In a recent book on social justice, former Labor politician Gary Johns argues for “a major reconsideration of social justice as a rationale for the welfare state”. In his essay ‘When too much social justice is never enough’ Johns suggests that social justice is primarily about the redistribution of wealth and income while egalitarianism is the pursuit of a more equal distribution of material resources.
Johns also implies that advocates of social justice and equality are opposed to democracy. As he writes in the Australian: “In a democracy, achieving a just distribution of society’s wealth requires permission to take money from some to distribute to others. Often, those others do not agree to hand over the money.” In his essays and articles Johns misconstrues social justice and egalitarianism as well as the relationship of these ideals to democracy.
People fight for equality when they feel they are being bullied or dominated, writes psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt argues that social justice movements not only urge compassion for the poor and disadvantaged, they also “call for people to come together to fight the oppression of bullying domineering elites”. On this view social justice is not fundamentally about an equal distribution of wealth or income, it’s about freedom.
Philosopher Iris Marion Young makes the same point in her book Justice and the Politics of Difference. Commenting on signs and banners bearing the slogan “Peace, Jobs and Justice” at an American political rally she asks:
What does “justice” mean in this slogan? In this context, as in many other political contexts today, I suggest that social justice means the elimination of institutionalized domination and oppression. Any aspect of social organization and practice relevant to domination and oppression is in principle subject to evaluation by ideals of justice (p 15).
As Young explains in Inclusion and Democracy, the ideals underlying this idea of social justice are self-development and self-determination. Young’s idea of self-development is similar to Amartya Sen’s idea of capability. For Sen what matters is a person’s opportunity to live the kinds of life they have reason to value Freedom plays a central role in the capability approach. In his book The Idea of Justice he writes:
… we have reason to be interested not only in the various things we succeed in doing, but also in the freedoms that we actually have to choose between different kinds of lives. The freedom to choose our lives can make a significant contribution to our well-being, but going beyond the perspective of well-being, the freedom itself may be seen as important (p 18).
While material resources are an important means to self-development they are not the only thing that matters. For example, philosopher Elizabeth Anderson raises the prospect of ‘contract feudalism’ where an employer is able to dictate how employees behave outside the workplace. She argues for “the right to conduct one’s life outside of work independently of one’s employer’s arbitrary will.”
Another example is marginalization. Young writes about the way dependence on the state can limit a person’s freedom:
Being a dependent in our society implies being legitimately subject to the often arbitrary and invasive authority of social service providers and other public and private administrators, who exercise power over the conditions of their lives. In meeting needs of the marginalized, often with the aid of social scientific disciplines, welfare agencies also construct the needs themselves. Medical and social service professionals know what is good for those they serve, and the maginals and dependents themselves do not have the right to claim to know what is good for them (p 54).
When people have no other way to secure an income they are vulnerable to coercion. Single parents, people with disabilities and Indigenous people in remote communities can lose control of their lives when the state ties income support to compliance with mutual obligations.
Violence and the threat of violence can also limit a person’s freedom. As long as social institutions and norms tacitly condone acts of violence and intimidation against groups like women, immigrants or homosexuals, these groups lack freedom. As Young points out: “Violence is a form of injustice that a distributive understanding of justice seems ill equipped to capture.”
For Young, oppression is the opposite of self-determination — the second ideal of social justice: “Persons live within structures of domination if other persons or groups can determine without reciprocation the conditions of their action, either directly or by virtue of the structural consequences of their actions.”
Young defines social justice “as the institutional conditions for promoting self-development and self-determination of a society’s members.” Politically this is a much broader agenda than the redistribution of income. The pursuit of justice is understood not just as adherence to rules and norms established by the traditions and institutions we have today but as a search for better rules and norms. As Anderson writes in her essay What is the Point of Equality:
Positively, egalitarians seek a social order in which persons stand in relations of equality. They seek to live together in a democratic community, as opposed to a hierarchical one. Democracy is here understood as collective self-determination by means of open discussion among equals, in accordance with rules acceptable to all.
There will always be disagreements about what social justice means in practice. But if there is a common thread to demands made in the name of social justice it’s about the pursuit of freedom rather than a more mathematically equal distribution of income.