Michael Novak and the idea of social justice that promotes human dignity

By Flavio Felice

Originally Published March 12, 2016 on American Enterprise Institute


As the philosopher James V. Schall, S.J. aptly put it: “No concept in ethics and political philosophy requires clarification and critical analysis such as that of ‘social justice.’” This is the theme to which the most recent book by Michael Novak is dedicated. Co-written by Paul Adams, with the “contribution” of Elizabeth Shaw, it is entitled: Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is (Encounter Books, 2015). Novak is a prominent American Catholic author and is known in Italy especially for The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism [1982] (Studium, 1987), The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [1993] (Edizioni di Communità, 1993), and On Cultivating Liberty [1999] (Rubbettino, 2005).

One of Novak’s key themes is a reflection on the notion of “social justice.” He intends to rescue the concept from an ideological trap and tries to define it using four criteria: 1. It must be consistent with the tradition of the social teaching of the Church; 2. It must contain in itself the lead features of democracy and liberalism: the principle of representation and the rule of law; 3. It must stand up under the criticism of those who consider it logically inconsistent (Hayek); 4. It must be inclusive and non-partisan, making sure that everyone can contribute to the common good: local communities, nations, and the international community, both in the public and private spheres.

Novak considers the notion of “social justice” a continuous “work in progress” and not a political, economic, and social structure, which one can consider satisfactory forever or even for an instant. Hence, “social justice” takes on the image of the horizon: as well as every horizon gives way to a new horizon, each objective, on the social front, raises new problems, which call for the search for new solutions. In this difficult context, Novak proposes an interpretation that is consistent with the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, typical of the Church’s social doctrine, that also responds to the heavy criticism leveled by Friedrich August von Hayek, who came to define “social justice” as a “mirage.”

According to Novak, “social justice” rather expresses the decisive rejection of individualistic sentiment, on the basis of a social anthropology in which the main actor is the “person,” which he understands as “individual and community”—the ontological, epistemological, and moral center of social action. In this way, in free societies, citizens are inclined to use their own tendencies to associate, to exercise new responsibilities, and to move towards social ends. In this sense, “social justice” is the particular form taken today of the ancient virtus of justice. Therefore, it does not necessarily involve the strengthening of the presence of the State, but rather, the development of civil society, in keeping with Hayek. In the words of Luigi Sturzo, a beloved author of the same Novak: “Nothing therefore exists of human activity, which, though originally individual has no associated value; nothing among men can come into being, which does not mention any form of association.”

Similarly, the most dangerous enemies of “social justice” appear the same as denounced by Sturzo on his return to Italy from his twenty years in  exile (1924-1946), which he identified as the “evil beasts of democracy:” “statism, particracy, waste of public money.” In practice, for “statism” we mean the false belief that, by entrusting to “the State activities for productive purposes, connected to a restrictionism that stifles the freedom of private initiative,” we can “make amends for inequalities” (Sturzo). Such a degeneration in the task of the State, which denies freedom, favors “particracy”, that is, the irresponsible interference of political parties and trade unions in legislative functions, which negates equality. A corollary of the first two “evil beasts” is the “waste of public money” which would violate justice.

Many would be the examples in Italy. First, that of the state monopoly on education, which has produced underpaid, unmotivated, and socially ill-considered teachers at the same time that it squeezed the freedom of choice of families, and especially the poorest, to choose educational styles consistent with their values. The introduction of competing tracks, such as vouchers, represents “release papers” for the neediest families.

Second, the creation of the “state-owned company”, the instrument par excellence with which the parties have been able to seize the levers of economic initiative, deadening any prospect of healthy entrepreneurship in the name of consensus and the distribution of political benefits. The source of so much “inequality” found in our system is to be found here, and not anywhere else.

Finally, the “waste of public money,” as a corollary of the loss of economic freedom and exercise of daily inequality. It should have been the longest cycle track in Southern Italy: 20 km from Bagnoli at the center of Naples, at a cost of approximately 700 thousand euros. Instead, the prosecutor has sought the trial of three leaders of the City of Naples and the owner of the company that created the bike path because it is dangerous for cyclists, for pedestrians, and for drivers of motor vehicles. Prosecutors have indicated that offenses include failure to install signals at appropriate places, attacks on transport security, and forgery, as well as fraud in public procurement and racketeering. “Injustice” is made.

The work of Novak and Adams puts us on guard against easy shortcuts, which are so often accompanied by rhetorical proclamations and authoritarian pretensions unsuited to a society of free men.

This article was also published in Italy on Il Foglio on March 12, 2016.