In a few of my early posts on this blog, I claimed that libertarianism is compatible with a commitment to some kind of social justice.  But I was deliberately vague about just what a commitment to “social justice” entails.

In this post, I want to survey a few ways in which the idea of social justice could be made clearer.  I'm not going to defend these approaches, and my presentation of them will of necessity be overly-simplified.  But I'm hoping the ideas here can provide a framework for future discussion.

Before I get started, though, I want to clarify one very important issue.  Some of my libertarian economist friends have exprsesed a deep skepticism about the idea of social justice.  (See, for instance, the comments thread for this post at Coordination Problem)  They worry, for instance, that government agents will lack the knowledge or the incentives necessary to implement the philosopher's preferred theory of social justice.  Or they worry that concerns about social justice are based on a misunderstanding about how markets work.  

Let me be clear.  In advocating social justice, I am not challenging any of the empirical claims that economists make about the virtues of markets and the pathologies of government.  In fact, I think those claims are mostly true, and deeply important.  But they are important for thinking about how we should try to realize social justice, not for thinking about what social justice is or whether it even exists.  Economic science is about means, not ends.  It can tell us how to achieve our goals, but not what our goals should be.  It can tell us which policies "work," but not what it means for a policy to "work."  The specification of the criteria by which social processes and outcomes are to be judged is the job of moral philosophy.  And it is a job that is largely, if not entirely, independent of the empirical concerns raised by my economist friends.  

So, with that clarification out of the way, let me say a little bit about two ways in which a concern for social justice might be fleshed out.  Notice that I am leaving strict egalitarianism – understood as the idea that people out to be made equal with respect to certain outcomes such as happiness or wealth – off this list.  There are two reasons for this.  First, I don't think it's plausible that this kind of egalitarianism is really compatible with libertarianism.  Second, contrary to the impression that many non-philosophers seem to have, this kind of egalitarianism has relatively few adherents, even among left-leaning philosophers.  (See, for a nice discussion of the kind of equality philosophers do find attractive, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Equality)

Prioritarianism – This view is most closely associated with Derek Parfit.  Prioritarianism is usually understood as a kind of welfarist consequentialism.  It is, in other words, a view that determines the goodness or badness of an outcome by looking at the aggregate welfare of the persons affected by the outcome, and defines right action as that which produces maximally good outcomes.  What distinguishes prioritarianism from other forms of consequentialism, however, is that it gives extra "weight" to increases in welfare for worse-off individuals.  So, all else being equal, an improvement to the welfare of someone who is poor, disabled, and unhappy, is to be preferred to an improvement to the welfare of someone who is already relatively well-off.  And not merely for reasons of diminishing marginal utility.  See here and here for more.   Note also the similarity with the Catholic idea of a "preferential option for the poor," especially as exprsesed in "Economic Justice for All," a letter from the US Catholic Bishops in 1986: "The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation."

Sufficientarianism – Prioritarianism focuses on improving the condition of the worse-off.  As such, it is focused on correcting relative disadvantages.  But relative disadvantages might exist in a society in which no one is absolutely disadvantaged.  Consider a island community in which everyone enjoys material and social comforts equivalent to those available to an American billionaire, but some people are twice or three times as well off.  In such a society, we might not think that relative disadvantages have any moral significance at all.  Sufficientarianism, a view most closely associated with Harry Frankfurt, is able to accomodate this view by holding that morality requires us only to ensure that people have enough.  "Enough" can be defined in terms of a certain level of resources, or primary goods, or utility, or any number of other things.  And one can have enough even if others have much more than enough.  Again, see here and here for more.

This list is far from exhaustive.  A more thorough discussion would include Rawls' application of the difference principle to the basic structure of society, and Richard Arneson's idea of equal opportunity for welfare.  Moreover, none of these ideas seem defensible to me as an account of the whole of morality.  Prioritarianism might be a good interpretation of an important part of morality – the part that concerns our duties to the less fortunate.  But surely there is more to morality than this.  For instance, any adequate account of morality will probably need to incorporate some idea of personal responsibility, so that perhaps our political obligations to the poor are in large part dependent on the extent their poverty is the result of brute luck and not bad choices.

Furthermore, in thinking about what these views entail for public policy, it's worth keeping in mind the points Jason has made here and here.  The fact that a good or just society is one in which everyone has access to sufficient resources does not mean that we should want politicians to do whatever they believe (or believe that they can convince us they believe) will ensure that this happens.  If the libertarian economists are right, then politicians will do a worse job at achieving this outcome than we might hope, and markets will do a better job than we might think. 

But that's not the issue here.  The issue I'm concerned with isn't how we should try to achieve social justice, it's how we should understand what social justice is.  And that is a philosophical question, not an economic one.

 Philosophy can tell us what we should be aiming for, but not how to get there. Economics can tell us how to get where we want to go, but not where we should be trying to end up.  Neither economics nor philosophy by itself can tell us what our public policies ought to look like.

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  • http://economicliberty.net liberty

    “For instance, any adequate account of morality will probably need to incorporate some idea of personal responsibility”

    I’m not at all sure about this. In the recent posts (by Jason) about ideal-society concepts of “justice” he was allowing for some heroic ideas about what might be possible in an ideal world. What if technology and so forth allows the society to have enough riches that everyone can easily be fed and cared for (at least to the “sufficientarianism” level) EVEN IF all those persons who are happy at that level choose not work at all, and only those who want greater wealth or who enjoy work/entrepreneurship actually choose to work? Then does morality or justice require these people look for work? Or might it be a __better__ society if people could choose __whether and when and how__ they would like to work and contribute to society?

  • Dan Kervick

    Matt,

    Prioritarianism, as stated, doesn’t appear to be a theory about social justice. It is a theory about the overall evaluation of consequences, i.e. about the overall goodness or badness of outcomes. Depending on the version of prioritarianism, social justice might be a component in that evaluation. But I think more would have to be done to explain how it figures in exactly.

    Similarly, sufficientarianism is also stated as a view about what morality requires. But it is unclear, as stated, whether and to what extent the moral requirement to provide a sufficient level of goods derives from the demands of justice, or from some other source.

  • Mike Huben

    How do you relate these to the capabilities approach?

  • K.V.

    Matt, you say that prioritarianism is often seen as a kind of welfarist consequentialism. But isn’t prioritarianism just a distributive principle compatible with any number of moral theories? For instance, one could use a Kantian decision procedure to select a prioritarian principle over a sufficientarian one.

    And why is prioritarianism more closely associated with consequentialism than sufficientarianism?

  • http://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/ Thomas

    Prioritarianism, as I understand it from Matt’s explanation, assumes that (a) the welfare of an individual can be quantified, (b) the welfare of individuals can be summed, (c) the welfare-value of a marginal dollar is inversely proportional to the initial welfare state of the recipient, (d) the inverse relationship is stronger at lower initial welfare-values, and (e) most importantly, in accordance with (b), the welfare gained by the person to whom a marginal dollar is given somehow cancels the welfare lost by the person from whom that dollar is taken.

    If this is a valid prescription for “social justice,” it must be capable of implementation. Otherwise, it is no more useful than a map of the Kingdom of Oz.

    And who should be in charge of measuring welfare, summing it, and weighing the gains and losses in order to arrive at a socially “just” distribution of income, whatever that is? Well, we know the answer to that question: It has to be the state — or more accurately — elected officials and bureaucrats: people not known for their perspicacity, objectivity, and even-handedness.

    In the alternative, a just society could be one where individuals engage in voluntary, cooperative exchanges of goods and services for their mutual betterment, and from the fruits of which they voluntarily aid those whom they know to be in need of aid.

    The alternative is inevitably attacked as “unjust.” But it should be noted that such attacks come from individuals (philosophers, politicians, do-gooders, etc.) who would impose their own views of “social justice” on everyone. How any such imposition can be considered more “just” than a regime of voluntary, cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior is beyond me.

    I submit that what we now have in the United States is a “prioritarian” regime, with all of real-life arbitrariness, scheming, and graft. What we need badly is a reversion to the kind of constitutional order that would allow the alternative to flourish.

  • http://aaronmclin.blogspot.com/ Aaron

    For instance, any adequate account of morality will probably need to incorporate some idea of personal responsibility, so that perhaps our political obligations to the poor are in large part dependent on the extent their poverty is the result of brute luck and not bad choices.

    This formulation seems to play into a false dichotomy, primarily because it boils down poverty into a situation which is either completely in the control of the individual or is the result of the vagaries of fate. It seems that there are plenty of other factors to be considered, such as lack of complete and/or accurate information and the direct actions of others; things that people resist chalking up to “brute luck.”

    It also plays into people’s habit of evaluating whether or not a choice was good or bad based on its outcome, rather than the factors at the time. If Alice and Bob both bet their rent money on risky investments, and Alice scores a 2x return on her money while Bob goes bust, we tend to see Bob alone as having made a bad choice, even though we would have rated neither investment as wise before the fact. This can create a mindset in which the “good choices” are understood to carry no risk – in other words, there are choices that will always lead to wealth and well-being.

  • Joe

    Two quick things. I’d love to see this conversation related to Nussbaum and Sen’s capabilities approach as well. Also, I think you’re right to suggest that a theory of social justice must not only hinge upon economics. That’s my constant frustration with the magical thinking (often devoid of recent and past history) of libertarians. “If only markets were more free, then X would happen.” They make the same, and opposite, reductionist mistake that communists made about social justice. But I digress.

  • http://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/ Thomas

    Re Joe’s comment: There can be little doubt that there was much more economic freedom (i.e., many fewer regulations and much lower taxes) in the U.S. of the late 1800s than in the U.S. of late 1900s and early 2000s. GDP grew at a much faster rate in the former period than in the latter. There is more than “magical thinking” to consequentialist libertarianism.

  • http://aaronmclin.blogspot.com/ Aaron

    In the alternative, a just society could be one where individuals engage in voluntary, cooperative exchanges of goods and services for their mutual betterment, and from the fruits of which they voluntarily aid those whom they know to be in need of aid.

    The alternative is inevitably attacked as “unjust.” But it should be noted that such attacks come from individuals (philosophers, politicians, do-gooders, etc.) who would impose their own views of “social justice” on everyone.

    Citations, please.

    Not to be snarky, but I don’t recall anyone ever having attacked this version of the libertarian ideal as being intrinsically unjust. I can think of plenty of people (like G. A. Cohen, from a few posts back) who attack what they expect the libertarian reality to be. And there are plenty of people who dismiss the possibility of libertarian ideal ever being a reality, and suspect sinister motives in its promotion (in effect, casting the concept that the ideal can be a reality as a pernicious lie designed to snare the unwary).

    But I have yet to meet or hear of anyone who went on the record as saying a system in which markets operated consistently to the benefit of almost all participants and private charity could be relied upon to support those people for whom the market didn’t work or who couldn’t participate would be a bad thing. They might see it as inferior to or less perfectly just than their own system, but that’s a significant difference.

    (Note that people who perceive the “libertarian ideal” to be a lawless dog-eat-dog world in which any advantage over others is ruthlessly exploited, others are useful only in what they can provide, poverty is always the fault of the impoverished individual and the poor have a moral obligation to take themselves out of sight and starve quietly while the rest of us revel in the gains of our productivity do find it unjust on its face. Which seems logical to me. But then again, it also seems like a straw man to me, so… yeah.)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/theotherchuckd TheOtherChuckD

    There can be little doubt that there was much more economic freedom (i.e., many fewer regulations and much lower taxes) in the U.S. of the late 1800s than in the U.S. of late 1900s and early 2000s. GDP grew at a much faster rate in the former period than in the latter. There is more than “magical thinking” to consequentialist libertarianism.

    Ha!

    As if the massive land giveaways made possible by kicking people off their land and going to war with neighboring states isn’t interventionist!

    As if society-changing scientific discoveries like the light bulb and the telephone were not major drivers of economic growth.

    As if sharecroppers or all those dead workers at the Triangle Factory or the Haymarket that drove massive increases in production saw any of that that GDP growth.

    The late 1800s were not some sort of libertarian paradise.

    Libertarianism is ahistorical because it doesn’t allow for change within the a society or government over time and throws blame for anything that goes wrong anywhere on regulations and taxes in a way that can’t be disproven for lack of good counterexamples.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0147e2f357f9970b Matt Zwolinski

    Thomas – Nice points. One thing to bear in mind is that prioritarianism can serve as a standard of goodness/rightness without also serving as a decision procedure. So, in other words, we can say that a good society is one in which resources are distributed in a way that maximizes the prioritarian weighted aggregate good, without thinking that people should *try* to maximize the prioritarian weighted aggregate good when deciding how to distribute thing. Just like a utilitarian could say that people should make decisions like Kantians if it turns out that their doing so is what maximizes utility.

    KV – You’re right on both points. I think prioritarianism is regarded that way, but it’s a non-essential feature of the position. And I don’t suppose its any more connected to consequentialism is than sufficientarianism is.

    Dan – I guess what I had in mind is this. Social justice is a kind of sloppy term, but it has something to do with structuring society in a way that does right by the poor and vulnerable. Sufficientarianism and Prioritarianism, while they are both perfectly general moral views, are two ways in which we can flesh out that more general idea and make it more precise. Depending on what special moral status you think the term “justice” has, there might be some extra moral steps required to get from prioritarianism to social justice. But I wanted to avoid those complications in the post.

    As for the capabilities approach, I’m less familiar with it than I should be. If we understand it as a thesis about well-being, then it doesn’t tell us much about social justice per say. It tells us what it is to have a good life, but not what special obligations a society might have to ensure that the opportunities for a good life are available to all, or whatever. Understood as a view about well-being, in fact, the capabilities approach is probably compatible with both prioritarianism and sufficientarianism – it provides a metric that we can use to assess who is “worse off” or who has “enough.” But perhaps the capabilities approach is meant to be something more than a thesis about well-being? Perhaps someone more conversant with the idea can chime in to clarify?

  • Scott F

    Thomas –
    If your alternative is to be a valid prescription for “social justice,” mustn’t it also be capable of implementation? Care to explain how we establish a regime of voluntary, cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior from the self-serving system we currently have in place? Please provide a plan more substantive than constitutional order.

  • Dan Kervick

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the reply. Here’s the way I roughly distinguish justice concerns from other moral concerns about society.

    We sometimes have a negative evaluative response to some of the actual circumstances we observe in the social world. In some cases, our response might be expressed in terms such as:

    “That’s wrong”; “that’s wasteful”; “that’s inefficient”; “that’s impractical”; “that’s imprudent” and other terms.

    But sometimes, the response can be expressed as:

    “That’s unfair”.

    And it is in the latter case that we say the circumstance offends our sense of justice. Sometimes our sense of justice is offended by something that appears to be wrong with the distribution of goods. But not every negative evaluative response based the distribution of goods is grounded in the sense of justice. One might object to some distributive outcome, or some mechanisms by which distributive outcomes are determined, on the basis of waste, impracticality, etc.

    Now personally, my sense of distributive justice is closer to the strict egalitarianism you deferred than to either Prioritarianism or Sufficientarianism – though not all the way there.

    My sense of justice is offended when I see that some person is doing some necessary job, one that we all know has to be done, and doing it well and working to the best of their ability, and yet that does not have as much as others who are doing their jobs either not as well or at least no better. So in other words, I am inlined to think that differences in material rewards that are due to differences in skill grounded in differences of native abilities or social advantages are unjust.

    However, even though this offends my sense of justice, I don’t think it is advisable to aim at a society in which all such injustices have been eliminated. Experience seems to show that to provide people with the right incentives for developing high skills and putting them to work for society, we need to reward higher-skilled people somewhat more than we reward lower-skilled people. To me that seems unfair, and unjust to hard-working people who are not capable of acquiring those skills though no fault of their own. But it appears to be a fact of life. It might be the case that any workable social system that we can envision as an achievable alternative to the current system, and that generates a level of aggregate well-being that we think is remotely acceptable, will still include some degree of injustice.

  • http://www.psychopolitik.com b-psycho

    THANK YOU ChuckD. THAT is the problem with the public face of libertarianism, that rather than note previous force it tends to pretend it never happened. I blame the right-wing fusionism influence for that.

    There is such thing as a libertarian, anti-state form of social justice. The typical view is that social justice naturally assumes positive state intervention; an honest libertarianism sees justice in the subtraction of previous unearned privilege.

  • http://blog.hecker.org/ Frank Hecker

    @Dan Kervick: You write “My sense of justice is offended when I see that some person is doing some necessary job … and yet does not have as much as others who are doing their jobs either not as well or at least no better.” Was your intent to compare such a person to other people doing the same or similar jobs, or to other people in general?

    If the former, then your reference to “differences in material rewards that are due to differences in skill” seems off: If the other people get more rewards for the same or similar job but perform it no better than the person in question, it doesn’t sound as if they’re being rewarded due to a (positive) difference in skills.

    If the latter, then how do we compare “doing a job well” for people doing wildly different jobs (e.g., working as a day laborer vs. being a professor of political philosophy)? Does your argument imply that the very best day laborer should receive rewards equivalent to those of the very best philosophy professor (and ditto for the worst in each profession)? Or are you arguing that some people do “necessary jobs” that are useful to society but are under-compensated in the labor market? Or are you arguing something else entirely?

  • http://blog.hecker.org/ Frank Hecker

    (Continuing my prior comment…) To make myself clear, I’m sympathetic to the general thrust of your comment, and to the particular sense of unfairness associated with seeing people who work hard in return for rewards that seem meager in comparison. I’m just struggling with the general problem of how it would be possible to address that sense of unfairness in a way that would be just and practical. In particular, I don’t see how to avoid the issue of deciding which jobs are more or less “necessary” than others, and hence deserving of more or less compensation.

  • Dan Kervick

    Was your intent to compare such a person to other people doing the same or similar jobs, or to other people in general?

    My intent was to compare people doing very different kinds of jobs, Frank. I think most of us have a pretty good feeling for the difference between a slouch and a diligent, industrious and conscientious worker, and we can make that comparison across widely diverse fields.

  • http://blog.hecker.org/ Frank Hecker

    @Dan: I get your point, and as I said I’m sympathetic to it, but I’m going to push back just a bit. I work with sales reps, and it’s a fairly common occurrence to have reps who apparently work pretty diligently (at least as far as anyone can tell) but who are relatively unproductive, often because they lack key sales skills (properly qualifying customers is a typical one). Sales reps (despite the stereotype) aren’t compensated strictly by results, it’s fairly common for sales managers to tweak compensation (e.g., by adjusting assigned quotas) to better match some ideal of fairness. However in the end compensation is primarily driven by results.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’m somewhat resistant to the idea of considering diligence and industriousness independent of the value being produced by whatever the worker is doing, as realized by whomever the worker is working for or (if we want to take a larger view) by society at large. So I think differential compensation for people of differing skills and differing professions is just a fact of life, and if that’s an unjust fact of life it’s one I think we can’t eliminate. We’ll have to seek justice elsewhere.

  • Dan Kervick

    Frank,

    I think you are entirely right about what actually works, and what we have to do to manage incentives properly and generate performance and output in our economy.

    That’s why I distinguished in my first comments between what justice seems to call for, and what other considerations demand in producing the best overall outcome. To me it seems unfair that a person who works very hard and tries his best receives less reward than someone else who puts in less effort, only because the former lacks natural talents that the second possesses. But life isn’t always fair and fairness isn’t the only moral consideration we have to bring to bear on our decisions. We might have to reward the more talented but lazier salesman to a higher degree than the more industrious but less talented salesman in order to achieve the best overall outcome.

  • http://zatavu.blogspot.com Troy Camplin

    My thoughts on social justice here

  • http://www.knowledgeproblem.com Mike Giberson

    Troy’s views illustrate well the conventional libertarian reading of Hayek on social justice. In volume 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek says the phrase “social justice” means nothing at all and that to use the phrase is to be either thoughtless or fraudulent.

    I’m tempted to stop here and ask Matt if he is being thoughtless or fraudulent, but actually I think Hayek’s declaration is unnecessarily harsh. The phrase is employed in civil conversation and one can participate in the conversation without being thoughtless or fraudulent. (Indeed, Hayek uses the phrase many times in his book, is he being thoughtless or fraudulent when he employs the phrase?)

    Fortunately we have an alternative approach to understanding Hayek and social justice. Reading John Tomasi’s Hayek Lecture presented at the Manhattan Institute in 2007: “Hayek on Spontaneous Order and the Mirage of Social Justice” http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/hayek2007.htm

    One can, as Tomasi explains, agree with Hayek that some ideas of “social justice” are misbegotten and would be pernicious if pursued by governments and agree with Hayek that government can play a role in activities sometimes advocated for under the banner of “social justice.”

  • http://zatavu.blogspot.com Troy Camplin

    Among those who were not being fraudulent, I am sure that those Hayek encountered didn’t think they were being thoughtless. By thoughtless, Hayek means they haven’t thought through what the term could possibly mean. From what I understand justice to be, social justice is a contrary concept. On my posting, I explain why.

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