Social Justice, Libertarianism

Libertarianism and Social Justice

First of all, let me extend my sincere gratitude to everyone who’s participated in the conversation so far.  It’s been great.  It’s been, in fact, overwhelmingly great.  I’m stunned at the quality of the participants, and of the resulting dialogue.  And I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

Some of the discussion, however, leads me to think that it would be fruitful to say a few more things about the relationship between libertarianism and social justice.  Much more would need to be said about each of these topics, and many more besides, to provide a fully satisfying philosophical account, let alone a justification.  But I hope this will move us in the right direction.

  1. Moral standards vs. Public Policies – When I talk about social justice – and I think the same is true for Jason, though I’ll let him speak for himself – I’m talking about a moral standard by which various public policies or larger social/economic/political institutions might be evaluated.  To be committed to social justice is to hold that a policy or institution must, in some way, work to the interest of the more vulnerable members of society in order to be morally legitimate.  Suppose you sign on to this idea.  If so, there’s still a long way to go before we figure out what policy proposals are justified.  You can’t automatically infer that progressive, redistributive taxation is justified merely because it is intended to help the poor because, simply put, it might not actually accomplish that goal.  To know what policies satisfy your moral standard, you have to look at the facts – at how the world works.  So while the ultimate moral principle is independent of economic analysis, the policy/institutional implications of that principle are not.  I, for instance, have spent a good deal of time arguing that concern for the vulnerable entails rather counter-intuitive public policy positions on issues like sweatshops and price gouging.  People on the left who read this sometimes conclude that I must hold radically different moral principles than they do.  But part of the point of bleeding heart libertarianism is to show that this is not necessarily the case.
  2. Social Justice as a Foundation and Limit to Libertarianism — So social justice, as I see it, is an important part of the overall moral standard by which public policies and institutions are to be assessed.  Because my views on how markets and politics work are heavily informed by the likes of Hayek, Mises, Buchanan, and Tullock, I think that a commitment to social justice, combined with the relevant empirical facts, justifies a set of policies and institutions that are much more libertarian than most of my colleagues would suppose.  Social justice is thus part of the justification for libertarianism for me.  But it also sets sharp limits on the extent to which libertarian policies are justified.  If it turns out to be the case that libertarian policies don’t work to the advantage of the vulnerable in some range of cases – perhaps because you’re concerned about various forms of market failure or individuals slipping through the cracks of civil society’s charitable efforts – then you’re going to want to hold, like Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Richard Epstein, etc., that certain kinds of government intervention in an otherwise purely free market are warranted.  Where those limits lie will, as above, be a product of both your foundational moral commitments (that social policies must work to the advantage of the vulnerable, for instance) and your empirical beliefs (about the extent and scope of market failure, for instance – which failures I realize are often badly overstated, but which nonetheless exist and have important implications, it seems to me.
  3. Why Believe in Social Justice?  I’ve defined a commitment to social justice in a very broad and unsatisfactory way – as a commitment to the idea that social policies and institutions must work to the advantage of the more vulnerable members of society.  More needs to be said.  But before we go on to fill in the details, why would someone think that this ought to be part of the moral standard by which social institutions and policies ought to be evaluated?  Here, it seems to me, defenders of social justice can point to an “overlapping consensus” of sorts.  There are lots of reasons, from lots of different perspectives, for taking social justice seriously.
    1. Rawlsianism – Jason Brennan and John Tomasi frame their position as one that develops and corrects the moral insights of John Rawls.  To my mind, they take too much of Rawls’ problematic machinery on board.  But they’re not the first to try to support classical liberalism in this way, and I have been favorably impressed by at least one previous attempt.
    2. Consequentialism – But one could support social justice from a consqeuentialist perspective as well, especially if one takes the kind of prioritarian position advocated by my friend Richard Arneson seriously.  A consequentialist approach that is both choice-sensitive and luck-insensitive seems to be a good foundation to defend a number of positions that classical liberals and libertarians endorse.
    3. Public Justification – It is arguably a core commitment of liberalism that the public use of coercion must be justified to those against whom it is imposed. But property rights are a kind of coercion.  The kind of coercion they involve is probably a morally justifiable sort, but it is coercion nonetheless.  If that’s the case, then we need to be able to justify property rights, and the larger economic and political frameworks in which they operate, to everyone.  Including the poor.  This, I take it, is what Gerald Gaus is up to in his fascinating work on justificatory liberalism.  And it’s quite similar to what Loren Lomasky was up to in his Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community.
    4. Religion – For those who seek their morals elsewhere than the airy heights of philosophy, religion can also provide a source of support for social justice.  The principles of Catholic Social Teaching, for instance, support a preferential option for the poor.  What this means in practice is something, I think, that should be better informed by good economics than it sometimes is.  But the moral principle itself is squarely in line with the idea of sociall justice as I have been describing it here.


Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Thank you for the paper on sweatshops. I get into arguments with people all the time about the definition of sweatshops and the quality of labor standards in Asia.

    It seems that the largest challenge to this argument would be immigration. Many workers are making a choice to immigrate to work in a sweatshop (there is a growing migration from the Philippines to China), but once they do they do not have nearly as much decision making power over their working space as domestic employees, who can more easily navigate multiple potential employers. Immigrant workers can thus become trapped outside of a functioning labor market (wage slavery is the less nice way of saying it).

    The right to immigrate should of course be a given, but when a local labor source is largely foreign, it raises interesting questions about how many protections the state has to put in place to ensure foreign workers are able to freely move about the workforce.

    Here is a related piece I wrote:

  • Dennis Long

    “Public Justification – It is arguably a core commitment of liberalism that the public use of coercion must be justified to those against whom it is imposed.”

    This is going to be an automatic sticking point with many libertarians (myself included, although I reject the label “libertarian”).

    I would rise to ask: Specifically, who IS the public? Who IS society? And the answer from the High-Liberal (by your definition), although couched in soothing terms, always seems to be that society is everyone…..but me.

    I would instead argue that society is nothing more than a grouping of individuals, and that any form of coercion of the individual ultimately acts as a detriment to society; in the same sense that a chemical which damages individual cells cannot by definition be beneficial to an organism.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Matt, here’s another thing that I’m having trouble with. You say “I’ve defined a commitment to social justice…as a commitment to the idea that social policies and institutions must work to the advantage of the more vulnerable members of society.”
    As Isaac pointed out elsewhere, if it’s libertarian policies and institutions which do this, then we don’t need a new name for the position. As it happens, I do think that it is libertarian policies and institutions that do this, and indeed all the libertarians I know think this as well. That’s why the arguments about eminient domain or regulatory capture, e.g., often focus on how these policies keep poorer people from becoming wealthier. It’s why opposition to minimum wage laws are typically framed by concernes about how they negatively impact poor people. Part of the problem is that the expression “social justice” is a term-of-art for the left: for them it almost definitionally entails involuntary redistribution of resources, accomoanied by a lot of paternalism. The background assumptions are that state actors are benevolent and altruistic, that planners can defeat the knowledge problem, that incentives don’t matter, that there are no unintended consequences. Now, we’ve got pretty good reasons for thinking all of that is wrong, which means that we “don’t care about social justice”? That’s wrong also – we think that the policies and institutions we recommend will help make everyone better off. Are we supposed to endorsing “social justice” tactically, that is, to show that libertarianism will help the poor get wealthier better than statism, or is the claim that because of social-justice concerns, libertarianism needs to embrace minimum-wage laws and the progressive income tax etc?

  • Isaac Morehouse

    Good thoughts Aeon. I’m still wondering if this is more rhetoric than anything else.

    If you’re simply saying, as Steve Horwitz put it, “if socialism worked better, I’d be a socialist”, or more mildly, “if interventionism worked better, I’d advocate it”, that’s all well and fine, but it’s a rhetorical point.

    It may help your opposition to hear you say you’d agree with them if they were proven right, but it really doesn’t mean anything. Socialism doesn’t (and can’t) work. Scarcity exists.

    To say, “if x were true, I’d believe x” doesn’t seem to be advancing any new ideas whatsoever. If pigs could actually fly, I’d believe they could fly. They can’t. Let’s talk about why they can’t, what would happen if they tried.

    Better yet, as another colleague said, why not talk about what freedom is good today in the real world, not why in an imaginary world where the state could do good, it would do good.

    Why talk about what the state can do, or cannot do? Why not talk about what freedom can do in the world in which we actually live?

  • My own view is that I try to avoid using the phrase “social justice” for exactly the reasons Aeon brings up, namely the baggage it usually carries. However, that doesn’t mean I disagree with the underlying argument in this post: libertarians SHOULD talk in terms of how our preferred world works to the advantage of the least well-off and I genuinely do believe that, in some sense of the term, the fact that it does work to their advantage provides ethical/moral justification for those policies.

    In other words, if minimum wage laws really did make the poor better off, I’d be considerably more likely to support them. The reason to reject them (and to reject laws against price gouging etc) is precisely because they harm the people they are being claimed to help.

    For me, this whole world-view is no different than what Danny Shapiro does in his Cambridge book: the moral weight of the welfare state is premised on the fact that such policies do, in fact, achieve their intended goals. If they don’t, then it loses its moral justification. We can apply that same logic of looking at the empirical relationships elsewhere.

    As I argued awhile back, stealing from a few famous folks, “Ought Implies Can”.

  • First let me say this blog is a stunning discovery and probably a little beyond my depth philosophically. But I’ve been thinking about the philosophical foundations of my political beliefs lately and this blog directly addresses some of my concerns.

    I approach this as a consequentialist libertarian and an all but dissertation economist. My interest in social justice thus comes mainly from a consequentialist perspective although as a Catholic I’m also well versed in Catholic Social Teaching. So it’s refreshing for me to discover such a blog and I’m still absorbing the ideas expressed here and the many fascinating comments. I had no idea there were so many like minded people. Mostly I just wanted to say hello.

    Mark A. Sadowski

  • Dennis: At least on the view espoused by Gaus, and I’m pretty sure on the view espoused by Lomasky, justification is owed to each and every separate individual. So I don’t think your concern applies to them.

    Aeon: You write, “if it’s libertarian policies and institutions which do this, then we don’t need a new name for the position.” The claim about social justice isn’t so much a claim about what libertarian institutions do or do not do, it’s about what moral standard we should demand that institutions meet. I think it’s important to ask about the moral standard for two reasons: a) philosophically, we want to know what it is about libertarian institutions that make them good, and b) we want to know what to do in cases, if any exist, where libertarian institutions fail to live up to the moral standard. I happen to think that there are some such cases, and that’s why I consider myself a classical liberal rather than a strict minimal-state libertarian. So there’s a practical as well as a purely philosophical payoff for making the distinction.
    Mark: Glad to see you join us!

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Matt- You say “The claim about social justice isn’t so much a claim about what libertarian institutions do or do not do, it’s about what moral standard we should demand that institutions meet. I think it’s important to ask about the moral standard for two reasons: a) philosophically, we want to know what it is about libertarian institutions that make them good,”

    Ok, I agree. One answer might be: because those are the institutions that best achieve social justice (where SJ now needs to be defined). (Another might be: because those are the institutions that are most conducive to human flourishing (where HF now needs to be defined).) I think we all agree that libertarian institutions are justified by reference to some other moral standard. But this is what I was getting in my earlier post – say I start going around saying libertarian institutions are good because they best achieve social justice. None of lefties are going to think “oh, that’s great, we can pursue our SJ goals by abolishing the minimum wage!” They’ll think instead, “this guy is at best seriously confused and at worst up to something, since on his view we’d have to give up the minimum wage – as we all know, only cruel, anti-SJ conservatives say that.” They’ll simply deny that libertarian ideas promote SJ since they’ve defined SJ in the ways I outlined above.

    “and b) we want to know what to do in cases, if any exist, where libertarian institutions fail to live up to the moral standard.”

    I’d argue that where they fail to live up to the standard it’s where they’ve been hybridized and imperfectly instantianted, e.g., cutting subsidies for x in the name of free markets while maintaining subsidies for y (I’m thinking of the sorts of examples Roderick Long might give here.)

  • Fernando R. Tesón

    Just a footnote: Rawls says that institutions must be designed with the intent to help the poor, and that therefore free markets fail the moral test, since they are based on self-interest. If markets help the poor (as Mises, Friedman, Buchanan, and others claim) this is just happenstance, and, says Rawls, we can’t have that.
    This HAS to be wrong. If free markets help the poor more than alternative arrangements,then they are morally preferable to those alternatives. I also think that Rawls is confused here: it is perfectly possible for policy-makers to establish free markets BECAUSE they help the poor, even if individual market agents will not be acting with that altruistic purpose.

  • i wasn’t really sure who these vulnerable members of society are and what the metric of vulnerability is. one metric that i could come up is our individual willingness to feel sorry for others and offer help. my experience shows that our capacity to help others without being coerced into this is overly underestimated.

    but, social security is an outcome, rather than the purpose of a free society.

  • You write:

    “To be committed to social justice is to hold that a policy or institution must, in some way, work to the interest of the more vulnerable members of society in order to be morally legitimate.”

    I have two problems with this. The first is that your “must” seems to imply that a policy or institution, public or private, that only benefits the top 75% of the population (by some relevant ranking) is illegitimate, not merely that it would be even better if it also helped the bottom 25%. Thus, for instance, it seems to hold that it is unjust for an individual to choose to do research on a medical drug that he expects will always be expensive, hence will only benefit relatively well off people, and that it is unjust to create a vacation resort–an institution–that is too expensive for poor people to go to.

    The second problem is that the word “justice” implies not merely that helping disadvantaged people is a good thing but that it is a good thing because it is just, not for some other reason. One could easily imagine positions, such as conventional utilitarianism, which held that helping disadvantaged people was a good thing, in some sense a better thing than helping advantaged people, but not because they were entitled to such help. Do you want to define someone with that position out of your category of neo-classical liberals?

  • David,

    Thanks for chiming in. Your first point is well taken. I’ve been more than a little vague in the way that I’ve characterized social justice. Partly this is deliberate, as I think there are many ways of characterizing it with which some form of libertarianism can and should be squared, and I haven’t wished to get into the complicated arguments that would be required to adjudicate between them.

    That said, I do think that a reasonable theory of social justice will allow for Pareto improvements that help the well-off but do not hurt the poor. Supporting that would require arguing for why a good theory of social justice will not give a lot of weight to egalitarian (as opposed to, say, sufficientarian or prioritarian concerns). But I think those arguments can be made.

    I also think that a reasonable theory of social justice will allow for economic and political institutions that are on the whole beneficial to the vulnerable, even if particular public policies enacted under those institutions are not. So, in Rawlsian terms, social justice might be something that serves as a constraint on the basic structure of society, rather than on particular policies.

    I’m a bit less sure what to say about your second point. A conventional utilitarian who thought that helping the disadvantaged was better than helping the advantaged merely because, say, they believed in a principle of diminishing marginal utility, would probably not count as someone deeply committed to social justice as I’m using the term. I say that because the connection between maximizing utility and aiding the poor via DMU just seems too contingent to be very robust. A prioritarian consqeuentialist, on the other hand, seems to build in a concern with the disadvantaged at a more fundamental level, and in a way that will manifest itself in their choices more robustly. Whether you want to call their concern for the poor a matter of justice or not seems a linguistic matter about which I have no really strong opinions.

  • Like Mark Sadowski (but even more so) I’m beyond my depth here, but this is nevertheless a very interesting blog and I’m glad I found my way here (via Will Wilkinson). I plan on lurking for a while.

    Apropos of your comment about a “commitment to social justice, combined with the relevant empirical facts”, one thing I’d like to see addressed on the blog sometime down the road is how one might empirically measure the extent to which a particular society is just or not, and how one might philosophically justify choosing some measures over others. This would seem to be useful when evaluating the efficacy of current policies or arguing for new policies to be adopted.

    I have a couple off-the-cuff ideas on this, but I have no desire to appear ignorant and uninformed right out of the gate. If someone could point me to good current thinking on that topic I’d be grateful.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Matt! I enjoy your blog very much. Just a simple question: why call yourself a libertarian? It seems to me that you are something of a political pragmatist: given certain foundational moral commitments, you seek the best mechanisms (libertarian or otherwise) to bring about the sort of society which would fulfill those commitments. This is how I’ve begun describing my political philosophy, and it has the benefit of avoiding any particular ideological label.

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  • Janet Hammond

    Echoing others who posted before me, I am only beginning my consideration
    of libertarianism, and likewise, am out of my depth.  I am not a bleeding heart; but I am progressive
    in terms of civil rights and I have been encouraged to see how my philosophy jives
    with libertarianism.  Personal Liberty (1.1 through 1.6) and Securing
    Liberty (3.1 through 3.7) express my beliefs.

    Because the rights and responsibilities of personal choice are
    the essence of libertarianism, everyone, ideally, benefits from it.  Social justice, when defined as supporting the
    vulnerable, would not be an issue.  The
    concentration of great wealth and the “privilege” of power would be (and is)
    the problem.

    My perception
    is that the true enemies of libertarianism – of society – are the
    powerful.  As Ronald Reagan pointed out, “[c]oncentrated power has always
    been the enemy of liberty”.  “Not
    necessity, not desire – no, the love of power is the demon of men. Let them
    have everything – health, food, a place to live, entertainment – they are and
    remain unhappy and low-spirited: for the demon waits and waits and will be
    satisfied (Friedrich Nietzsche).”

    Only those who do not accept the consequences of their
    choices are the problem, and the powerful and criminal (too often combined in the
    same individual) excel in this area.  Power-mongering
    mows through justice and leaves many in the society bereft, and the rest of us
    making a mess of trying to help them. 

    The powerful consistently and historically misuse the
    principals of Economic Liberty (2.1 through 2.10) to their own advantage –
    to the great disadvantage of numerous others. 

    Our government has grown directly in response in order to counter
    balance the menace of power and avarice. 
    A statement such as “…advocates and social pressure are the most
    effective means of changing public behavior” is simply naïve! 

    I suspect libertarians,
    like republicans and democrats, are unable to deal with the powerful elements that
    interfere with personal freedom.  In
    fact, by tearing down the only protection society has (the huge, unwieldy,
    expensive government), perhaps libertarianism will be throwing us completely to
    the dogs. 

    “The measure of a man is what he does with power (Plato).”


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