In Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, philosopher and theologian Michael Novak and social work professor Paul Adams, writing with Elizabeth Shaw, seek to recapture an awareness of justice, and so of social justice, as a virtue in the ordinary sense—as a habit or disposition of the moral agent.

The book focuses on a broad range of topics, paying significant attention not only to the idea of social justice but also to the way it has played out over generations of Catholic social teaching and to its significance for social work practice. My emphasis here is on their book’s approach to general issues in ethics and political theory.

For Novak and Adams, social justice is the virtue of appropriate engagement by moral actors in the lives of their societies. Social justice is social because it involves the aim of benefiting one’s communities and because it involves projects undertaken in concert with others. It is, among other things, the virtue needed to form those intermediary associations that serve as bulwarks between the person and the state. State bureaucracies are inefficient and disempowering; embodying the virtue of social justice means addressing the challenges those bureaucracies seek clumsily to meet— but on a genuinely human scale, flexibly, creatively, drawing on the generative power of free association. It also means embracing an approach to social problems less likely than state-based approaches to fall victim to politicians’ collusion with the wealthy and well connected.

Although social justice is often seen as a matter of sustaining “the common good,” there is considerable disagreement over the proper usage of this expression. The notion of the common good is best understood, for Novak and Adams, as a matter of the institutional preconditions for individual flourishing rather than as, say, some sort of (impossible) aggregate of individuals’ utilities. Thus, in the first segment of the book (each author was responsible for a separate portion), Novak quotes the relevant document from Vatican II that defines the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (qtd. on p. 31). The common good may thus be seen as the legal, institutional, and cultural framework within which people’s lives can go well—especially in virtue of their own responsible, creative initiative.

Friedrich Hayek’s criticism of much talk about social justice as vacuous is on target, equivocating as it does between a virtue and a class of states of affairs. Too many self-described advocates of “social justice” seem to treat it as “a term of art, whose operational meaning is ‘we need a law against that’” (p. 39). In increasingly secularized cultures, people find it hard to blame God for their or others’ misfortunes, but a state apparatus held responsible for the entire economy can be regarded as blameworthy if some desired pattern is not approximated by the allocation of benefits and burdens. To this model, Hayek helpfully juxtaposes an alternative, that of a consensual order structured by general, impersonal rules that set terms by which people are free to interact as they see fit. In such an order, individual outcomes are not guaranteed; people prosper, when they do, because and to the extent that they provide what others want, not in virtue of their necessary exemplification of standards of personal merit to any extraordinary degree. At the same time, however, the order conduces to a remarkable overall level of well-being.

Although Hayek’s critique of loose talk about social justice is apt, Novak emphasizes that Hayek himself may reasonably be regarded, ironically enough, as a practitioner of social justice. For Hayek’s own work contributed and was intended to contribute to the development of precisely those institutions that would make widespread human flourishing possible. Hayek exemplified the virtue of social justice not only by writing and teaching about the dynamics of a free society but also by helping to build institutions that contributed to the expansion of freedom and well-being.

Novak initially elaborates the idea of social justice in broadly Aristotelian terms, but he goes on to examine the notion in the context of Catholic social thought. (What he has to say might usefully be read in tandem with Thomas Woods’s The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy [Idaho Falls, Idaho: Lexington Books, 2005].) He discusses the importance of extended social cooperation in “the community of work” (pp. 63–64); the living wage (which Novak reformulates in terms of systemically improving opportunities for the working poor to earn higher incomes); and the significance of private ownership and incentive in maximizing the goods available for everyone’s benefit (Novak’s recasting of the classical Catholic idea of the universal destination of goods).

Sensitive to the fact that Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo anno (1931) seems to take a somewhat corporatist line, despite its opposition to state socialism, Novak argues that its embrace of state power is really rather limited. Although the pope denies that markets can be self-regulating, Novak suggests that the pope’s denial should be seen as a claim about the fundamental legal order underlying market interactions rather than about the ongoing operation of markets. (Of course, law can itself emerge in the market, as historical and theoretical work by economists such as Peter Leeson, David Friedman, and Edward Stringham has shown.)

John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus annus (1991) offers a defense of ordered liberty and the market economy. John Paul underscores, at the same time, the significance of an appropriate legal framework for market interactions and an underlying set of cultural values that simultaneously sustain and constrain market interactions. Novak embraces both. The idea of “political, moral, and cultural counterbalances to capitalism” (pp. 149–50), which John Paul emphasizes along with the rejection of a monomaniacal emphasis on monetary rewards, need hardly be seen as limited to conservatives like Novak. Classical liberals like Adam Smith and David Hume would certainly have recognized the importance of a moral and cultural context for economic activity, and modern libertarians of an Austrian bent would certainly stress that economics is concerned with far more than buying and selling in the marketplace. Novak suggests that John Paul’s encyclical, because of its expressed concern for the poor, is not “libertarian,” but, as he notes earlier, libertarians and classical liberals have been quite clear about their commitment to fostering social institutions with positive consequences for the economically marginalized.

After reflecting on (what he takes to be somewhat less insightful) economic observations by subsequent popes, Novak concludes his segment of the book with some constructive proposals. He stresses the importance of dialogue between theology and economics, emphasizing that it is crucial to give pride of place in our understanding of economic ethics to the creative activity in which humans made in God’s image are called to engage. He also stresses the importance of designing institutions with sinners rather than saints in mind (here echoing Smith and Hume). Doing this means, in particular, avoiding overconfidence in the moral or cognitive capacities of state actors to manage economic and social life.

In the second segment of the book, Adams explores the significance of Novak’s account of social justice for social work practice. He notes that the social work profession is suffused with talk of social justice—understanding this concept in a way that emphasizes state action and ignores the significance of individual initiative and personal conscience. He stresses that the profession needs to take freedom of religion more seriously and that this kind of freedom must include the freedom to act with integrity on the basis of one’s best moral judgment. He encourages the promotion of traditional marriages as an exercise in social justice and stresses that embracing the virtue of social justice means empowering rather than dominating clients.

Adams argues for the continuing relevance of caritas, charity, in tandem with social justice (understood, again, as a virtue rather than as a set of societal outcomes). An emphasis on virtue can, he believes, play a key role in social work practice by providing a clear moral framework that is clearly different from that of secular statism. It is not necessary to agree with the specific commitments Adams embraces regarding family forms and related matters to find his vision of social work practice appealing, even inspiring.

Those who join Novak and Adams in celebrating social justice as the virtue of social cooperation and social activism may still, of course, register some friendly disagreements. They may wonder whether “a strong government is necessary” to provide “national defense,” to safeguard “the value of the national currency,” to undergird “the legal framework required for a free economy,” and to maintain infrastructure projects (p. 25). There is considerable theoretical and historical evidence that a monopoly service provider isn’t needed for these purposes—and that the scope for the exercise of the virtue of social justice is thus even greater than the authors suggest.

Novak is sympathetic to the view that “the best means of raising up the poor— by far—is a strong, free and growing economy” (p. 51). But, expressing support for a limited welfare state, he wonders whether “this is not always enough, especially in certain hard circumstances, for instance, when people lack the insight or the habits to take advantage of opportunity” (p. 51). The implication seems entirely correct, but one might wonder whether it follows that the state is needed to address these “hard circumstances.” Solidaristic nonstate action (consider the historical evidence regarding mutual-aid associations in the United States and England, for instance) in tandem with the rectification of historical injustice might effectively address these problems without posing the same challenges to freedom, community, prosperity, and human dignity predictably created by a state, with its capacity to intervene in the economy and redistribute wealth.

Novak emphasizes that welfare programs are undesirable when they create a culture of dependency. He instances the Homestead Act, which he says “gave hundreds of thousands a stake in property, on the condition that they would use their own practical intelligence and labor to develop it” (p. 51) as a positive example of state action to benefit the disfranchised. To be sure, the Homestead Act didn’t breed a culture of dependency, but it is hardly a paradigm case of state action. The stakes awarded under the act were ones people could perfectly well have claimed for themselves without state involvement: Congress was able give people these stakes only because it had already engrossed vast quantities of western land by legislative fiat, land that would otherwise have been open to homesteading without its involvement. But Novak’s point is not to argue for specific welfare programs, and he emphasizes that social justice “is an attribute of citizens, not states” (p. 51).

Adams’s introduction to the book seeks to distinguish his and Novak’s position from what they see as an unappealingly radical individualism associated with, for instance, the work of Ayn Rand. But neither classical liberals such as Smith and Hume nor modern libertarians such as Murray Rothbard were atomists, denying the role of relationships in constituting persons’ identities, the vast importance of social cooperation in improving human life, or people’s positive moral responsibilities to others. (Neither was Rand.) The liberal tradition has stressed the value of individual self-exploration and self-definition and the significance of persons’ rights as safeguards against coercion by other persons, including those acting under the aegis of the state. But that tradition has never supposed that persons were or should be imagined to be free from innumerable social connections and influences or from significant moral constraints. Liberalism has favored not atomistic but, in Sheldon Richman’s felicitous phrase, molecular individualism (“Molecular Individualism: The Associations in a Free Society Create Higher Living Standards,” Foundation for Economic Education, March 1, 1998, at So the authors’ attempt to distinguish their position from a liberal one seems unnecessary given the history of liberalism—though no doubt they regarded it as important to do so, given the caricatures that some readers might associate with liberal thought.

Social Justice Isn’t What You Think helpfully reconceives the idea of social justice, making clear that there is a way of thinking of this kind of justice as comparable to other sorts of justice and so as a virtue. Novak highlights interesting continuities between his position and official Catholic teaching. And he emphasizes the link between free institutions and widely shared prosperity, making clear that promoting state action is hardly the only or the best way to exercise the virtue of social justice. Classical liberals and libertarians will wonder whether Novak’s conception of social justice might not be compatible with an even more unqualified insistence on the capacity of social institutions satisfactorily to address social problems without the state’s involvement. But they will certainly want to applaud Novak’s thoughtful recasting of a controversial idea in a manner hospitable to and supportive of ideals of freedom and peaceful social cooperation.

Gary Chartier
La Sierra University
Culture and Society
Other Independent Review articles by Gary Chartier
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