What do you think when you hear the phrase “economic justice?” If you’re a conservative, you probably roll your eyes and think of a couple random socialist policies that the left wants to push through, and you are often right. Leftists frequently use economic justice to describe progressive goals such as closing the racial wealth gap and fair housing for people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks. In order to achieve these goals, many leftists have advocated socialized medicine, federal jobs guarantee, a 30 dollar minimum wage, and the Green New Deal. While these ideas and policies ought to be ridiculed, the principle behind economic justice should be respected. Conservatives should take back this concept from the left and embrace the true meaning of economic justice.
Economic justice can be defined as a “set of moral and ethical principles for building economic institutions, where the ultimate goal is to create an opportunity for each person to establish a sufficient material foundation upon which to have a dignified, productive, and creative life.”
Conservatives hold that there is a moral transcendent order with which public policy must be harmonized not only in the social and cultural but also in the economic realm. Leftists are correct to argue for an economic system that is rooted in morality and ethics which provides a dignified life. However, they have a distorted view of morality and dignity. Thus, their desired means and outcomes are both flawed.
Because of their differing view of morality, conservatives and leftists will have a different vision of a moral economic system. While there are several ways the conservative economic approach has been conceptualized, one such approach is the idea of sphere sovereignty. This term, coined by an earthy 20th century Dutch prime minister and Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, refers to the principle that society consists of distinct and interconnected sectors that are united under the sovereignty of God. This idea views God as sovereign over politics, family, government, education, markets, etc, and not just individual salvation. As a corollary, Christians must fight to preserve this order in this world.
Furthermore, each sector has its own roles and is not sovereign over another. For example, it is not the government’s role to excommunicate members of a church, and it is not the church’s role to tax or administer the death penalty to serial killers. The role of the state is to enact just laws that punish evil, tax its subjects, defend from enemies foreign and domestic, and secure liberty. The role of the family is to physically, emotionally, and spiritually nurture children, the role of the church is to administer Word and Sacrament, practice church discipline, and care for the poor, and the role of the economy is to bless all people through dignified work. The family, state and economy all act as an extension of God’s universal common grace. Just as the state and family must operate morally, so should economics. A truly conservative and Christian economic justice views God as the provider of physical needs and dignified work.
In order to achieve a moral economic system, progressives embrace their social democratic tendencies and expand the welfare state. While social democrats may have the best of intentions, their policies expand government power too far and often violate the sovereignty of the church and family, leading to mass secularization. Just look at the textbook social democratic nations. Does Denmark fear God? What do Canada’s abortion laws look like? What is the average church attendance in Norway? This degradation is the result of the encroachment of the sphere of the state on the spheres of family, church, and markets. The welfare state has encroached on the family by its massive funding of government run schools, the church by usurping its role caring for the poor, and the market by stifling innovation and competition.When the welfare state and the role of government becomes too expansive, religious institutions are stripped of their duty to care for the poor and the state becomes the primary source of education rather than parents and the religious community.
Social democrats make the false assumption that public concerns necessarily require public-run solutions. National and societal issues do not always require nationalization or socialization. Government should be the last resort and take on a subsidiary role. In the case of the economy, this means the government should handle market failures and negative externalities, but leave most actual production in the hands of private actors.
Furthermore, just because society views part of the economy as socially suboptimal doesn’t mean that the government should interfere in that sector. Just because our healthcare system is broken doesn’t mean that the government should provide Medicare for All, make doctors state employees, and nationalize hospitals. When possible, governments should enact policies that are oriented towards the market and guide markets to correct problems. For example, instead of pumping more money into the broken public school system, the government should provide vouchers to families to increase competition among schools, leading to better outcomes for both private and public schools.
While progressives claim that their system works to create dignified work, it is most often free market policies that decrease unemployment and increase wages. It is Economics 101 that free markets grow the economic pie, making everyone better off, whereas increased government intervention at best only splits the pie more evenly. While there is much truth to this, conservatives must not be beholden to this golden calf, the free market.
Free market capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but conservatives must be cautious of being too deferential towards the free market. A distinctively national, conservative, and Christian liberalism must aim to direct the economic growth caused by free markets towards families within the nation. Economic benefits should be primarily aimed towards the interest of its people, not multinational corporations or individuals in foreign nations. A moral and just economic system should foster dependency on the family and church, not the state. For the conservative, economic justice means a system where dignified work allows families to live modestly on one reasonable income and raise children without having to move away from their communities. Wealth must not be concentrated only in America’s big cities and elite zip codes. And even if that’s what the free market determines, conservatives should fight to change it.
Another danger of deifying the market is that it has often led to conservatives making the mistake of viewing the government as the sole perpetrator of sphere sovereignty violation while not acknowledging the propensity of markets to compromise the sovereignty of families.
For example, on October 25th, 2023, a girl went viral on TikTok for complaining about her first 9-5 job after graduating from college. She cries about not having the time to hang out with friends, exercise, or date. As a result, many online conservatives have poked fun at her, arguing that the 9-5 “probably requires the least amount of work” and that “we’re doomed” because people are too lazy to work. Meanwhile, other conservatives have blamed this phenomenon solely on “feminist nonsense.” Sure, maybe this girl is lazy, and maybe it is true that feminism has convinced women to work when they do not want to. But conservatives have failed to attribute blame on hyper economic liberalism. In a hyper-individualistic society that incentivizes personal wealth over relationships and religion, people who do not want to work are forced to work. This TikTok girl is right. It is unfortunate how America’s free market system has contributed to the prioritization of cheap consumer goods over an economy where people do not have to sell their souls to corporations. The economy has encouraged many women to prioritize their work over finding a partner and starting a family, compromising the sovereignty of families in society.
Finally, an inordinate focus on markets leads to the sacrificing of the goods of the community. Even though automation may be one of the causes for the decline of manufacturing and the hollowing out of America’s heartland, economic globalization and “free market” trade policies such as Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have forced many families in the Rust Belt to move out. By removing trade barriers and liberalizing markets, American firms and workers are unable to compete with firms who operate in countries that manipulate currency and have lower labor costs.
Sure, free trade made things that Americans want like TVs cheaper, and it may have increased the short-term wealth and growth of America. But there are many costs, particularly in the Midwest. Conservatives must consider this: is it conservative to ship manufacturing jobs in America’s heartland to foreign countries in exchange for cheap stuff from China and more white-collar jobs in America’s coastal cities? Of course not. Not only does this amplify America’s obsession with consumerism and materialism, it strips the dignity of work.
The dignity of work is vital to the moral transcendent order; The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops summarizes this concept, saying, “[w]ork is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.” In other words, the economy is part of God’s broader creation, which was made to draw man closer to God through participation in work. Thus, productive work and fair wages are necessary for proper participation in a moral society.
Economic justice embodies a moral and biblical economic framework aimed at maximizing the common good by offering dignified work in order to strengthen families. If free markets force families to move away from their hometowns to an inordinate extent, the state has an obligation to structure policies that mitigate the market failures. Levying tariffs, implementing child tax credit policies, and a restructuring of the tax and welfare system with the respect for the sovereignty of the nuclear family in mind are all instruments that should be considered and used strategically by governments. While governments are not sovereign over families, governments can ensure that families remain sovereign. Governments have the obligation to promote what is good, and that includes families. Governments must not create systems that force dependency on the state. Yet at the same time, the government must make sure that free market economics does not control families’ lives and force them to abandon their communities.