It’s ‘social justice’ time

Wayne Swan, former Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, said that he had been guided in politics through his belief in social justice, as I wrote yesterday, and his  remark sent me off to rethink what I knew about that slippery term. It’s a no-brainer, social justice, because nobody could be in favour of social injustice. It’s a term much beloved of politicians, mostly from the Left. But what does it mean, really?

If you look it up you will get a variety of possible definitions, most of them pretty vague. Here’s one from  the Australian Human Rights Commission: ‘Social justice is about making sure that every Australian – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – has choices about how they live and the means to make those choices’.

The Salvation Army sees social justice as needed ‘when society itself is  the “bad guy”. What happens to justice when our spending habits keep people enslaved?’ At once I get worried. Aren’t our spending habits our own responsibility? The Salvos say further that ‘social justice … [is] the pursuit of justice for someone else’s sake’. I can see this is germane to what the Salvos actually do, but it seems foggy to me.

The Catholic Bishops have issued several statements about social justice, and the most recent one seems to me to wander around the subject. The closest I could get gave me this: ‘Our society cannot ignore the fundamental needs of families or fail to respond adequately to those families in crisis.’ Again, something seems missing here. What are the responsibilities of families, or at least the heads of them? Are the Bishops looking toward charity here, or state intervention? Any why, in either case?

The best account of the term I could quickly find comes from the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, in its Occasional Paper #1. This useful essay shows how many different strands there are in the concept but, ‘[to] put it simply, the concept of social justice involves finding the optimum balance between our joint responsibilities as a society and our responsibilities as individuals to contribute to a just society. Many different ideas exist about where that optimum balance lies.’ They do indeed.

Let’s hang on to that crisp statement of the problem. The desired outcome was well put by Mick Dodson twenty years ago, and it goes like this: ‘Social justice is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with an adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to a school where their education not only equips them for employment, but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination.’

To me Mick Dodson’s vision is what things might be like in a good society, but how should we arrive at it? All sorts of state intervention programs aim to produce outcomes like this, but it is immediately obvious that a great deal depends on what the individual or family does with what they actually have.

Welfare accommodation is often, at least in my experience, poorly looked after. A family may have a home and all the items that Mick Dodson mentioned, but when a break-up occurs, one of their number may be homeless. Charity demands that we help, but to what end? Shouldn’t we be fixing the initial breakup? You don’t think so? Where does intervention end, and individual responsibility begin? None of this is easy stuff, and Australia deals with these ‘social justice’ problems with a mixture of charity, voluntary effort and state intervention.

As I’ve written in the past, what worries me about all this is its open-ended nature. It is as though those receiving help are powerless to do anything, victims of structural forces over which they have  no control, ‘victims’. Yet we can all point to people who triumphed over such obstacles and went on the build lives of productivity and altruism themselves. Why them, and not others? Can we develop policies to have many more victors and fewer victims?

One mechanism the state uses is the search to produce ‘jobs’ for everyone, and built into this is the assumption that jobs lead to income and income leads to housing, food, clothes and the rest of it. But income can lead to booze, the pokies and drugs, too. If that is the choice people make, should we go on helping them? Well, we don’t want beggars, as in the USA, do we? (Actually, there are beggars in Australia, too, but we don’t like to talk about them.) Where does social justice stop? And what do we do with social justice’s failures?

We’ve been doing this for quite a long time, now, and we should have some answers. In my book What Was It All For? (see above, on the right-hand side) I have a chapter called  ‘From We to Me?’, that argues that the highly individualistic society we now have is not a good environment for social justice concepts, because each is out for himself or herself. Australia has a poorer sense of ‘us’, of community, than it once had.

When I hear politicians emoting about ‘social justice’ what generally emerges are bandaid remedies couched in soothing language. I don’t have instant remedies, either, but I’m no longer persuaded that ‘social justice’ means much unless real remedies are  being proposed.

The fact that Australia is three times richer than it used to be doesn’t mean that we don’t have poor, even if today’s poor aren’t as poor as those fifty or a hundred years ago. But it does tell us that not everyone can handle almost any level of income in a sensible way. That is the core problem. Do you have any solution?

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • pjb253 says:

    Hayek has a whole chapter on the word “social”, saying that it strips all meaning from the following noun.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Yes, he does. And Robert Nozick hasn’t much time for the concept either. But I thought I would stick to Australian attempts to say what it meant!

  • margaret says:

    I don’t know of either of the names you and your commenter have mentioned.

    I’d like to present two women as practising examples of social justice in Australia – Julia Gillard with her important reforms like the national disability insurance scheme and Gonski educational reforms and Therese Rein CEO of Igneus (of which David Gonski is the Chairman of the Board) whose welfare to work (initially with the focus on providing jobs for people with disabilities) programs are now in eight nations and have earned her business well over a billion dollars. Ms Gillard leaves politics with a healthy pension of about $200K per annum and those other perks such as free air travel for life – Therese Rein is the wife of the recycled PM K Rudd (who of course in the long or short run will be a recipient of the same benefits as JG).

    Which of these women I wonder, in your opinion, best exemplifies the slippery term social justice?
    As Joni Mitchell wrote is Justice just ice?

  • Don Aitkin says:

    What do you mean by ‘social justice’, Margaret? My summary of the nation state (about which I wrote a little time ago) is that it defines a set of people who gain benefits and owe responsibilities from belonging to it. Australia is a nation state. Ours has some values, not necessarily completely shared, which include looking after yourself, and being looked after by the rest if you can’t for some good reason look after yourself. The disability scheme is a good example of the nation state’s trying to look after people who care for people who can’t look after themselves. The Gonski scheme is an attempt to level the playing field for schools in financial terms, on the assumption that it is money that really makes the difference in school outcomes. I think the first example is close to ‘social justice’ than the second.

    I don’t really know enough about what Igneus does to be able to comment. I would agree that both women have a feeling about social justice, and they may have similar feelings. Julia Gillard was using the power of the state to effect her feelings, while Therese Rein was working privately and obviously successfully. I rather prefer the Rein example, I think.

    As I said in the post, none of this is easy. Social ills never have a single or simple cause, and it is not always obvious that using state power to ‘remedy’ something is either the right way or an effective way.

    I hope that helps. Hayek and Nozick were writers who on the whole had little time for concepts of ‘social justice’.

  • margaret says:

    Fairness, egalitarian society etc. – large middle class with many opportunities to join it – the opportunity for people to develop a sense of being a citizen as well as an individual – beginning with the education of parents before they produce children and continuing from the time of birth and extending throughout childhood. You can’t feel like a citizen unless there’s an expectation of your contribution as well as a fair wage for the work you do. Education should be excellent in government schools. People should not have to aspire to private schooling for their children to get ahead. Just a ramble off the top of my head – that’s my concept of social justice values in Australia. Can’t speak for anywhere else as life in a third world country is something most Australians could not envisage.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Yes, I’d go along with your sense of things too. Whose job is it to educate parents before they have children? The government schools of which I know do seem to me to provide an excellent education. I’ve written many times on this website about education. It seems to me that wealthy(ier) parents see education as just another thing that can be purchased, and they can afford it. It’s not necessarily that they see government schools as being of poor quality, or that they have any evidence that this is os.. There are a lot of rationalisations here.

      • margaret says:

        Sex education beginning in Year 3 – despite parents so desiring of their kids having a ‘childhood’ and not growing up too fast etc. isn’t it better to grow up with proper understandings of the body and its functions and the way girls and boys interact can only be enhanced by sensible education in the classroom which would counteract the playground misinformation that happens anyway.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Yes, I agree. But not everyone would. You could argue that sex education at that age is a matter for parents, but we know that some parents still squib that task (as they did overwhelmingly, when I was in Year 3 — and indeed older). Here is the social justice question: whose task is this anyway, and how is the responsibility to be allocated? I said it wasn’t easy.

          • margaret says:

            It’s a shared responsibility between government and the citizens – the government can only guide its citizens because ‘social justice’ actually seems to be the messy reality of living in a democracy – lucky us. We get what we deserve because we are fickle and subject to the manipulative workings of the fourth estate.

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