To overcome structural injustice, increase order and individual freedom
Acton Institute Powerblog

To overcome structural injustice, increase order and individual freedom

Note: This article is part of the ‘Principles Project,’ a list of principles, axioms, and beliefs that undergird a Christian view of economics, liberty, and virtue. Click here to read the introduction and other posts in this series.

The Principle: #30 — The most effective way to compensate for structural injustice is to increase order and individual freedom.

The Definitions:

Human flourishing – A holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to our nature as made in the image of God. (Source 1; Source 2)

Structural injustice — When outside forces—whether political, economic, cultural, etc.—unjustly limit a person’s opportunities to enact morally legitimate plans that are available to other members of society.

The Explanation: 

Almost all Christians—as do most other Americans—agree that structural injustices still exist and that they must be opposed. Where we tend to disagree is about what forms of structural injustice are most pervasive in our current era and how they should be corrected.

We tend to think of structural injustices as macro-level phenomena (such as racism) that affect the actions, practices, beliefs, and laws of a large region (such as the Jim Crow laws that that codified racial segregation and discrimination). That has historically been the case in America. But today, structural injustices are usually created on the micro-level and affect a smaller area. Take, for example, the issue of poverty. Currently, the two factors most likely to create structural boundaries that keep a child in poverty are their parents and their local community.

For almost four decades, social science research has shown there is a strong connection between the experiences of early childhood and socio-economic success in adulthood. Non-cognitive “soft” skills—qualities like impulse control, resilience, and “grit”—are now considered vital to ensuring a child has the education and character development necessary to succeed in life. Parents failure to instill these virtues in their children is the primary impediment to escaping poverty.

Some people hear such claims and decry them as “blaming the victim.” The parents don’t instill such virtues, they say, because they weren’t taught such virtues themselves. No doubt this is true. But it was also true that the structural injustices of racism were passed down from parent to child in the Jim Crow era. What matters is not so much who gets the blame but how we fix the problem—and in almost every situation structural injustices are overcome by decreasing the levels of disorder and increasing the levels of individual freedom.

For example, there are hundreds of thousands of children in America who could escape poverty if only their parents were allowed to choose the school they attend. While there are some excellent public schools in America, many students are trapped in schools with inadequate facilities, substandard curriculum, and incompetent teachers. Many parents, however, cannot afford to pay for education twice—once in taxes and again in private school tuition. School choice programs empower parents by letting them use public funds set aside for education on programs that will best serve their children. The result is that by increasing the freedom we reduce one of the most pernicious forms of structural inequality.

Admittedly, it’s still an open question whether every form of structural injustice can be overcome by increasing order and individual freedom. But both experience and common sense show it’s an option worth trying. When we increase a person’s ability to achieve their personal goals (through increased order) and allow them the freedom to pursue moral aims (through increased order) we make it exponentially more difficult for structural injustices to be a barrier to human flourishing.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).