What Is 'Social Justice' Anyway?

During the recent Jewish holidays I heard one rabbi after another speak of “social justice.” Uttered with remarkable sincerity, this expression and its meaning elude me. I recognize justice as the adjudication of competing positions in a court of law and in accordance with the Constitution and its precedents. But what is social justice?

I’m not naïve. From Sharpton to Wright, social justice has come to mean redressing the wrongs of the past in the form of government benefits or reparations. The expression has a hint of retribution as in “you owe us.” In actuality, the words haven’t any real meaning. There are always those who grieve, and as long as the government attempts to satisfy those with a gripe, the plaintive cry for social justice will have irresistible appeal.

Justice is rarely social unless, of course, it is categorical as was the case with the Holocaust. In most instances justice is personal, e.g., seeking retribution for a contractual violation. Even if one were to attempt to redress the evil of slavery, how would one do so? Not every black person in the United States is a child of slavery. Moreover, people do not live in slavery -- here at any rate -- and race is not a barrier to success as President Obama and a host of corporate leaders demonstrate.

That the expression lives leads to confusion and discontent. There are principles on which the nation rests such as the rule of law, respect for private property, free expression, and individual rights. But social justice is not among them, albeit its radical antecedent ensures its place in the contemporary protest movement.

For many, social justice is a form of egalitarianism. Why, it is sometimes asked, should a few have so much and the many so little? This is the fairness gambit. Overlooked by acolytes of this position is that individualism on which this nation has put a premium is often at odds with economic equality. If people are free to pursue their goals, some are likely to be more successful than others.