The idea of “social justice” stems from cultural perspectives shaped by two developments of the late twentieth century: the rise of mass consumption and the heritage of the civil rights movement. The former fueled a growing preoccupation with wealth distribution, and the latter provided an energizing myth that animated the redistributive ethic.


The term social justice comes up frequently in circles concerned with political and economic policy. Although it is often ill defined, it generally rests on two overriding principles. First, social justice is viewed primarily as a matter of redistributing goods and resources to improve the situations of the disadvantaged. Second, this redistribution is not presented as a matter of compassion or national interest, but as a matter of the rights of the relatively disadvantaged to make claims on the rest of the society. In common usage, the term is rarely taken as expressing a debatable position, but as a statement of a fundamental axiom of value in political and economic life.

Carl L. Bankston III is professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology at Tulane University.
Civil RightsLaw and Liberty
Other Independent Review articles by Carl L. Bankston III
Winter 2010/11 The Mass Production of Credentials: Subsidies and the Rise of the Higher Education Industry