PopeWatch: JusticeSpeak


Abraham Lincoln was fond of asking how many legs a dog had if we call the tail of the dog a leg.  Four he would say, because calling something by a name does not transform it into something that it is not.  In regard to Pope Francis he has a habit of calling his policy preferences “justice”, but is that in fact the case?  Robert P. Barnridge, Jr., at The American Spectator, takes a look at the impact of simply labeling something as “justice” without an examination as to whether this is the case:

Arguments grounded in justicespeak tend to create straw-man arguments and fictional realities. The Joy of the Gospel, for instance, imagines that ours is a world free of market regulation, or nearly such. It worries about those champions of the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation,” those who “reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”

Of course, no one, except perhaps a few on the anarchist and libertarian fringes, opposes any state intervention in the economy, and to suggest as much is to needlessly indulge one’s imagination with phantoms that do not exist. Contrary to the Pope’s fears, a market of unequal wealth is not, as The Joy of the Gospel suggests, “unjust at its root.”

It is unfair to denigrate those who seek to liberate themselves from undue government regulation so that they can realize their full potential and creative genius. Is it reasonable for the Pope to chastise those entrepreneurs and small businesspeople who seek to do so as adherents of harsh “laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” as he does in The Joy of the Gospel? Who is he to judge? 

One of the linchpins of Laudato Si’ is a particular permutation of justice, this time, “distributive justice.” “[W]henever this is violated, violence always ensues,” or so the Pope suggests. Yet, violence has been with humanity since the Garden of Eden, and if by distributive justice is meant greater market regulation and wealth confiscation from wage earners, then how, exactly, is this “just”?

This brings to mind what mid-19th-century French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat identified as one of the great conceits of socialism. In his reckoning, socialism seeks to appropriate the coercive machinery of the law in a way that makes people the playthings of central planners. Bastiat called this the “conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.” This is the ultimate dehumanization. 

The point is not whether what United States President Richard Nixon purportedly said about Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios III applies to the Pope — President Nixon was said to have referred to Makarios as “Castro in a cassock.” 

It is that claims to speak for justice must not be taken at face value. Such incantations may or may not be attached to political projects that actually uplift the poor, but there is certainly no direct relationship between the two.

Go here to read the rest.  The Pope tends to be a sloppy writer and a sloppy thinker, which is unfortunate.  Whether what is proposed is actually just is the first thing that should be examined, and not simply assumed, especially when we are in complicated areas like the regulation of the economy or the role of State.  The Pope hates markets and as a result greater regulation of the markets is clearly just in his eyes.  However, that is not analysis, but merely prejudice, which is a poor basis for policy.

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  1. “…and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless,”

    I fail to see why this “cruel unjust” law, which is also a clear “consensus of science” must not also be accepted simply because it is a clear “consensus of science” which Francis cited to justify his acceptance of anthropomorphic global warming, as did Obama and the UN.

    Can one cherry pick the science one accepts as being true or false depending up mere whim or convenience, or must one follow known fact regardless? Unless, AGW isn’t science at all, but mere political hogwash created by grant receivers in lab coats in conjunction with their political sugar daddies?

  2. The notion of “distributive justice” goes back at least to Aristotle, who divided justice into commutative justice (governing the rights and duties of individuals towards each other) and distributive justice (governing the distribution of public benefits and burdens between individuals and classes)

    The Roman jurists steered well clear of anything involving administrative or criminal law and confined their discussions wholly to questions of commutative justice. Roman history, however, is replete with conflicts over distributive justice: the long struggle between Patrician and Plebeian orders, between Rome and her allies, culminating in the Social War, the agrarian reforms supported by the Gracchi and the policy of the Julian emperors, who cast themselves as the protectors of the provinces against the cupidity of the Roman people.

    There was a revival of interest in distributive justice around the Renaissance, inspired by ancient history, that included a sometimes radical critique of the privileges and immunities of the nobility, the free cities, the trade and merchant guilds, universities, the ordersof chivalry and, of course, the clergy and the religious orders.

    « La carrière ouverte aux talents » [The career open to ability] became one of the slogans of the French Revolution and was exemplified in the careers of Napoléon and many of his Marshals. It was he who introduced the Chinese mandarin system into France, with civil servants chosen by competitive examination.

  3. Distributive justice is an ancient principle. But it didn’t just apply to redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. It also took into account a person’s contributions to society and justly rewarding them for their sacrifice, talent etc. that such contribution entailed. It also certainly took into account that there would be variations in position in society and classes and that inequality as such was not unjust.

  4. Philip wrote, “But it didn’t just apply to redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor…”
    Indeed. Ancient states were money-making enterprises and most of the Roman conflicts between classes turned on distribution of the spoils of war; it is no accident that the Latin word Præda or booty came to mean property in general, hence our English word praedial.
    Liberty meant sharing in the government, which is to say, in overseeing the sharing of the spoils and the most honourable as well as the most lucrative professions were those of the soldier, the politician and the jurist.

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