Years ago, while demonstrating to support or oppose some very important cause I’ve long since forgotten, I committed an unpardonable sin. I accidentally paid attention to what we were chanting.
“No Justice, No Peace!” we repeated, waving signs and banners confirming that we were adamant.
It felt good. Why should the unjust enjoy a moment’s peace? Why shouldn’t they suffer as incessantly as their victims? Could anyone stand against us? Would those we were protesting really say: “Yes, yes. We’ve done unspeakable things to benefit ourselves at the expense of others. But we’ve already won. Now run along home and let us enjoy our illicit victories?”
Of course not. The righteousness of our position was unassailable. How could we lose?
We couldn’t. Until, that is, I took that moment to think. In that fleeting moment, I realized that our glorious chant had things exactly backward. In the pantheon of virtues, there may be no greater enemies than justice and peace.
Justice requires full compensation for all prior misdeeds. Justice makes victims whole. Justice assigns perpetrators penalties sufficient to ensure that none would even consider imitating their actions. Justice cannot prevail until every grievance has been addressed, adjudicated, and repaired. Justice looks backward to fix the past.
Peace looks forward. Peace is always about hope for the future. There is a reason the phrase “you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends” has arisen everywhere, from Gaza to “Game of Thrones.” For war to give way to peace, all parties must relinquish past grievances.
Peace requires accepting that the past cannot be fixed. Peace elevates future potential gains above justice for past acts.
“No justice, no peace” has it all wrong. The choices are either “war until justice” or peace that recognizes some injustices cannot be fixed.
That’s a bitter pill because justice and peace are both virtues. Every decent person, society, and moral code should value both. Yet no society can have both. Tradeoffs are always necessary—and many will always find such tradeoffs unacceptable.
The inherent tension between these virtues is unsurprising. One of the great innovations of 20th-century mathematics was the preponderance of “impossibility theorems.” Though many of their specifics are highly technical, the key insight is simple: It’s easy to design a system that maximizes any single objective. A system that values multiple objectives can rarely if ever maximize them all simultaneously.
That’s a critical lesson given the centrality of terms like “social justice,” “racial justice,” and “environmental justice” to contemporary American discourse. At face value, all seem like indisputable virtues. Who would argue against America becoming a more just society?
Yet nothing comes without a cost—and justice is hardly an exception. There’s a deep truth behind the term “social justice warrior” (SJW). The justice they demand requires a constant state of war. Is that a tradeoff America should bear? Should we allow the pursuit of justice to turn us into a society riven by constant internal war?
There is a reason Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and many of their followers call for a “transformation” of American society: The emphasis they place on justice would indeed be transformative.
Justice, as valuable as it may be, was never the heart of America. The main principle around which the United States was founded is liberty. Many of our vaunted rights and protections were designed to safeguard liberty, not to maximize justice.
To pick but one easy example that retains strong bipartisan support even in our deeply polarized society, consider the presumption of innocence and the consequent rules of evidence that safeguard it. In America’s judicial system, a criminal captured committing a crime on video could still be acquitted if the police mishandled evidence or undermined the due process of law in some other way. Could anyone argue that such an outcome represents justice? Of course not. Allowing the guilty to go free is an unfortunate consequence of a system designed to preserve liberty.
The American “justice system” contains many such injustices. Why? Because the goal was never to maximize justice. The goal has always been to maximize justice within the significant constraints of a free society. It’s usually possible to identify reforms to American policing or adjudication that would make us a “more just” society. That’s a very different goal, however, than turning America from a “liberty society” into a “justice society.” Avoidable injustices are merely part of the price we must pay for our freedom.
A decision to stop paying that cost would represent a significant transformation of America’s priorities. Rather than a free society that does its best to maximize justice, SJWs seek a just society that curtails the freedoms that may lead to injustice.
It doesn’t take much imagination to contemplate the meaning of such a transformation. The American elevation of liberty was a bold experiment. Liberty societies have always been rare. Justice societies are far more common.
Islamic societies, for example, have long elevated justice above other virtues. That elevation is neither inherently good nor bad; it’s an entirely defensible prioritization of one virtue above others. It derives from a distinctive view of the relationship between this world and the next. In theory if not always in practice, Judeo-Christian societies presume that human justice is deeply flawed; only divine justice is true justice. Muslim societies are far more likely to believe that divine revelations include the keys to effecting justice.
Justice societies remain committed to righting the wrongs of past generations. The notion that you owe a debt because your great-grandfather’s iniquities were responsible for the privileged position of your birth is hardly novel in justice societies. America’s burgeoning SJW movement is hardly alone in believing it.
Justice societies left to their own devices and subject to wise leadership can do a decent job at enforcing codes of justice—as they themselves define them. They’re not very good at promoting freedom, peace, or co-existence—not because they don’t recognize or value such virtues, but because they don’t prioritize them.
Liberty societies permit injustice; justice societies curtail freedom. Both sorts of societies relegate peace to a secondary role. That’s not a critique of either system; it’s just one more of society’s impossibility theorems.
Priorities notwithstanding, empirical experience suggests that free societies can be far more peaceful than justice societies. The reason is hardly subtle.
Justice societies encourage people to bear grudges. In a justice society, if some member of your group committed a wrong against some member of my group—and the rest of your group shielded the wrongdoer—justice requires action to restore the proper balance.
A justice society must determine which grievances are worthy of correction, what corrective action requires, and what penalties to heap upon those who have benefitted from the imbalance—even if they were not personally responsible for causing it. Those are precisely the questions that animate today’s SJWs.
Freedom societies allow people to focus on the present and the future. What happened has happened. Perhaps it was grossly unjust. If the crime was recent and the perpetrator identifiable, some measure of justice may be possible. If not, the societal ethos encourages moving forward, using whatever resources you may still possess. Looking backward, bearing grudges, or nursing grievances is considered unhealthy and unproductive.
Liberty and peace are compatible because both look to the future. Justice’s focus on the past is always in tension with future-focused peace.
Today’s world is at a curious juncture. Forward-looking leaders from less-developed regions are trying to reorient their traditional justice societies toward future-focused concepts like freedom, opportunity, development, and peace. The dominant cultural movements in the rich West are all pushing hard in the opposite direction. They’re more than willing to sacrifice freedom, peace, and future prosperity in their quest for justice.
America’s social justice warriors may succeed. They may transform us into a society that nurses group grievances, decides which claims are worthy, and rewards or punishes individuals as befits the group to which they’ve been assigned. Freedom would fade. Peace—both internal and external—would become increasingly elusive. Twenty-first century America would come to resemble the 20th-century Middle East: A fine place to nurse group grievances with a poor track record promoting individual freedom.
It couldn’t happen here? Why not? It happened there. All it requires is a shift in priorities. What made America exceptional was its elevation of liberty as first among the virtues. An America that gives primacy instead to justice will be just one more unexceptional justice society.
No justice, no peace? Think again. When I did, I learned to prefer liberty, peace, and as much justice as we can muster without sacrificing our freedom. I leave it to God to balance the rest.
This piece was originally posted at American Greatness.