Saturday, March 20, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice: Part IV: Social Justice in the Neo-Calvinist Approach

We continue this series of posts on social justice by examining the thinking of a Neocalvinist political scientist, David Koyzis in a post called "Neocalvinism and Social Justice" at the Cardus website. He sketches the background against which the concept of social justice arose.
"There is a rather quaint way of describing the modern maldistribution of the world's goods between haves and have-nots. The fact that some people live in want while others live comfortably—that some go to bed hungry while others risk obesity—is summed up in this term: the socialquestion.

Although poverty itself is nothing new, the conditions exacerbating the social question in the nineteenth century were indeed unprecedented, in that they stemmed in large measure from the dislocations generated by the industrial revolution. Although socialists were generally in the forefront of efforts to combat poverty, they were by no means the only people to recognize that, in the context of an industrializing economy, the plight of the new working class must be attended to in some fashion. Conservatives, too, were suspicious of a development uprooting people from their homelands and traditions and sending them off to the faceless cities to seek employment in the new factories.

The litany of abuses engendered by the factory system is by now familiar to any adequately-informed person: excessively lengthy working hours, low wages, dangerous conditions, and the use of child labour. All of these were apparently the direct result of the normal functioning of the laws of supply and demand. Where there was a glut of potential labourers, they tended to drive down wages to subsistence level. Where jobs were fewer than those willing to fill them, the latter were disempowered relative to their prospective employers, who could set their own terms.

It was out of this situation that labour unions arose as a means of empowering workers and counterbalancing the power of capital in the job market. Efforts to empower the poor, whether the traditional rural poor all but ignored by Marxists or the new industrial poor populating the teeming cities of Europe and the United States, were grouped under the broad rubric of seeking social justice."

This was the background against which modern social doctrine began in the Roman Catholic Church, with the great encyclical: "Rerum Novarum" issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 15, 1891. The 19th century was the age of the Industrial Revolution and it was also the age of the birth and growth of Marxism. The Roman Catholic Church offered an alternative to socialism in its social doctrine. Liberal Protestantism's social gospel movement basically took socialism on board as its ideology. But in the Netherlands, the 19th century Dutch Calvinists led by Abraham Kuyper and others tried to forge a specifically Calvinist way that was neither socialist or Catholic. Koyzis speaks out of that tradition. So how does the Neocalvinist tradition answer the question of "what is social justice?"

"Justice itself is an ancient concept with roots in both the biblical and Greco-Roman traditions, implying a rebalancing of the scales to give people what they deserve. When Thomas steals a pig from Edward, the law intervenes to punish Thomas and return the pig to Edward. In other words, the justice system is brought to bear to rectify a manifest injustice.

But what if nothing obviously illegal has occurred yet a whole class of people, through no fault of their own, find themselves without adequate means to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their families? If they further find virtually all their waking hours occupied by back-breaking labour with little time left over for pursuing other activities, including the cultivation of family and communal life, then something is obviously amiss. More than this, a massive injustice is being perpetrated. The quest for social justice was intended by its proponents to remedy this systemic form of injustice.

Over the past century or so, the notion of social justice has been all but monopolized by socialists and late liberals. (By contrast, classical liberals—sometimes masquerading as conservatives—eschew the entire concept.) Socialists have usually offered as solution some variation on the theme of collective ownership of property coupled with an abolition of classes. Since private property is held to be at the root of economic disparities, they have tended to argue that it should be held in common to the greatest extent possible. While there is logically more than one possible meaning of this commonness, it has tended to translate into some form of government ownership. Late liberals generally do not go this far, stopping at heavy regulation of large private enterprises.

Along with attempts at collectivizing or regulating ownership comes a concomitant establishment of a welfare state, including any number of social programs aimed at cushioning those harmed by the vicissitudes of an impersonal market. Libertarians have generally been alarmed by these developments, but they have offered little in the way of policies that would rectify the potential excesses of statism other than to reaffirm the free market and consumer sovereignty—the single-minded promotion of which led to the earlier abuses in the first place!"

So Kayzis says that systemic injustice is recognized but capitalist/libertarian solutions are rejected. What then does Neocalvinism propose be done?

"Must the pursuit of social justice be tethered to statist solutions? Not necessarily. This is where I believe neocalvinism has much to offer as an alternative. To be sure, recognizing that there are systemic causes to the social question undoubtedly entails a strong government willing and able to intervene on behalf of the poor. Provided they are fine-tuned so as not inadvertently to subsidize personal irresponsibility, the programs of the welfare state have a legitimate role to play as a social safety net shielding citizens from the worst of the market's deficiencies. Returning to the era of unfettered markets, the night-watchman state, and no labour unions would be a historically regressive move to say the least.

At the same time, the notion that government can solve the social question outright is misguided. There is a certain persuasiveness to the libertarian argument that social responsibility is a misnomer because society as such is not a responsible agent. Indeed, policies aimed at ameliorating poverty should recognize the pluriformity of society, including the multiplicity of responsible agents therein. The full complexity of society cannot be reduced to state and market, as if these were the only two factors to be accounted for. Much of the current debate pits political parties that would strengthen the state at the expense of the market in opposition to parties that would enhance the market at the state's expense. What is missing on both sides is an acknowledgment that a healthy society consists of much more than these two constituent elements."

So the statist solutions of socialism and fascism are rejected and the importance of civil society - the family, churches, political parties, trade unions, and free associations of all kinds - is stressed. Institution other than the state and the market are necessary parts of the solution to the problem of social justice. Koyzis stresses that governments can do some things - perhaps more things than I might want governments to be doing - but he explicitly says that the scope of government to act is very limited. Government can only do so much. Most of the solution lies elsewhere. He writes:

"This brings us to the second component, which is to strengthen nonstate institutions. Because North Americans are so influenced by liberal individualism, they tend to view institutions as potentially oppressive and restrictive of freedom. In so far as we value communities at all, we prefer to see them as voluntary associations. For example, the legal trend over the past four decades has been to reduce marriage to a mere private contract revocable at the discretion of the partners. That the courts have accelerated this tendency over the past year should not unduly surprise us.

An understanding of the importance of institutions is one of the genuine contributions that neocalvinism, with its recognition of societal pluriformity, has to offer. For example, any effort to ameliorate child poverty that focuses solely on raising the level of state expenditures but ignores the financial impact of no-fault divorce laws on children will inevitably be addressing only part of the problem. In this case, seeking social justice will move us in the direction of legally strengthening marriage and family, even if it goes against the grain of an individualistic society. If it is true, as the evidence suggests, that poverty is more likely to afflict a single-parent family than an intact family, then making divorce easier to obtain would seem to be counterproductive and, more to the point, unjust.

Even here, however, the public policy process cannot exhaust the quest for social justice. Addressing the social question requires initiative proceeding from a variety of sources, including churches, charities, labour unions, businesses and chambers of commerce, political action organizations, farmers' co-operatives, private social support agencies, and so forth. Where government chooses to involve itself, it best does so by cooperating with these pre-existing efforts rather than by pre-empting them and pushing them aside.

Finally, when government does collaborate with such organizations, it must do so equitably by not discriminating against those with an overt faith basis. This is the point of the so-called charitable choice provision in the 1996 welfare reform law in the United States.

Whereas both socialist/late liberal statism and the vaunted market solutions of libertarians may lend themselves to catchy slogans intended to resonate with the voting public, neocalvinism may well have the long-term advantage in so far as it takes seriously the complex, differentiated character of society. Any effort to help the poor that fails to recognize this is certain to fall short."

Obviously Roman Catholic social thought and Neocalvinism share a great deal in common. Both reject the idea that the market alone is sufficient (libertarianism, classical liberalism) and the idea that the state alone is sufficient (socialism) or paramount (welfare state liberalism or "late liberalism) to achieve the goal of social justice.

Glenn Beck seems to fall into the libertarian or classical liberalism camp, which means that he is not a true conservative. Conservatives always show great concern for the intermediate institutions between the state and the individual and want to preserve them against the acids of the free market and the insatiable appetite for control of the imperious, modern, bureaucratic state. Insofar as he wants to bash socialists and their fellow travelers, he is performing a useful function. But his limitation is that he has few alternatives to offer. Fortunately, we have valuable resources in Roman Catholic social doctrine and Neocalvinism, among other sources, to use in thinking about alternatives.

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