“Economic Justice” as “Social Justice”

Historically, social justice has meant different things to different people, and equally so today, where the term remains as frustratingly elusive as ever. Like the very progressives that champion the term, the definition seems to evolve based on progressives’ ever-evolving purposes.

Most exasperating is that many who speak the language of social justice really mean “economic justice.” Unlike traditional practitioners of social justice, whose occasional noble interests ranged from prison reform to child-labor laws, many modern practitioners seek wealth redistribution, “living wages,” progressive income taxes, and an eternally-widening net of federal government power and central planning; they are inclined to class interests rather than human rights. And, by their estimate, achieving economic justice requires collectivism. They invoke social justice not to try to resolve conventional social differences as much as class/income differences.

This is why, in many modern eyes, including those of the much-maligned Glenn Beck, mention of “social justice” seems a red flag for socialism.

In truth, many of those who mouth the language of “social justice” have long meant “economic justice.” As a matter of plain, undeniable historical fact, American communists have cynically employed this tactic for decades, since at least the launching of Communist Party USA in the 1920s. They have talked “social justice” because they know it appeals to the naïve, particularly to trusting, gullible liberal Christians. It’s a quite excellent duping mechanism to hoodwink non-communist/non-socialist liberals.

Of course, every now and then, some of those on the far left slip up and blurt out the words “economic justice.” And it’s indeed a “slip up,” especially for a politician. By and large, you can’t think that way—or, more accurately, talk that way—and get elected in America. Politicians who privately view the world according to contours of economic justice must publicly avoid such Marxist-socialistic rhetoric while running for office—running, that is, as mainstream Democrats.

That’s a somewhat long way of getting to a dramatic case in point: the current president of the United States of America, the man in charge of the most prosperous free-market system in history.

Speaking in January 2001, when he couldn’t conceive that the typical American would elect to the presidency someone with views as far to the left as his own, Barack Obama gave an interview to the Chicago Public Radio station, WBEZ, 91.5 FM. There, only a few years before he pursued a successful bid to lead the greatest free-market powerhouse in human history, Obama used the words “economic justice” and “redistributive change.” (Click here to listen and here for transcript.)

It was a remarkably revealing interview for a would-be president. Speaking of the super-liberal Warren Court, infamous for its unparalleled judicial activism, Obama lamented: “[A]s radical as people tried to characterize the Warren court, it wasn’t that radical.” No, in Obama’s view, the Warren Court had not been radical enough. Why? Because, averred Obama, it hadn’t “ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice.”

The implications of that assessment are staggering. Obama spoke the heart of a true believer. It was a refreshingly candid moment, breathtaking from a politician able to rise so high and so fast in a country like America, anchored in economic freedom.

Politically, the young Obama was sloppy. He wasn’t yet savvy enough to cloak his “economic justice” language in the more palatable jargon of “social justice.” Today, Obama knows better, slipping only rarely, as he did to “Joe the Plumber” in 2008.

Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that everyone who mutters “social justice” means “economic justice,” or socialism. It’s crucial to understand that. Often, however, that’s indeed the case, as the far left has co-opted these buzzwords to dupe fellow travelers on the soft left.

As for liberal Christians angry at being accused of socialism when they speak of social justice … they often have themselves to blame; it is they who have bedded down (usually unwittingly) with the socialists, the collectivists, and the central planners, allowing them to hijack their language. It is they who have been duped again and again.

Too bad. The redistributionist left has perverted and appropriated respectable language. And, thanks to concealed intentions—this has been happening for 100 years now—we must be extra vigilant each time we hear words like “social justice.” We need to probe deeper: What do you really mean by “social justice?” How would that translate into policy? What kind of government control and taxation do you have in mind? Do you really mean “economic justice?”

Alas, America’s crisis continues, made possible by an even larger group of gullible innocents who obliviously elected the very crew that uses them and their language.

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article first appeared in American Thinker.

Dr. Paul Kengor


Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

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  • Joe DeVet

    I think we had best be careful with the language ourselves. It’s certainly wrong for Catholics–or any Christian or person who wants to live a moral life–to be against either economic justice or social justice. To abide by the principles of both–but properly defined–is a basic duty of one who follows Christ. The commandments require it, particularly “thou shalt not steal.” The basic virtue of Justice, giving to each according to what is due him, requires it.

    What we need to do is recover a proper definition of these terms. For it will not contribute to the common good to rise up and shout back at the Left: we’re opposed to Social Justice; we’re opposed to Economic Justice. In fact, we are in favor of both; however, we are opposed to the hijacking of these moral norms to mean collectivist processes and excessive government involvement.

    We need instead to carefully educate people on how to understand the way Christian principles play into the prudential application of these essential principles to everyday practice. It’s an especially difficult task because Catholic social justice documents–encyclicals, etc–often appear at first reading to be advocating socialist approaches to public-policy questions.

    Not only do the documents seem to advocate such things, but often our spokesmen and our leaders seem to follow the same path. No less an august body that our bishops assembled in the USCCB are making that mistake even now, in lobbying for socialized medicine and approving Obamacare with just 3 specific exceptions.

    To set the record straight, we can start with “Rerum Novarum” itself, and its specific denunciation of socialism. From there, we need to carefully and in a prinicpled way try to resolve the paradox: that encyclical and many other social-justice writings seem to advocate socialistic solutions while being against socialism. I do believe that if we work hard to apply the full breadth of Catholic moral teaching, including principles of personal dignity and freedom, as well as incorporating the principle of subsidiarity, we can show how a system of free markets under law best reflects the whole “package” of moral norms.

    We can in that way avoid the temptation to declaring ourselves against social justice and economic justice. Such a temptation is a moral and a political trap.

  • rakeys

    I totally agree that as a Catholic I need to be in favor of both social and economic justice. However, social justice covers a lot of territory besides economic. Slavery, women’s right to vote, child labor laws, desegraton, etc are major social justice topics.

    What the left has forgotten is that it is “social” justice to allow unborn children to be born, the elderly to die a natural death, marriage as the union of a man and woman, children to be raised by a mother and a father, embryos not to be killed for their stem cells, a pastors right to teach Christian principles, including that homosexual acts are immoral, without being arrested.

    It is sad that so many people pick and choose which social justice ideas to follow.

  • GaryT

    I think the encyclicals speak for themselves:

    “when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over.”Of that which remaineth, give alms.”(Luke 11:41) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law.”

    “Rerum Novarum” (1891) Pope Leo XIII

    “The state which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.”

    “God is Love” Pope Benedict XVI

  • GaryT

    St. Paul on economic redistribution:

    “If anyone is unwilling to work, do not let him eat.’” (2 Thes 3:10)

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  • livingthefaith

    I agree with Joe, fast-fowarding to the 20th century, there is the oft overlooked encyclical by Pope John Paul II: “Laborem exercens”.

    In the introduction: “However, if one studies the development of the question of social justice, one cannot fail to note that, whereas during the period between Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno the Church’s teaching concentrates mainly on the just solution of the “labour question” within individual nations, in the next period the Church’s teaching widens its horizon to take in the whole world. The disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty and the existence of some countries and continents that are developed and of others that are not call for a levelling out and for a search for ways to ensure just development for all.”

    Here we have the “much maligned” Glenn Beck’s code-word for socialism being used by the former Pope. In the past, Mr. Beck has called on those who follow him to call their Bishop or leave their parish, congregation, etc. if those words are used. Considering in this case it comes from a former Vicar of Christ and my only option would be to renounce the Church herself as socialist and leave, I think I’m going to ignore Mr. Beck’s directive. As he is a self described “rodeo-clown” and entertainer, I don’t think he would have a problem with that. That aside, it seems to me that the main point of this paragraph is that the Church recognizes the “disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty” and calls for “a levelling out and for a search for ways to ensure just development for all.” Would not a levelling out of a disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty amount to a redistribution?

    It seems to me then, that Catholic teaching on social justice does also include economic justice as in the modern world the two are oftentimes linked. Joe rightly points out that this needs to be done carefully and I agree with that. While Dr. Kengor warns against liberal Christians allowing socialists to highjack their language, I would warn conservative Christians to try and prevent those with a laissez-faire captialist agenda from convincing them that such language does not even exist in the Christian lexicon.