Social justice is now an every day part of the British Conservative vocabulary. Just the other day, Owen Paterson – a copper-bottomed right-winger – advertised that the purpose of his new think tank was to “develop a radical Conservative vision for a prosperous, sovereign and socially just United Kingdom.”

It wasn’t always this way. A decade or so ago, ‘social justice’ was still seen – quite wrongly – as an exclusive part of the lefty lexicon. If the Tories of the time had anything to say about social justice issues at all, it was under less provocative headings such as ‘one nation’ conservatism.

There was a brief period in which we borrowed the somewhat unctuous ‘compassionate conservatism’ from the Americans, but by the time that Tim Montgomerie and Iain Duncan Smith had founded the Centre for Social Justice, we’d got over our terminological hang-ups to openly challenge the left on previously abandoned territory.

It’s encouraging to see that many US conservatives are now also embracing an explicit social justice agenda – the most prominent example of which comes from Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.

Brooks has an extended essay on the subject for Commentary magazine – and I’d urge anyone at all interested in the subject to read the whole thing.

He begins by exposing the failure of the Obama administration to “turn America toward greater fairness and compassion”.

In short, the rich have got richer…

“According to New York University economist Edward Wolff, the top 10 percent of earners own 81 percent of stocks and mutual funds, 95 percent of financial securities, 92 percent of business equity, and 80 percent of non-home real estate. So it comes as little surprise that nearly all the real income growth that President Obama’s ‘recovery’ has generated would flow to the wealthiest Americans. According to University of California, Berkeley, economist Emmanuel Saez, 95 percent of all recovery gains have accrued to the much-vilified ‘top 1 percent.’”

…while the poor have got poorer:

“The number of Americans receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as food stamps) has increased by almost 50 percent since January 2009, from 32.2 million to 47.7 million. One in six citizens in the richest country in the world now rely on food aid from their government.”

Brooks’ verdict is a damning one:

“In sum, the administration’s ostensibly pro-poor, tough-on-the-wealthy agenda has led us toward a new American Gilded Age. Our putatively progressive president has inadvertently executed a plutocratic tour de force.”

There is a huge opportunity here for the Republicans to advance a viable social justice agenda of their own. However, as Brooks laments, the GOP leadership has failed to come up with one. Indeed, it’s telling that he sees the need to debunk the idea that private charity – however generous – can take the place of public welfare:

“Consider the present total that Americans give annually to human-service organizations that assist the vulnerable. It comes to about $40 billion, according to Giving USA. Now suppose that we could spread that sum across the 48 million Americans receiving food assistance, with zero overhead and complete effectiveness. It would come to just $847 per person per year.”

This is the position you end up in when conservatives fail to take social justice seriously: caught between the fantasy of abolishing the welfare state and the reality of an unreformed system that traps millions of people in dehumanising dependency.