OPINION: Four kinds of justice

·6 min read

Oct. 17—The necessity of journalism is also its greatest pleasure: Getting out and about.

I was recently at a county fair in Ohio, where I met two brothers selling French waffles at a stand that had belonged to their parents and grandparents. Both brothers had real jobs during the winter and the weekdays. But they were keeping the stand alive, in tradition and tribute.

More recently I was in a small town in Virginia — Danville. There were more permanently closed businesses and buildings than open ones. The town made my small Ohio hometown look like Grover's Corners. And no one there is looking for the federal government to come to the rescue.

That doesn't mean the federal government ought not to try, does it?

The last time the government attempted to do something about poverty and extreme economic inequality was the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson. The "war on poverty," as it was also called, sank under the weight of mindless big spending, top heavy models for helping poor people, and the Vietnam War.

The previous attempt was the New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt, which had more success, mostly because it created jobs rather than government programs and bureaucracies. It was aided by war. World War II put men in armed service, women to work in factories, and factories at full capacity. That was not part of FDR's plan. But that's how it worked out.

So, as we debate massive social spending for physical and human infrastructure for the third time in 100 years, we ought to be honest enough and smart enough to admit that (a) government does not create wealth but that (b) one ennobling purpose of government is to correct gross unfairness and acute economic inequality.

Granted, the basic functions of government are the necessary ones: police, fire, roads — the general welfare of all.

And the protection of all.

But that protection had to extend to African-American high school students in Little Rock in 1957. The school would not have been integrated, nor the kids protected, if President Dwight Eisenhower had not nationalized the Arkansas National Guard.

Three more examples of government protecting the common good:

—The abolition of child labor.

—The removal of Jim Crow laws by the passage of federal civil rights laws of the 1960s.

—The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

No serious person would say those were instances when the government overreached.

Sometimes government is the only means of correcting an unjust or an unacceptable condition.

The great flaw in classical conservatism, as well as American conservatism, which is really pragmatic libertarianism, is that it includes no concept of justice beyond legal and procedural justice.

Don't get me wrong, due process of law is the lever of Western civilization. It is from it that all other secular concepts of justice flow.

But it is not enough.

We need a broader application of justice for a world as impersonal as ours, dominated as it is by massive centers of wealth and power. Many people are trampled, and many more are forgotten.

But the weakness of modern statism and progressivism is just as fundamental. For it can imagine no action or program as overreach.

And the concept of "social justice" is both indefinable and insatiable. We should be wary of it.

As with the inflation of the word equity.

Equity used to have a real meaning: The quality of being fair.

Equity is being redefined to mean equality of claim and condition.

The drive for such a broad and abstract form of justice is not sustainable.

What is?

Four kinds of justice, I think.

First, justice as the correction of injustice.

Perfect justice is impossible. But more justice, and less injustice, is identifiable, and possible.

So, instead of talking about "social justice," we should talk about workers compensation or the necessity of exercising freedom of association to form unions. Because most of us would agree that when a worker is disabled by an accident on the job, he should be compensated. Or that when a laborer works so hard he collapses on the job, he cannot simply be fired because he is now worn out. These are clear injustices. And — this is perhaps Old Testament sensibility — while we cannot easily agree on what is just, we can usually see clearly what is horribly unjust.

Second, justice as contract.

This is a form of justice we can trust.

Instead of emoting and railing against the evil ones whom we see as oppressors, we enter into contracts: Meeting entrenched power with collective power and delineating rights and responsibilities. This is what the labor movement was in the beginning and it was epitomized by people like Samuel Gompers and Walter Reuther. They organized and negotiated.

David Hume said that justice should be a cool virtue, and I think there is great wisdom in that. Emotion generally does not change much. Meeting power with power and contracting does.

Most of us can grasp the concept of fair pay for a day's work and form an opinion as to what that might be in a given instance. Contracts are concrete.

Third, justice as personal decency, specific and local.

When one person sets about correcting injustice done to another, it is the most meaningful kind of justice. Maybe it is a boss correcting a colleague's low pay. Maybe it is a teacher recognizing the intellect in a student who'd previously been labeled slow. Maybe it is a coach playing the kid on the team with the most heart and least talent. Maybe it is a lawyer fighting for a client who went to jail when there was no evidence.

This is the clearest and best kind of justice: Heart speaking to heart.

Fourth, justice as an expression of love — or mercy and compassion if you prefer those words.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that no social structure — not the family, not a city, not a church, not a civil organization — can hold together and endure based on self interest alone, or reason alone. There has to be a degree of selflessness, derived from faith or ideals. Without this love element, why help the homeless, risk your life for your country or attempt parenting?

This kind of justice — befriending an addict, for example, knowing he may well fall again — is an approximation of something greater. It is the justice of the fraternity in Alcoholics Anonymous. It is an approximation of divine justice, which is not at all Mr. Hume's detached calculation or contract, but also very far from a posture.

Reinhold Niebuhr, our greatest modern Christian thinker, said: "Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument."

The instrument must be precise.

Just outside of that small town in Virginia, I met a young lawyer named Jason Yarashes and some of his team. They are with the Virginia Justice Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers. They are doing something concrete — going to bat for the right-less and nearly invisible people who feed us. And they are doing justice — one case at a time, one person at a time.

They have embraced all four forms of justice. None are abstract.

Keith C. Burris is the former editor, vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (burriscolumn@gmail.com)

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