Today we conclude our brief series on social justice. (We told you it was going to be brief.) So far we’ve covered the definition of social justice, and why social justice and individual charity are two different things. To grossly oversimplify, social justice is directed to the common good, while individual charity takes care of individual goods when individuals can't take care of their own goods.
What we’ll look at now is the massive confusion that many people have over the distinction between the Family and the State. This has been a serious problem since at least the Reformation, when the “divine right of kings” theory of political science took root, turning the State, as Thomas Hobbes put it in Leviathan, into a “Mortall God.”
The basic idea of divine right is that the State is just an extension of the Family, and the king, as Head of State, is the father of the family. The State in the person of the king is the ultimate owner of everything, and he must be obeyed as you would obey God. This is why Sir Robert Filmer, the chief theologian of James VI/I of Scotland/England titled his book on divine right, Patriarcha.
Hobbes modified Filmer’s theory a bit. The king was, of course, Head of State, but actual power — and thus quasi divinity — is vested in the State itself, which may be controlled by either the legislature (parliament) or the executive (king). In the United States, the judiciary has achieved a status analogous to a combination of the legislative and the executive branches of government, a development chronicled (and deprecated) by William Crosskey in his book, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States (1953). Hobbesian theory is the basis of Walter Bagehot’s constitutional theories and, through Bagehot, the political economy of John Maynard Keynes (John Maynard Keynes, “The Works of Bagehot,” The Economic Journal, 25:369–375 (1915)).
The problem with regarding the State as an extended Family is that different rules of justice apply to civil society and to domestic society. Where civil society is governed by commutative, distributive, participative, social, and legal justice, domestic society is governed by paternal and domestic right. Commutative, distributive, participative, social, and legal justice regulate relations between persons of equal status; all people are presumed equal before the law.
Paternal right and domestic right, however, regulate relations between persons of differing status within the Family, and persons who are more than mere partners (i.e., they are “spouses”), respectively. Thus, paternal right governs the relations between parents and children, who are unequal in status and dependent, while domestic right governs the relations between husband and wife, who are equal in status, but not independent.
Providing individual goods for those people dependent on us or more-than-partners with us is thus a matter of paternal right and domestic right, respectively. In cases of demonstrated need on the part of people who are not members of our family, we are in charity to regard such people as if they were members of our family, and — assuming that we do not thereby deprive ourselves, or those for whom we are responsible of that which is ordinarily required to maintain our station in life — are morally obligated to assist such people out of our surplus.
In “extreme cases,” e.g., where people are in danger of death or permanent disability, or the distress is so widespread that it endangers the common good, the State may levy additional taxes to redistribute some wealth to help out as a temporary measure. Even though this is a “distribution,” however, the redistribution is not distributive justice.
The distributive justice comes in because the situation endangered the common good, and the State properly took action to safeguard the common good. The just act was not the redistribution. The just act was the care for the common good attained by means of a redistribution; the common good was the directed object of the State’s action, while the redistribution was only the means by which the end was achieved.
Thus, civil society is not an extended family, although we should sometimes act out of charity as if it were. If we confuse civil and domestic society, and try to have the State take care of every need, we not only overload the State, we keep people who should be adults in a condition of being children or slaves.