Social Justice and Public Policy, by Gary Craig, Tania Burchardt and David Gordon

Policy Press, 2008, x + 284 pp, pbk, 1 86134 933 0, £19.99, hbk, 1 86134 934 7, £65

The term ‘social justice’ can mean a bewildering variety of different things and can be attached as an intended outcome to a wide variety of social policies. The editors of this volume take as their guides to the meaning of ‘social justice’ the definition employed by the Labour Party’s 1994 Commission on Social Justice: ‘[the] equal worth of all citizens; [an] equal right to be able to meet basic needs; [a] need to spread opportunities and life chances as widely as possible; and [a] requirement to reduce and where possible eliminate unjustified inequalities’ (p.1) and John Rawls’ difference principle: ‘Those who wish to justify a deviation from total equality in key social and economic outcomes must demonstrate that such an arrangement will be of benefit to the least well off in society’ (p.4). They judge New Labour to have failed to match policy to the Commission on Social Justice’s definition, and they judge the strength of Rawls’ difference principle to depend on which justifications for inequality pass his test – and this requires careful study of social policies and their outcomes.

The aim of this collection of essays is accordingly to relate theories of social justice to real-world policy problems.

Jonathan Wolff suggests that political philosophers should develop theories based on social policy; and from a study of three theories of social justice David Piachaud and Ruth Lister draw conclusions relating to inequality in past, present and future society. Will Kymlicka suggests that we can both recognise cultural diversity and sustain a redistributive welfare state; Iris Marion Young asks that we rebalance the diversity/equality debate towards equal opportunities; Ruth Lister asks that respectful treatment and genuine voice should accompany redistribution; Christopher Bertram asks for global social justice; Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift recognise that parents must be partial towards their own children and suggests that social policy should promote equality of relationship and other goods; and David Gordon points out that scandalously little has been written on social justice for children. Katie Schmuecker discusses diversity and equity across the UK now that government is increasingly devolved; Tania Burchardt applies Amartya Sen’s capability approach (an approach to equality based on the distribution of substantive freedom) to inequality in Britain; Gary Craig finds ethnic minorities to be unjustly treated; and Maria Abedowale asks us to integrate social justice with environmental protection through a sustainable development perspective.

As with all collections of essays based on seminar series, there is a certain amount of overlap between the essays, and the chapters’ agendas are often driven more by the authors’ interests than by the editors’ stated aims ( – some chapters don’t explicitly ask how theories of social justice relate to social policy). But many students, teachers and researchers will find this a valuable collection, not least because it demands to be followed up in particular policy areas. For instance: there is no chapter on the social justice theories underlying different ways of organising tax and benefit structures – a gap which we hope the Citizen’s Income Trust’s 2009 seminar series will go some way to filling.