Unjust Means to Economic Ends (2022)

By Gregory J. Guest

May 12, 2014

A recent exchange of comments regarding libertarianism and Catholic social thought has taken a relatively prominent place in social media and the blogosphere for the past week. We have Mark Shea to thank for that. Shea’s rebellion against the Enlightenment-ideology of libertarianism has spawned the latest skirmish in the conflict between liberals and what have been called illiberals, this time with a focus on the role of the state in ensuring a just wage for laborers. As a result of a piece written by Joe Hargrave for Crisis Magazine, the discussion has remained primarily focused on Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum. In response, Gabriel Sanchez exposed the all-too-common habit of liberals to read social encyclicals through a libertarian lens, so as to shade the contrary deficiencies in the text that risk challenging the ideology of license—a pillar of our materialist culture.

I suggest to you that this libertarian lens—the tendency of liberalism to approach Catholic social thought with preconceived notions of the role of government, business, and culture, and with the intention to discard all that runs against these notions—blurs the distinction drawn by Leo between justice and charity. It causes one to read in a papal document that the state has no particular duty to society that is grounded in charity, but then to conclude that the state has no duty to society at all (not even one grounded in justice).

Hargrave himself admits this to an extent in his reply, when he acknowledges a rejection of Pius XI’s claim in paragraph 49 of Quadragesimo Anno that the state has the right to control private ownership for the purpose of ensuring that it conforms to the common good. Hargrave does this under the guise of being a “realist,” but this “reality” cannot afford man a social nature. In this “reality” man is rather autonomous and must offer his consent in order to give real meaning to the common good, which cannot exist outside of his contract. Outside of this “reality,” indeed in a world that acknowledges the nature of man, society will flourish only with due acknowledgment for an authentic inquiry into the demands of justice and the common good. Contrary to Hargrave’s Rothbardian cafeteria, a holistic reading of both Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno will confirm a deep and structural incompatibility with the autonomous contract theory of liberalism.

From my own perspective, it appears that the portion of Hargrave’s piece that has caused the most discussion is his mention of paragraph 22 of Rerum Novarum. In the context of discussing the use of one’s property, Leo instructs “without hesitation” that private property is to be used to serve others in need. He gives the caveat that no one is required to give away what he needs for his household and condition in life (which would clearly be an injustice), but with what is leftover of our material possessions, we have a duty to give: “But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over.”

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He then draws a distinction between the two possible foundations that ground this duty. The duty to give of this portion of one’s possessions arises either out of justice or it arises out of charity, depending upon the circumstances. “It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity—a duty not enforced by human law.” The duty thus arises out of justice in “extreme cases” (which he addresses later). The duty that arises out of charity, to which the Pontiff devotes the remainder of paragraph 22, is exemplified in the “practice of almsgiving.” This is, however, where the libertarian analysis effectively ends. Hargrave gives a two-prong conclusion:

How extreme need is to be understood is not made clear in the encyclical, but it is at least debatable that such needs are a) best assessed at the local level, not requiring an army of federal bureaucrats, armed agents, and massive budgets to meet, and b) may be at least partially or even wholly addressed without confiscatory tax policies.

He is of course mistaken that “extreme need” (those circumstances that cry out for justice) is left unaddressed in the encyclical. Regardless, I take no issue to the first prong. The second, however, exhibits a view of the state and of justice that renders Leo’s statement meaningless. How else can justice be served in such extreme need, particularly when it is at least debatable that the system is rigged to favor only those who have amassed such concentration of capital as we see today?

Leo continues by detailing the duties of the state, which are primarily grounded in justice and the common good. After giving a workable definition of the state in the first sentence of paragraph 32 (on which I would encourage my libertarian friends to contemplate, in order to combat their urge to see “the state” as nothing more than a naked violence which those charged with its administration clothe with their own ideologies), Leo delves into the duties of the state in paragraph 33. There should be no surprise that he returns to the foundation of justice:

Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice—with that justice which is called distributive—toward each and every class alike.

In paragraph 34, he gives greater meaning still:

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Justice, therefore, demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create—that being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable.

Rather than replacing the charge in paragraph 34, the instruction in paragraph 36 adds to it:

Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it. Now, it is to the interest of the community, as well as of the individual, that peace and good order should be maintained; that all things should be carried on in accordance with God's laws and those of nature; that the discipline of family life should be observed and that religion should be obeyed; that a high standard of morality should prevail, both in public and private life; that justice should be held sacred and that no one should injure another with impunity; that the members of the commonwealth should grow up to man's estate strong and robust, and capable, if need be, of guarding and defending their country. If by a strike of workers or concerted interruption of work there should be imminent danger of disturbance to the public peace; or if circumstances were such as that among the working class the ties of family life were relaxed; if religion were found to suffer through the workers not having time and opportunity afforded them to practice its duties; if in workshops and factories there were danger to morals through the mixing of the sexes or from other harmful occasions of evil; or if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age—in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law. The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law's interference—the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief.

Paragraph 36 can only be a weapon in the hands of the libertarian if he ignores the charge Leo gives in paragraph 34. In other words, in some situations, it becomes imperative for the state to act (paragraph 36) where otherwise the administration must prudentially look to the demands of justice in ensuring the well-being and interests of all of its citizens (paragraph 34). The picture that Leo paints is hardly one of the libertarian dream centered on a materialist market. It is one of society grounded in and centered on the dignity of the human person.

The libertarian view culminates in Hargrave’s flagrant rejection of Pius XI’s claim in paragraph 88 of Quadragesimo Anno:

Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life—a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. Therefore, it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle. This function is one that the economic dictatorship which has recently displaced free competition can still less perform, since it is a headstrong power and a violent energy that, to benefit people, needs to be strongly curbed and wisely ruled. But it cannot curb and rule itself. Loftier and nobler principles—social justice and social charity—must, therefore, be sought whereby this dictatorship may be governed firmly and fully.

This paragraph the libertarian excludes as a “technical” claim (a buzzword libertarians use to preface their rejection of Papal authority). Under an holistic understanding of Catholic social teaching, however, the last sentence of this quotation is anything but a surprise. If one can accept the clear and necessary implications of the distinction between charity and justice, then Pius XI’s words follow logically. It is only through the diminishment of justice in the name of liberalism that the need arises to reject this so-called technical claim.

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Amidst the loss of this distinction between justice and charity and the eventual diminishment of justice itself, one outcome remains that pervades the libertarian talking points: consequentialism. With justice off the table, the libertarian is left making consequentialist arguments to moral claims. This brings us full circle, since many of Mark Shea’s initial comments about libertarianism were closely related to his approval of the recent government-mandated increase of the minimum wage in Seattle. The libertarian response to the legislation has been to immediately draw attention to the potential unemployment rate as well as the potential change in the price of goods following such a governmental act.

To be clear, whether Seattle’s mandate is just or economically feasible is irrelevant to the purposes of this piece. The point is that Mr. Shea expressed an opinion in favor of the mandate, presumably seeing it as a good-will attempt on the part of the government to “carefully watch” over the “interests of the working class” (RN 34). The overwhelming focus of the libertarian response, however, has been primarily fixated on the potential consequences of such an act in contrast to maintaining a higher employment rate and lower prices for goods and services. Simply put, the economic end of higher employment and lower prices is expected to justify the means of lower (possibly unjust) wages.

This is a common trend among libertarian economists, sometimes with applications that are intended to shock the conscience. After turning a blind eye to justice as a foundation for the duties of the state, liberalism renders the libertarian incapable of responding to this moral argument with anything but consequentialism. For someone with an eye to genuine Catholic social thought, the response should rather be focused on how to go about ensuring a just wage. This can only be done by returning to an authentic reading of Catholic social teaching, insofar as libertarians have any authentic interest in using Catholic social teaching to promote the flourishing of our society.

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What is the meaning of economic injustice? ›

Economic inequality is the unequal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society.

Is economic inequality inherently unjust? ›

V Justice and Economic Inequalities

There is considerable consensus from ancient times to the present that economic inequalities are not inherently unjust, or at least that some economic inequalities are just.

What are examples of economic injustice? ›

There are three main types of economic inequality:
  • Income Inequality. Income inequality is the extent to which income is distributed unevenly in a group of people. Income. ...
  • Pay Inequality. A person's pay is different to their income. Pay refers to payment from employment only. ...
  • Wealth Inequality.

How do you stop economy in injustice? ›

12 Tools to Reduce Income and Wealth Inequality
  1. 12 Tools to Reduce Income and Wealth Inequality. ...
  2. Raise Wages and Other Benefits. ...
  3. Make the Income Tax System More Progressive. ...
  4. Cap the Ratio of Top Executive Pay to Worker Pay. ...
  5. Raise the Capital Gains Tax Rate. ...
  6. Raise the Tax on Carried Interest.
Feb 11, 2021

What is economic equality short answer? ›

In simple terms, economic equality is about a level playing field where everyone has the same access to the same wealth.

What is an example of economic equality? ›

Economic equality is the belief that people should receive the same rate of pay for a job, regardless of race, gender, or other characteristics that are not related to their ability to perform the task. The easiest example of economic equality gone wrong is in pay differentials between men and women.

Why is economic inequality unfair? ›

It is unfair because it, in fact, suggests the existence of privileges of birth, which are considered unacceptable in modern society. As a result, a society with higher inequality of opportunity is more likely to be politically unstable, which also has a negative impact on economic growth.

Is economic inequality good or bad? ›

Effects of income inequality, researchers have found, include higher rates of health and social problems, and lower rates of social goods, a lower population-wide satisfaction and happiness and even a lower level of economic growth when human capital is neglected for high-end consumption.

What is the main problem of economic inequality? ›

Inequality is a drag on economic growth and fosters political dysfunction, experts say. Concentrated income and wealth reduces the level of demand in the economy because rich households tend to spend less of their income than poorer ones. Reduced opportunities for low-income households can also hurt the economy.

How are social injustice and economic inequality related? ›

Answer. Social inequality is linked to racial inequality, gender inequality, and wealth inequality. The way people behave socially, through racist or sexist practices and other forms of discrimination, tends to trickle down and affect the opportunities and wealth individuals can generate for themselves.

What are two main types of economic inequality? ›

Economists talk about two types of economic inequality: wealth and income inequality. Income inequality looks at how big the differences in what people get paid are in the economy.

What can we do so that the benefits of economic growth can be more equally distributed? ›

Public policy can help to reduce inequality and address poverty without slowing U.S. economic growth.
  • Increase the minimum wage. ...
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax. ...
  • Build assets for working families. ...
  • Invest in education. ...
  • Make the tax code more progressive. ...
  • End residential segregation.
Sep 10, 2014

Why is economic equality important? ›

Greater economic equality benefits all people in all societies, whether you are rich, poor, or in-between. Countries that have chosen to be more equal have enjoyed greater economic prosperity while also managing to develop in a more environmentally sustainable fashion.

Who said economic equality is an important right? ›

Bernard Shaw was one of the few socialist theorists to advocate complete economic equality of outcome right at the beginning of World War One.

Is economic equity an important goal for our society? ›

Some societies view equity as a worthy goal in and of itself because of its moral implications and its intimate link with fairness and social justice. Policies that promote equity can help, directly and indirectly, to reduce poverty.

What is unfairness in economics? ›

Economists define inequality as unfair, if people have unequal opportunities or insufficient resources to make ends meet.

How is inequality unfair? ›

On the one hand, equality of opportunity. This principle states that inequalities are unfair if they caused by factors that are not the responsibility of individuals; think of inequalities across gender, race or the wealth of your parents. On the other hand, freedom from poverty.

What are the causes of inequality in society? ›

Inequalities are not only driven and measured by income, but are determined by other factors - gender, age, origin, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, class, and religion. These factors determine inequalities of opportunity which continue to persist, within and between countries.

What are the effects of economic inequality on society? ›

Societies with pronounced economic inequality suffer from lower long-term GDP growth rates, higher crime rates, poorer public health, increased political inequality, and lower average education levels.

How does economic inequality affect economic growth? ›

Specifically, rising inequality transfers income from low-saving households in the bottom and middle of the income distribution to higher-saving households at the top. All else equal, this redistribution away from low- to high-saving households reduces consumption spending, which drags on demand growth.

Is inequality beneficial to society? ›

In a cross-national comparison, countries with a bigger income gap between rich and poor indeed have more social ills. Inequality is bad for society as it goes along with weaker social bonds between people, which in turn makes health and social problems more likely.

How does inequality and poverty affect the economy? ›

For higher levels of poverty, we find that inequality negatively impacts economic growth. The negative effect of inequality on economic growth grows as poverty rises. This is suggestive that poverty-reduction policies might be more useful for promoting growth than simply redistributing incomes.

What are the issues of inequality in society? ›

Social inequality is the distribution of resources in a society based on power, religion, kinship, prestige, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class.

How does income inequality affect our lives? ›

Less equal societies have less stable economies. High levels of income inequality are linked to economic instability, financial crisis, debt and inflation.

What are the causes of economic inequality among developed and developing countries? ›

Key factors
  • unemployment or having a poor quality (i.e. low paid or precarious) job as this limits access to a decent income and cuts people off from social networks;
  • low levels of education and skills because this limits people's ability to access decent jobs to develop themselves and participate fully in society;

How does inequality lead to poverty? ›

This in turn leads to 'the intergenerational transmission of unequal economic and social opportunities, creating poverty traps, wasting human potential, and resulting in less dynamic, less creative societies' (UNDESA, 2013, p. 22). Inequalities can also have a negative impact on almost all in society.

What are some examples of inequalities? ›

The major examples of social inequality include income gap, gender inequality, health care, and social class.

What are the causes of injustice and inequality? ›

Racism, economic inequality, and class discrimination are some of the root causes of social injustice, but social injustice can affect anyone. When a group with wealth, power, or authority gives preferential treatment to its own group over members of another group, social injustice occurs.

Whats does injustice mean? ›

Definition of injustice

1 : absence of justice : violation of right or of the rights of another : unfairness. 2 : an unjust act : wrong.

What is economic justice and why does it matter? ›

Economic justice has been defined as “a set of moral principles for building economic institutions, the ultimate goal of which is to create an opportunity for each person to create a sufficient material foundation upon which to have a dignified, productive, and creative life beyond economics.” Therefore, an economic ...

When did economic inequality start? ›

The Gini first rose above 40 in 1983. Inequality rose almost continuously, with inconsequential dips during the economic recessions in 1990–91 (Gini 42.0), 2001 (Gini 44.6) and 2007. The lowest top 1% pre-tax income share measured between 1913 and 2016 was 10.9%, achieved in 1975, 1976 and 1980.

What do you mean by inequality explain the reasons for income inequality in society? ›

Income inequality is how unevenly income is distributed throughout a population. The less equal the distribution, the higher income inequality is. Income inequality is often accompanied by wealth inequality, which is the uneven distribution of wealth.

What are the solutions for economic growth? ›

Six Ways to Create Economic Growth
  • Promote economic growth through innovation. ...
  • Strategic immigration reform. ...
  • End the war on drugs. ...
  • Require unemployed workers to volunteer. ...
  • Cut health care costs. ...
  • Remove unnecessary and unclear laws.
Jan 23, 2013

Does economic growth reduce income inequality? ›

Economic growth reduces poverty because growth has little impact on income inequality. In the data set income inequality rises on average less than 1.0 percent a year. Since income distributions are relatively stable over time, economic growth tends to raise incomes for all members of society, including the poor.

How does government ensure to end the inequity in the country? ›

Governments can intervene to promote equity, and reduce inequality and poverty, through the tax and benefits system. This means employing a progressive tax and benefits system which takes proportionately more tax from those on higher levels of income, and redistributes welfare benefits to those on lower incomes.

What is the meaning of economic justice? ›

Economic justice has been defined as “a set of moral principles for building economic institutions, the ultimate goal of which is to create an opportunity for each person to create a sufficient material foundation upon which to have a dignified, productive, and creative life beyond economics.” Therefore, an economic ...

What is an example of economic justice? ›

The earned income credit, affordable housing, and need-based federal financial aid for college students are other examples of economic justice institutions.

What does economic justice mean for Class 8? ›

Economic justice denotes the non-discrimination between people on the basis of economic factors. It involves the elimination of glaring inequalities in wealth, income and property.

What is the meaning of social and economic justice? ›

The expression 'Social and Economic Justice' involves the concept of 'Distributive Justice' which connotes the removal of economic inequalities and rectifying the injustice resulting from dealing or transaction between unequal in society.

Why do we need economic justice? ›

In order to address the inequality that stems from pure capitalism, economic justice aims to create equal opportunities for all members of the economy. If all citizens can earn an income for themselves, they will spend more, which will stimulate the economy further.

What right does economic justice ensure? ›

Right to equal pay for equal work, right to equality in opportunity in public employment, right to freedom of trade and commerce and living wage for the workers are the example of notions of economic justice which covered under this detailed analysis.

What do you mean by economic and political justice? ›

1. Political Justice — Political justice means that all the citizens should enjoy equal political rights. In other words, the citizens should have the right to participate in the Government. 2. Economic Justice — Economic justice means that every citizen should get the opportunity to earn livelihood.

What are the three principles of economic justice? ›

Justice Defined

In economic affairs there are three princi- ples of justice that apply: the principle of equivalence, 2 the principle of distributive justice, and the principle of contributive justice.

Which one of the following is an economic right? ›

The correct answer is 4) Right to Employment.

What do u mean by justice? ›

the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason: to complain with justice. the moral principle determining just conduct.

What is meant by economic justice Mcq? ›

D. the basic needs regarding food, clothing and shelter of every citizen are met. Answer» d. the basic needs regarding food, clothing and shelter of every citizen are met. Report.

What are the types of justice? ›

This article points out that there are four different types of justice: distributive (determining who gets what), procedural (determining how fairly people are treated), retributive (based on punishment for wrong-doing) and restorative (which tries to restore relationships to "rightness.") All four of these are ...

What is your economic justice to Indians? ›

Solution(By Examveda Team)

Though the Preamble makes an oath for providing Social, Economic and Political justice to all citizens, it is ensured by Directive Principles of State Policy under Part-IV of constitution. Article-38 directs State to secure social order which ensures social, economic and political justice.

What is the impact of social justice in the economy of the country? ›

Social justice is an important and irreplaceable part of the social economic growth. Based on the theory of new Keynesianism, reforms are aimed to balance income distribution. One of the earliest and evidence-based relationships between social justice and economic growth has been the income inequality.

How is the social economic justice provided to the people? ›

The expression 'social and economic justice' involves the concept of 'distributive justice' which connotes the removal of economic inequalities and rectifying the injustice resulting from dealing or transaction between unequal in society. Social justice is concerned with the distribution of benefits and burdens.

Why is justice important in society? ›

Why Is Social Justice Important? Social justice promotes fairness and equity across many aspects of society. For example, it promotes equal economic, educational and workplace opportunities. It's also important to the safety and security of individuals and communities.


1. Is the System Just Or Unjust? | Jordan Peterson
2. The Injustice League
(Solid jj)
3. Inflation Versus Deflation:Inflation is Unjust But Deflation Is Inexpedient
4. Jordan Peterson ~ Why Can't You Let Go Of An Unfair Treatment?
5. What ‘The Triumph of Injustice” Means for Democracy
(The Graduate Center, CUNY)
6. The Unjust Relationship Between Capitalism and Blackness | The New Yorker Documentary
(The New Yorker)

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