criticism, and supernatural tales. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America’s leading thinkers, and The New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 landmark book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.”

'The Christian and Classical Idea of Social Justice' has 1 comment

  1. August 22, 2020 @ 8:58 am Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you for this excellent and helpful article. I rarely finish reading an article this long; but I finished this one.


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