Although the original post was written as a rant the more I think about it the more the distinction between the political culture of the United States and that of France as being one of liberty vs. social justice holds water.
The movements in the sixties in the U.S. went through all sorts of permutations regarding liberty before they got around to looking at the problem of social justice in a real serious way, which I reckon happened after '68. i.e. in the period of time regarded by Tom Gitlin as the 'bad sixties'. By '68 in Europe, as people should know, the question of social justice was already well entrenched, with '68 witnessing the linking up of student protestors, who started a strike at the Sorbonne which telescoped outwards, with workers who were persuaded to support the student strike with strikes of their own.
I know, people will argue that before '68 there was a whole lot attention paid to social justice in the United States, like in the civil rights movement, but the thing to remember about that is that for the most part the civil rights movement was about just that: civil rights, not social justice for blacks. It appears to be only in the later phase of the civil rights movement, starting a little before '68, coinciding with the rise of 'black power', that economic justice for blacks seriously got a hearing as an important issue.
It's striking to me anyways how many iterations of personal liberation were went through before social justice was gotten to, and even then it appears to be as a kind of extension of liberty, where it isn't reduced to a charicature because of the extreme inexperience of the people involved in thinking in terms of socialist theory, Marxist-Leninism and Maoism, which were the keys that social justice thought was expressed in at that time.
The paralells could be brought right up through the present: France has restrictive laws regarding what you can and can't say, with campaigns having been launched to silence people who the French populace doesn't agree with, for instance a holocaust denier a while ago who, in defence of his right to free speech, Chomsky wrote an introduction for, or Houellebecq, the author, who was charged with inciting racial hatred for making some cynical remarks about Islam in his books. On the other hand, when it comes to compensation, work week, and social benefits, the French are right there, very active, very willing to fight for their right to just shakes for all of these things. Witness the frequent mass strikes and farmers protests.
Here in the United States the situation is just the reverse. I'm not saying that life would be better if what prevailed in France was put into place here--I care too much about freedom of thought and liberty to suggest something like that--so don't misunderstand me. But. Here a person can say anything, get anything into print, without really having to worry all that much about formal censorship being instituted against him or her. True, this is starting to change because of the Bush administration, but so far the conservatives have largely worked through non-governmental means, like through public disapprobation, rather than full out governmental censorship. Of course some say that the right to speak isn't the same as the right to be heard and that many of these voices belong to figures crying out in the wilderness, unheard, so to speak, but that's not the point. We can say it and although there are incentives not to more often than not we do.
On the other hand it's almost impossible to raise issues of social justice which carry with them the assumption that some form of equity or justice in the distribution of wealth is just right, just an obvious truth which doesn't have to be justified. More often than not pleas for social justice are couched in terms of liberty--as in the redefinition of liberty to include the resources needed for effective liberty within a given society. That's just a fancy way of saying that in order to fully participate in society at a decent level a person needs a certain level of economic power. People who are totally destitute and dependant on their jobs can't participate as full citizens in this republic, according to the reasoning.
Effective liberty in order to be autonomous agents. That's another way of putting it. You need enough economic power in order to truly be an active agent in your own life, self directing, free.
But all of these ways of approaching the problem make it more complex than it needs to be. It would be easier just to say that extreme inequality between the richest and the poorest is just wrong and unjust for society rather than go through the philosophical contortions necessary to justify social justice by means of a type of liberty.
What the philosophical priorities of the United States, as well as France, create is a situation where the second priority can only get attention when the first priority has been adequately dealt with, which in the United States means that social justice only gets attention after gobs of it have been thrown at liberty in all its forms, even though we're probably already one of the freest societies in the world in terms of press freedom, although, like mentioned above, that's changing.
Social Justice looks to me like something which needs to get attention on its own terms and not as something which gets seconds after our major preoccupation has been treated well. Social Justice means people having the means to lead a decent life or not having the means to do so. I think that's subject matter which justifies a permanent interest, not just one which ebbs and flows with the times or with interest.
A solution would be to recognize these two areas of life, liberty and social justice, as being paralell to each other rather than arranged in a zero sum game where to give attention to one would be to take attention away from the other.
Then, we could resolutely address our social problems without sacrificing our tradition of liberty.