Tony D. Senatore
"I'm the spokesman for the OK Boomer generation

Review: Is Social Justice Just?

In my home state of New Jersey, I have noticed a significant increase in billboards advertising the services of prominent personal injury law firms and their proven track record of providing justice to aggrieved parties. Although the names of the law firms differ, “justice” is the commonality between them and is featured prominently in every advertisement. One of my best friends is a personal injury attorney, and if I were ever severely injured due to negligence, I would want someone as tenacious and knowledgeable as him to represent me.

 In the case of traditional justice, there is no better depiction than the opening scene of The Godfather when Bonasera asks Don Corleone for help when his daughter is raped and beaten by her boyfriend. Bonasera wants Don Corleone to murder the man, but Corleone refuses, citing that the woman is still alive. Thus, the punishment will be in accordance with the crime; nothing more and nothing less. I recently learned that another friend, American political theorist and intellectual historian Dr. Paul Gottfried, has used this example.

In an email conversation, Dr. Gottfried told me that in his course on medieval history, he offered this scene as an example of feudal obligation in which “the vassal promises obedience, loyalty, and auxilium in return for which the lord offers protection… the assignment of the land (the fief) came later in the evolution of the feudal relationship.” This exchange of obligations was a just agreement for Gottfried, and he “could not imagine a more equitable one.” This scenario differs from the modern-day conception of social justice and societal change via social engineering experiments. Friedrich Hayek once said that the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they know about what they imagine they can design. Although he was not talking about social justice, I believe the quote can be used to describe it.

I asked my lawyer friend what he thought about America’s obsession with social justice. He said he was a supporter, and sometimes it is necessary to tip the scales to balance them. He asked me to define social justice, which seems complicated to many but not to me. I said that in trying to bring about a more just world, striving for equality of opportunity, was a preferable goal to equality of outcome, which is in vogue today. I argued that America was on a specific course since 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his famous Social Justice Through Social Action radio address. The eradication of poverty through governmental measures was a plan accepted by many of the citizens of the United States but also the Protestant and Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues. President Lyndon Johnson added the Civil Rights Act of 1964, affirmative action, and Great Society programs to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the idea of social justice has changed, and new policies based on equity rather than equality have taken center stage.

I wanted to learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of social justice. Through a random internet search, I found a book called Is Social Justice Just? , which was edited by Robert M. Whaples, Michael C. Munger, and Christopher J. Coyne. In this book, twenty-one academics seek to do justice to “social justice.” These academics prefer free markets, limited government, the traditional, biblical conception of justice as contained in the Bible, codified in Roman law, elucidated in the daily working of the courts of English and American common law, and expanded upon by philosophers and economists ranging from Aristotle to Plato and Kant, Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith. In addition to the nineteen essays, the book contains a foreword by Jordan Peterson and a preface by philosopher Nicholas Rescher. The book is divided into two parts, “How to Do (Social) Justice Wrong” and “How to Do (Social) Justice Right.” The latter has two divisions, Use the Insights of Philosophers and Theologians” and “Let People Build a Just Society on Their Own- and Reform Flawed Public Policies.” Whaples’ Introduction does a fantastic job of distilling the somewhat unwieldy essays into their most salient points. His personal essay addresses the pernicious effects of racism, utilizing Ibram Kendi’s (2019) How to Be an Anti-racist as a jumping-off point for his own ideas. Racism and whether we have done enough to rectify the damage or need to do more continue to be a matter of ongoing and contentious debate. Lest we forget, for some in America, justice was once administered by being falsely accused of a crime, pulled from jail without a trial, and lynched from a tree. It is not a book for the general reader, and a background in Austrian economics and philosophy is recommended.

On the other hand, that should not prevent the general reader from abstaining from the wealth of knowledge in this book and the chance to understand what we once were and what we are becoming as a nation. The book eschews politics and generalizations about specific politicians and political parties, and it is relevant to everyone, regardless of geographic location.

The book lays bare the fact that when comparing and contrasting the traditional and modern theories of justice, there is a fundamental difference in how each theory views freedom. The traditional theory is based on the Aristotelian idea of lex taliones, or “do unto others the wrong they have done unto you.” The new theory focuses on equality. Equality, primarily enforced equality, is not always beneficial and can cause harm, for creating equality via governmental regulations is a zero-sum game; you must injure some to benefit others. A strong conception of the individual is the focus of the traditional theory. This theory exemplifies the authors’ ideas on doing social justice right. Free will is based on the idea that individuals are responsible for their actions. If they wrong others, they should be punished and praised when they do good. The modern social justice theory, or doing social justice wrong, minimizes the role of free will, individual responsibility, and action and maximizes the role of government intervention. Traditional concepts of guilt and innocence, reward and punishment, and praise and blame are summarily rejected. Justice is identified with fairness. Pascal Salin wisely asserts that no matter how we conceptualize social justice, it is an ethical concept. Modern-day social justice advocates assert that ethics is no longer an affair of individuals but of society. In this Rawlsian view of social justice, the basic structure of society is the primary focus of ethics. Thus, ethics, as the study of what is right and just, has deviated from personal responsibility to the biological, psychological, sociological, and historical forces that influence individual behavior. Choosing one from many examples of this idea, it is a mistake to blame the criminal when studying crime. Instead, we must understand and remedy the social circumstances that have made him what he is.

The ideas of Austrian School economist Friedrich Hayek, especially as exemplified in his book The Mirage of Social Justice, are frequently cited with ebullient praise. Haeffele and Storr argue that Hayek would view social justice- defined as “redistribution to remedy economic injustices- as incompatible with a free society (specifically the institutions of the market and a limited government that enforces the rules of just conduct) and that social justice has no real meaning in a free society and advancing reforms based on social justice will undermine a free society and the progress that has come with it.” Moreover, “if the concern is that elites have gained and maintained their socioeconomic power through altering the rules of the game and choosing referees, then relying on the government to remedy social injustice is an untenable option.” Whaples asserts that the problem of crony capitalism is “endemic,” and that “cronyism is a by-product of big government so shrinking government is necessary to root it out.” 

Unlike many of the authors in this book, I am not letting the government get off so quickly. Despite my love for the Old Right and Murray Rothbard, I have no Rothbardian fantasies about how much better we would be without the State. Although this book promotes the typical “government is the problem, not the solution” scenario, transnational corporations continue to rely upon federal support, subsidies, protections, and loans to ensure the success of their ventures, and that will never change. Governmental duties such as social welfare are secondary to appeasing corporations. Despite all the references to the dangers of socialism, corporate welfare has existed for a long time, and market principles seem to only apply to the working class. I find this unacceptable. Haeffele and Storr rightly conclude that if social justice is a Hayekian mirage, why are some players favored by those claiming to be neutral referees over others? Milton Friedman (sadly underrepresented, and whose quote about government does not appear in this book) offers my idea of the proper function of government with his view that “the free man will neither ask what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country… he will ask rather, what can I and my compatriots do through government to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom.” Friedman believed that while the government is necessary to preserve freedom by enforcing private contracts, preserving law and order, fostering competitive markets, and protecting from enemies at home and abroad, we must always be aware that concentrating power in political hands is the greatest threat to freedom.

In the final analysis, is social justice just? Whaples asserts that it “must stand on legitimate principles- principles that recognize each person as unique, unrepeatable, worthy of dignity and endowed with the ability and right to direct his or her own life without harming others, while also noble enough care deeply for the well being of others.” In thinking about social justice through a Marxian/ reductionist line of thinking, another question is who benefits from all this, and how will it play out? I believe the answer is organizations like BLM, corporations like Nike, and individuals like Kendi and Robin Di Angelo, and not the groups they claim to care about. In the last essay, Whaples engages with Ibram Kendi’s understanding of social justice, which is steeped in equity, and the idea that every group should be proportionately represented in every endeavor. According to Kendi, if Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and whites are not equally represented in all endeavors of society, racism is the explanation.

Moreover, Kendi asserts that racism and capitalism are the “conjoined twins” that prevent all groups from being on equal footing. Whaples points out that this is not only an oversimplification but a recipe for recreating the socialist/communist disasters of the past. Kendi is not alone in his disdain for capitalism.

In the words of BLM co-founder Alicia Garza, “It is not possible for a world to exist where black lives matter if it is under capitalism, and it is not possible to abolish capitalism without a national struggle against oppression.” I can say with absolute authority that a “restoration of Aristotelian and Thomistic anthropology” and the “intersection of Catholicism, citizenship, and capitalism” as the basis of modern-day social justice” is not something that Kendi and Garza and the new garde of social justice are interested in, and I say this from personal experience. Recently, one of my music business industry peers said that the silver lining in this social justice debate is that soon, all the “old white guys” that cling to these ideas on free markets and liberty and “older ways of thinking” will soon be dead. In the 1960s, an alliance between the SDS, the Black Panthers, mainstream media, and corporate America would have been unimaginable. Yet, today, this alliance of the media, corporations, and activists is precisely what is happening, and the symbiotic relationship is unsettling. All of this should be setting off alarm bells in the minds of Americans everywhere as to what is going on and what is at stake. Modern-day social justice, supported by mainstream media and corporate America, rejects every idea and concept the authors hold sacred and depicts anyone that disagrees as uncompassionate, irredeemable deplorables that must be silenced, sanctioned, and de-platformed. Modern-day social justice rejects time-tested ideas of Western Civilization. It seeks to replace them with ideas that Whaples believes “have a very bleak track record in terms of both economic prosperity and the kinds of freedoms that antiracists clearly espouse.”. The prescient words of Milton Friedman have never been more important: “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

In God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley argued that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world… {and} the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” In summing up my feelings after reading this book, I can be every bit as Manichean and pithy as Jordan Peterson, Ibram Kendi, and Buckley. The traditional and modern-day theories of social justice are incompatible; we must choose between them, and I will draw my line in the sand and choose the traditional theory. While some of the people that Jordan Peterson refers to in the foreword as “narcissists of compassion” have the desire to improve lives without destroying Western Civilization, the end goal of many others is revolutionary social and political change. While the idea of a more just world is noble, anyone who prizes liberty, whether conservatives, libertarians, or classical liberals,  must never lose sight of Buckley’s warning against the battle against atheist communism. I would recommend Is Social Justice Just and its Aristotelian blueprint for eudaimonia as the definitive treatise on embarking on social justice in the best way possible. It belongs in the class syllabus of universities around the world.



About the Author
I was a sociology major at Columbia University, where i received my B.A in 2017, at age 55. My opinion pieces have appeared in the Columbia Spectator, the Tab at Columbia University, and Merion West.
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