Social Justice

The Department of the Difference Principle (Or: Confused Reasons to Reject Social Justice)

If a government wants promote some value, it could do so directly or indirectly. The distinction is best illustrated by an analogy. Suppose you think government’s one and only job is to promote good art. (No one thinks that, I know.) This alone doesn’t tell you what government should do. Setting goals doesn’t automatically tell you what the best means are to achieve those goals.

A government might attempt to promote art directly, by creating art schools, offering subsidies and prizes to artists and museums, and buying art, or indirectly, by providing a basic institutional framework (such as the rule of law, a well-functioning property rights regime, open borders and other institutions that encourage the exchange of ideas) that in turn induce people to produce good art. If you care about art, it’s still an open question whether a direct, indirect, or mixed strategy best produces it.

The same goes for social justice and other welfarist principles. Let’s say you believe that the basic structure of society ought to be arranged such that everyone (as much as possible) has enough to lead a fully human life. That doesn’t automatically commit you to any particular set of institutions. Under any particular set of conditions, it might turn out, as an empirical matter, that a extensive, heavily redistributive welfare state realizes that principle. Or might turn out that this welfare state does not, and regime that maximizes growth realizes the principle instead.

Some libertarians (though not all) object to the idea of social justice because they misunderstand what it means to live by a principle of justice. They think that a commitment to social justice logically entails a commitment to socialism. Because they are hostile to socialism, they are thus hostile to social justice. But they’re wrong.

For example, Rawls’s Difference Principle holds that inequalities in people’s holdings should be arranged such that they are to the maximum benefit of the representative member of the least advantaged (contributing) group. If you advocate the Difference Principle, this doesn’t thereby commit you to believing that every government ought to have a Department/Bureau/Ministry of the Difference Principle. (It doesn’t commit you to believing there should be a government at all, actually.) It doesn’t commit you to holding that a society should be engaged in continual, heavy redistributive taxation and transfer schemes.

What role the Difference Principles calls for government to play is an open, partly empirical question. The Difference Principle is not meant to be a law, or even something enshrined in a political constitution. It is instead a principle by which you assess what the constitution of a society should be. It might turn out that the Difference Principle could be satisfied in an anarcho-capitalist or anarcho-communist society. It might turn out that the principle requires heavy redistribution, heavy economic regulation, and a social democratic state. It might turn out that the principle can be satisfied any number of ways. Rawls himself favored a regime that would create conditions that minimized the need for redistribution by (he believed) ensuring at the outset that people would be set on a path to prosper without redistribution. He didn’t believe that government should just rearrange incomes year after year.

One commentator on an earlier thread, and some people in other blogs, have already assumed that in advocating social justice, I must therefore be in favor of continued extensive interference with markets. But a commitment to social justice does not logically entail a commitment to having government pursue justice through a heavy-handed, direct strategy.


  • James Armstrong

    It should also be noted that the first principle calls for an “equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others,” but that Rawls excludes (without much argument) “the right to own certain kinds of property (e.g. means of production) and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle.”

    A libertarian could object that it is incompatible with the first principle, strictly construed, to onerously tax people, since this is a restriction of liberty, and since the first principle has lexical priority over the second.

    • Noname Notme

      This objection would fail. The equal liberties principle guarantees a right to own some private property, but does not guarantee a right to keep whatever material advantages one can acquire without violating anyone else’s “libertarian rights” of self-ownership and freedom of contract. Nor does the equal liberties principle guarantee a right of non-interference broadly construed. If the difference principle would, in practice, require the redistribution of some acquired material advantages, then it would not conflict with the demands of the equal liberties principle. And the correct interpretation of the equal liberties principle does not conflict, even in principle, with the difference principle. The objection thus assumes that certain libertarian rights are included among the equal liberties principle, but because this assumption is mistaken, the objection fails.

      My supsicion is that Rawls excludes those two “laissez-faire capitalist” rights because he is trying to provide an account of what justice is in a society that can be characterized as a cooperative enterprise. Strictly speaking, a society that is characterized by a “laissez-faire capitalist” socioeconomic arrangement, inasmuch as it approximates an anarcho-capitalist ideal, is not a society that could be characterized as a mutually cooperative enterprise, much less something that could be called a society at all. The anarcho-capitalist ideal is an *individualistically competitive*, and not *mutually cooperative* one. This may be why Rawls excludes those two “laissez-faire capitalist” rights without much argument. He’s taking it for granted that an account of justice must be applied to something that approximates a mutually cooperative enterprise, i.e., something that can correctly be called a society. My own view is that a “society” that approximates the anarcho-capitalist ideal is not even the sort of thing that can easily be said to have any basic institutions, and so could not even be the proper subject of a theory of justice. Notice that the only thing that Nozick has to say about justice pertains either to individual actions (i.e., the principle of just acquisitions of holdings) or transactions between individuals (i.e., the principle of just transfers of holdings). Nozick clearly does not agree that the proper subject of a theory of justice is a society’s basic institutions; Nozick (and other extreme libertarians) are hostile to the very idea of society.

  • @James

    Couldn’t one argue that ‘onerous taxation’ (so to speak) in fact is a way of ensuring a ‘similar scheme of liberties’ for the whole of a group?

  • tgt

    One could also argue with the taxation being onerous. You seem to have created an argument that begs the question.

  • Those here who haven’t read Loren Lomasky’s article on “Libertarianism at Twin Harvard,” definitely should. He develops several of the arguments that have been suggested here for implementing Rawlsian moral principles via broadly libertarian political institutions. See

  • Nico Maloberti

    This is a good point. It is worth noting that many egalitarians tend to make the same mistake. After all, although Rawls did not propose to have Ministry of the Difference Principle, he did propose to have a distribution branch of government.

  • Joshua Corning

    If you care about art, it’s still an open question whether a direct, indirect, or mixed strategy best produces it.


    How many video games (the last and ultimate form of art created by human kind) has the US government produced?

    Only one I can think of and it is routinely out sold by private interests.

    There is no question as to which produces the greatest good.

    If you are confused on the matter then you really have no place commenting on it.

  • JasonL

    I’m interested to read more, but I have to say it seems like we may be dancing around some direct questions. For instance, I’m not quite sure I understand how social justice aggregates within a framework that takes economic liberty seriously.

    What is the standing of a given individual instance of free exchange? How do we evaluate the justice of that exchange in rawlsian terms to decide an amount of injustice it created?

  • Joshua Corning

    But a commitment to social justice does not logically entail a commitment to having government pursue justice through a heavy-handed, direct strategy.

    I fail to see how this is even remotely novel and is not already incorporated into a the standard libertarian model.

    For at least 200 years classical liberals have espoused the claims of limited government with the intent to increase prosperity of all.

    The only thing that has changed is that now we have 200 years worth of overwhelming evidence that classical liberalism does just that.

    It is no secret that socialist states without a history of classical liberalism are shit holes while socialist (US, Europe etc) states that have a tradition of classical liberalism are the richest states in the world with the highest education levels, with the lowest child mortality rate and have the highest life expectancy.

  • Jason Brennan


    I mean “open” as a matter of logic. In other words, it’s an empirical question. Surprisingly, lots of people of varying ideologies miss this very point. They infer that if government has the job of promoting X, then it must do so directly.

    Note that I didn’t say government should promote art.

  • Jason Brennan


    Regarding your second comment: Many libertarians and classical liberals have claimed that markets tend to benefit everyone, including the poor. I’m well aware they’ve been saying that for hundreds of years.

    What libertarians don’t say, though, but neoclassical liberals do, is that benefitting the poor is a requirement of justice.

  • Joshua Corning

    What libertarians don’t say, though, but neoclassical liberals do, is that benefitting the poor is a requirement of justice.

    I would argue that is a distinction without a difference. I want poor poeple to be less poor and suffer less and live longer, who doesn’t. In fact you would have really hard time finding a libertarian that does not want the same thing.

    But if your distinction gets leftists to consider smaller government as a way to meet their goal then i say more power to you.

    My only problem is I do not see government as anything more then a dumb instrument. Pointing at say a broad sword and telling it that it will only cut for justice is merely a ritual.

    The sword will cut what the wielder chooses to cut with it. Period.

    For me it is important to understand that telling government to cut for justice is not instructing government. It is in fact instructing the people (voters, electeds, etc) how government should be wielded.

  • Bas van der Vossen

    I agree with Jason’s point, but not wholeheartedly. Here’s my reservation: while it is clearly true that accepting that benefiting the poor is a moral requirement does not logically imply anything about institutions, there is – like it or not – some significant conversational implicature here.

    This is abused, in my view, by people from all stripes. Those who explicitly profess to give pure (“fact-insensitive”?) principles of justice often court, but never expressly state, the implication that such principles do come with institutions “attached”, so to speak.

    There is some danger that classical liberals may court the implication in the reverse direction. One might think “but my acceptance of the imperative of social justice implies nothing about institutions”, without drawing (sufficient) attention to the fact that one believes – as I think classical liberals typically do – that such principles actually DO have implications. Namely, the implication that there should be no department of the difference principle.

    So wouldn’t you agree that honest classical liberals should be extra careful to draw attention to their belief that accepting social justice as a moral requirement does have institutional implications?

  • dave


    People assume supporting something means doing direct things to promote it because of reasons that have a solid political economy background. Politicians who do direct things tend to win elections for several reasons. When devising an ideology one must account not just for the logic and philosophy of it, but for the political economy feasibility of the system. And I don’t mean that in the current political sense of polls and parties of today, but in the grander scheme of whether it can survive and function over the long term.


    I have a problem with the Rawlsian view that only the welfare of the absolute weakest amongst us matters. Society is composed of many members, and the happiness and fulfillment of strong is no less worthy then the weak. This example is taken to the point of parody, but a government that scared all good looking woman so that every woman was equally ugly would benefit the ugliest woman, it would raise their status by lowering others, but it would be terrible for society.

    Policies that raise all boats are easy. Policies that raise some boats by lowering others must be handled with great care, there needs to be overwhelming evidence that it is good for society as a whole before you go down that path. No simply rule like Rawl’s works.

  • Mike Valdman


    You’re surely right that, by itself, establishing an end doesn’t logically commit you to any particular way of achieving it. I’m surprised, though, that you think a lot of people think otherwise (or that they talk as if they did). Who are they?

    I should say that I see this sort of thing from time to time among environmentalists. They seem to leap from the claim that too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is bad to the claim that we ought to reduce carbon emissions. But there may be other, less direct ways to deal with atmospheric carbon that don’t require reducing emissions.

  • Joshua Corning

    “I’m surprised, though, that you think a lot of people think otherwise (or that they talk as if they did). Who are they?”

    On the hit and run thread about your new blog one commenter made this point:

    “ClubMedSux|3.4.11 @ 4:47PM|#

    As somebody who was raised in a conservative household and self-identified as conservative until the middle of college, I generally feel that I didn’t so much “become” a libertarian as much as I discovered that libertarianism better fit my beliefs than does traditional conservatism or liberalism. But oddly enough, if there’s one area where libertarianism has changed my worldview, it’s issues of crime and punishment (as I used to be a pro-death penalty, pro-tough-cop law-and-order kind of guy). Maybe it’s because I’m thinking of criminal justice issues while Zwolinski is addressing “social or distributive justice” (whatever the fuck that is), but I see libertarians as more “bleeding heart” than the Left ever was. Who else defends polygamists, drug users and registered sex offenders?”

    Libertarians do get riled up about justice. Not necessarily about social justice but more when it comes classical legal justice.

    I think libertarians at least from what I have seen and read following Hit and fun for the past 5 or so years is that when it comes to social justice we devolve into discussions about markets rather then scream and yell about the injustice of it all. I think it is a rhetorical style rather then that we feel no need for social justice.

    For a testimonial i will state this. I am by no means rich. I made under the national average income last year and though my job does offer opportunity to make more it has of yet produced taxable income to my benefit. Now as a person of the world i realize that today this instant there is a black man of my age living in lets say Detroit who is smarter and better looking them me yet he is worse off.
    The only reason he is poor is because of the lack of opportunity that race, demographic, education, and local government has taken from him.

    I am appalled at that injustice. This guy who is smarter and better looking then me if afforded the same opportunities i have could be curing cancer!!!

    Now i never say that at hit and run…I don’t know why. I always just assumed that the best argument was one about markets and if markets were freer anonymous black guy in Detroit would get the opportunities that have been afforded to me.

    Perhaps we should change how we talk about it…perhaps not. I don’t know which one will change the world for the better.

  • Maciej Stachowiak

    I reject the Difference Principle not because of what institutions it implies, but because Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance argument for it is fallacious. Maximin is not a valid decision theory in the face of uncertainty. A proper decision theory would consider the probability distribution. If, behind the veil of ignorance, we could see the distribution of material well-being in society, then it would most likely be rational to maximize the weighted average, subject to the minimum being above some baseline. You would have to be unbelievably risk-averse, far more than actual humans are in real life, to care solely about maximizing the minimum.

    This can be evaded by pretending that behind the Veil of Ignorance we can see what the status of the worst-off will be given a set of institutions, but not what the distribution will be. That way, we can compute the minimum but are unable to compute the average. But this seems incoherent – why is this very peculiar limited set of knowledge the right one to ensure fairness? What sort of reasoning ability would tell us how badly off the worst-off will be, but not how many of them there will be?

    Since the Difference Principle is based on a fallacious argument, it does not matter what it implies for our institutions.

  • “[A] commitment to social justice does not logically entail a commitment to having government pursue justice through a heavy-handed, direct strategy.”

    Indeed. In fact the monetary system itself was conceived as a way to indirectly erode property rights in favor of civil rights.

    Before money, ancient societies operated on what was essentially a “gift economy” with exchanges among the overclass but no real private economy of the kind we think of today. There was nothing to compel property owners to employ their productive resources for the public good (or to employ them at all beyond what was necessary to produce a good life for the owners themselves.)

    The monetary system (specifically spending and taxation by a central fiscal authority) compels the creation of the private economy we know today, which allows the government to pursue the public interest both directly (by paying people government scrip to do work in the public interest) and indirectly (by compelling the owners of productive property to employ it in the private economy.)

    The idea that the wealthy should be in favor of the unfettered operation of the monetary system while the rest of us should be in favor of “heavy-handed interventions” is ahistorical, and reflects a triumph of overclass PR more than anything.

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  • For years I was an Ayn Randian libertarian. When I encountered Rawls in college I spent a great deal of time vehemently arguing against most of this principals. Yet as time passes I realize the value of his ideas. I don’t think they are the absolute in any argument but they are a pertinent piece of the puzzle. That led me to developing ideas on how to deal with those two conflicting theories.

    At last I realized that in many cases the government is in the best position to help out those who need it most. While at the same time recognizing that the government suffers from it’s own problems. One such reconciliation is my idea on reforming welfare. I think responsibility should be reintroduced to welfare. People do in fact need help at times, this is a simple fact. Yet people also need to take responsibility for the help they receive. So I think welfare should be restructured more like student loans. Individuals receive support for food, housing, child care and education. As long as they are moving forward toward achieving self subsistence they can continue to receive support. But the support should be calculated and maintained as an individual account like a student loan. The recipient would need to repay that amount once they are financially secure. Thus the recipient feels responsible for the support received. Though I also consider part of the repayment as the increased tax revenues due to the recipient becoming more productive and paying taxes rather than taking in money from the government. Thus the idea is to create welfare that is fiscally neutral which means nobody is ‘forced’ to contribute to welfare while at the same time utilizing the power of the government to improve the quality of life for the whole country. This of course is the short version but should give you an idea of the reconciliation that I have endeavored to achieve.

    • Joan59

      Bless you. Evolution, openness and honesty are always inspiring.
      So few of us achieve it.
      But tell me how we can require corporate welfare recipients to pay it back?
      Since they are given so much more than the single mother down the street.

  • AynRandWasRight

    I have a rule of thumb that the more circuitous the explication of a political theory, the more its proponent is trying to hide. Thus the stupefying, mind-numbing tedium of academic Marxism, for example.

    There is only one thing you need to believe to be a libertarian: That people ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want so long as they do not do direct, provable harm to others. Period. Everything else is derivative: such as the principle that human relationships should be voluntary and consensual. And by extension the idea that the only just role of government – which is institutionalized force – is to prevent individuals from abrogating the above principles.

    So sure, a person can believe in “heavy redistribution, heavy economic regulation, and a social democratic state” and call himself a libertarian. He can also call himself Napoleon. But both would be equally delusional.

    • BleedingHeartThinkingBrain

      *Ahem* did you read the second post of this blog?? The point is that they come to similar conclusions that libertarians do.. not from similar standpoints. I don’t think they are real libertarians, and neither am I.. but who cares besides real a**hole brutalists who live in a fantasy world.

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