Toward a Theory of Social Justice for Public Administration How Public Administration Might Be Informed by Catholic Soc

Administrative Theory & Praxis / December 2014, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 466–488. © 2014 Public Administration Theory Network. All rights reserved. Permissions:

ISSN 1084–1806 (print)/1949–0461 (online) DOI: 10.2753/ATP1084-1806360402

Toward a Theory of Social Justice for Public Administration

How Public Administration Might Be Informed by Catholic Social Theory

Charles F. Abel Stephen F. Austin State University


Three principles of Catholic social theory suggest three principles of justice for assigning basic duties in administrative praxis. They can be derived from the fundamental moral principles of public administration and the fundamental moral principles of capital- ism as expounded by Adam Smith and elaborated by subsequent theorists: First, each person participating in an administrative practice, including those affected by it, has an equal duty to seek the widest efficacious distribution of benefits and burdens that is reasonable under the circumstances (distributism). Second, no administrative function or problem may be performed or solved in a manner that disempowers either the individuals or the group accorded goods or services (subsidiarity). Finally, all administrative functions or problems must be addressed in such a manner as to develop and maintain trust and confidence among administrative agencies and the people they serve (solidarity). These principles express justice as a composite of three ideas: dignity, opportunity, and responsibility.

Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. —Adam Smith (1776/1904, bk. 5, ch. i, p. 2)

We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most, yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many. —Pope Francis (2007, cited in McElwee 2013)


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What does social justice require of public administration? That something is required follows from the nature of the endeavor. Public administration is defined and evaluated by its contribution to good governance, and particularly by its role in the concrete activities that maintain and advance the common good. Social justice is the moral foundation of good governance. It entails the reciprocal rights and duties of social groups and their members in relation to the common good. It might be described as the obligation upon individuals to participate together, according to their ability and position, in efforts that are designed to make the institutions of society conform to the common good in the socioeconomic sphere (Cronin, 1950, p. 112). Public administrators, then, require a sense of social justice, as their positions invest them with the obligation to affect policy and to make value-laden choices that enable citizens to lead fulfilling lives and to be active contributors to their community. To do this job well, administrators must contribute to the actual existence of the common good and not just to the individual’s potential for experiencing it (Nussbaum, 1999). In American society, realizing the common good involves maintaining and advancing the public and private institutions and practices by means of which citizens have a reasonable opportunity to become self-reliant economically (Barksdale, 1993).

I argue in this article that the fundamental idea in the concept of social justice as related to public administration is dignity, and that attendant to dignity are opportunity and responsibility. Accordingly, social justice requires that public agencies specify forms of governmental intervention that are ap- propriate for the protection of minimum standards of well-being, access, and participation for all individuals. To establish these propositions I develop a conception of social justice that is relevant to public administration by stat- ing and commenting upon the principles that specify it and considering how they are consonant with the moral foundations of both market capitalism and public administration. The principles are derived from Catholic social theory but are familiar in other forms. The goal is to assemble them as a framework that may make it possible to put them into practice in a new way. Consonant with this end, justice is taken as a characteristic of the practices of public agencies—of the roles, rules, offices, regulations, and norms that lend structure to public agencies and thereby enable good governance. The three principles are intended to institutionalize just practices by formulating duties and responsibilities regarding how administrative practices may proceed, and by establishing within the structure of those practices a proper balance among competing claims.

PreliminAry PoinTS

Before proceeding, I would like to address three concerns. First, the fact that the conception of social justice I propose has some roots in Catholic social

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theory does not make its principles inaccessible to arguments of public policy. While Catholic social theory refers frequently to natural law and scripture for its foundation, my argument relies on eliciting judgments in response to nontheological sources that share the concern of Catholic social theory for both the common good and the condition of the marginalized and less ad- vantaged. I employ Catholic social theory only as a device for reframing the values endorsed by American administrative, capitalist, and political think- ing in a new way. And second, while this conception of social justice relies heavily on the observations, experiences, and insights of certain figures in economics, politics, and philosophy, I do not intend to ground the conception of social justice in their ideas, philosophies, presuppositions, or systems of thought. It is meant only as a useful approach for pubic administrators given what we know about markets, American values, and normative economics. Finally, the term capitalism is employed to designate an economic environ- ment that is characterized by the private ownership of the means of production and by some people working for others. The nature and magnitude of what is produced is determined by markets, as are prices and the distribution of goods and services. While markets and capitalism are entwined significantly, capitalism is more a means of producing wealth, and markets, a means of distributing wealth.

The PArTiCUlAr ConCePTion oF SoCiAl JUSTiCe

The conception of social justice I want to develop may be stated in the form of three principles. First, each person participating in an administrative practice, including those affected by it, has an equal duty to seek the widest efficacious distribution of benefits and burdens (social goods, services, economic and political opportunities, duties, responsibilities, and ownership of the means of production) that is reasonable under the circumstances (distributism). Ef- ficaciousness may be thought of as the concrete opportunities and resources available to the community and its members as they work in concert toward realizing their purposes. Second, no administrative function or problem may be performed or solved in a manner that disempowers either the individu- als or the group being accorded goods or services (subsidiarity). Finally, all administrative functions or problems must be addressed in such a manner as to develop and maintain trust and confidence among administrative agencies and the people they are serving (solidarity). These principles express justice as a composite of three ideas: dignity, opportunity, and responsibility.

The first principle seeks to promote human dignity and opportunity by distributing productive property as widely as possible rather than concentrat- ing it either in the hands of a few (corporate capitalism) or in the hands of the state (socialism). As a primary principle, distributism entails the responsibility to ensure that productive property is held by most everyone. In this way, the

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widest opportunity is provided for all people to make responsible use of their capacities, everyone’s dignity is recognized, and the potential for creating a world that is more just and prosperous for each and all is maximized. Maxi- mizing the opportunity for the widest possible range of people to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop the skills necessary to making the best use of talents, abilities, and resources, broadens the capacity of nations as a whole not just to survive but to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity. This principle may be set aside, of course, if the opportunities it provides are not taken or the responsibility it entails is not exercised, except possibly in cases of dire need.

This broader distribution does not extend to all property but only to property that produces wealth. It includes “things” all along the spectrum of tangible to intangible that are necessary for humans to flourish. It includes, for example, food, clothing, shelter, mental and physical health, freedom of association, education to develop and exercise practical reason, nondiscrimination in mat- ters of religion, gender, and race, access to productive networks, and the right to seek meaningful work and to hold property. Increasing the distribution of productive property places in the hands of the many the liberty, opportunity, and responsibility to perceive and to act upon their interests in ways inclin- ing to the common benefit. Briefly, distributism makes it possible as well for the widest number to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources.

The second principle is a natural corollary of the first. Subsidiarity encom- passes the notion that it is unjust to transfer to a large or higher collectivity functions that can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies (Pius XI, 1931, para. 79). Such unnecessary transfers are an affront to the dignity of local communities and divert opportunities and responsibility from the many to the few. Of course, when individuals, groups, or small orga- nizations cannot solve problems or perform requisite functions by themselves, the state may assist; and this subsidium is at times even obligatory, although it must be carefully limited so as not to disempower either the individual or the more local association (Vischer, 2001). In its positive sense, then, subsidiarity is construed as judgments, decisions, and activities at the proper level. Contrary to the concept of the state as ruler and ruled, of bureaucracy as agency and client, subsidiarity conceives of the state as enjoying diverse authorities of assorted kinds (experts, specialists, consultants) occupying numerous niches in the social scaffold and enjoying such fluid spheres of action for the com- mon good as the nature of the problem or the situation might advance. “In its negative formulation, subsidiarity demands that when assistance (subsidium) is given, it be done in such a way that the sociality proper to the group (family, school, corporation, etc.) is not subverted” (Hittenger, 2009, p. 824).

The third principle, solidarity, is a natural corollary of the second. Solv-

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ing problems at the lowest appropriate level requires cooperation and mutual regard.

When [this] interdependence becomes recognized, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a “ virtue,” is solidarity. . . . [not] a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress . . . [but] a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say, the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. (John Paul II, 1987, para. 38)

In market-oriented economic contexts, this commitment is pursued first by recognizing that excessive accumulation of wealth can occur, and then by recognizing that it must be put to the common good by sharing it by way of effective economic action through private enterprise and government together providing opportunities to exercise the responsibilities attendant to distribut- ism and subsidiarity.

VAlidATion oF The PrinCiPleS

One might encourage the acceptance and application of such a concept by arguing that its principles derive from a priori axioms of reason or religion, or by offering them as known by intuition, or by suggesting either that they are self-evident or that they are wired into the brain by way of evolution. What I want to argue, however, is that the principles of distributism, solidarity, and subsidiarity are validated by the fundamental values of capitalism and public administration. Toward this end, I consider how the norms of both capital- ism and public administration are concerned with social justice necessarily, how the norms of each converge in validating distributism, solidarity, and subsidiarity, and how the criteria of social justice encourage social, political, and economic practices that may pull in directions that are irreconcilable philosophically but result in administrative choices that most can recognize as largely just, on the whole, once framed as the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, and distributism.

The Criteria of Social Justice

Questions of social justice are concerned with how the benefits and burdens of living together should be distributed. Four kinds of criteria found in normative theories of capitalism and public administration concern themselves with dis- tributive justice: desert, need, utility, and process. Equality is mentioned often as an additional criterion, but most often it is expressed in terms of ensuring that everyone is given due consideration and respect in whatever the process of distribution might be or whenever distributions are made according to desert, need, or utility. Each of the criteria can be framed as a norm. We might say, for example, that benefits and burdens should be distributed according to

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need or that benefits and burdens should be distributed according to a freely undertaken process that is untainted by either coercion or fraud.

When it is cast as a norm, most would agree that process alone does not suffice as a justification. First, from its validity would follow the invalidity of the others. Few are willing to jettison desert, for example. Second, the argu- ment for this criterion is that the value of liberty requires it. But exchanges between freely consenting individuals can result in economic or political consequences that for various reasons members of the society, acting as a col- lectivity, might wish to alter. For example, there are at least five different ways in which any given exchange may have unexpected consequences (Merton, 1936). The consequences may be positive, negative, or merely neutral, but they may veer decidedly from the intent of the action taken and yield results most would consider undesirable overall and not merely for those involved in the immediate transaction. And third, it is doubtful that any exchange is totally free. Only certain exchanges are open to any of us because of our talents, abilities, and skills, our socioeconomic situation, and the culture and traditions into which we are delivered. While those promoting process might say that this is understood and that they are referring to liberty as understood within such constraints, the constraints nevertheless diminish the force of process arguments.

CAPiTAliSm, normATiVe eConomiCS, And SoCiAl JUSTiCe

Economists, on the whole, are reluctant to consider moral values and issues of social justice as part-and-parcel of their discipline. To some extent, this reluctance stems from a mistaken belief that economics can be a science only if it excludes normative issues from consideration. However, because of its importance to public policy, avoiding value judgments in economics is actually impossible. Economics is a human activity, and so it is governed by values necessarily, as the policy choices that must be made are clouded by the interests of economists and policymakers alike (Frank, 1988). Much of the economics that informs policy, for example, is grounded in an implicit normative theory of rationality that stands in contention with social norms that resist maximizing either individual wealth or welfare distributions in the name of freedom, rights, and equality. Additionally, there is evidence that studying theories that depict individuals as self-interested leads people to regard self-interested behavior more favorably, adopt it as a norm, and become more self-interested themselves (Frank, Gilovich, & Regan, 1993; Marwell & Ames, 1981). Finally, economists must interpret the incomplete specifica- tions of goals and constraints provided by policymakers (Machlup, 1978), and perspectives on meeting those goals are influenced by ideology—as the current polemics on macroeconomic policy testify.

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For these reasons, normative economics represents an impressive body of literature (Arrow, 1951; Hendrickson, 1992; Hicks, 1939; Pigou, 1932; Samuelson, 1967; Sen, 2009). This literature is informed by political phi- losophy and in particular by Boylen (2004), Nussbaum (1999), Rawls (1971), and Sen (2009). Rawls’s difference principle, Boylen’s consideration of the goods necessary to the accomplishment of meaningful human achievement, and the stress by Sen and Nussbaum upon the importance of capabilities (the opportunities necessary to human achievement) have been instrumental in making the economic analysis of distributive policies pay some attention to social justice. These normative concerns over social justice both echo and elaborate those voiced in the earliest explication of capitalism. Adam Smith, for example, discussed and justified capitalism in explicitly moral terms; terms in which markets, the private ownership of the means of production, and the division of labor are shown to depend upon and to produce not only prosperity but also justice and freedom, particularly for the poor. Smith “did not envision a capitalist society. He envisioned a capitalist economy within a society held together by noncapitalist moral sentiments” (Rasmussen, 1993, pp. 41–42). These sentiments valued not only the utility of markets but the dignity of the human being, the common good, and the promotion of social justice. In fact, the fundamental necessity of social justice to capitalism was well explicated by Smith, and much of the literature on normative economics has its roots in his thinking.

normative economics and distributism

Distributists seek to fulfill the criteria of desert, need, and utility by accom- plishing the widest possible distribution of wealth that can be brought about by the widest possible ownership of land, workshops, factories, clinics, stores, shopping centers, means of transportation, trades, professions, and property rights in general. Normative economics, with its roots in the thinking of Adam Smith, understands capitalism as a means of addressing the criteria of desert, need, and utility by distributing and redistributing not only the wealth of a nation but ownership in the means of production, as well by means of the market. Distributists and normative economists alike share the goal of ensuring that the distributions are such as to accomplish social justice and to offer even those in the poorest of circumstances a means of advancing their welfare and contributing to the welfare of the whole by creating more wealth. Many, though not all, distributists and normative economists seek to avoid the coercive distribution of wealth and productive property by the state. But all of them mean to do more. They mean to counter the tendency of any sector of the population in which the wealth of nations might tend to concentrate “to pose a continuing threat to justice, sociability and the progress of civilization” as well as to foster the emergence of governments capable of checking the power of economic, political, and social elites (Phillipson, 2010, p. 112).

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These goals have their roots in the thinking of Adam Smith. Consid- ered the first theorist of capitalism and market economics, Smith was a moral philosopher whose abiding interest was in creating “the Cheerful and the Hearty state” (Smith, 1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 8, p. 42). Such a state could not be realized except by alleviating such disadvantage as “in every improved and civilized society . . . the great body of the people must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it” (bk. 1, chap. 8; chap. 1, p. 2; bk. 5, chap. 1, p. 11). These disadvantages follow from the fact that “wherever there is great property there is great inequality” (1776/1904, bk. 5, chap. 1, p. 2), and the genesis of “great property” is not the superior acumen of the few but the alliances among merchants and the arrangements negotiated between merchants and the government (bk. 1, chap. 2, p. 4; chap. 8, p. 13; chap. 10, p. 82; bk. 4, chap. 8, p. 17). These arrangements and alliances result in concentrations of wealth and the means of producing it that are largely responsible for a society’s failure to flourish (bk. 1, chap. 8). For these reasons, it is in the interest of the nation that the government “take great pains” not only to prevent “the scanty maintenance of the labouring poor” (bk. 5, chap. 1, p. 178), but to seek improvement in the conditions of the broadest range of individuals by way of taxation that transfers wealth from the many to the few and the repeal of laws, customs, and practices that create and support monopolies of trade, manufacture, and agriculture (Fleischacker, 2004b; Phillipson, 2010, pp. 113–115; Smith, 1776/1904, bk. 5, chap. 2, p. 71). These observations and concerns are echoed by Hicks (1939), Pigou (1932, pt. IV, chap. VIII, sec. 1), Rawls (1971), and Samuelson (1967), among others, and the problem of collaboration is echoed in the literature on rent- seeking, regulatory capture, and interest-group politics (Holcome, 2002). Concerns with desert, need, utility, and the distribution of wealth, then, were important factors in Smith’s assessment of markets and continue to be concerns in the assessment of markets today.

Improving the condition of the poor, increasing wealth, distributing wealth more widely, and enhancing opportunities for the many to have access to the means of producing wealth would have political as well as economic and social benefits. Smith was sensitive to how power permeates the economy and has profound social, moral, and economic consequences. Both Smith and normative economists, for example, recognize that political power cannot be separated from market exchange.

Market exchange and power, Smith believed, are interdependent, not separate topics. . . . he believed that market relationships [that function in the way that he believed would increase a nation’s wealth] are both spontaneous and conceptual, that is, that they presuppose a just social order, including therein systems of public law and policy which foster fair dealing in market exchange. (Elliott, 2000, p. 455)

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Accordingly, both Smith and current normative economists “incorporate, indeed feature, causes and consequences of the pursuit and exercise of social [and political] power by individuals, organizations, classes, and governments” in their considerations of how the market might be encouraged to perform justly (Elliott, 2000, p. 453).

Most interesting, for example, is Smith’s idea that the more equitable distribution of capital (productive property), attained through markets free of tax bias and monopolies, not only increases the wealth of nations but also checks the power of the aristocratic, the rich, and the politically powerful, who all “pose a continuing threat to justice, sociability and the progress of civilization” (Phillipson, 2010, p. 112). Briefly, when productive property and the wealth it generates are widely distributed, it is more difficult for a small group to capture the legislature or to impose social, political, and economic norms that operate in its favor. The relevance of Smith’s observations and concerns is echoed in the literature on iron triangles (Adams, 1981), interest- group politics (Cigler & Loomis, 1995; Dahl, 1967), and issue networks (Helco, 1978), which delineates only some of the means employed to bring government “under the influence or control of narrowly based and largely autonomous elites” (McConnell, 1966, p. 339).

The benefits of income transfers by way of taxation are echoed by econo- mists today (Kanbur & Lustig, 2000), and although modern economists agree that while Smith’s “natural liberty” encourages self-adjusting, self-regulating markets, the free enterprise system (as Smith himself often observed) is not perfect. Notably, self-regulation of competition will sometimes fail, not only because governments (sometimes in collusion with private enterprises) may hamper competition by regulation or suppression, but also because competi- tion may extinguish itself through ever more fierce rivalries and because market participants may subvert competition and prevent market forces from operating freely. To forestall these last contingencies, business enterprises must accumulate capital through mergers and acquisitions, and the growing accumulation of capital in fewer and fewer hands results in the eventual for- mation of monopolies. Monopolies, however, introduce a distortion of market functioning, and government intervention to dissolve or prevent monopolies becomes necessary to preserve “natural liberty” just as advocated by Smith. Of course, this does not restore a perfect natural liberty so much as it promotes sufficient competition to control the formation of monopolies that may hurt consumers by unfairly extracting wealth from them. In accordance with Smith, then, at the heart of the laws restricting monopolies is the promotion of the common good (Blair & Kaserman, 2008).

A system promoting natural liberty, then, does not mean that there is no role for positive or proactive government. And an important part of that role involves such government oversight as allots proper attention to social justice, a sentiment Smith labored long to prove to be natural and that inclines us to

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constant inquiry concerning the justness of the overall distribution of wealth and productive property that is accomplished by our institutional arrange- ments (Devine, 1977). Smith believed that states could and should redistribute wealth to some degree, and defend the poor and disadvantaged against those who wield power over them in the private sector (Fleischacker, 2004b). At the same time, Smith believed strongly in the importance of local knowledge to economic decision-making and consequently thought that business should be left to as broad a possible population as is reasonable, given that people understand the particular situations in which they work far better than any government official (Hayek, 1978) or absentee owner. By the same token, governance should be kept out of the hands of businesspeople, since they are likely to use it to promote their particular interests, and not be concerned for the well-being of the citizenry as a whole (Muthu, 2008).

Distributism, then, is compatible with, if not necessary to, a properly func- tioning capitalist market economy. It is a means consistent with the observations and evaluations of Adam Smith and the normative economists, and meets the criteria of desert, need, and utility in ways that affirm human dignity, extend opportunity, and reward responsible economic behavior. It accomplishes these ends by deferring to our ability to understand what is to our good and by fostering our proclivity to act upon that understanding in ways inclining to the common benefit; that benefit being understood as what is necessary to achieve health, agency, opportunity, and meaningful participation in whatever form of life we happen to occupy. The key to realizing these ends is to get the nation’s wealth and productive property out of the hands of the few and into the hands of the many, so that our “natural liberty” might be put to use in diverse ways and so increase the wealth of “all the different orders of the society.”

normative economics and Solidarity

Validation for the principle of solidarity follows from Smith’s observation that each of us, at every point of our existence, stands “at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes” (1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 2, p. 2). It is through the medium of reciprocity in the exchange of goods and services that this assistance is accomplished; and what is most misunderstood about this process is its ethical dimension. Consider,

Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer. (1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 1, p. 2)

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It is important how this passage is read. Social naturalism, the metanarrative of the Scottish Enlightenment, supplied the background assumptions for think- ing at the time, and it rendered plausible the idea that “sociable and altruistic motivations to act, as learned through religion, would emerge ‘naturally’ through participation in public life and in market transactions” (Jacobs & Smith, 1997). The thinking was that we depend upon each other unavoidably, but that beneficence is insufficient to this need, not because people are inher- ently selfish (as distinguished from self-interested), but because it was unlikely that the people capable of helping in precisely the necessary way would be at hand precisely when and where a particular sort of help was needed. The expectation of mutual benefit mutually pursued on a regular and dependable basis by way of ongoing markets, on the other hand, could provide all neces- sities more or less at the requisite times and places. Put another way, Smith certainly thought people capable of both benevolence and self-love, and his references to the latter in the context of the times were not a sign of resigna- tion to purely selfish market behavior. Rather they described an opportunity for all involved, an insight concerning the efficiency that could be rallied by satisfying both self-interest and the needs of others simultaneously.

This background narrative is evident in The Theory of the moral Sentiments, and if the last line of the preceding quotation is well considered in the context of that theory, it can only mean that whoever offers an exchange must be other- regarding: Each of us is responsible for acting upon a recognition of the human dignity we share with those with whom we are engaged economically. We must consider what the other person needs from the exchange and must promise to render it over; each must promise to consider the interests of the other and to seek their satisfaction, or the process of exchange will collapse. Briefly, what Smith realized was that self-interest could be realized by serving the interests of others. So it is that capitalism entails a moral sentiment, the satisfaction of which alone ensures capitalism’s rationality and efficiency. As he reminds us, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happi- ness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (Smith, 1779/1790, pt. 1, sec. 1, chap.1, para. 1).

As to self-interest and conflict, Smith was convinced that although both politics and business could corrupt, everyone was capable of restraining their selfish inclinations and “indulging their benevolent affections” (1779/1790, bk. 3, chap. 1, p. 104)—an end after which “we are most sincerely laboring” (bk. 3, chap. 1, p. 124). That is, we are at least prone to consider the welfare of others as we act by way of our

reason, principle, [and] conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within. . . . It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonish- ing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the

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multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. (1779/1790, bk. 1, chap. 3, para. 5)

That the betterment of the whole is, in fact, always the preeminent ethical concern of human beings, Smith emphasizes by way of a query:

To prevent [some] paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of human- ity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. (Smith, 1779/1790, bk. 2, chap. 1, para. 18)

Achieving social justice, then, requires an understanding of complex human motivation, rationality, and well-being. People are not purely self-interested. They care for others and observe social norms. They do not always reason “instrumentally,” seeking least-cost means to given ends. They question the point of their aims and the worth of their wants.

So, while “Smith’s wealth of nations is grounded on the assumption that people inevitably act out of self-interest, to imply that the book’s major con- tribution grows out of that assumption is to misread it severely.” Rather, “the distinctive mark of Smith’s thought is his view of human cognition, not of human motivation” (Fleischacker, 2004a). That is to say, the key to promot- ing a good life for all is the recognition that people understand their interests, understand that they need the cooperation of others to realize those interests, and understand that to secure that cooperation they must be other-regarding. Accordingly, given the right circumstances, they will act upon these under- standings to the betterment of the whole (Smith, 1896, p. 256). And it is these qualities of character that Smith sought to encourage by way of devising a proper institutional framework.

These insights can be recast as a validation of solidarity as a principle of social justice. Moreover, they validate the idea that capitalism is justified ultimately as a moral endeavor designed to achieve social justice by alleviat- ing poverty, scarcity, destitution, penury, and indigence, and these ends are thwarted to the extent that solidarity is frustrated rather than advanced by government. As Smith observes,

The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more eas- ily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. (1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 8, p. 12)

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normative economics and Subsidiarity

Consistent with the concept of subsidiarity, the redistribution of wealth and productive property was to be accomplished, at least initially, by markets composed of small, owner-managed enterprises located in the communities in which the owners resided (Smith, 1776/1904, bk. 4, chap. 2, p. 10). This would ensure not only the best use of resources but that markets would func- tion in accord with community values and that those involved would have a personal stake in the community’s future (Stabile, 1997). Unquestionably, this followed from Smith’s skepticism concerning both the motives and the abilities of politicians, bureaucrats, and absentee owners of productive prop- erty to advance the public good, let alone social justice. He was convinced, for example, that when “industry” is “principally suited to one great market” rather than “accommodated to a great number of small markets,” the “most dangerous disorders” are likely to be visited “upon the whole body politic” as the “whole system of industry and commerce [i]s thereby less secure” and “less healthful than it otherwise would have been” (1776/1904, bk. 4, chap. 7, p. 129).

Accordingly, Smith’s preferred mechanism for the redistribution of wealth and productive property was the “obvious and simple system of natural liberty,” a freedom from the distortions on practice in a market context that are imposed by both governments and powerful private interests (1776/1904, bk. 4, chap. 4, para. 51). Local markets, then, were intended as both practical means of ameliorating the inequities and inefficiencies attendant to “great property” and as measures intent upon advancing social justice. As Smith notes,

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged. (1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 8, p. 35)

At the same time, Smith recognized that “small numbers of individuals” situated locally may require at times the aid of others (1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 2, p. 2) and that both market expansion and market integration lead to economic growth. But this increase in scope and size was meant to inure to the local benefit. In a nutshell, when expansion and integration turn local markets into geographically expanded operations, both the opportunities for labor and the opportunities for specialization increase at the local level, each in turn increasing the distribution of wealth and productive property to that level (Bloomfield, 1975, pp. 455–481). The concept of subsidiarity reflects this interplay between higher and lower levels of organization. That is, subsidiar- ity does not connote “a sharp contrast between a private sphere of atomistic individuals and a public sphere controlled by the state.” Instead it is meant to

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“cast society as a complex web of family, social, religious, and governmental ties with the ultimate goal of encouraging and empowering the individual exercise of responsibility” (Marquardt, 1994, p. 619). Subsidiarity, then, is reified by empowered individuals “acting together through social groupings and associations” (Marquardt, 1994, p. 619). The role of each level of social, political, and economic organization is to facilitate independent action by the groups below it. This understanding resolves the tension between natural lib- erty and beneficial governmental intervention emerging from Smith’s analyses and observations that has been explained as either a contradiction (Stigler, 1971, pp. 269–277) or evidence that Smith was not actually committed to a thoroughgoing natural liberty (Rothschild, 2001).

It is noteworthy in this regard that among Smith’s meticulous analyses there is no condemnation of government interventions on behalf of social justice. In fact, he can be said to advocate a positive role for government so long as its measures do not interfere unnecessarily with the “natural liberty” required to promote a “dynamic economy” whereby “all the different orders of the soci- ety” profit from “a continuing increase of national wealth” (1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 8, p. 42). In fact, in wealth of nations, Smith identified at least twenty- seven examples where government’s role in the economy is beneficial (Viner, 1928). In fact, as Smith might have put it, capitalism improperly practiced fails to recognize the need for subsidiarity by locating authority and wealth hierarchically, by bringing forth a class of “masters,” by decreasing necessar- ily the resources available across the population, and by reducing thereby the potential for economic growth (1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 8, p. 13). Consider, for example, Smith’s observation that concentrating wealth and power in a few narrows competition and raises profits unnaturally, as it “deceives” and “oppresses” the public (1776/1904, bk. 1, chap. 11, p. 264).

Most important, from Smith’s perspective, placing decision-making above those directly affected by the choices made was a considerable evil for a reason beyond reduced competition, increased poverty, and political oppression. To the extent that the principle of subsidiarity was not observed, the potency of Smith’s entire scheme declined. Markets themselves were intended as the remedy for domination, as they were best made up of small local buyers and sellers of roughly equal influence competing to extract assets from the wealthy by offer of goods and services and spreading that profit about by buying one from another. Smith’s particular genius was at demonstrating how the workings of such small local markets would tend to enhance the dignity, responsibility, and opportunities available to the many by closely approximating fair returns and resulting in a more just distribution of resources that would incline the nation to an overall increase in wealth. And he made it sufficiently clear that concentrations of wealth, productive property, and privilege were inimical to this result (Phillipson, 2010, pp. 113–115; Smith, 1776/1904, chap. 11). Moreover, government by powerful business interests was for Smith “the worst

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of all governments for any country whatever.” By way of illustration, he noted that the New World islands of St. Thomas and Santa Cruz (St. Croix) were at one time “under the government of an exclusive company.” As their progress was “slow and languid,” however, “the late King of Denmark dissolved this company, and since that time the prosperity of these colonies has been very great” (1776/1904, bk. 4, chap. 7, p. 33).

PUbliC AdminiSTrATion And SoCiAl JUSTiCe

Scholars and practitioners of public administration are more open than economists to considering moral values and issues of social justice as part- and-parcel of their discipline. On the one hand, a strong tradition in the field conceives of public administration as a science of economy and efficiency (Waldo, 1968). This tradition seeks to develop a true science of management (Taylor, 1947) “which is composed of principles that are arrived at inductively from the study of both human organization” (Urwick, 1937, p. 49) and human psychology (Landsberger, 1958). This tradition includes as well those shar- ing the conviction that the system sciences can reconcile the technical and sociopsychologically oriented sciences as applied to the study and practice of public administration (Boulding, 1956).

On the other hand, there is an extensive literature on normative public administration. This tradition understands public administration as a moral endeavor (Frederickson, 1983), a vocation with benevolence and justice as its moral foundation (Denhardt, 1991), and an undertaking that at its best is attentive to the social and economic outcomes of public policy as well as to its proper and faithful implementation (Box, 2007). The moral obligations of the field are both unique and more critical to social welfare than those found in the private sector (Hart, 1984; Stewart, 1985). They include addressing issues of desert, utility, and need through active citizenship and civic virtue (distributism and solidarity), by engaging in participatory decision-making (subsidiarity), by exercising decisive judgment in the public interest (defined substantively in particular contexts through reasoned discourse with those at all levels of government and society; i.e., as subsidiarity and solidarity), and by contributing to the development of those political and moral capacities of individual citizens that are crucial to solidifying communal ties (solidarity) (Stivers, 1993, p. 441).

Overall, then, scholars and practitioners of public administration concern themselves not only with developing and applying “a pure science of ad- ministration” but also with “prescribing for public policies” (Simon, 1947, p. 202) in ways that express a concern for social justice as understood in ways compatible with the concepts of distributism, solidarity, and subsidiarity. This has been the case from the field’s earliest American incarnation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, public administration was animated by

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the task of improving governance by countering rapacious market practices through partisan but not necessarily political neutrality (Van Riper, 1984, pp. 203–218). Interest-group struggle among economic elites at the time pressured politicians to provide tax advantages, manufacturing regulations, and commercial policies beneficial to their interests. This set in operation a compact distributism, the distribution of purchasing power and productive property to the few, and the distribution to the many of services varying according to the ideological partialities, policy preferences, and whatever support for specific welfare policies might be afforded by economic elites (Soroka & Wlezien, 2008, pp. 320–321). Administrative practices, the discretion accompanying them, and the scholarship informing them were intended to accomplish enduring and vital public purposes through a thor- oughgoing contradistinction to justice as understood primarily in terms of this market-based, interest-group struggle for the distribution of wealth and productive property (Goodnow, 1900, pp. 73, 113–114; Wilson, 1966, p. 17). Public administration’s proper function was understood to include a moral and ethical orientation that acted as a counter to the unjust distributions of goods and services accomplished by the power exercised upon govern- ment by market interests, market values, and market practices. More than simply to secure and operate efficient and economical institutions toward a well-ordered society, administrators were expected to pursue social justice (Frederickson, 1989, p. 97) and to place themselves at the service of the less advantaged in order to sustain social cooperation and to attain and enhance both public respect for their agencies and the respect of the citizenry for each other and themselves through the provision of some primary public goods and the protection and maintenance of others (Hart, 1974).

This raison d’être of public administration theory and practice changed remarkably little until the advent of the debates over “reinvented government,” a market-oriented reconceptualization of government as an entrepreneurial enterprise that classifies citizens as customers, administration as a mecha- nism for converting policy alternatives into market choices, and agencies as businesses competing amongst each other and with private businesses for the opportunity to provide public goods and services (Bingham & Bowen, 1994, pp. 204–208). Regardless of the reinvention, however, responsible public administration remains essential to governmental effectiveness and to the achievement of collective (social) as opposed to individual (commuta- tive) justice. Responsible administration requires moral judgments about the relative needs of the citizens it serves, about the social value of the service provided, and about how scarce resources should be allocated in ways that realize the public good. Means must be employed that conform to dominant cultural beliefs, religious practices, and social norms about what is desirable and acceptable to do (Elster, 1992), with the public (collective) good always in mind as the primary goal. In brief, public administration’s reason for being

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is to exert some power toward our acting together deliberately to shape and determine a just society in which we all want to live.

Overall, then, for public administrators, the solidarity and well-being of a community take precedence over considerations of efficiency, economy, and personal choice in a marketplace, as neither the individual nor the com- munity can flourish unless the other flourishes as well. As Sandel (2012) argues, individualistic concepts of social justice such as those elaborated by Rawls and Nozick tend to crowd out the value of building, maintaining, and advancing sound communities. Public administrators must focus on the welfare of communities, as their welfare helps to constitute the interpersonal good from which a sense of social justice can be realized. Through the interpersonal relationships of community are established the “more or less enduring attachments and commitments” (Sandel, 1984, p. 90) that help to define the values that will characterize our sense of justice as a common good. Thus justice must determine what is right as serving the goods we embrace in a social context, “as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons and daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic” rather than as abstract individuals (Sandel, 1984, p. 90).

However, solidarity and subsidiarity must act as complements.

Solidarity and subsidiarity acting together recognize the dignity of in- dividuals by empowering them to act together through social groupings and associations. Whereas solidarity refers to the social responsibility of humans and implies a rejection of individualism; subsidiarity refers to the responsibility of people and intermediary communities, and implies a rejection of collectivism. (Verstraeten, 1998, p. 138)

Thus, neither subsidiarity nor solidarity is intended as a means of shunning governmental intervention or devolving government functions from the federal to the state, local, or individual level. Rather, together they express a prin- cipled tendency toward solving problems at the local level and empowering individuals to associate voluntarily at all levels in order to act more effica- ciously. Accordingly, the role of public administrators is one of “processor and facilitator with elected officials of government response to rapid social, economic, and political change” from the bottom up (Frederickson, 1980, p. 46). Public administrators must be active participants in a public dialogue about the needs of citizens that includes the citizens themselves as well as elected and appointed political officials.

Currently, the public administration literature argues persuasively for subsidiarity in this regard (Ansell, 2011). Case studies indicate that public agencies are crucial bridges between citizens and governments that can help both people on the local level and the denizens of public bureaucracies to identify, understand in more nuanced ways, and better deal practically with

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concrete problems in reflective and deliberative ways. Accommodating and assimilating context, culture, local experience, and the broader knowledge of skilled and practiced professionals, this approach has the advantage not only of integrating popular sovereignty with on-the-ground governance but also of increasing trust between government agencies and the citizens they serve. Additionally, subsidiarity provides a means of adjudging the use of purchasing power and productive property by the outcomes. It allows us to ascertain, in situ, which monies in particular are well or poorly used and the extent to which those to whom we entrust the use of purchasing power and productive property rights are employing them in ways consonant with the standards inherent historically to our discourse on justice: a proper balance among considerations of merit, equality, liberty, utility, and need (Abel & Sementelli, 2007).


This consideration of capitalism and Catholic social theory is not offered as a proof that administrators in a capitalist milieu must settle necessarily upon these three principles. It is only to show that distributism, subsidiarity, and solidarity are principles of justice commensurate with the animating principles of public administration and the moral foundations of capitalism, and so can be viewed as principles that persons embedded in an American capitalist and administrative milieu could acknowledge as restrictions governing adminis- trative, and by extension capitalist, practice. These principles of justice may strike people as reasonable as they give rise to claims that others may regard as legitimate (validated) given that they arise from the historically emergent sociological, linguistic, psychological, and behavioral inclinations, values, attitudes, and beliefs that comprise the matrix of our understandings and lend meaning to what we decide to do as we practice capitalism and public admin- istration. It is this notion of the possibility of mutual acknowledgment that makes the concepts of distributism, subsidiarity, and solidarity fundamental to any discourse on social justice.


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Charles F. Abel ( is professor of political science and public administration at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is the author of several books and numerous articles in the fields of public law and admin- istrative theory. His current interests include the relationships among public administration, political economy, Catholic social theory, pragmatism, and the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Paine.

Copyright of Administrative Theory & Praxis (M.E. Sharpe) is the property of M.E. Sharpe Inc. and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.


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