Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from the annual Calihan Lecture delivered on December 1, 2016, in London, England, at a conference sponsored by the Acton Institute on “The Crisis of Liberty in the West” at which Ryan Anderson received the Michael Novak Award for “outstanding scholarly research concerning the relationship between religion, economic freedom, and the free and virtuous society.” The first half of the lecture discussed challenges to freedom in terms of bad intellectual defenses of economic freedom, collapsing communities, and cronyism. The second half discussed a natural law account of economic freedom, a natural law account of social justice, and some concluding thoughts about anthropology and virtue. This essay is drawn from the social justice and anthropology sections. You can read the full lecture here. Additionally, this essay is part of our collection on common good economics. Read related pieces here.  

Since I have just said a few words on natural law and economic freedom, I want to say a few words about a natural law conception of social justice and how it can help us now. Some people think social justice is a twentieth century invention of left-leaning thinkers, but this starts the history of social justice midstream. To understand its true meaning, we must look farther back to its real historical origins.

The first known use of the phrase “social justice” was by a Jesuit Thomist, Luigi Taparelli, in his multivolume work published between 1840 and 1843 titled Saggio teoretico di dritto naturale appoggiato sul fatto (A Theoretical Treatise on Natural Law Resting on Fact). I want to emphasize two arguments that Taparelli highlighted by coining the new phrase “social justice”: first, that man is social by nature and belongs to many societies and, second, that man has natural duties to others in justice.

Taparelli created the phrase “social justice” to highlight that there are societies in between individuals and governments. He wanted to avoid both the individualistic and the collectivistic temptations. He wanted to point out that the truth was somewhere in between. He wanted to highlight that, as a matter of nature, man is a social being. This places duties on individuals—duties people have to their family, to their church, to their community. It also places limits on government—that government is limited by the reality of the natural family, that government is limited by the prerogatives of religious communities, that government is limited by the authority of local communities.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

But I want to focus here on the duties, because one aspect of the crisis of liberty in the West is that we no longer realize we have unchosen duties. A sound understanding of our duties, however, gives us one of our best reasons for respecting liberty—to have the freedom to fulfill our duties.

This, after all, is precisely how Madison understood religious liberty. As James Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man” because of a prior duty to seek out the truth about God and the created order:

What is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.

Indeed, one can understand many of the religious liberty threats in the West today as partly the result of people no longer thinking there are duties to the Creator. If there are no special duties to God, then there should be no special religious liberties either.

Something similar may be the case for the economy. Economic freedom is meant to give us the space to fulfill our economic duties: the duty to work to support our families, the duty to work hard and be a good employee so as not to waste our talents or our employer’s time and money, the duty to serve our customers, the duty to serve our communities, and so on. The purpose of economic freedom was to allow people the space to fulfill these duties.

Social justice is about fulfilling our duties to the various societies of which we are a part, and it is about the state respecting the authority of the many societies that make up civil society.

Take, for example, the society known as the family. The family is a natural society with its own nature and integrity. Because of the natural reality of the family, we have certain obligations. If you are a husband or a wife, you have certain duties to your spouse. If you are a parent, you have certain duties to your children, regardless of whether or not you ever chose them. And children, not Social Security administrators, have duties to their parents, especially as they age. It is the natural reality of father and child, mother and child, that creates the relationship of authority and responsibility.

This places limits on what the government can do. The government is not free to recreate the family. The government is not free to usurp the authority of parents over the education of their children or adult children over the care of their elderly parents.

The same is true for religious organizations, especially if you believe that your church has a divine origin, that it has a divine creation, so government is not at liberty to recreate it, to recreate its authority structure, or to recreate its teaching authority—that your church is something that is entrusted with a stewardship. The nature of religious authority places limits on political authority and places duties upon members of the church.

The State and Social Justice

None of this, however, says that the state has no role to play in economic justice. It simply means that it must respect the proper authority of society—a society of societies—as it does so. And this means that the state must also respect the proper authority of economic societies—employees and employers, consumers and producers.

But while respecting their authority and the markets that allow them to interact and fulfill their duties, government can perform certain welfare activities, as Hayek taught us, without distorting market signals and processes.

Insofar as government programs intended to ameliorate the forces of globalization and new technologies distort markets, they are likely to simply make matters worse by prolonging the dying process of outdated industries and preventing the necessary transitions. What a natural law account of social justice would suggest are policies that would empower more people to engage for themselves in the market and flourish.

I can illustrate this with some examples. Consider education. Some “taxation-is-theft” libertarians say children should receive whatever education their parents, extended families, and charities can provide and that there is no role for government. Liberals say education of children is a matter of public concern, and thus government should run schools and most children must attend them. Conservatives have traditionally said, yes, education is a matter of public concern, but justice requires us to respect the authority of parents, and whatever assistance we provide must empower, not replace them. Hence conservative support for school choice: vouchers, education savings accounts, and charter schools—programs that help all students get the best education they can without giving the government an unhealthy monopoly on schools.

The same is true for health care. Consider the standard false dichotomy: If taxation is theft, then we should just leave health care to the market and charities; if health care is a matter of public concern, then government should run it and finance it—the typical libertarian and liberal pitfalls. The conservative alternative has been to create markets in health care while empowering patients to choose, whether through premium support, health care vouchers, tax credits, or what have you.

The details of the policy need not bog us down. The concept is what matters. We need to make markets work better and work for more people by empowering more people to be market actors—empowering them to take control of their own lives and flourish.

So now the question is what can be done for working-class families, especially for workers who find their skills less and less marketable in ever-changing markets because of the forces of globalization and new technology. Appeals to natural rights or utilitarianism will not allow us to think best about the justice in the distribution of costs and benefits of the creative destruction of free trade and globalization and how best to smooth out the rough patches. We need to think through the appropriate roles of various institutions: What does justice require of families and churches, of workers and business owners, of civil society and charitable organizations, of local and national governments? What rights and duties do these various individuals and societies have?

In a certain sense, the economic challenges I have mentioned can be classified as partly the result of a deindustrialization making way for the knowledge economy. If Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which inaugurated modern Catholic social thought, was a response to the industrial revolution, what we now need is a response to the deindustrial revolution. What to do is a question for policymakers. That we need to think about what to do is a demand of justice, and the principles of natural law should inform how we think about it.

Spiritual Crisis

But the challenges of the present moment can be overstated. They can be phrased in a way that makes it seem as if globalization and new technologies simply make people into pawns in a giant chess game, victims of global economic and technological forces outside of anyone’s control. This entirely ignores the importance of human agency and personal responsibility.

Public policy and governmental programs are not, at the end of the day, the main solutions to what threatens freedom in the West. Yes, economic anxiety is a problem, but economic anxiety is partly a result of an underlying anthropological and spiritual crisis that has resulted in an emaciated civil society uniquely ill-equipped to handle our current challenges.

I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture the empty pews and the drug addictions, the problems of falling male employment and the breakdown of family that results in fatherless children, and the widespread belief that there is no truth, particularly moral truth. Some of these problems have been caused by various economic and technological changes in the past several decades. But I am not a Marxist. I do not believe that the changes in our values and beliefs are simply the result of material forces. Some spiritual crises are the result of bad ideas and ideals, and these bad ideas and ideals have exacerbated our economic challenges.

Bad anthropology has given us natural rights without foundations or directions—a freedom of indifference but not for excellence. Bad anthropology has debased modern man’s mind so that it is unable to distinguish liberty from license, rendering man unable to think about which desires should be acted on, which preferences should be satisfied. Bad anthropology has sought to liberate man from the very communities where he finds meaning and purpose, alienating man from work, from family, and from God.

The result is a working class without the values and virtues to flourish in the condition of freedom and a ruling class more devoted to a global community of elites than to its own communities. The result is a working class increasingly isolated from meaningful relationships and thus more anxious about its future in an age of economic uncertainty and a ruling class increasingly isolated from its working-class neighbors and thus unaware of their anxieties. The result is a nation—both working class and ruling class—that increasingly lacks a transcendent orientation and thus fails to have even a decent humanistic vision.

If we do not have God for a Father, we will not see our fellow man as our brother. If we are not made in the image and likeness of God, we will not treat every life as created equal and endowed with unalienable rights—indeed, we will view our neighbors as random, meaningless cosmic dust that gets in our way.

The challenge before us, then, is to recover at the very least a common understanding of what human flourishing looks like and how all of us should help to make it a reality for more people. It requires a better intellectual foundation for freedom. It requires the hard work of rebuilding civil society. It requires acknowledging our duties not to abstract humanity but to concrete, particular neighbors. And it requires respecting the freedom of religious communities to do the important work of ministering to the peripheries and forming disciples with loyalties beyond the state.

This means that now is the time for more engagement in the public square, not less. Now is the time for greater involvement in our local churches and synagogues and mosques, for greater involvement in our schools and little leagues and less time on our smartphones. And now is the time for more political engagement, not less, pursued more thoughtfully.


Let me close by suggesting that everything I have said in this lecture has been a reflection on man’s nature as a “dependent rational animal,” in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre.

First, we are animals. We have a nature. Certain things are good and bad for us given the type of animal that we are.

Second, we are rational. We can know our nature and direct our actions accordingly, or not. We do not get to choose what is good or bad for us; we simply get to choose whether we will live in accord with our nature.

Third, we are dependent. We are social creatures. We enter life entirely dependent on our parents, and many of us will exit life in a similar condition of dependence. And all along the way we will depend on family and friends, neighbors and colleagues—farmers and artisans, merchants and bankers.

Our mistakes take place when we forget that we are simultaneously dependent and rational and animal; when we reduce ourselves merely to the level of animal and embrace a crude materialism; when we deny that reason can know truth and embrace skepticism; when we refuse to embrace our dependence under the illusion of a false sense of self-sufficiency and individualism or when we locate our dependence primarily on government rather than on family and friends and markets and God; when we propose that the government should provide for all our physical needs and that our culture should encourage us to act on our every animal instinct.

We must see that our rational capacities can know the good and that, being self-authors, we must choose the good for ourselves. Of course, there is no such thing as the good life, but as many good lives as are imaginable. These good lives will be various ways for dependent rational animals to flourish, and that means that initiative and enterprise, free choice, self-determination, and community are just as truly basic needs as food and shelter—and that fulfilling our duties to God and neighbor is why we were given freedom in the first place.