Beliefnet

It has been a long, long time since the federal government has been a genuinely federal government. Still, it is critical that we appreciate the nature of liberty before we proceed to talk about “religious” liberty and the like.  “Religious liberty” is simply the liberty to practice religion.  Because our system of government forbids any person or group from acquiring a monopoly on authority and power, individual Americans are permitted to engage in a staggering array of mutually incompatible pursuits of their own choosing. Religious activity is just one of these engagements. 

In short, what this means is that when the government undercuts the liberty of some Americans to pursue ends of a religious nature, it undercuts the liberty of all Americans to pursue ends of any nature.  Conversely, whenever the government impedes the exercise of liberty for any ends, it impedes the exercise of liberty for religious ends.

This being so, that Catholic institutions will be compelled under Obamacare to subsidize products to which they are opposed is something that should elicit every bit as much outrage from every liberty-loving American as it has elicited from the most orthodox of Catholic clerics.  At the same time, however, Catholics should have been as indignant over the fact that for decades and decades, Americans of all backgrounds have been coerced by a gargantuan federal government to subsidize all manner of practices to which they have been opposed. 

Truth be told, not only is it the case that the Church has been silent; it has actually demanded an ever more intrusive federal government.  

The Quest for ‘Social Justice’

This last point brings me to my present one. 

“Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.”   There is a reason that this is an old saying: there is no small measure of truth in it.  It is indeed more than a bit ironic that the very same Catholic Church that for decades has been calling for “social justice” is now reaping what it has sowed. 

The demand for “social justice” is a demand for an ever expansive government.  More specifically, the demand for “social justice” is a demand for an activist government, the kind of government possessed of a large concentration of power sufficient to confiscate the resources of some—“the Haves”—so as to “redistribute” them to others—“the Have Nots.”

“Social justice” is radically incompatible with the Constitutional Republic bequeathed to us by our Founders.  What they referred to as a Republic is what the conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott characterized as a “civil association,” an association whose members are related to one another in terms, not of some grand purpose to pursue, but laws to be observed.  These laws neither specify actions in which the associates (citizens) are to engage nor do they dispense substantive satisfactions for them to enjoy. Rather, the laws are “adverbial,” as Oakeshott put it, in that they assert conditions for the associates of civil association to fulfill while engaging in their self-chosen pursuits. 

In these respects, laws are like grammatical rules.  The latter do not prescribe what is to be said. But whatever it is we say, if it is to be decipherable, if it is to gain a hearing, it must conform to the conditions of our language’s grammar.  Similarly, only those actions are permissible that satisfy the conditions posited by the laws.

An association committed to “social justice” is most certainly not a civil association.  It is not a Constitutional Republic. It is what Oakeshott called an “enterprise association.”  In an enterprise association, the government is expected to “lead” its subjects into a Promised Land of one kind or another, a new dispensation in which some ideal condition is realized.  In this case, the case of “social justice,” the ideal is a condition in which material goods achieve a more equal distribution. 

The problem, though, is that in a Constitutional Republic, a civil association, there is no place for any schemes of “social justice,” for the latter is a purpose to which all others must ultimately be subordinated.  That is, the call for “social justice” is the call for citizens to devote—or, more precisely, be made to devote—at least some of their resources in time, energy, and property to the fulfillment of this one over arching purpose.  The call for “social justice” is the call for less individuality, less liberty, and more government.

Yet in a civil association there is no purpose, grand or otherwise, that citizens are compelled to pursue.  And the federal character with which the Framers of our government originally invested it precludes the pursuit of “social justice” for which the Catholic Church and others have been relentlessly calling for decades.            

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