Update: I listened to a Michael Novak booktalk on that new Social Justice Doesn’t Exist book. Yeah, he’s still wrong.
But to be fair, the virtue of social justice that he wants to make the entirety of it is a real virtue and one that needs to be at the foundation of any activism or policy argument. Virtues live in natural persons, is his point. This is a non-dumb point. A municipal body has no soul to save any more than any other kind of a corporation has. But he has a kind of prosopagnosia of the commons: he can’t see that there is such a thing as a community, he can’t see the face of the city. And so he leaves out distributive justice as a thing that exists, and leaves out the overall economic wellbeing of a community as a category of thought for anyone to consider, including apparently that community’s guardians.
And he perpetually strawmans social justice: because socialists make social justice a thing about the state, and make it be code for “taking other people’s money and redistributing it,” (i.e. taxation and social programs), therefore it is only and everywhere an excuse for theft and grandiosity. He just doesn’t think about what the good version of such a thing might be.
When the distributist tradition isn’t about personal cows (and I have nothing against cows,) and when it’s not just an economic program about co-ops (and I have nothing against co-ops), and when it’s not about doing proper DIYish work and not being alienated from your labor (and I have nothing against Matthew Crawford,) what it can be is a modern, considered response to exactly what Novak is getting wrong.
There is such a thing as a city, a local community; there is such a thing as that community doing well; economics is part of that; collective ownership is not a great idea for most things; there is a way to care about the wellbeing of your city that is not in conflict with seeking individual virtue and caring about the wellbeing of other individual citizens.
There’s a DIY instinct to distributism, and I think there’s something beyond aesthetics and a love of homebrew that’s behind that. Where the DIY ethos enters into it is that the economic care of the community is something that we are all called to. This is not a specialized calling. Governing a city may be a specialized calling: I’m not convinced that we need to have the vote or that we are definitely all supposed to be sovereigns of our state. Defending a city is a specialized calling, which I am happy to leave to the army and the police. Governing a household is not a specialized calling; every head of a household is its governor, in a real sense. Economically participating in a household is not a specialized calling– even less of one; children do not govern in their households, but they participate in them economically, even if only by setting the table and helping with the dishes.
And participating in the economics of a community, being in a sense responsible in and to it, is also not a specialized calling– it can’t be, precisely because households are not self-sustaining economic units. The kid who does his chores is having an economic impact on the surrounding households, on the city as a whole. This is part of the natural order. Because he has an impact, he has a responsibility; because he is called as a human to at least be aware of the fact that his fellow citizens, like him, need to eat, he has a responsibility.