A difference between philosophy and politics

The sheer shock and disbelief that I've noticed in some comments sections (here, on other blogs, on facebook) about the category "bleeding-heart libertarians" seems to me partly rooted in a quirky fact about libertarianism in political philosophy.

Rawls' Theory of Justice is was the defining work of anglophone political philosophy of the past half-century.  And it defended a kind of liberalism– one that accords a priority to liberty, one that rejects state-mandated moralism, paternalism, and perfectionism.  It was also a kind of liberalism that defended a political economy oriented toward the well-being of the worst off.

Rawls' liberalism shares a great deal with classical and market liberalism.  It is genuinely individualistic and  liberal, not social-democratic or socialist, in its moral outlook.  

Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia thus engaged with the remaining difference: where Rawls thought that a political economy had to be justified in terms of its attention to the welfare of the least well-off, Nozick (roughly) thought that it had to respect rights, in a way that precluded the Rawls' attention to distributive patterns.  (Though the two were not necessarily mutually exclusive in a world characterized by past injustice, such as our world.) 

So libertarianism as a doctrine in political philosophy had this distinctive contribution to make: it rejected state activity to increase the material well-being of the poor.  I think by gradual drift, that came to seem like all libertarianism was concerned with.  (And that gelled with some underlying tendencies I mentioned in my last post, as well as with the Randian moralization of the difference between producers and others.)

But in the real world, state action to improve the material lot of the poor is not a very large portion of state action.  This is politically predictable, almost trivially so.  But that means that the focus on libertarianism's apparent philosophical difference with Rawlsian liberalism gives us a very distorted sense of the work libertarians could do politically in the world.  We don't live in a Rawlsian world, separated from Nozick's by the existence of poverty-alleviation programs.  We live in a world characterized by massive state action of all sorts, most of which does nothing to alleviate poverty and a great del of which is actively regressive or harmful to the worst-off.  

Hence, a rhetorical justification for B-HL or liberaltarianism.  Let us not talk as if the set of policies endorsed by Rawls and not by Nozick somehow makes up most of the action of a state we're supposed to be in the business of trying to limit.  

David Stockman's stated goal of targeting budget cuts on "weak claims, not weak clients" was in a sense obviously politically doomed.  But that doesn't alter the imperative to try to do as he said he wanted to do.  And I think a headline commitment– right in our name, as it were– to targeting "weak claims, not weak clients" can be helpful there.

Published on:
Author: Jacob T. Levy
  • Hayek welcomed about Anarchy, State and Utopia, and A Theory of Justice. I don’t this point has been made by commentators, yet apologies if I’ve missed something, but Hayek is very complimentary about A Theory of Justice in volume III of Law, Legislation and Liberty. He separates Rawls’ understanding of distributive justice from social justice, and all the centrally imposed forms of income/wealth distribution. Hayek became more firm in his classical liberal (he didn’t like the word libertarian) and anti-socialist views over time, so it’s certainly significant that he endorsed Rawls in this way in a relatively late work.
    Following on from that, and again I’m sorry if I overlooked this in comments on other posts, both Hayek and Friedman endorsed income support for the poorest, state action of provide universal access to education, health etc, along with notions of public good/neighbour effects. Though these two are very frequently referred to by non ‘B-HL’ libertarians and libertarian-conservative fusionists, they are often not comfortable with these aspects of Friedman and Hayek. Friedman’s views on central bank control of the money supply as a means for combatting inflation have been implicitly under attack from Tea Party type libertarians recently. It goes on. I don’t want to suggest that Friedman, Hayek and other people of roughly that generation, e.g. Buchanan, represent some immaculate origin to which we can return. But it is worth remembering how far non-‘B-HL’ style libertarianism is ill at ease with its supposed heroes, just as much as they are ill at ease with Rawls if they are honest, and something worth taking in account.

  • David Sobel

    I think I am following and agree. Many public expenditures are the result of big money lobbying politicians who need lots of money to win their next election or political bargaining of the Cornhusker Kickback sort, not the result of how effective such spending would be to help the worst off. Suppose we just assume such expenditures of public funds are unjust. I wonder how you think we might adjust our political system so that it resulted in such injustice less frequently. It seems at least logically possible that a political system could be as good as possible but that still people with the wrong motives create a fair amount of injustice within that good system. Or it may well be that there are lots of changes to the political system that would result in less injustice.

  • benjamin buchthal

    i think what really seperates libertarians from rawlsians is their lack of understanding why the concept of democracy/political participation should play such a significant role. there is not much room for politics in the liberal state (if there is such a thing) and hayek repeatedly made it clear that liberalism and democracy should not be identified.
    rawls really opens the door for democratic politics to play a major role in society and once we have all these institutions the process to make use of them cannot be stopped. what would rawls have said to friedman’s youtube-videos in which he bluntly calls for the abolition of 2/3rds of government departments?
    it is quite telling that rawls is making such a great deal of participation rights under the headline of the liberty principle even though participation in the non-active liberal state becomes a rather useless business…

  • With regard to Benjamin Buchtal, it seems a bit sweeping to me to say libertarians put so little value on politics and participation. If Mill (On Liberty Mill) and Tocqueville are counted as libertarians, and classical liberal forerunners, and it seems to me they should, then it is a claim which simply does not match reality. Hayek certainly does not deny the value of democracy as the best form of government, though he expresses concern about how it goes wrong. In Law, Legislation and Liberty, he goes so far as to mention the Nomothetae, as a model for constraining law within constitutional limits. That is the Athenian assembly which judged the acceptability of laws proposed in the city assembly. Now this is a restriction on majoritarianism, but that is not the same as denial of democracy. It is a regulation of democracy in what was the model of an intensely participatory democratic system. If there is an element of Rawls that favours constant participation, there is an element that favours the rule of law over majority, of the group in the initial situation which decides on what the principles of justice are. Not much democracy there, and the ‘radical democrats’ on the left are opposing themselves to Rawls. if there is an element of law formation and preservation rising above democracy in Hayek, there is just as much an enthusiasm for 19th century parliamentarianism, and an appropriately self-restraining democratic spirit . It is important here to distinguish between putting limits on democracy and being against democracy, or diminishing it. There is certainly a current of libertarian thought going back to Humboldt which regards democracy with suspicion, but in no way is that the full story.

  • One question is the degree to which state action has as its explicit objective improving the lot of the worst off. You’re probably right that this is much smaller than much rhetoric would suggest. But another question is how often the aim of improving the lot of the worst off is invoked as a justifying principle in political discourse, and here I would think it would dominate just about everything but debate about defense allocations (until we talk about closing plants, and then once again we get concerns about inflicting harm on the worst off…). So I think your point tends to undersell the significance of commitment to “social justice,” or commitment against it, as a practical matter of public policy.

  • Anonymous

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  • “… libertarianism … rejected state activity to increase the material well-being of the poor.”

    Odd perspective. Libertarianism rejects state coercion for the benefit of *anybody*. Coercion is coercion. Liberty is freedom (as far as possible) from coercion.

    “… state action to improve the material lot of the poor is not a very large portion of state action.”

    Beyond attempting to defend individuals from criminal acts and foreign assaults, almost all state action is plunder, for the benefit of some at the expense of others (whether rich or poor).

    However, in a society devoted to religious altruism, almost all state interventions are justified as benefiting the poor (whether they do or don’t). The overwhelming portion of the federal budget is devoted to those programs: Social Security, MediCare, MedicAid, and thousands of programs “protecting” the poor from their own choices.

    In any case, your article doesn’t satisfy the headline, since politics IS the philosophy of social interaction. That is, on the rare occasions when politics rises above pure averice and petty jealousies.

  • But in the real world, state action to improve the material lot of the poor is not a very large portion of state action.

    How did Medicaid, Medicare and social security become the largest part of the US Federal Budget? What are these programs doing if not preventing poverty?

  • The US social programs mentioned by Arun largely protect over 65s from poverty, and do more than protect that age group from poverty. The overall result is that ‘anti-poverty’ programs in the US in practice transfer money from under 65s (rich and poor) to over 65s (rich and poor). Even from a very pro-state welfare point of view, this seriously needs addressing. From the libertarian point of view it is evidence of how stare intervention goes wrong by concentrating benefits on a significant voting block, and over 65s do vote in disproportionately large numbers in the US. I don’t personally think this should mean the end of all state welfare programs, it does suggest to me that caution is needed and programs should be restricted to the most necessary to prevent destitution, as the more the state does the more special interest groups benefit, so that in the end we all pay loads in taxes so it can be given back in vote buying programs.

  • benjamin buchthal

    @ barry:
    im well aware that i may have been oversimplifying a little bit, but i would not count mill as a libertarian at all and with regard to hayek – now, he can be really frustrating at times with regard to what he says about the state. he himself refused to be called libertarian and i guess rightfully so. his economics is generally really sound but with regard to state services, coercion and his vision of the rule of law there are really several troublesome issues (especially in CL) which allow for him being “merely” a somewhat classical liberal.

    with regard to rawls, i surely admit that he is no simple majoritarian. clearly not. but it is quite telling that the liberty principle doesnt rest on strong individual property rights. as long as large quantities of resources could be redistributed in accord with the difference principle while the exact structure of such redistribution relies on democratic decision-making to some degree, we practically find legitimization for far reaching democratic procedures. i dont see what barriers rawls has truly established in order to prevent this.

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