"I am certain, however, that nothing has done so much to destroy the juridical safeguards of individual freedom as the striving after this mirage of social justice.”
Freidrich A. Hayek
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
F. Scott Fitzgerald
When one enters the ground floor of human service work, divorced from its academic revision that blossomed in the mid-1960's, we find a very simple definition, if one looks hard enough, on the NOHS flagship page.
"The primary purpose of the human services professional is to assist individual and communities to function as effectively as possible in the major domains of living."
This guiding principle was founded on Wolf Wolfensberger's pioneering work with the disabled, which attempted to shift perceptions through Social Role Valorization, a fine tuning of the concept of normalization. Though Wolfensberger's work is but one discipline within a multi-disciplinary field, its core philosophy can still serve as a panacea for the field writ large: to help integrate and adjust those hindered, whether through intellectual or physical impairments, socio/economic hardship, incarceration, addiction or illness. In turn, SRV challenges society to neither shun nor be overly accommodating out of a sense of pity or good intentions that inadvertently encourage further societal stigmas.
Reasonable people can disagree over the merits of normalization vs valorization, or, as I have often argued, whether a completely value neutral society is a desirable aim; but now that human service training has moved out of the community colleges and vocational schools and into the hallowed halls of academia and ivy league universities, human services work has become something entirely different. It has now become another tool in the arsenal of those seeking ``social justice``.
"Our mission (is to) strengthen the community by...advocating and implementing a social policy and agenda. We believe in advocating for social justice."
Assistance has become advocacy, the individual is now the collective, and effectively functioning communities have been replaced by divisive special interest groups, festering in a culture of victimization looking for redress to grievances that can never be satisfied.
But if Wolfensberger's vision can be warped into something unrecognizable from its original intent, have we also, as Hayek asserted, "perverted" the meaning of social justice itself?
One of the most widely used textbooks issued to first year students entering Social Work, "Doing Anti-Oppressive Practice" gives us a hint. "Our everyday experience is shaped by multiple oppressions, macro and micro level social relations that perpetuate and promote social ideas values and processes that are oppressively organized around notions of superiority. Multiple oppressions including gender, sexual orientation, and race. Social justice oriented human services works to transform those forces within society that benefit from and perpetuate inequity and oppression."
That's quite a mission statement! But who's to blame for all this oppression? Again, the text is more than ready to provide an answer. "Social justice oriented social work, strive to meet client's in the context of an increasingly pro-market, corporatized, society that supports and benefits from war, colonialism, poverty and injustice at the local level and worldwide."
If you look elsewhere you'll begin to notice a pattern with a heavily ideological tilt leftward. As Jonah Goldberg noted,
“Social justice” is one of those phrases that no mission statement — at least no mission statement of a certain type — can do without. You simply cannot be in the do-goodery business without proclaiming that you’re fighting for social justice. Here’s the AFL-CIO: “The mission of the AFL-CIO is to improve the lives of working families — to bring economic justice to the work-place and social justice to our nation.” The 2 million–strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — which serves as the political shock troops for President Obama (former SEIU president Andrew Stern was the most frequent visitor to the White House during the first six months of the Obama presidency, which no doubt is why his presidency got off to such a great start) — asserts: “We believe we have a special mission to bring economic and social justice to those most exploited in our community — especially to women and workers of color.”
Progressives have always had a problem looking in their rear-view mirrors, and this problem creates a petri dish that breeds intellectual dishonesty. The left can only walk back as far as The New Deal, lest they trip into President Woodrow Wilson and Hebert Croly. Wilson and Croly present a problem because they are the architects of the modern progressive movement, a movement that was inspired by European fascism. Wilson, under the cloak of social justice, zealously adopted and implemented laws that strengthened labor unions and increased the powers of the Federal government. During WW1, Wilson imprisoned or deported over 10,000 Americans he deemed subversive, including African Americans, whom Wilson described as "shiftless children".
This convenient blind spot has prevented academics from exploring the roots of social justice, roots founded in the bosom of Roman Catholicism.
In the mid 19th century, Catholic theologian Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, concerned with the growing encroachment of the state on individual liberty, coined the term "social justice". Throughout Europe, competing notions of economic, philosophical and metaphysical principles were blossoming. As new institutions, both private and public, were being formed around these competing notions, d'Azeglio worried that they would throw society into chaos. There were now sub-societies within society at large. D'Azeglio asserted that in order for these societies to coexist with one another, the individuals within them had a responsibility to respect and cooperate with each other, rather than isolate and compete for dominance. It is a complex theory, but at its core, it implores us not to engage in tribalism, or to become too ideologically dogmatic.
In modern terms, social justice promoted harmony over identity politics, precisely the opposite of what social justice strives for today.
Social justice received its first makeover at the hands of Wilson, Croly, and John Dewey, who worked in tandem to enact legislation at the behest of international trade unions to, among other things, impose the 8 hour work day. Croly's idealism would be the thread that connected Wilson to President Roosevelt and The New Deal, the second largest expansion of the powers of the Federal Government in history, the first now being the implementation of the Affordable Care Act under the Obama administration.
The New Deal has become the signature piece of legislation that academics point to as the birth of social justice, inspired by the left's growing enthusiasm for European Fascism. Once signed into law, it made the federal government the largest employer of American citizens, solidified the rights of both public and private sector unions, introduced the concept of a "living wage", subsidized housing, massive federal grants for the agricultural and manufacturing sector, and allocated up to 500 million dollars in federal transfers to state governments for make-work projects. These themes are still recognizable in the mission statements of literally millions of organizations whose mandate is the promotion of "social justice". They were also prominent in the Nazi party platform and that of the Italian National Fascists Party.
This fact, like Wilson’s racial polemics, is glossed over or ignored by modern day progressives, a luxury not afforded to capitalist icons like Henry Ford or Walt Disney whose alleged xenophobia is largely based on wild speculation. It was a necessity in order for these doctrines to be smoothly transported into the feminist, environmental and academic movement in the 1960’s, and into the modern day social welfare movement. In order to rally, there must be those to rally against. Social justice, in its present incarnation, must have a myriad of injustices to rectify. It must also have straw men who perpetrate these injustices, like the “..militaristic, capitalist, anti-human, post-structuralist society” about which University textbooks like "Doing anti-oppressive practice warns us.
The reason Hayek coined the phrase “mirage of social justice” is quite simple: Such a thing can never truly exist. “Only situations that have been created by human will can be called just or unjust. . . . Social justice,” Hayek concludes, “does not belong to the category of effort but that of nonsense, like the term ‘a moral stone.'"
Imagine a province which enacts a 2 dollar increase in the minimum wage after dedicated lobbying efforts on behalf of self-appointed poverty advocates. As a result, a woman who owns a pizza restaurant employing 12 people, must lay off two employees and reduce another 4 to part-time hours in order to remain profitable. Who is to blame for this injustice? The invisible hand of the free market? The pizza parlor owner? The consumer who instead, frequents a chain restaurant that sells a similar product at a lower price? The government for not providing subsidies to help cushion the blow of the increase? Or could it possibly be the poverty advocates, who, operating on emotion rather than intellect, galvanized public opinion to support the new law? Who has been unjust? Who is to blame? Is this a society that lives harmoniously? One that fosters a culture of cooperation
When we lobby for legislation we are seeking legal recourse, not social justice. We are trying to construct, through government lobbying, a society that fits one group's vision of what constitutes justice and fairness. We move further and further away from Wolfensberger's vision of harmony that stems from each human being’s personal responsibility to his fellow man, and his community.
“The only way for social justice to make sense is if you operate from the assumption that the invisible hand of the market should be amputated and replaced with the very visible hand of the state. In other words, each explicit demand for social justice carries with it the implicit but necessary requirement that the state do the fixing. And a society dedicated to the pursuit of perfect social justice must gradually move more and more decisions under the command of the state, until it is the sole moral agent.”