Social justice is one of the most prominent—and one of the most loaded—political buzzwords of our time. A term championed by the left, it is regularly used as the basis for creating some government intervention or expanding welfare policy. It is no surprise, then, that the phrase has found little popularity among conservatives and classical liberals. Friedrich Hayek captured conservatives’ distaste for it when he claimed that “nothing has done so much to destroy the juridical safeguards of individual freedom as the striving after this mirage of social justice.” Social justice has become a “weasel word” that can justify any sort of policy. After all, who could be against something that’s both social and just?
But social justice hasn’t always been about political sloganeering. The concept’s pedigree can actually be traced to nineteenth-century Christian social thought. The inventor of social justice is a little known figure, Luigi Taparelli. Thomas Behr’s 2019 book, Social Justice and Subsidiarity: Luigi Taparelli and the Origins of Modern Catholic Social Thought, explores the origin of this idea and the ways that Taparelli developed it into an account of Catholic social engagement.
Taparelli (1793–1862) is a largely forgotten economist in need of an intellectual resurrection. A Jesuit priest from Italy, his role was foundational in the development of Catholic social teaching, if only because Pope Leo XIII was a student assistant of his and was taught by Taparelli.
Social justice is not redistributive justice by government fiat. Nor is it linked to some idea of absolute social or economic equality, as in progressive parlance. Instead, Taparelli develops his notion of social justice from a natural law basis in the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Further, social justice according to Taparelli must be grounded in the principle of subsidiarity and linked to a theological understanding of economics.
Taparelli’s account of social justice starts with the idea that man is not born free, but straight away in “chains,” being dependent throughout his life on the people and institutions around him. He is influenced by the heritage he receives and the circumstances he is born into. Social justice, in its simplest terms, is a moral virtue; it is “a constant and perpetual will to render to each his right,” notes Behr. It is to will and to do what is just for the other simply because the other is participating in the same society as oneself, both on the local level and in the society of mankind.
All people by nature have “physiological sociability,” which is the innate awareness of, dependence on, and cooperation with others. When a person comes of age, starts to reason, and becomes aware of his surroundings, he begins to notice the “reciprocity of social relations”—or what justice looks like in society. Doing good to others slowly develops into an active habit. It becomes second nature to treat others justly and to provide them with the basic necessities to thrive. The early physiological sociality, with which everyone is born, transitions into a “moral sociality,” a habit that makes us work toward the good of the people in our community. Going even beyond this, “solidarity” makes us charitable and lets us go even beyond doing to others what is just. When we act in solidarity, we are sacrificing ourselves for the other.
As individuals engage justly in society, a sense of social justice for an entire community arises. This communal level of justice is “social virtue,” which in the words of Michael Novak is “the living energy of the practice of democracy.” A whole political order is just when it guarantees “the rights to life, liberty, and the rational pursuit of happiness” to all its members and when its laws and institutions respect these rights.
Rights and Subsidiarity
Taparelli’s notion of social justice naturally arises from the fact that every human being has rights, which are always linked to duties. Taparelli writes: “From the idea of right springs spontaneously the idea of social justice. A right mind admires order and loves it in itself and in others, and by consequence makes efforts to preserve it, acting such that to the right corresponds the fulfillment of duty.” Our minds love order naturally and we seek to act according to it—which means we observe and uphold our duties to others.
Crucially, social justice shows that the rights of others cannot be violated. Charity and justice need to honor the dignity and liberty of every human being, even their property. Taparelli writes that “all men have equal right to do that which seems best to them for obtaining one’s own good, and no one can obstruct or contradict the right of others without sinning against the order of justice from which this right depends.” In other words, we all have a right to secure our own good, but social justice prohibits us from doing so in a way that impedes the good of others.
For Taparelli, social justice must be supplemented by the concept of subsidiarity. In his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI says subsidiarity’s defining principle is that “one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.” That is, whenever a decision arises, it should be made on the appropriately lowest level possible, preferably the individual or family. If the familial level doesn’t suffice, then it becomes the local or state government’s responsibility. Only in cases where there is no alternative should power be delegated to the federal government. Taparelli himself did not use the term subsidiarity, instead using “hypotactical right.” But there is little doubt for Behr that in addition to his writings about social justice, Taparelli’s work on subsidiarity also played a key role in the development of Catholic social teaching.
According to Taparelli, subsidiarity means that the state merely has a regulative role to play. It should not act creatively or even enforce virtues. Lower levels of the political and social order, closer to individuals, are much superior in the task of cultivating and maintaining just order. The central government ought only to be allowed to intervene if the lower forms of authority violate rights.
Since subsidiarity curtails extensive government involvement, social justice demands significant private action. The benefits of the market economy, including trade and exchange, are often better tools to promote material well-being of the poor as well as even moral practice. And on an individual level, as mentioned above, human beings have duties to the other. If government regulation is needed after all, subsidiary again takes priority. What needs to be prevented, according to Taparelli, is to enlarge “the great wound of modern society, centralism,” which has nothing to do with unity, cohesion, justice, or the common good. Centralism, rather, means that the state becomes omnipotent, and having been captured by the powerful, will destroy society’s bonds.
This is not to say that Taparelli was a free-market libertarian. The Jesuit could be quite critical of capitalism. Living at a time when both capitalism and socialism gained in importance, he criticized both for essentially the same reasons, as Behr explains: “their mistaken theories on morality and ethics, the product of their elevation of one or another limited end of human activity—focusing on material needs primarily, and physical pleasure—as the ultimate good, and that they imagine that ideology is able to perfect society.” That is, while both capitalists and socialists consider themselves diametrically opposed, the foundations of their theories are eerily similar.
Both classical liberals and socialists, according to Taparelli, were working toward the destruction of civil society and social justice. Both started with the autonomous individual, unencumbered by duties to his fellow men, and the supreme aims of both approaches to economics were fundamentally material. This meant that both distorted the purpose of economic life and held wrong propositions on human anthropology. The result, Taparelli argues, will be similar in both cases, despite starting in different places: socialism would descend into tyrannical communism, capitalism would end in big government liberalism.
As an alternative to the materialist concern of both, Taparelli proposed the “three motors of human action”: instead of only focusing on the material and temporary pleasure, man would strive toward material prosperity, social cooperation, and intellectual and spiritual truth. Since the ultimate good at which social arrangements aim transcends temporal concerns, this threefold emphasis is intuitive for Taparelli: why, after all, only focus on the material and earthly, if “the noblest part” of a human being, the soul, is raised to a much greater state in the future? Why focus only on this life, if “we have a different destiny” than this world?
Thus, Taparelli’s economic teaching takes on a decisively theological meaning. Social justice is also a duty to honor the other since we want to imitate God, who loves them. In following Christ, we want to serve and be charitable so that others in our community receive what is due. Through this, we participate in God’s plan of creation.
Modern economists might say that making these arguments goes beyond what an economist ought to do. An economist needs to be neutral on all of this. Taparelli would respond that the economist is hardly neutral: he has chosen to prioritize the material and pleasurable. Only through the more holistic framework that Taparelli proposes could an economist account for other areas in life as well—and analyze the economy from a more nuanced, holistic perspective.
Taparelli may have wanted to “baptize economic science,” as Behr argues. But in any case, he wanted to reorient the economic profession toward something beyond material prosperity—without discounting the material as unimportant. His concepts of social justice and subsidiarity played a central part in this and have been instrumental to the development of Catholic social teaching. What bitter irony it is, then, that the term social justice has become an empty label used to validate a wide variety of unjust policies. Perhaps it is time to reappropriate the term in a Taparellian light.