Author: Paul A. Cleveland –

What is the Social Justice Movement About?

In his book, The Flight from Reality, Clarence Carson explores the fundamental issues and problems associated with the social reform movement that was spawned in the late nineteenth century and has continued to this day.1 While there are some today who see the concept of social justice as primarily a private effort of building community, the original social reformers who embraced the phrase used it to argue that government was the chief means needed to effect positive change in society.2 The term “social justice” was and essentially remains a call for government action to intervene in the lives of people to promote the so-called common good as defined by the reformers. In that sense, the movement was based on a utopian vision. This is evidenced by the various phrases these reformers used to promote their agendas. In America the most common label the reformers used to refer to themselves was to call themselves “progressives.”

That the social justice movement is inspired primarily by Marxism cannot be doubted. Indeed, the idea that utopia can be had by political and legal means is at the heart of the reform movement whether its advocates are religious or not. Interestingly, the root of all socialism is atheism since it sprung from the naturalism of the Enlightenment. As such it is motivated by a hatred for traditional religion. Marx hated religion, private property, the division of labor, government, and virtually every aspect of social life that had been founded on the Judeo-Christian worldview. Given the strong influence of Hegelian collectivism, he aimed to overthrow it all. As Clarence Carson has aptly observed, “The appeal of Marxism lies in the fact that it justifies and sanctifies the release of the demonic urges in each of us. It justifies and sanctifies hate, envy, the love of power, the bent to destruction, the desire to set everything right (particularly others), and the vague and unfulfilled longing of man.”3

One of the proponents of social reform, Woodrow Wilson, captured the essence of this point in attacking the U.S. Constitution since it is founded upon natural law principles and the understanding that all people are created by God and are, hence, individually gifted and important. Wilson argued that the Founders were just deluded by the age in which they lived and could not have known of the evolutionary notion that all people were simply animals and part of the herd. As Wilson put it,

The trouble with their theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live. On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick cooperation, their ready response to the commands of instinct and intelligence, their amicable community of purpose. Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions. . . . There can be no successful government without the intimate, instinctive co-ordination of the organs of life and action. This is not theory, but fact, and displays its forces as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. . . . All that we progressives ask or desire is permission. . .to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.4

In this short statement Wilson casts aside virtually all political thought that had been amassed up to his age. In essence he embraces Hegel’s notion that the state ought to be worshiped as the Divine on earth. The pompous arrogance of this ought to be enough to give the thoughtful person pause to question his assertions. In a brief retort he reduces the natural rights of individual people to nothing and makes everyone subservient to government. This is nothing short of a declaration of war against the individual person while advocating the supposed beauty of tyranny and despotism. It is nothing short of a license for those with political power to do anything they think might promote the interests of civilization.

The real perversion in the Social Justice movement in America is that many people claiming to be Christians were and are proponents of it. These people altered the Christian message and reduced it to a mere call for social change. Essentially, this was and is an effort to baptize Karl Marx. But this effort is a colossal failure since it is impossible to separate Marx’s political philosophy from his atheism. In fact, Marxism springs from an affirmation of naturalism that rejects God and reduces man to the animal level. It was on the basis of this view of mankind that early writers argued for collectivistic planning since the “herd” of the masses was in supposed need of guidance. As such, reformers advocated for the adoption of various positive laws that would reshape the structure of society according to their various visions of utopia. One is left to wonder how these self-proclaimed leaders were capable of rising above the herd to determine the direction of utopia, but we are not expected to ask such questions of them since they are supposedly endowed with godlike qualities not present in the rest of us. If any concept of God was left, it was of a very old pagan sort that ought rightly to be rejected by thoughtful people.

In a very real sense, this movement was a reversion backwards in time. The long record of human history presents us with an ongoing struggle to demystify government. When Moses led the Israelites out of bondage and Egyptian slavery he told the people that they were created in the image of God. As Edward Curtis observed, “References to men as images of god in Egypt and Mesopotamia show that, while occasional reference to others is found, the king was the focus of the idea in both cultures.”5 Thus, the claim was that the king was responsible for understanding God’s will and using his power to direct the people to accomplish it in this world. By telling the people that they bore the image of God, Moses elevated all people to the level of sovereignty that was assumed only for the king. This was a marked advancement in establishing the worth of the individual human person. In a real sense, Moses demystified government.

The affirmation of the person as possessing certain fundamental rights was also at the heart of the America founding many years later. Despite this advancement in society, Wilson and the other reformers chose to promote a re-mystification of government and the promotion of a new form of tyranny and despotism. One of the sad aspects of this movement is that some reformers used the Christian religion to promote it. To do so they had to twist and distort the religion away from its original form. In that sense it had to redefine the various doctrines of the church in order to make it palatable. Indeed, it is unlikely that the socialism of the movement could be spread in America any other way.

What is Justice?

The social justice movement has done much to destroy the concept of justice in society. Traditionally, justice was understood by everyone to mean that each person should receive that which is due to him. Moreover, at a gut level people still believe that this is what the word means. In terms of the law that meant that the legal code should be designed to uphold the universal rights of all people equally. Over the course of time those rights were discovered within the moral philosophy of natural law thought. That philosophy recognizes that morality is an objective standard of behavior that ought to restrict the behavior of each person in his dealings with every other person. Moreover, as the natural law philosophy was applied to the individual, it logically implied that all people have the right to life, liberty and property. That is, since the human person is always at least potentially self-aware of his life it is only logical that he assumes the right to his life. Furthermore, to be consistent he must extend that right to every other individual person. Likewise, since all people are volitional they all have the right to their liberty on the same basis. Finally, since all people must necessarily labor in this world to sustain their lives, each must have the claim to the property arising from that labor. In fact, one’s labor itself is the first property of any individual. Therefore, to violate any of these universal rights is effectively to violate them all and, hence, to promote injustice.

Beyond the logical deduction of rights within the natural law tradition, the Judeo-Christian religion basically affirms the same understanding of justice. The second half of the Ten Commandments deals with the just relationships among people. The commandments against murder, theft, coveting and lying are immediately relevant and coincide exactly with the natural rights of reason. This connection certainly served as the bedrock upon which Western civilization was founded especially in England and the United States. But with the rise of naturalism, so came an assault not only on religion but on reason itself. Positivists of various stripes worked tirelessly to throw out the concept of natural rights and replace it with the notion that the rule of law is simply what we should decide that it is. Law thus becomes an arbitrary mix of legal restrictions and rules aimed at forcing people to do certain things. In Western societies it has been generally assumed that these decisions should be made according to some sort of democratic vote. This kind of thinking is nothing short of the reestablishment of absolutism and tyranny that had been more and more rooted out of society in order to make room for freedom and liberty.

What is Social?

Human beings are social creatures. We could hardly survive on our own. It is clear to each of us that we need one another and are meant to live in community. To be social means to live together in society and to relate socially with one another. Communities are thus built upon a variety of voluntary associations of people. They reach their height when these relationships are marked by peaceful, cooperative interactions. Regrettably, the darker passions of the human heart tend to undercut such relationships and this fact gives rise to the need for government and a legal code. That is, throughout human history there are countless examples of the aggression of some people against other people. Therefore, laws are needed to punish those who would destroy community. One of the most regrettable aspects of what the social reformers have advocated and done is to use the law to destroy the community. In their efforts to use the force of government to bring about their grand visions of utopia they have set aside the fundamental rights of people. Far from promoting community, their efforts have brought about only tyranny and despotism.

One reason that the reformers have been successful in promoting their plans is that they have attempted to falsely link them with the concept of compassion and charity. In other words, the reformers have argued that their plans promote mercy and charity in society. To be sure, Christians are called to be merciful. This can be found throughout the Scriptures. For example, Micah 6:8 reads, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” However, such admonitions are not a matter of government. Rather, acts of mercy are voluntary acts meant to be made in response to the mercy and grace God has bestowed upon all mankind. The very essence of the Christian message is that all people are in rebellion against God and are deserving of his condemnation. However, He has mercifully provided atonement for their sin in His only son Jesus Christ so that anyone placing their hope for the future in Him should not fear God’s judgment since He has already paid the just price for their rebellion. Therefore, recognizing God’s mercy and grace the follower of Christ is expected to demonstrate that faith by showing mercy and grace toward others.

But this is a far cry from what is proposed by social reformers. The reformers wish to make such activities a matter of justice. That is, they suggest that people are justly obligated to provide for their neighbors regardless of what their neighbors have done. There is no such obligation in the Scriptures. The Christian concept of mercy and grace is that such action is not less than justice, but more than justice. Specifically, the administration of mercy and grace is never something that is done by violating the obligations of just action. Rather, while one might not be required to be gracious to others, he nevertheless chooses to do so. When someone gives anyone else anything such action is an expression of grace. A gift by nature is never required as a matter of justice and can never be expected as an obligation by the recipient. Yet, this is precisely what social reformers are suggesting. They falsely make mercy and grace a matter of justice and, hence, destroy the very meaning of all the words involved. Justice is no longer just since it involves the violation of inherent individual rights and mercy and grace are assumed to somehow be a matter of receiving one’s due.


The success of social reformers in moving America toward socialism is the outgrowth of its inherent irrationality and the many contradictions found in their worldview. One example of this is the assertion that the progressive himself is able to see the direction of utopia and lead the herd to it. If their fundamental assertion that all people are mindless animals is true, it must apply to themselves as well as everyone else and such insight would be logically impossible. Nevertheless, more and more, the American people have shed the reality that fixed principles should restrain our behavior and, thus, have been influenced by the irrationality of the reformers. People have embraced the reformers’ idea that such principles do not exist and that society can be shaped and reshaped in an endless variety of ways without doing any damage. They no longer seem to recognize that ultimate reality by its very nature is unchanging. Therefore, they are increasingly willing to abandon truths which have been discovered over the ages and to replace those truths with a variety of falsehoods according to the latest mindset or fashion. As a result, we are subject to an endless number of utopian arguments calling for greater government power and control to address the ills of humanity. These have resulted in the notion that human rights extend to the consumption of certain economic goods such as education and health care even though such an argument must mean that some people have the right to force other people to pay for what they wish to consume.

All social engineers believe that they are above it all and are able to recreate society by manipulating government institutions. Reprehensibly, these efforts reduce the value of human life to the level of statistics. The world’s experience with such efforts in the last hundred years or so demonstrates the devastation that such thinking has resulted in. Instead of bringing heaven on earth, these self-proclaimed gods have only wrought hardship, suffering, and the deaths of millions of human beings. Yet, despite the mounting evidence that their reforms are failures, reformers continue to pursue their utopias undaunted by the facts.

Nobel Prize winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, expended a good deal of energy refuting the misguided notions of social engineers. In his book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Hayek logically destroyed the idea that human nature could be remade and human institutions restructured for utopian purposes.6In destroying the reformer’s argument he stated:

So, priding itself on having built its world as if it had designed it, and blaming itself for not having designed it better, humankind is now to set out to do just that. The aim of socialism is no less than to effect a complete redesigning of our traditional morals, law, and language, and on this basis to stamp out the old order and the supposedly inexorable, unjustifiable conditions that prevent the institution of reason, fulfillment, true freedom, and justice.7

Or as the French statesman, Frederic Bastiat wrote:

[Socialist writers] base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: They divide mankind into two parts. People in general…form the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!

In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped—by the will and hand of another person—into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.

Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to imagine himself…as this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials… into a society…

Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations. . . .Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a principle of action in the heart of man—and a principle of discernment in man’s intellect—they have considered these gifts from God to be fatal gifts. They have thought that persons, under the impulse of these two gifts, would fatally tend to ruin themselves. They assume that if the legislators left persons free to follow their own inclinations, they would arrive at atheism instead of religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, poverty instead of production and exchange.8

Truly, the only beneficial reform in society is the one that restores the law to its proper domain by deposing these would be rulers of their assumed superior status. As John W. Gardner observed, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” If the power of government is restricted to punishing actual wrongdoing, justice would generally prevail in the community and greater peace and order would be maintained. As Bastiat admonished the reformers of his day, “Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.”9

Paul A. Cleveland is a professor of economics at Birmingham-Southern College and the author of Understanding the Modern Culture Wars and Unmasking the Sacred Lies.

This  article may be found in the Areopagus Journal What Is Social Justice Volume 10 Number 3


1 Clarence B. Carson, The Flight from Reality (Irvington, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1969).

2 There are a number of efforts today to define social justice in terms of building communities of people across the economic and social spectrum by voluntary human action. This effort uses the phrase social justice to mean something much different than is meant by social reformers who see government action as the chief means of bringing about so-called “social justice.” For example, see Unfortunately, such an effort abuses language since it makes voluntary social interaction and mercy ministries a matter of justice and greater confuses the matter in most people’s minds. The social justice of social reformers undercuts the very concept of the freedom of association and strikes at the heart of true community. While Christian charity may well be expected from those who embrace the Christian religion, it cannot be assumed that such interactions are a matter of justice as most people understand the word.

3 Clarence B. Carson, The World in the Grip of an Idea (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1979), 27.

4 Woodrow Wilson, “What is Progress?” American Progressivism, edited by Pestritto and Atto, (Langham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008), 50-51.

5 Edward M. Curtis, Man as the Image of God in Genesis in the Light of Parallels (University of dissertation). Ancient Near Eastern Pennsylvania, 1984

6 Friedrich A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, ed. W. W. Bartley III (The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 67.

7 Ibid., 67.

8 Frederic Bastiat, The Law, 33-35.

9 Ibid., 55.