Ryan T. Anderson, the William E. Simon senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation recently spoke at a Wheatley Forum titled Neither Liberal nor Libertarian: A Natural Law Approach to Social Justice and Property Rights. Using material from his doctoral thesis, he discussed a comprehensive approach to social justice, government involvement in private life, and our rights and duties as citizens. He argues that national tragedies, a new era of communication, and rapidly evolving political ideologies have distorted our definition of social justice.
“Social justice is primarily a right of individuals. The state has duties to provide citizens with a certain amount of material things… but it tends to be skeptical about human capabilities.” He explains that before the government, individuals have a duty to contribute time, resources, and “foster the common good of every society of which you are a member.”
This can be done by participating in the market economy, strengthening marriage and families, supporting educational institutions, and contributing to religious and charitable organizations. These institutions create a system wherein each member can contribute to the good of another’s life, while bettering their own. “Human flourishing is what justifies our ownership of private property. If we’re not using our property for the benefit of the societies of which we are a member, we are not fulfilling our duty.”
Anderson suggests that the government be considered a last resort for social support. “I’ve intentionally left the state out to point out these duties fall on us as individuals, as communities… before they fall on the state. [The State] needs to be empowering those institutions to do their duty better, not competing with them. The State needs to focus on actual human goods, to help [people] flourish as a human being[s].”
As we support the social institutions of our communities, people, resources, and years of experience are brought together. These elements combined can support society in ways the federal government cannot. These private businesses, schools, families, religious institutions, and social communities “can do the best job of transforming lives that have gone off the rails.”
According to Anderson’s argument, true social justice, supporting and valuing one another’s individual rights, removes the government from the equation entirely. We are all entitled to the same rights, and therefore endowed with the same duty to provide our time and resources to the strengthening of a society in which those rights are possible.