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We’re Suffering an Excess of Justice


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When the TV series “Civilization” aired in 1969, host

Kenneth Clark

noted how our ideas of the desideratum had changed over time. If you had asked people what was most important to them, they would have said different things. Edward the Black Prince might have spoken of prowess. The fictional Princesse de Clèves would have said that honor matters most. But something changed in the 19th century, Clark said. People then, and in his day too, would have said that kindness matters more than anything. But today they wouldn’t say that. They’d say that what matters is justice.

Justice had a different meaning in 1969 than it does in 2023. Then it was principally the virtue of the state, in dispensing corrective and distributive justice. In the personal realm, the just performed their contractual obligations without cheating anyone. They paid the just price of things they bought and would refuse to take advantage of the known neediness of sellers who desperately required cash. When goods were parceled out, the unjust person was grasping and guilty of the vice Greeks called pleonexía. He would claim more than his fair share. Back then, personal justice was a matter of duties owed to others, and not of things to which one thought oneself entitled.

In Clark’s day, justice also had a secondary meaning, in aesthetics and morals. The person who wrongly faulted an artist’s talent was unjust. If he sneered at a great painter, as

Charles Dickens

had done in mocking

John Millais

and his “Christ in the House of His Parents,” he had failed to take the just measure of the painting and deserved the rebuke that

John Ruskin

administered. One could also be unjust in condemning an essentially blameless person from a too-severe sense of legal and moral duties. In

Victor Hugo’s

“Les Misérables,” Inspector Javert pursues

Jean Valjean

to the letter of the law, but also unjustly. True justice is shown instead by

Bishop Myriel,

who lies to the police to prevent them from arresting Valjean.

The social conditions of the 19th century made kindness the all-in-all. The Industrial Revolution had produced an enormous increase in wealth but had also created a new class of urban poor. The wretched conditions in East End London were described by

Friedrich Engels

in “The Condition of the Working Class in England” in 1845, and in the same year by

Benjamin Disraeli

in “Sybil.” This resulted in what the Hungarian thinker

Karl Polanyi

called a double movement, in which capitalist production was both promoted and challenged by a new concern for the poor, which led to the invention of kindness. Dickens almost created the genre, from “Oliver Twist” in 1837 to “Hard Times” in 1854.

Since then, however, we’ve moved on. Kindness is thought to weaken the fervor for social justice, which today trumps everything. A woke religion that preens in its hatred of ideological enemies has made a vice out of kindness for the forgiveness it offers transgressors. Nor does justice impose any kind of personal obligations to others. People who chant “No Justice, No Peace” aren’t confessing their faults but rather are demanding greater entitlements.

If we ask why things changed, let’s not forget

John Rawls

and his theory of justice. After Rawls, justice took on a special meaning as the virtue of a left-wing state that transfers wealth to the least well-off. In that sense, Rawlsian justice overlaps with the woke agenda. But if ostensibly revolutionary, “A Theory of Justice” was a complacent book, so far as the wealthiest 1% of society is concerned. It told them they could keep their money provided they supported a political party that transferred wealth to the very poorest. As for people in between—the middle class—kindness wasn’t required and their welfare could be ignored. This goes a long way to describing modern American politics.

We’ve taken our modern idea of justice as far as we could. It’s made us lonely and heartless, and a corrective is needed. We must always require the state to be just in promoting the common good, and the very poor do merit a special regard. But something is wrong if this isn’t tempered by a kindness from which all meanness and self-satisfied smugness is banished.

Mr. Buckley is a professor at Scalia Law School and author of “Progressive Conservatism: How Republicans Will Become America’s Natural Governing Party.”

Wonder Land: The administrative state has created ideological divides that will take a long time to undo. But a recent ruling on climate change may help resurrect the decisive role that substantive politics played at the time of America’s founding. Images: Reuters/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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