That Awful Word 'Social'


I was having lunch with a liberal, i.e, a left-leaning friend lately, who at some point disparaged Republicans for their lack of commitment to “social justice.”

“Exactly what,” I asked, “does the adjective ‘social’ add to the substantive ‘justice'?”

There was a slight pause in the proceedings as he pronged a moody forkful. Very few of the people he dines with, I reckon, ask such impertinent questions. He proceeded manfully, though. “Lessening inequality,” he said, “it means lessening inequality.”

Well, he gets an A, or at least a B+, for effort, though I do not think he convinced even himself. One of these days, I intend to write a defense of inequality. “Take but degree away,” quote Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, "untune that string, and hark what discord follows.” But that is a tune for another day. For now, I want to stick with the word “social.” It’s not only leftists who abuse it, inflating words like “justice” with the gassy soporific of rhetorical sentimentality. Conservatives do the same thing, as witness the term “social conservative.”

I read the PJ Media pieces by my friends Roger Simon and Bryan Preston. So let me weigh in with a few thoughts now. “Should conservatives accept a truce on social issues?” That is one way of putting the question. As most PJM readers know, this particular formulation of the question comes to us from Governor Mitch Daniels, who back in 2010 suggested that “[the next president] would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.” Why? Because the new Red Menace of incontinent federal spending and paralyzing levels of debt constituted a national emergency that took priority over everything else.

Mitch Daniels was sharply upbraided by some conservatives for that remark, just as he was applauded by libertarians and other “fiscal conservatives” who are nervous about how well moral issues play at the polls.

I’m not sure, frankly, whether either side really did justice to what Mitch Daniels was getting at.  Since making that remark in an interview, he has returned to the subject a few times. At CPAC a year or so back he said that “it is up to us” — “us” meaning “us conservatives” — "it is up to us," [he said] "to show... the best way back to greatness, and to argue for it with all the passion of our patriotism. But, should the best way be blocked, while the enemy draws nearer, then someone will need to find the second best way. Or the third, because the nation’s survival requires it. Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers. King Pyrrhus is remembered, but his nation disappeared. Winston Churchill set aside his lifetime loathing of Communism in order to fight World War II."

Now, that strikes me as wise counsel, about which I discern the spirit of prudence, not capitulation. Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus: let there be justice, though the world perish, is not, I think, a motto any real conservative would willingly embrace. After all, you’re not much of a conservative if you failed to conserve.