It has become fashionable, on the part of the political left and within elements of liberal Christianity over the last few decades to use the word justice with two different modifiers in front of it: social justice, and now with increasing frequency (especially in the statements of the "Occupy Wall Street" mob and their apologists in the press), economic justice. This is leading to a fundamental--and drastic--change in the meaning of the word. This is closely tied to the transition occurring in the meaning of the word equality in popular usage (more on this later).
The traditional sense of fairness or equity embedded in the word justice can be clearly illustrated in the symbol of justice that decorates courthouses across this country: lady justice, standing with a set of scales in one hand to measure the issue in question, and a sword in her other hand with which to dispense punishment; but most notably, and the key to its concept of fairness, she is blindfolded. She cannot see those who petition her. Are they old or young, male or female, beautiful or ugly, rich or poor? She cannot see, and therefore she cannot allow partiality due to those attributes and conditions to influence her decision. This was the central, and indeed indispensable characteristic of justice that has informed the system of law in the United States since its founding. It has a long pedigree; we can find its origins in the Torah:
You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. (Leviticus 19:15 ESV)To understand how this is changing in much of the popular consciousness one only has to see that the two modifiers that are being used make the word justice effectively function as a euphemism for equality of result. Seen in this light the endless complaints by the left about the "gap" between the highest and lowest income quintiles in the US become clear: it's the fact of unequal result between the rich and poor that they are labeling "unjust".
To whatever degree that the left decries unequal processes in society or economics, I and--I believe most other conservatives--agree with them, for that is the traditional understanding of justice--equality of process. For instance, the one topic on which the Occupy Wall Street crowd and the TEA Partiers (and I as well) agree is on the subject of crony Capitalism. I believe passionately in free markets, but I would argue that crony Capitalism is not free markets and indeed not Capitalism at all, but rather an exercise of government control over markets, a condition of government deciding (rather than the buyer and seller) who shall win and who shall lose in the market place. As I told my best friend on the phone yesterday in discussing this, we have a word for this: it's called Fascism.
Unfortunately, I hear little more than lip service from the left on the subject of crony Capitalism as evidenced by to whom they complain and to whom they focus their vitriol. Crony Capitalism can only exist through the ascent and active participation of government, therefore all--that is 100%--of the demand for its end should be directed to government. And yet it's not. Typically all of the left's bile and criticism is directed toward business and the banking and investment industries. Capitalism itself becomes the villain in the story they tell. And rather than calling for less government interference and manipulation, they demand ever more, apparently viewing government as the agent by which they can achieve the equality of result for which they yearn.
And this brings me to the redefinition of the word equality occurring in tandem with justice. Equality, as an American value, always meant equality of process. Obviously when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "...all men are created equal," he did not mean that all men are the same height and have the same physical strength, but that the law would regard them as though they did. This governing principle ruled in American thought, just as in the Torah, that the American government would not "be partial to the poor or defer to the great" but treat everyone, regardless of their gifts or deficiencies...equally. But now, through the efforts of the left, many are changing their understanding of both justice and equality to mean--in varying degrees--equality of result. The tragedy of this is that it undermines the heart of the American value system, which principle value, I would argue, is liberty. For the only way that government can achieve even a measure of equality of result is to violate both the traditional concepts of liberty and also the traditional concept of equality by treating different classes of people--young and old, male and female, racial minorities and majorities, rich and poor--differently. The two concepts of these words are mutually exclusive and require the polar opposite of government actions. Traditional justice and equality required an equal standard and an equal process regardless of race, class, or sex. Equality of result requires differing standards and processes by government in an effort to level the outcome.
If the left wins this battle of words, if they are successful in redefining these concepts at the core of the American way, we may find ourselves no longer "the land of the free and home of the brave" but may instead be known as the "land of the fair and home of the same."