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Social Justice and the Spirit of Association

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Alexis_de_tocqueville_croppedWhat is social justice? Is it a vision of a perfectly just society? Is it an ideal set of government policies? Is it a particular theory or practice? Is it a virtue? A religious concept? A social arrangement?

In a lecture at Acton University on his forthcoming book, Social Justice: What It Is, What It Isn’t, Michael Novak sought to answer some these questions with a particular framework around intermediary institutions.

Offering a broad survey of the term’s origins, history, and modern use and application, Novak countered modern misconceptions of social justice (e.g. as another word for equality), and sought to outline a definition that’s (1) connected to the original understanding, (2) ideologically neutral, and (3) applicable to current circumstances.

Leaning first on Pope Leo XIII for an original understanding, he proceeded to channel Alexis de Tocqueville, describing social justice in terms of our activity in basic, day-to-day associations. This begins with religion, of course, which “dominates our hearts,” he said, without the support of the state, and in turn, transforms our orientations and imaginations toward citizens, institutions, and law. With this as the basic order of things, social justice begins when the individual rightly understands his relation to God, and proceeds to engage with civilization accordingly.

“Social justice is a virtue that adheres in persons,” he said. “But it is a social habit, a form of associations and choosing to work through those associations…for the common good.” And it is social in two senses: first, in the formation of the association itself, and next, in the social aims of the association once formed (e.g. to improve the flourishing of the village, society, or civilization). “That’s the power of intermediary associations,” he said later. “They can build an entire society.”

That’s the basic argument, and I look forward to hearing more when the book is released. In the meantime, it may be worth digesting a bit more of Tocqueville’s original take on this in Democracy in America, in which he gets a bit closer to the systemic or structural conditions for this type of activity to prosper:

When certain associations are forbidden and others allowed, it is difficult in advance to distinguish the first from the second. In case of doubt, you refrain from all, and a sort of public opinion becomes established that tends to make you consider any association like a daring and almost illicit enterprise.

So it is a chimera to believe that the spirit of association, repressed at one point, will allow itself to develop with the same vigor at all the others, and that it will be enough to permit men to carry out certain enterprises together, for them to hurry to try it. When citizens have the ability and the habit of associating for all things, they will associate as readily for small ones as for great ones. But if they can associate only for small ones, they will not even find the desire and the capacity to do so. In vain will you allow them complete liberty to take charge of their business together; they will only nonchalantly use the rights that you grant them; and after you have exhausted yourself with efforts to turn them away from the forbidden associations, you will be surprised at your inability to persuade them to form the permitted ones.

I am not saying that there can be no civil associations in a country where political association is forbidden; for men can never live in society without giving themselves to some common enterprise. But I maintain that in such a country civil associations will always be very few in number, weakly conceived, ineptly led, and that they will never embrace vast designs, or will fail while wanting to carry them out.

This leads me naturally to think that liberty of association in political matters is not as dangerous for public tranquillity as is supposed, and that it could happen that after disturbing the State for a time, liberty of association strengthens it.

In democratic countries, political associations form, so to speak, the only powerful individuals who aspire to rule the State. Consequently the governments [v. princes] of today consider these types of associations in the same way that the kings of the Middle Ages saw the great vassals of the crown: they feel a kind of instinctive horror for them and combat them at every occasion.

If this is the basic approach, and the corresponding activity is what Tocqueville actually observed in America before the term “social justice” was ever en vogue, we may be tempted to see this as an old and tired framework. Yet in the grand scope of human history, it represents a rather remarkable shift (no matter what we decide to call it).

As Novak put it, prior to the American founding, the moral duties of most citizens were rather limited by outside forces, and wer thus rather simple: “pray, pay, and obey.” Only once the American experiment began to pick up steam did we see these types of associations manifest as part of a deeper and more organic cultural and political ethos.

Taking this into account, “fighting for social justice!” will often involve tasks more mundane than we typically imagine. It will involve initiative, innovation, creativity, obedience, and faithfulness, to be sure. But once we recognize the transcendent and moral/ethical value of those intermediary associations between the individual and the State (investing ourselves accordingly), will society begin to rightly relate.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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