Ryan Messmore on Social Justice

Social justice, Ryan Messmore at First Things argues, is too much about government distribution. So he draws on Jesuit Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio:

His vision of social justice, then, emphasized freedom and respect for human beings and the small institutions through which they pursue basic needs. He held that true justice can’t be achieved without doing justice to our social nature and natural forms of association. Social justice entailed a social order in which government doesn’t overrun or crowd out institutions of civil society such as family, church and local organizations. Rather, they are respected, protected, and allowed to flourish.

Today, well-meaning policy makers and activists often do just the opposite as they try to overcome social challenges. Rather than viewing society as a network of smaller associations and communities, they mistakenly equate society with the state, centering its identity upon civic government.

As a result, these policy makers and activists conceive justice in terms of how much government directly addresses the needs of individuals. They too often bypass the web of intermediary institutions or deem those institutions irrelevant—or detrimental—in addressing and solving large social problems.

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  • I admit that I don’t know much about Jesuit Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio (he apparently coined the term “social justice”) nor the Italian post-industrial revolution setting that he operated under, but a government “by the people,” as we have here in the US, suggests that the people are in a place to demand that government address the needs of individuals. The government’s role, however, is not at the exclusion of those smaller associations and communities to which you refer, but make their role easier.

    Many of us who work in inner cities know that even if the government provides help to people in the form of some specific program, or benefit, the needs of some people are so great that just getting access to those programs and benefits (or maximizing their effectiveness) will still require the help of families, churches and other organizations. It really does take a village…

  • Excellent post. I wholeheartedly agree and appreciate the winsomeness of his words.

  • Jim L.

    I agree that many problems can be addressed on the local level and should be where applicable. But some issues require a larger pool of resources and organization than smaller local communities of faith or civil institutions can muster. The years between 1928 and 1932 proved that.

  • Phil Atley

    For Jim L. Actually, it’s not clear that the years between 1928 and 1932 proved what you say they proved. The jury is still out, but Amity Schlaes, in her book, The Forgotten Man, and several other economic historians believe that too much intervention, already under the technocrat Hoover and then ramped up under Roosevelt’s brain trust, both made things worse and prolonged the agony. There’s spin at work in conventional historiomythography just as spin is at work in contemporary news reporting. We ought to have the critical spirit to reexamine hoary conventional explanations about what happened and what it proves.

  • Andy S.

    While there can often be too much buzz over what the government can do – at the expense of emphasizing localized action – Messmore seems to be putting up a bit of a straw man here in my opinion. Many social justice activists with whom I am familiar have not rejected or marginalized the role of local communities in resolving injustice at all. Most of them are highly involved in these local efforts. They merely see government as an institution constituted by the authority of “the people”, as Dennis has pointed out, and which is alone capable of resolving some of the more massive inequalities which smaller groups just can’t do. As the Scriptures seem to strongly indicate, justice requires work from top to bottom within a society, from the government down to the inner city streets and familial relations.

  • dopderbeck

    Hmm.. so social justice just happens to coincide with neoconservative political theory. Who knew!

  • Scot McKnight

    Isn’t Messmore using the RCC theory of susidiarity?

  • Jim L.

    I would suggest that the spin is the more recent conservative spin concerning those years. My info is from books that date far before the present debates and the eye witness reports of my family that lived throughout that time period.

  • Jason Lee

    Luigi should tell that to the hungry two year old in inner-city Detroit that falls through the cracks of the sparse network of Christian ministries that have a social justice bone in their body.

  • CJW

    Interestingly he sets up state and society as exclusive; one might just as reasonably see public policy as a social issue.

    In the same way that some leftists uncritically assume the benevolence and ability of the state to solve problems, some rightists make the same mistake, simply substituting “market” for “state”.

    And Catholic Social teaching emphasise subsidiarity and solidarity, but I doubt the Heritage Foundation recognises this.

  • Susan N.

    @Andy – #5: Yes, and Amen! You have expressed my heart on the matter precisely. Certain societal conditions demand a larger solution than what church ministries and individual Christian charity can provide. But, if more churches and individual Christians got actively involved in some way at the local level, to support those in need–spiritually and physically–the recipients of gov’t social program benefits might actually have the courage and see a path out of the cycle of poverty. I’m thinking of mentoring programs (adult literacy, unwed teen mothers, children without fathers, adopting a grandparent in a nursing home, etc.) If we as Christians would be “in the world” in this way, maybe the help which our gov’t gives would be a more temporary thing, as opposed to becoming a lifestyle of dependency? I appreciate these discussions (social justice & entitlements); this is a big deal to me in my life of faith.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    If my memory serves me correctly, there was much more locally based social service until Reagan and co. eliminated revenue sharing and switched to block grants in the 1980s.

    I wonder about the role of sin here. We know that there is sin that twists the efforts of the state to provide services for the poor on a large scale. But does Ryan M. consider that many of those same forces do and always will twist non-state efforts at the local level? The scale may be different, but the sins remain, while the services are dispersed.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#7) — yes, but in Catholic Social Teaching (CST) subsidiarity is located within a much broader framework. I think some First-Things-type neocons — both Catholic and Evangelical — misappropriate subsidiarity and make it into little more than a particular version of American libertarian constitutionalism.

    As Benedict said in Caritas in Veritate, “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine.” In my view, the religious neocons sometimes elevate “subsidiarity” over “charity.”

    Reading Caritas in Veritate, it’s striking how little is said about subsidiarity, and how much is said about the role of government and law in directing markets towards just ends. For example:

    Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift.

    Neither CST nor any other legitimate form of Christian social teaching is libertarian.

  • Phil Atley

    Jim L. So my authors spin but yours don’t? How’s about we debate the merits of either side? Any time someone presents a thesis or explanatory model for what heppened in history, of course it represents his take on the matter. But that cuts both ways.

    So just what is it about the Amity Schlaes thesis is it that you find unpersuasive? Have you read it?

  • Jim L.

    What I would find unpersersuasive is the assertion / allusions that the Hoover adminstration did not mainly rely on the market and commerce fixing itself and relying on charities and local services to provide the much needed relief. The economy did not fix itself nor could local charties or service keep up with the need. One of many sources the National Experience 1963 and my grandparents and parents all who were adults at the time who could see what was happening, read about what was happening and feel what was happening.