Social justice is generally defined as the need to address social inequities, although the proposed means of doing so are quite diverse and have ranged from progressive taxation to state communism. The concept of economic justice has more to do with the equality of opportunity rather than outcome: whether societies offer all their members an enabling environment to engage freely in productive activities of their choice and to be rewarded according to their initiative, talents, and efforts. Has the world made much progress in either?
The report of the UN’s International Forum for Social Development notes that in recent decades “economic justice has unquestionably grown as the basic principles and practices of the market economy have become more prevalent and pervasive” and “few dispute the fact that economic freedom represents a basic human right.” However, economic inequalities among people are also on the rise. This begs the question to what extent the principles of market economy have truly been implemented and, more broadly, what conditions are necessary for both social and economic justice to advance. Obviously, unequal access to information, education, or health care has a lot to do with inequality. But unequal opportunities for participation in civic and political life, i.e. the lack of liberal democracy, is another prime reason.
In the long term, social justice and economic justice are only possible in the context of democracy. History shows that pursuing some notion of social justice at the expense of democratic rights and liberties can be disastrous in consequences – it’s enough to think of Stalin’s gulags or Pol Pot’s killing fields. And since political and economic freedoms are closely intertwined, the latter cannot exist in its full form without the former.
Democratic rights are not just voting; they include the right to assemble freely, participate in public life, live under the rule of law and so on. Without an equal access to these rights other aspects of social inequality are impossible to address. Only in a democracy the power of the authorities can be restrained and proper channels exist for addressing the needs and concerns of various social groups. The UN’s report concurs:
“Advancements in social justice, except in extraordinary situations and circumstances such as the gaining of political independence, the aftermath of a long war or the depths of an economic depression, require pressure from organized political forces. … The problem is that few political regimes have institutions or processes to promote the orderly and effective expression of grievances and demands by those who are not benefiting or are hurt by existing economic and social arrangements.”
As the World Day of Social Justice (February 20) approaches, a thoughtful way to celebrate it calls for a renewed reflection on democracy being a sine qua non of lasting and equitable social and economic progress.