social justice: who’s responsible

LogoGovernments have a major role in creating and maintaining socially just communities. So also do individuals, families and non-government organisations

When we think about social justice, a major role for government is rarely far from people’s minds. That’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s more to the issue than that. Individuals, families, businesses, community groups and religious bodies all have important responsibilities.

Catholic teaching is very clear about this. It emphasises the principle of ‘subsidiarity’, which in essence embodies two propositions. First, social organisations exist for the individual and should not do what individuals can do for themselves. Second, larger organisations should not assume roles that smaller bodies can perform.

If the world in which we live were tidier, each of these entities would have clearly defined capabilities and roles. In reality, however, it is not so easy to determine what individuals can and can’t do themselves. Some people are able to do what others cannot. Organisations big and small also vary in their capacity to act.

Church teaching also emphasises the principles of solidarity and the common good, which in essence say that all people are connected and that the wellbeing of one affects the welfare of each and every one of us.

In exercising our individual responsibilities and rights, we must think about how our decisions will affect others.

Other essential elements of the Church’s perspective are the central importance of work (paid and unpaid) and the primary importance of giving preference to the needs of poor people. The Church, therefore, supports progressive taxation, social security, and a wide distribution of the ownership of economic enterprises.

These principles strike a balance between promoting individual freedom on the one hand and avoiding concentrations of power and resources on the other.

They recognise the need to place some restraints on individual autonomy in order to protect others’ rights while not letting those restraints become oppressive.

What are some implications of these principles? What do they tell us about the respective roles of individuals and organisations, both government and non-government?

One implication is that governments should respect the autonomy of the family. They should intervene only when the wellbeing of family members is at risk.

This does not preclude ensuring that tax and benefits structures recognise the financial responsibilities that families face and, in particular, the needs of families on low incomes.

Social justice is an obligation within families. Income should be shared between parents in accordance with the financial responsibilities each carries. Knowledge is also a powerful resource and needs to be shared as broadly as is prudent.

Another is that individuals and families have responsibilities to the wider community, over and above paying taxes. We have a duty of care to our near neighbours, our extended family, our fellow workers and the wider world.

Governments cannot do it all – indeed the expectation that they will do it all opens the door to tyranny.

Still another is that employers and employees have mutual responsibilities – fair pay, a fair day’s work in return, a safe workplace, respect for freedom of association, and encouraging a climate of mutual support. Governments will, quite reasonably, impose minimum standards but they cannot prescribe for everything that makes for a just workplace.

Governments must be able to fund their responsibilities. It follows that individuals, families and businesses have an obligation in justice to pay taxes. Tax evasion is not a game. It is an injustice perpetrated against our fellow citizens.

Indeed, the injustice extends beyond our borders. Tax evasion reduces our capacity as a nation to support developing countries.

Those of us with the capacity to contribute personally to the support of others in need, both at home and abroad, have a responsibility to do so.

We look to governments to provide a robust system of income support and services. Individuals and familiescan provide additional help in ways that governments cannot.

The Book of Micah (6:8) tells us to ‘live justly, love compassionately, and walk humbly with God’. Living justly is very practical and down-to-earth. The Church treats us as adults, giving us some broad guidance and leaves the rest to our good sense and our consciences.