Social Justice, Libertarianism

Bleeding Heart Libertarianism

At least in the world of academic philosophy, libertarians are not known for their sympathy to the ideas of social or distributive justice.  Hayek famously wrote that social justice is a "mirage" and an atavistic relic of impulses that arose in an earlier, primitive form of human society.  Robert Nozick, who most academic philosophers still take to personify libertarianism, similarly held that the term “distributive justice” was based on a kind of mistake – an assumption that what people have or don’t have is the result of a decision by a central distributor.  Of course, both Hayek and Nozick – like most libertarians – believe that capitalist markets do, in fact, serve the interests of the poor and downtrodden.  But this fact does not seem to play an essential role in the moral justification of those markets.  It is, it seems, merely a happy coincidence.

I do not wish to dismiss the Hayekian or Nozickian challenges to social or distributive justice out of hand.  No doubt they contain and important insight, at least insofar as they serve to remind us of the important role that spontaneous order plays in economic and social systems.  But this insight by itself is insufficient grounds for casting aside notions of social or distributive justice.  Property rights, markets, and many of the resulting distributions of wealth and opportunities may have arisen spontaneously.  But this does not prevent us from asking whether they are just, and whether we should or should not work to change them in some ways – even if the complexity of the market order and our bounded cognitive abilities means that our capacity for successful interventions is limited.

I’ve created this blog as a forum for academic philosophers who are attracted both to libertarianism and to ideals of social or distributive justice.  Labels are often a greater source of confusion than insight in academic discourse, and no doubt most of the contributors to this blog will wish to qualify the sense in which they fit this description.  Some, for instance, will qualify their libertarianism with a label – “left-libertarian,” or perhaps “liberaltarian."  Others might prefer to think of themselves as “classical liberals” or even “market anarchists.”  But libertarianism, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is a broad intellectual tradition bound together more by rough agreement than by meeting a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.   What we have in common on this blog is an appreciati0n for market mechanisms, for voluntary social cooperation, for property rights, and for individual liberty.  But we appreciate those things, in large part, because of the way they contribute to important human goods – and especially the way in which they allow some of society’s most vulnerable members to realize those goods. 

Beyond this, there is almost certainly a tremendous range of disagreement among our participants, not only regarding labels but regarding deep substantive issues as well.  I hope the conversation on this blog, both among our authors and among our commentators, will help to explore these disagreements, as well as our points of commonality. 

In addition to a shared attraction to some form of social justice though, I’ve chosen my fellow participants simply because I like their work.  I think the directions in which they are taking political philosophy are extremely promising and interesting, and I want to hear more of what they have to say, both about academic philosophical issues and about how their philosophical beliefs bear on current events.  I think you’ll find what they have to say to be worthwhile too.

So, welcome to our blog.  I look forward to the conversation. 


  • May an economist jump in?

    Interesting stuff, Matt. It’s a big deal to me that markets feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Otherwise, better socialism or something. But isn’t there a gap between saying, “Let’s use measures such as a progressive income tax to somewhat flatten out the income distribution” and trying to engineer the income distribution or, say, guarantee that no one suffers a loss of income?

    I guess I’m trying to ask what you mean by “social justice.”

  • Lawrence H. White

    Matt, I don’t think you’ve accurately characterized Hayek’s position. He was certainly a consequentialist, not a deontological rights guy. He even cited Rawls when he argued that free market economies have the virtue of doing best by the least fortunate. I’m not saying, however, that that was his “essential” justification for markets.

  • Hi Roger,

    Of course, some of my best friends are economists. 🙂
    I think there’s definitely a gap between the two proposals you mention. And, importantly, I think there’s a gap between both of those proposals and embracing an idea of social justice.
    The term social justice means different things to different people, so I don’t propose to give any kind of general definition of the term. I’m roughly in agreement with what Jason has to say about the issue in his post. Social justice is a way of describing a moral standard by virtue of which political and economic institutions can be evaluated. To affirm a commitment to social justice is to say that it is a condition on the moral legitimacy of institutions that (and here is where theorists will diverge in the details) they work to the benefit of all, that they secure people’s “real” freedom as opposed to merely formal freedom, that they afford a society’s most vulnerable members genuine opportunities to flourish, etc.
    The clearest contrast, I think, is with those libertarian theories that hold that the only constraint on the moral legitimacy of moral and political institutions is that they respect individuals’ negative rights, so that the justice of distributions is understood (in Nozick’s terms) in entirely historical terms. A distribution is just if it arose from another just situation by just steps, period. Nozick’s theory is actually probably more complicated (once the implications of the Lockean Proviso are taken on board) than this picture suggests, but if you focus just on that motto it looks like it could be compatible with institutions being perfectly just that they lead to the poor starving en masse in the streets. That doesn’t sound right to me.
    Now, what *follows* from a commitment to social justice, in terms of public policy, is a complicated matter both morally and empirically. You might think that even though Nozick was wrong to deny the idea of social justice, it’s nevertheless true that the minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified. Not just because it respects individuals’ negative rights, but because it does so in a way that is compatible with the requirements of social justice (or that produces outcomes that are compatible with the requirements of social justice). In other words, he might have gotten the right answer for the wrong reason. Or you might think that meeting the requirements of social justice requires something more: maybe some kind of social safety net, for instance.
    I’m not prepared to defend a full theory of social justice here, so perhaps you’ll find the schematic nature of my response unsatisfying. But I hope this does a little bit to make the general idea clearer.

  • Hi Larry,
    I’m pretty disposed to believe anything about Hayek that Larry White tells me to believe, so your suspicion that I’ve misinterpreted Hayek certainly gives me pause.
    But could you say a bit more about what you thought was the inaccuracy? I agree with you that Hayek is some form of consequentialist, rather than a natural rights thinker. And he thought, like most libertarians seem to do, that markets serve the interests of the poor. The question is what his moral commitments would lead him to saying if they didn’t. Consequentialism by itself will allow you to say that they’re just anyway, as long as the offsetting gains to everyone else are large enough. Taking social justice seriously, as I’m understanding the term, wouldn’t.

  • Looks interesting – I’ll be following your blog.

    I commented on Will Wilkinson’s link and will repost it here:

    I’ve been wondering if the cooperative economic model is something that liberaltarian types could get behind. The book Humanizing the Economy is a good recent overview. It’s attractive to liberals because the cooperative model is concerned with, well, cooperation, interdependence, community, strength in numbers and so on. It’s attractive to libertarians and conservatives because empowerment comes not from government but from people banding together to strengthen their hand.

    It’s also interesting that health cooperatives were included as part of the Affordable Care Act, and that this section has been neither particularly celebrated nor controversial.

    It seems like the cooperative model is a way of furthering social justice that could be embraced by people across the spectrum. Thoughts on that?

  • There are free market libertarians who see present levels of inequality and injustice, not as the result of markets, but of collusion between big government and big business. The default setting in a free market would be much more even distribution of wealth. Abolishing the state-enforced artificial scarcities, artificial property rights, etc., the rents on which constitute such a large share of income for the rich, would result in a significant increase in positive liberty and social justice. See, for example:

  • Brink Lindsey, of Liberaltarian fame, endorsed our (John Mackey, Muhammad Yunus, Hernando de Soto, etc.) book “Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems” by calling us “bleeding heart libertarians,”

    “Michael Strong and his coauthors sketch out a provocative and appealing vision of what you might call ‘bleeding heart libertarianism.’ … Regardless of where you fit on theideological map, they will challenge the way you think about social progress. So if you’re interested in how to make the world around you a better place, take the challenge and read this book.”

    Unlike Brink and Will, however, I’m a bit of an anarcho-capitalist; see here for “Ten Practical Steps Towards Creating a Nozickian Utopia of Utopias,”

    That said, of course I believe that with respect to the implications of his thought, Nozick was the ultimate Rawlsian,

    • I read that and was ecstatic over the ZEDE initiative in Honduras. My wife is from Honduras, and we were horrified at the Soros-Chavez-Zelaya attempt (Zelaya’s was the auto-coup) to do another socialist hell there, even while laughing at him. Wife was in school with him, where the class erupted in raucous laughter once when he said he would be president one day.

      Eight years later, ZEDE is not moving much. In my opinion, the mistake is waiting for a big investor to build an infrastructure, (Michael’s step #1). Just quick declare the zone and be done with it. It works for the free zones, so caled, so why not? The result of doing business without the strangulating taxes and regs should come fast, once inhabitants and investors see it’s serious.


  • Matt,

    social justice as you describe it seems to be not-Nozick, or maybe that plus giving a damn about others and not copping an attitude about who is supposedly more worthy and who less. But then Hayek (the Rawls-citing consequentialist) is all for “social justice.” The “social justice” he called atavistic is more ambitious, I think, than much of what you are calling “social justice.” I guess a lot of libertarians are weak on “social justice” as you define the term. I would think, however, that the classical liberal tradition of Hume, Adam Smith, and, well, F.A. Hayek is strong on “social justice” in your sense.

  • Let me suggest that Nozick’s (protean) views are not, in practice, opposed to a conception of distributive justice that is historically grounded. His contrast between patterned and historical principles of justice admits explicitly that he is providing an ideal theory of justice in acquisition and transfer, and that actual holdings are by no means necessarily justified by this theory to the extent they deviate from ideal theory. To put it mildly, the level of real historical deviation is substantial. The big lacuna in the libertarian literature is an “error theory” that reconciles those principles with a radically non-ideal historical record. Which (hint, hint) would be a great train of thought for this blog to explore.

  • Jason Brennan


    Imagine that a society had an absolutely flawless record of original appropriation and transfer of property, according to Nozick’s entitlement theory. (Or, according to what the entitlement theory would say if Nozick had worked it out fully.) Now suppose that in a particular world–and not one with extreme scarcity of resources–that over time this flawless history of original appropriation and transfer just so happens to leave 15% of people, through no fault of their own, barely above subsistence level, with no hope of ever improving their lot. (This might be unrealistic, but that doesn’t matter. You can imagine a situation like this, and that’s all I need for my point.) Someone who subscribed to the entitlement theory might say that this situation is unfortunate, but not unjust. Someone committed to social justice would say that the situation sounds not merely unfortunate, but unjust. (Though you might be able to add in details to this story under which the situation would not be unjust.)

  • Jason-
    That’s certainly an apt summary of the distinction between a patterned and a historical conception. Though (perhaps because I’m biased toward historical conceptions myself) I think people’s intuitions about that scenario would turn out to depend pretty strongly on WHY it turned out to be the case that this outcome occurred. And, more generally, I think most people’s real-world concerns for social justice stem from a (sometimes muddled) mix of patterned and historical concerns. I suspect, for instance, that most people have relatively strongly patterned intuitions about disparities resulting from differing *initial* endowments, but would be substantially more comfortable with inequalities between people who were seen as starting out at relative economic parity, at least in the absence of serious physical or mental disabilities. (The intuition here being that, pace Rawls, at least some kinds of differences in “endowment”—in the broad sense that encompasses abilities and dispositions—are sufficiently constitutive of the person that it’s not appropriate to have them drop out behind the Veil.)

    Anyway, let me adjust my proposed program slightly: It would be interesting to see how far a historical or restitution-oriented theory of social justice could get us, and to what extent our residual “patterned” intuitions could be addressed by a theory focused on parity of initial endowments rather than distributional outcomes as such. (It’s been a while, but if I recall correctly, the theory outlined in Dworkin’s “Sovereign Virtue” tries to make that sort of distinction.) It might be (and, indeed, my gut sense is) that the best theory of justice still ends up having *some* ineradicable, purely patterned component. But I’d like to see how much of the work could be done by historical principles.

  • Kevin – yes, and count me in that camp. I’ve learned a lot from reading your work on the subject.

    Roger – I think I’m in at least partial agreement with you. I think Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, or Neoclassical liberalism, is not a new conceptual development. I think, perhaps self-servingly, that it’s implicit in – and sometimes explicit in – some of the best work of the classical liberal tradition. But I think there’s often a gap between the moral standards libertarians try to meet when they’re debating the details of some particular policy and the moral standards they say they have to meet when they’re talking about abstract moral theory. Almost all libertarians – even someone like Ayn Rand – will often argue for a particular policy by trying to show how it benefits the masses, or how it’s in the interests of even the more vulnerable members of society. But then, when you look at what they explicitly articulate as their moral principles, they often say something entirely different. “Let there be justice though the heavens fall, but gosh isn’t it a nice coincidence that justice means the heavens don’t fall.” I think it’s more than a coincidence.

  • Steve Horwitz

    I just want to say that this blog will be a terrific new voice in the libertarian academic movement and yet another distraction from my work. 🙂

    Looks great guys!

  • Okay, Matt. That seems pretty reasonable. I personally avoid the label “libertarian.” I think I am a liberal in the tradition of Hume and Smith, but I don’t think I quite qualify as “libertarian” because I “leak” on so many points, including transfer programs and social insurance, your “social justice.”

  • Bill Woolsey

    I am a libertarian economists, and certainly a consequentialist with special concern for the well being of least well off.

    Perhaps I am in error, but I often think that libertarians of my stripe are entirely indifferent to inequality of income amoung the relatively well off. Process concerns are the sole concern.

    For example, suppose we have a scenario where a business professor has an increase in income from 100k to 125k, and a businessman has an increase of 200k to 600k.

    Compare that to a more socially just situation where the professor increases income from 100k to 130k and the businessman goes from 200k to 300k.

    Perhaps I should be more careful in my example, but my point is that I would put zero weight on the more equal distribution of increases in the second situation.

    On the other hand, if casual workers increase their incomes from 10k to 12k in one scenario, or else from 10k to 15k, it would means something to me.

    Of course, if the businessman making the huge income incease did so because he cashed out on risky activities and those who directly paid him didn’t care because in fact, the taxpayers covered his loss, well, that obvious, would be a concern. Process.

    I often wonder if concern for the poor, which I share, is often a cover for concern about “unfair” incomes going to the rich (even the modestly well off) relative to highly paid professionals, (including leading academics.)

    Leading libertarian (or classical economists) have advocated some kind of social safety net for years. Obviously, not all of them, but leading ones like Friedman and Hayek. But somehow, high liberals see them as advocating laissez fair. Why? Well, they have no interest in doing anything to fix the “injustice” of unfair distribution amoung the well off.

  • I’m psyched about this blog and the discussions that are going to result. At the risk of being nit-picky, can I ask that you guys use Disqus for commenting? Since Disqus emails you when people reply, it’s phenomenal for discussions (it’s used to great effect at The Atlantic). It’s also, I believe, the best at spam-blocking

    Regardless, I’m looking forward to this.

  • Jessie

    I don’t have too much to say, but I wanted to say how glad I am to see this blog. I’m a liberal/social justice activist in my mid-twenties who has been wishing for more dialogue between liberals and libertarians (and people in the middle) for years. Looking forward to more!

  • Jason Brennan


    Being committed to social justice isn’t the same as being committed to egalitarianism. In a later post, I’ll write about that. I think it’s important that people have enough, that people do better, and that when considering changes in our fundamental institutions, we give some priority to the most vulnerable among us. But I see no appeal to equality itself.

  • brianS

    Matt: when the revolution comes, will you be serving beer?


  • tgt

    I think that the “appreciation for market mechanisms” is an odd keystone for agreement. Social cooperation, property rights, and individual liberty are all general values. Appreciation for market mechanisms is subscription to a specific economic theory. It doesn’t fit. The economic policies supported should be those that further the desired values, not those that fit in the system of a specific dogma.

  • Lawrence H. White

    Matt asks me: “But could you say a bit more about what you thought was the inaccuracy?” and adds: “I agree with you that Hayek is some form of consequentialist, rather than a natural rights thinker. And he thought, like most libertarians seem to do, that markets serve the interests of the poor.”

    Well, that pretty much fixes it. I thought it was innacurate to bundle Hayek with Nozick without mentioning how different their moral theories were. For Hayek the bleeding-heart consequentialist, the fact that markets do in fact serve the material interests of the poor counts importantly in their favor. For a non-consequentialist it can’t.

    Matt further adds: “The question is what his moral commitments would lead him to saying if they [free markets] didn’t [serve the poor].” I don’t know what he’d say. But is that really a relevant question? I like voluntary trade because both parties benefit. If you were to ask me: “But what would you say about voluntary trade if it didn’t benefit both parties?,” my answer would be “Huh? How could it not?”

    If the real question is, what did Hayek say about involuntary transfers to support the needy?, then the answer is that in Constitution of Liberty he endorsed them. Is that what it takes to believe in distributive or social justice in your sense?

  • Andrew

    It’s about bloody time that this sort of discussion came alive again. As someone with small government liberal sensibilities who works in government and public policy, it’s about time we started reframing so-called “libertarian” solutions which aren’t laizzes faire at all (I’m thinking of a lot of the ideas being kicked around on entitlements by some right now) in terms of social justice.

  • Liberal and Libertarians have been working together organically for decades, and I find people like

    We were using Liberaltarian in the ’40’s, BTW.

  • Professor White of course is right on. Reading Constitution of Liberty would surprise many Social Justice practitioners, and if one took the title and author away from many chapters in that book I bet folks would have a hard time knowing who wrote it.

    Road to Serfdom includes a strikingly large role for the state to make sure the needs of the neediest were met satisfactorily.

  • Jason Brennan

    Lawrence: There’s an interesting passage somewhere in Hayek where he says that the difference between Rawls and him is merely verbal. I wonder what your take on that is. (I don’t have the citation on hand–perhaps you know what I’m talking about.)

  • Olof Palme’s critical essay on Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom

    Left libertarians believe that markets can be totalitarian.

    There’s a reason why one strain of libertarianism participates in the third largest political party in the U.S. and runs Cato, one of the most influential think tanks in Washington funded by a guy who owns the second-largest privately held company in the U.S.

    Human goods? What is that suppose to mean? Left libertarians have made the argument that “You don’t own yourself”. You are yourself. Self-ownership implies that a human can be owned. Inherently totalitarian

  • How can bleeding-heart “libertarianism” possibly hold up under the Aristotelian-Perfectionist juggernaut soon to be unleashed?

  • Matt: “A distribution is just if it arose from another just situation by just steps, period.”

    Good thing you didn’t intend to offer a general definition of “social justice”, because this fails utterly. It is just if it started just and ended just? Really.

    The problem with “social justice” is that it requires some imposed equality of outcome that doesn’t naturally exist in a civil society. Not because reality is uncivil, but because reality is never “fair” or just, it just is what it is.

    On that ground, I can’t imagine how you can conceive of (much less achieve) any non-coercive method or means establishing equality – equality of outcome or of opportunity – in a civil society. And that’s all libertarianism is: the premises for a civil (non-coercive) social existence.

    So, if you believe in some mystical “social justice”, you can’t be a libertarian.

    • Good perspective. As a libertarian Christian, my “anarcho-capitalist” or “voluntarist” views line up with the Rothbard-Walter Block philosophy. Though shalt not steal, though shalt not kill, while opposing forced conversions or stupid poverty-enhancing redistribution schemes.

      Christmas very JUSTLY made the point of voluntary contract with the story of the rancher who paid the same amount for the one hour of labor as those who worked all day. Nobody more compassionate and concerned for the poor than him, but he refused to be a king. They wanted his kingship because he filled their bellies (with free food! ..once).

      But render unto Caesar –what is (rightfully) his, or, as in Matthew 17, render enough to make them go away so you can do some REAL work.


  • Dan Kervick

    Well, this seems like a good idea for a blog, even though I suspect much of what you write won’t be my cup of tea.

    To be quite direct, I consider myself a democratic socialist – or maybe a social democrat; I go back and forth – and I am not really much attracted to libertarianism. If anything, the older I get the less appealing libertarianism is to me as a political philosophy. So I will probably argue with you folks a lot and try to persuade you that you are wrong about a number of things. Hope you will do the same.

  • djw

    Glad you guys are doing this.

    One post I hope to read here someday: a discussion how you situate yourselves vis-a-vis the academic school of thought known as ‘left-libertarianism’ (Van Parijs, Steiner, Vallentyne, Otsuka, etc).

  • Perhaps you need to read Julian Simon.  Try starting with Hoodwinking the Nation. 

    • Who are you saying needs to read Simon?  And why?  I have, if this was directed at me.

  • This is my example of social justice, ” person A crashes a car into person B”. Person B get’s social justice from society and isn’t youthenized like during the Nazi era. Social justice is when you have compasion for those in society. Social justice is when you see value in everyone in society. Social justice is not when a Republican demonizes ethical welfare or when a democrat abuses over abundant welfare. It’s a balance

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  • cd

    I’ve always thought that “social justice” was an oxymoron. Isn’t all justice individual or am I not understanding what you mean by social justice?

  • kopfschlaeger

    As to redistribution of resources through individual contribution or govt. action: Could we trash the concept of social justice (which is undefinable and hence easily manipulated to some collectivist or compensatory purpose) and shift to the difference between extreme individualism and concern with the community? Why not simply look at redistribution of wealth, however done, as a practical solution to the problem of social unrest and wasted resources (the latter being unemployed or underemployed people)?

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  • Joe Damron

    “I look forward to the conversation.” — Free speech is central to free thinking. You censored and removed a comment I made stating that “the forensic evidence supported the police officer,” which is both a mild statement and 100% correct. If you cannot handle ideas that counter your narrow dogmas; you are not free thinkers. Social Justice and your blog smells of tyranny.

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