There is a rather quaint way of describing the modern maldistribution of the world’s goods between haves and have-nots. The fact that some people live in want while others live comfortably—that some go to bed hungry while others risk obesity—is summed up in this term: the socialquestion.
Although poverty itself is nothing new, the conditions exacerbating the social question in the nineteenth century were indeed unprecedented, in that they stemmed in large measure from the dislocations generated by the industrial revolution. Although socialists were generally in the forefront of efforts to combat poverty, they were by no means the only people to recognize that, in the context of an industrializing economy, the plight of the new working class must be attended to in some fashion. Conservatives, too, were suspicious of a development uprooting people from their homelands and traditions and sending them off to the faceless cities to seek employment in the new factories.
The litany of abuses engendered by the factory system is by now familiar to any adequately-informed person: excessively lengthy working hours, low wages, dangerous conditions, and the use of child labour. All of these were apparently the direct result of the normal functioning of the laws of supply and demand. Where there was a glut of potential labourers, they tended to drive down wages to subsistence level. Where jobs were fewer than those willing to fill them, the latter were disempowered relative to their prospective employers, who could set their own terms.
It was out of this situation that labour unions arose as a means of empowering workers and counterbalancing the power of capital in the job market. Efforts to empower the poor, whether the traditional rural poor all but ignored by Marxists or the new industrial poor populating the teeming cities of Europe and the United States, were grouped under the broad rubric of seeking social justice. What does this mean?
Justice itself is an ancient concept with roots in both the biblical and Greco-Roman traditions, implying a rebalancing of the scales to give people what they deserve. When Thomas steals a pig from Edward, the law intervenes to punish Thomas and return the pig to Edward. In other words, the justice system is brought to bear to rectify a manifest injustice.
But what if nothing obviously illegal has occurred yet a whole class of people, through no fault of their own, find themselves without adequate means to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their families? If they further find virtually all their waking hours occupied by back-breaking labour with little time left over for pursuing other activities, including the cultivation of family and communal life, then something is obviously amiss. More than this, a massive injustice is being perpetrated. The quest for social justice was intended by its proponents to remedy this systemic form of injustice.
Over the past century or so, the notion of social justice has been all but monopolized by socialists and late liberals. (By contrast, classical liberals—sometimes masquerading as conservatives—eschew the entire concept.) Socialists have usually offered as solution some variation on the theme of collective ownership of property coupled with an abolition of classes. Since private property is held to be at the root of economic disparities, they have tended to argue that it should be held in common to the greatest extent possible. While there is logically more than one possible meaning of this commonness, it has tended to translate into some form of government ownership. Late liberals generally do not go this far, stopping at heavy regulation of large private enterprises.
Along with attempts at collectivizing or regulating ownership comes a concomitant establishment of a welfare state, including any number of social programs aimed at cushioning those harmed by the vicissitudes of an impersonal market. Libertarians have generally been alarmed by these developments, but they have offered little in the way of policies that would rectify the potential excesses of statism other than to reaffirm the free market and consumer sovereignty—the single-minded promotion of which led to the earlier abuses in the first place!
Must the pursuit of social justice be tethered to statist solutions? Not necessarily. This is where I believe neocalvinism has much to offer as an alternative. To be sure, recognizing that there are systemic causes to the social question undoubtedly entails a strong government willing and able to intervene on behalf of the poor. Provided they are fine-tuned so as not inadvertently to subsidize personal irresponsibility, the programs of the welfare state have a legitimate role to play as a social safety net shielding citizens from the worst of the market’s deficiencies. Returning to the era of unfettered markets, the night-watchman state, and no labour unions would be a historically regressive move to say the least.
At the same time, the notion that government can solve the social question outright is misguided. There is a certain persuasiveness to the libertarian argument that social responsibility is a misnomer because society as such is not a responsible agent. Indeed, policies aimed at ameliorating poverty should recognize the pluriformity of society, including the multiplicity of responsible agents therein. The full complexity of society cannot be reduced to state and market, as if these were the only two factors to be accounted for. Much of the current debate pits political parties that would strengthen the state at the expense of the market in opposition to parties that would enhance the market at the state’s expense. What is missing on both sides is an acknowledgment that a healthy society consists of much more than these two constituent elements.
A government with a genuine desire to seek social justice must pursue a variety of strategies, while recognizing that its ability to act directly is limited. To begin with, in those countries characterized by the most egregious maldistribution of productive property, some form of basic redistribution, such as land reform, will have to be considered. However, in most Western countries possessing a substantial middle class, the strategy of choice would likely be different and would entail at least two components. One of these would indeed be to maintain and perhaps even to strengthen the social safety net that is part of the commons, that is, the shared legacy belonging to all citizens of the political community. At what level should this be maintained? The answer cannot be determined a priori but must be subject to the deliberative process that is part and parcel of ordinary politics.
The best approach would develop ways in which government and nongovernmental communities can cooperate in ameliorating and, where possible, preventing poverty.
This brings us to the second component, which is to strengthen nonstate institutions. Because North Americans are so influenced by liberal individualism, they tend to view institutions as potentially oppressive and restrictive of freedom. In so far as we value communities at all, we prefer to see them as voluntary associations. For example, the legal trend over the past four decades has been to reduce marriage to a mere private contract revocable at the discretion of the partners. That the courts have accelerated this tendency over the past year should not unduly surprise us.
An understanding of the importance of institutions is one of the genuine contributions that neocalvinism, with its recognition of societal pluriformity, has to offer. For example, any effort to ameliorate child poverty that focuses solely on raising the level of state expenditures but ignores the financial impact of no-fault divorce laws on children will inevitably be addressing only part of the problem. In this case, seeking social justice will move us in the direction of legally strengthening marriage and family, even if it goes against the grain of an individualistic society. If it is true, as the evidence suggests, that poverty is more likely to afflict a single-parent family than an intact family, then making divorce easier to obtain would seem to be counterproductive and, more to the point, unjust.
Even here, however, the public policy process cannot exhaust the quest for social justice. Addressing the social question requires initiative proceeding from a variety of sources, including churches, charities, labour unions, businesses and chambers of commerce, political action organizations, farmers’ co-operatives, private social support agencies, and so forth. Where government chooses to involve itself, it best does so by cooperating with these pre-existing efforts rather than by pre-empting them and pushing them aside.
Finally, when government does collaborate with such organizations, it must do so equitably by not discriminating against those with an overt faith basis. This is the point of the so-called charitable choice provision in the 1996 welfare reform law in the United States.
Whereas both socialist/late liberal statism and the vaunted market solutions of libertarians may lend themselves to catchy slogans intended to resonate with the voting public, neocalvinism may well have the long-term advantage in so far as it takes seriously the complex, differentiated character of society. Any effort to help the poor that fails to recognize this is certain to fall short.