A few weeks ago, the Delta Phi fraternity at Hamilton College distributed on campus fliers welcoming students to attend “the 53rd annual Mexican Night” party. The invitation, which was intended to be symbolic of spring-break excursions to Cancun and other vacation spots south of the border, contained the image of a Trojan Horse in the shape of a Mexican pinata towering over an armed guard in front of a stout U. S. border fence. The words “Proper Documentation Required,” a spoof of the usual language for proper identification at parties that serve alcohol, ran to the left of the image. In a flash, student activists and their faculty allies had mobilized in ginned-up outrage to protest this latest alleged example of institutionalized racism and to demand action by the administration and trustees on a laundry list of particulars that includes a speech code (masked as a “social honor code”), mandatory diversity courses, and the establishment of a multi-million dollar cultural education center to provide “safe spaces” for aggrieved student groups. Administrators competed with each other to see how artistically they could grovel to protesting students. Acting President Joseph Urgo and the college’s “diversity ombudsman” called the fraternity to account and pressured its leaders to cancel the party. In an all-campus email, Urgo claimed to have extracted from the contrite fraternity leadership an expansive confession that the image not only “hurt and offended many members of the Hamilton community,” but that it “trivializes a contemporary political crisis and reduces the complex history and culture of Mexico to a simple stereotype.”
Urgo and other administrators then joined protesting faculty and protesting students in holding a candlelight vigil. Speeches, poetry, and spiritual songs of the Kumbaya variety expressed feelings of solidarity with the disrespected, vulnerable, and marginalized on campus and around the world. Fraternity leaders rained apologies from all directions to no avail. The dean of students, standing in like a kind of sacrificial lamb, bleated enough mea culpas to elicit God’s forgiveness of a rash of mortal sins. Unforgiving students, however, led by a group called the Social Justice Initiative, followed by commandeering another faculty meeting. Looking anything but vulnerable and threatened, they seized the microphone and threateningly wagged the finger of blame at college officials for their “lack of response” and “lack of action” to the fraternity’s benightedness. Dozens of sympathetic faculty, including leaders of the Diversity and Social Justice Project, signed on to a proposed resolution that would signal to posterity “Our profound appreciation and affection… for our international students and students of color who may have felt marginalized by recent events on campus.” The faculty eventually passed overwhelmingly a resolution that supported the creation of a cultural education center on campus, that urged—Hamilton College’s recently imposed open curriculum notwithstanding—mandatory “educational and programmatic initiatives” to intensify diversity training, and that directed administrators to expand the powers of existing harassment and grievance boards to “raise critical awareness of different forms of harassment.” Stay tuned, for the full extent of the concessions by the guilt-stricken have yet to be determined.
When college officials, trustees as well as administrators, face social justice hostiles on the warpath encircling the administration building or the faculty meeting, they possess neither the wit nor the courage to act like Madame Roland before the guillotine: “Oh, social justice, what crimes are committed in thy name.” Social justice activism has not only infiltrated college campuses, it pervades academic culture at many of this country’s elite institutions of higher learning. For the Doubting Thomases, perform this simple test. Go to the website of your alma mater. Click on the news-and-events page. Activate the search engine by plugging in social justice and such auxiliary words as diversity, multiculturalism, sustainability, environmentalism, ecological crisis, activism, and identities. Total the references. Now perform a similar search for, say, conservative, Western civilization, Shakespeare, Christian, and entrepreneur. Get the point.
Unhappily, college officials seem to be missing the point. More than a quarter century ago, Friedrich Hayek, the greatest anti-Keynesian economist of his day, whose Road to Serfdom (1944) should make for particularly good bed-time reading these days, declared that “the prevailing belief in ‘social justice’ is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values in a free society.” Indeed, the mantra-like recitation of this “quasi-religious” term to enlist public support for one or another program of statist wealth redistribution so disturbed him that he promised as a personal mission to make fellow members of the clerisy “thoroughly ashamed” every time they deployed “social justice” in speech or publication. The very concept of social justice, as Hayek pointed out, invariably leads to frequent displays of “sloppy thinking and even dishonesty,” not exactly the kind of values that readily comport with the typical college’s mission statement.
Activists rarely define the term with any degree of precision, for, in truth, social justice masks a totalitarian impulse behind a utopian enticement. Every totalitarian movement of the twentieth century waved the banner of social justice in ascending to power. The concept, as Hayek insisted, has no meaningful measure in a society comprised of free individuals. Policies invoked in the name of social justice boil down to demands for public submission to the claims of particularly powerful interest groups, what economists call rent-seekers. Human beings, according to social-justice thinkers, exist as so much infinitely malleable clay to be reshaped by statist power. Grow Leviathan; demolish protective mediating institutions between the state and the individual; reconfigure the arrangements of society; and let statist bureaucrats engineer the remains into the New Man.
Hayek’s brilliant contemporary, the French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel, pointed to the absurdity of such thinking. Not only do the premises of social justice deny the existence of a human nature, the logical outcome of this deadly illusion of the engineered society is that “everything would be arranged justly” so that “no one would have to be just.” In fact, social justice thinking eviscerates the older notion of individual, restorative justice–suum cuique (to each his own)– by creating a nation of free-riders. To the extent that private property weakens and the state socializes externalities, human beings increasingly fail to bear the full consequences of their own actions, making it less likely that they will discriminate between liberty and licentiousness, what is properly their own and what properly belongs to someone else. George Will is not alone in noticing that Team Obama’s extension of a command economy to a degree that would have made Adolf Berle and Rexford Tugwell wince has come “cloaked in the raiment of ‘economic planning’ and ‘social justice.'” Is there a connection between campus and beltway cultures? Well, from little acorns, we now know, mighty ACORN grows.
With increasing frequency the term social justice crops up in academic job announcements; a commitment to it, like the possession of an advanced degree, certifies the applicant’s bona fides. For classroom use, the University of California at Berkeley held a major social-justice conference in 2008 that showcased the thinking of law professors on such topics as teaching for “social change,” teaching for “transformative change,” and “How to put Activism into Your Course.” Administrators, whether in sympathy with the social-justice agenda or under pressure from its acolytes to embrace it, continue to reallocate resources to fund a broad array of social-justice programs and positions. Administrative “diversity” watch-dogs have as part of their portfolio the construction of social-justice events and programming. Money for these positions often comes at the expense of established courses. At my own institution, Hamilton College, a lavishly funded Diversity and Social Justice Project, complete with its own administrative staff, offers not only more programming than any discipline on campus, but also fellowships to undergraduates “to conduct social justice internships.” Such money might underwrite student activity that, say, aids illegal immigrants, secures foot soldiers for Amnesty International, or promotes the agenda of Planned Parenthood. That’s what happens when Diversity people are in charge.