Social Justice

What If You Were Wrong about Economics?

Economics is an empirical science. Okay, yeah, I realize many econ papers simply consist of logical deductions from mathematical models. However, as soon as you attempt to use these models to explain real world phenomena, you make an empirical claim. Saying “Firms in perfect competition are price takers” might be a priori, but it is an empirical claim to say that any actual business in any actual market behaves like or can be modeled properly as a firm in perfect competition. 

Since economics is in that sense empirical, it’s logically possible for it to be wrong. We live in a world where standard neoclassical economics is much closer to the truth than, say, heterodox Marxist economics. But, as a matter of logic, it could have been otherwise, just as it could have turned out that no gases can ever been approximated by the ideal gas law. You generally need to leave the econ department to find a person who believes in Marxist economics, but nevertheless, it could still turn out that the Marxists are right. Like any science, economics is open to disconfirmation. There’s some possibility, and perhaps even some non-zero probability, that most of your empirical economic beliefs could be disconfirmed in the future.

With that in mind, I have a thought experiment for you. 

This is directed at libertarians who 1) advocate a purely negative rights-based theory of justice, but 2) who also believe that under ideal libertarian institutions, markets would work really well at making most people better off. 

Imagine that your empirical beliefs about economics have been disconfirmed. Imagine that a bunch of economists provide compelling evidence that life in a strictly libertarian polity would be a disaster. Imagine that they show conclusively that if people everywhere were to live in a Nozickian minimal state or a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist civil society, with everyone strictly observing property right rules, that 10% of people would starve, 80% would be near subsistence, and only 10% would prosper. However, imagine that they also show that in a liberal social democracy with significant redistribution or social insurance, most people would prosper, just as many people living in such welfare states are doing pretty well right now.

If economists and other social scientists were to provide compelling empirical evidence that you are wrong about how economies work, and that libertarian society would be a humanitarian disaster, what would you advocate and why? In particular, would you think it would be morally right for states to provide social insurance? How much and why?

The purpose of this exercise is to see how your moral commitments interact with your empirical beliefs about how economies actually work.

N.B.: If you post a response of the form "You're constructing a Krugmanesque straw man! Markets do work!," you misunderstood me.

By the way, if you aren’t a libertarian, try changing this thought experiment around to deal with your views.


Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • JH

    I’m a libertarian who is in principle fine with social insurance programs. So let me change the scenario a bit to fit my views.

    Suppose that a market economy would result in catastrophe and only a command economy could prevent disaster for whatever reason. I would have to accept that a command economy is morally justified, given this assumption.

    But, nonetheless, a command economy violates people’s economic liberties. So there is always something ineliminably, pro tanto unjust about this command economy.

    Now, this injustice is overridden by the need to stave off disaster. Yet this injustice will always remain inherent in this system.

    As an aside, this is the same way that sophisticated Marxists like G.A. Cohen understand the triumph of capitalism. There is always something deeply unjust about capitalism, although we don’t have a better alternative at present.

  • Jason Brennan


    I agree. Let me ask you a follow up, though. When the injustice of violating people’s economic liberties is morally overridden by some other moral concerns, by what name do you call those concerns? Are they also concerns of justice, or of some other part of morality?

  • fabiano

    I think the answer depends on the kind of foundations that support libertarianism. Your claim n. 1 can be argued based on a deontological or a consequentialist libertarian theory (or a mix of them both). Your claim n. 2 seems purely consequentialisn. Ethical and economic arguments can play different roles in either one of them.
    I can see your objection working against a pure consequentialist libertarian theory, but not fully against a pure deontological one.
    Sorry for my english, not a natural speaker/writer.

  • Vacslav

    Pure libertarian society admits voluntary non-libertarian pockets of arbitrary large size. Ability to organize themselves mean ability to overcome any theoretical-economical hurdles.

    This is not the case for non-libertarian society which can’t have voluntary libertarian pockets of arbitrary large size.

  • Hyena

    It was these sorts of thought experiments which ended my fascination with Nozick-Rothbard formulations of libertarianism along with a belief in institutional monism.

  • JH

    When the injustice of violating people’s economic liberties is morally overridden by some other moral concerns, by what name do you call those concerns? Are they also concerns of justice, or of some other part of morality?

    Before I take a shot at this, I’m wondering what is at stake here in whether we call something “a concern of justice” or not. Does it matter substantively whether we label something a concern of justice or not?

    Anyway, to answer your question, let me describe a case. Say that an evil demon will indiscriminately kill hundreds of millions of people if we implement anything but a command economy.

    Here I would say that duties of beneficence (duties to prevent bad things from happening, like millions of people dying) outweigh duties of justice (duties to refrain from violating people’s moral rights).

  • Jason Brennan


    I am also unsure whether it matters whether we call it justice or not.

  • John V

    Well, considering your thought experiment was actually the real world reason why I migrated to libertarianism from a more center-left position, I would say that I would re-evaluate my views…just as I once did.

    There’s two saying about libertarians. One is well known…and not very true IMHO while the other is less well known and carries more truth to it…at least for me it did.

    1. A libertarian is just a conservative who smokes pot. Most people have heard that one. I don’t really like the characterization.

    2. A libertarian is just a modern liberal who understands economics. A lot of people haven’t heard that one and I find more truth to it…both in my own personal experience and with libertarians that I encounter.

    Of course, your thought experiment is asking us to imagine something that isn’t true…however, it can be “truthy” under certain assumptions about details or confusion between free markets and crony capitalism. I think the real question you should be asking is the reverse toward modern liberals since relevant economics that doesn’t breakdown outside of special case models with pristine assumptions tends to favor a far more market-friendly POV than most Modern Liberals have.

    Besides, the needed second part of that question that is often ignored is:

    “As opposed to the alternative”

  • Jeff

    For me, and perhaps for others, this thought experiment is too easy: you advocate for what works. Of course, it particularly helps as a prerequisite to be a consequentialist and a sketic.

  • Jason Brennan


    For many people this is too easy. For certain libertarians, it will be hard.

  • David Sobel

    I like the question Jason asks here and find it frustrating when even smart libertarians refuse to answer it. Loren Lomasky told me on more than one occasion that he did not have to answer this question. That just seems plain unphilosophical to me. True moral principles could not be true only for the exact way the world actually is and be inapplicable to counterfactual situations. We are trying to generate principles that should guide us not only in the actual world but at least in a range of counterfactual worlds. Or at least us non-particularists are doing so. To my mind, an unwillingness to answer Jason’s question here reveals that one is not actually trying to formulate true moral principles.

  • Jessie

    I’m a liberal, so, swinging the thought experiment around to deal with my views…

    Like Jeff said from the libertarian POV, I want what works. With the caveat that, our world being what it is, I’d want good policies that actually stand a chance of being made into law, rather than perfect ones that don’t.

  • Carlo

    Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus

  • Mark LeBar

    I agree with Lomasky. If you think there are features of human beings that explain both why we owe other people to (mostly) leave them alone and why free people produce what people need to live good lives, then you can’t hold one constant and flip the other. That combination of conceptual moves is unintelligible.

    For my part, I think there is only contingent truth on both sides of the story (the story about what is involved in treating people as free and equal — aka the rights story — and the story about economic prosperity). But lots of things are contingent in ways that make for unimaginable counterfactuals. If the two stories were only contingently related, that would be a different thing. J’s thought experiment requires that they be, and for some views no doubt they are only contingently related. But I imagine Loren doesn’t think they are, and I don’t either.

  • b_a

    I think contractarianism can work as a “bridge” between negative-rights libertarians and a consequentialist outlook.

    In the contractarian world view, the liberty of the citizens is not restricted to their economic liberty, i.e. to negative rights in the narrow sense. Instead it also encompasses their liberty to make “political exchanges” by submitting part of their bundle of negative rights in a political “deal” to get something in return which they value more (i.e. possibly the security against poverty granted by limited social insurance).

    Indeed it would be a restriction of individual liberty to deny individuals the freedom to volutarily exchange part of their bundle of negative rights in a political exchange!

    And since changes in the existing distribution of rights of the status quo can only be said to be socially beneficial if nearly unanimous consent is reached, contractarians can also sympathize with those who defend negative rights against top-down political change. Unless the legitimacy of a large change in the basic rules of the game manifests itself in consent of the citizens, these changes in the structures of rights must be presumed as violations of individual rights.

  • Stephan

    Hmmm … I’m not a libertarian. In the US I would qualify for the label “socialist”. But if some people come up with convincing evidence that European social insurance sucks I would answer: OK. Let’s abolish it.

    But the thought experiment is rather meaningless for people of my persuasion. We don’t have such a long laundry list of principles like libertarians. For me the — although unconfirmed — Keynes quote is one the few principles: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”

  • This is a great question.

    By way of background, I’m what you might call a safety net liberal with market tendencies.

    I believe that the pathologies of poverty (positive rate of time preference, semi-rational ignorance of finance, general defeatism and desperation) create sufficient externalities to compel state action to help people live with some minimum level of dignity and security.

    I also believe in the ability of free markets to provide more value with less waste than any other form of organized production, as long as the following are recognized:

    – Externalities are real, even when inconvenient to fix;

    – As the amount of data and complexity grows, there are increasing information gaps between (some) producers, consumers, investors and citizens generally and this has to be reckoned with;

    – A free society should have the right to collectively decide through the democratic process to sometimes do things an economist would consider economically irrational, like build a stadium to keep a team from moving or subsizide a state fair (eminent domain is another issue entirely);

    As someone who leans more pragmatist than dogmatic, the question you pose is the one I grapple with all the time.

    Frankly, if someone presented me with unassailable evidence, for example, that production of movies and music would collapse within a matter of weeks if all DRM were eliminated, I’d admittedly go through several stages of denial.

    – I’d look to see if the source of the information was biased;

    – I’d think of the evidence as an outlier and wait for more information;

    – I’d need some confirmation from people I trust that this was actually true;

    Even after that, my existing beliefs would still be “sticky,” perhaps right up until the point that a policy change proves the controversial statement correct. This is how I came around on the 1996 welfare reforms. I’ve since come around on a host of licensing and zoning issues.

    However, I didn’t have to shoehorn new empirical evidence to a worldview that claims to have simple answers to everything, like Libertarianism or Marxism. Still, it took time to absorb and integrate. It’s human nature.

    • smthnclvrr

      “Externalities are real, even when inconvenient to fix”

      I love that line. Bravo.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    How is this different from asking: “what if it turned out that unless you enslaved 4% of the population, 10% would starve. Would you still be so dogmatically anti-slavery?” I don’t hold my moral views _because_ of their perceived congruence with economics, but I do take it as some kind of back-up confirmation that they are congruent with economics. But if I were to discover somehow that greater global prosperity could be obtained by enslaving some some small number of people, yes, I’d still oppose slavery.

  • I’d advocate a libertarian view, wherein people would be free to fail or succeed on their own. We’re under no intrinsic moral obligation to help anyone, whether individually, collectively, or through the state. For me, humanitarianism is subordinate to freedom and property rights.

  • I fully agree with that almost any science changes to this or that degree as the time passes by. And economics is not an exception. But what I worry about is that students at universities now still learn some dated economic models instead of paying more attention to these changes.

  • M

    I’m very far to the left and actually think the difference in positive theory between neoclassical economics and Marxian political economy is not all that great, and in fact I’d say I believe more strongly in an actually existing homo economicus than most market-inclined intellectuals would be willing to admit these days. I think the current sort of arrangements is massively unjust and that the range of possible alternatives is mostly unexplored, so that even if, say, Austrian economics provided the best description of human behavior my politics wouldn’t change much. My theoretical model of utopia might change, but those aren’t worth much, and I’m too far from the mainstream to feel any emotional reactions to the ebb and flow of actual administrative politics.

    What would deeply trouble me is if I was presented with incontrovertible evidence that humanity is deeply riven by wholly natural inequalities – that the major sexual and ethnic populations, not to mention individuals, innately differ very greatly in their capabilities and temperaments. In this case I would have to concede that no society that I could admire would really be possible. My best prediction is that I would then fall into despair, but since this is a guess about my psychology rather than a statement of principles – which are, yes, ultimately statements about my psychology too, but nevermind – I can’t be sure. Maybe if an independent factor caused me to improve my affective disposition I would become an ardent fascist; I don’t know.

  • Duncan Frissell

    It would depend on one’s relative psychic valuation of personal autonomy. Someone with a high valuation would reject intervention, one with a low valuation might accept it.

    The psychic cost of coercion is often ignored in such equations. I will have to register and test my car next month. I’m also having surgery. I suffer more psychic pain from car registration than total pain from surgery.

    Just an unfalsifiable report of a personal valuation.

  • David Sobel


    Well, I suppose I would start by challenging the claim that free people produce what people need to live good lives. When the market works, it works to produce what there is market demand for. What there is market demand for depends on who has money and how much and what they are willing to buy. Set aside how the market fails to provide what desperately poor people need to live any life at all. Even if people are not misguided about what they need to live good lives, their purchasing power often goes towards what, even by their own lights, is not needed for them to live good lives—people are not infrequently weak willed or vindictive. More importantly, people are often misguided about what they need to live a good life. In such cases much of the market demand people create is not well correlated with what these people in fact need to live good lives.

    But more centrally, you say it is an empirical claim that free people produce what people need to live. So imagine a creature maximally like us humans except that that is not true of them. Perhaps they just don’t want to trade at all. Do you want to say that that person is not entitled to the kind of moral protections that the rest of us are protected by?

  • John V

    “Set aside how the market fails to provide what desperately poor people need to live any life at all.”

    Really? The idea that market produces everything on a large of prices and target target audiences really undermines that idea.

    If you are referring to something else, you clearly explain what you mean. But what you said is wrong.

  • However, imagine that they also show that in a liberal social democracy with significant redistribution or social insurance, most people would prosper, just as many people living in such welfare states are doing pretty well right now. They are “doing pretty well” in spite of the welfare state’s toll on economic output, not because of it.

    As for your thought experiment: A pure consequentialist should be driven by the economic “facts”; a pure deontologist by his conception of the ultimate political value. As for me, I am a deontological libertarian who is convinced of libertarianism’s consequential superiority. Therefore, #2 is a a “plus” but not the reason to favor #1. Liberty is my ultimate political value, over and above its economic benefits (or lack thereof).

    Tangentially, positive liberty (which I take as the subtext of your thought experiment) is possible in a close-knit society where the Golden Rule operates. The norm is non-interference (negative rights) because people dwell in mutual respect, trust, and forbearance based on the commission of acts of kindness and charity. That is to say, some give freely of their time and/or worldly goods to help others acquire the capacity to benefit from their negative rights. The key word here is “freely.”

    However, in a nation which comprises disparate and often incompatible social groups, and where the state (almost always) assumes more than a night-watchman role, acts of “charity” (i.e., redistribution) are mainly forced by the state. That isn’t positive liberty; it’s a grant of positive rights. And it necessarily involves the abrogation of some people’s liberty. In sum, if positive liberty arises freely, I’m all for it; if positive liberty means state-granted positive rights, I’m against it. And I’m against it even in the (unlikely) event that it yields superior economic performance.

  • John V

    David’s comment just above really demonstrates a severe gap in the understanding of markets between classical and modern liberals.

    He starts by challenging the idea that markets produce what people need to live good lives. I am not sure what he would mean to say that it doesn’t.

    More than likely, his idea of the market is wrong in that he is measuring the market (or whatever he thinks should be the market) against his own ideal of what it “should produce” instead of acknowledging what it is.

    Markets process information between buyers and sellers so that resources are allocated in productive ways. It’s not simple and it’s often taken for granted. It’s not responding to an ideal or attempting to reach anyone’s ideal nor does it have good or bad intentions.

    Markets do something government cannot.

  • So basically the OP is asking: if you subscribe to a rights-based view, at what point, if at all, do consequentialist considerations override deontological ones?

  • John

    I agree with the comment that the thought experiment was too easy.

    I’m not sure a response to Vacslav is appropriate here as it’s not quite on topic but I do think it’s a proposition libertarians need to examine. A few years back I would have accept the claim without much thought. Now, I suspect that an empirical test would refute the theoretical “conclusion”.

    If I’m right then this holds a degree of import with regard to the structure and size of a libertarian polity.

  • David Sobel

    John V,

    I was responding to Mark’s claim that markets tend to produce what people need to live good lives. I have my own, rather subjectivist, theories about what makes for a good life. I would myself say that has to do with the extent to which you get what you would informedly want. Another possible theory is that what is good for people is whatever they buy. To assess Mark’s claim we need to commit ourselves to at least the outlines of a theory of well-being, and you do not get for free that because people were willing to pay for it, it is good for them. That is a contentful theory of well-being that needs defending (esp. as it has wild consequences). For example, suppose a person buys something believing it to be bad for them (e.g. crack) is it still claimed to nonetheless be good for them? Suppose they buy something but are significantly wrong about its features, is it still claimed to be good for them? I think friends of the market would do better to say that market transaction is morally privileged for some other reason than that it always benefits both sides of the exchange.

  • Joe

    I’m a technocratic liberal. If it could be proven to me that the welfare state would implode and that a right-libertarian paradise (or a command economy) was the best welfare-maximizing option, I’d sign on as long as it avoided crushing effective liberty in the process (i.e., competition so efficient that you can’t lead an individual life; selection for one of the six state-run industries from birth with no input, etc.)

    The whole point of supporting the welfare state for me is, well, to maximize the people’s welfare. I don’t much care about the form, so long as substantial liberty is preserved.

  • Watch out! I’m a lawyer.

    Way back in my law school class in Criminal Law (insert joke here re: redundance), Prof. Watson taught us about the Necessity Defense. Ordinarily-criminal conduct is not adjudged criminal if you did it to prevent some greater harm. E.g., stealing your neighbor’s car is a ordinarily a crime, but if you stole it so you could drive a grievously injured person to the hospital, that’s a valid defense.

    And that’s how I resolve this thought experiment. Even if we all agreed that people have a natural right to 100% freedom from government interference with their money and property, if it were necessary to take some of that money or property to prevent greater harm, then that’s a superior moral claim.

    So shouldn’t the government confiscate 99.9% of Bill Gates’s money and use it to feed starving Haitians? No. Because–even aside from political considerations–we have a consensus that the short-run benefits of radical redistribution would be outweighed by the long-run loss of economic efficiency. In the long run a relatively free market, with relatively robust property rights, and a modicum of redistribution, results in more aggregate wealth and less net poverty.

  • benjamin buchthal

    im not so sold on this “economics is an empirical thing” issue at all but just for the sake of argument:

    if it was shown (however this might be possible) that free cooperation under a system of full private property rights would not lead us to a world of prosperity, then why should not all the people who grasp this failure of a private property system acknowledge these deficits and voluntarily turn to other modes of production?

    on the other hand, we can always make some people better off at the expense of others. that ought to be possible from almost any realistic starting point we can imagine …
    … but if we happen to accept the scientific impossibility of interpersonal utility comparisons (which i do) then every move away from a full property/contract system towards some control and redistribution system via other (governmental) institutions that need to employ force and coercion will only bring about a world in which certain people are violently made relative winners and others are violently made relative gainers. appraisal of such an outcome will always be due to some subjective value judgment by some of the parties. other parties will subjectively reject such a move.

    my point thus: even if free market systems would not hold what promise, violently changing the distribution couldnt account for better results then what would result from voluntary changes in the organisational patterns once people search for alternatives to production under a private property system.

    interfering violently with the cooperative actions of human beings never seems to provide a superior alternative due to the impossibility of measuring what the best overall alternative.

  • Miko

    As a left-libertarian, I don’t consider property rights to be included among negative rights (indeed, they seem to conflict with many negative rights, most notably the freedom to travel, although as b_a noted, people would be able to obtain the positive “right” of owning property through contractual deals with their neighbors) and I think that it’s perfectly possible that an anarcho-capitalist society could be a disaster: this would depend on the people living there. With those caveats, my answer:

    The state is not magic. It could turn out that some form of social insurance is necessary even in a libertarian society (in fact, it’s fairly likely), but it could not turn out that a form of social insurance that can only be provided by the state is necessary. If, when we get to Libertopia, it turns out that certain of the state’s functions are necessary, then people will have an economic and moral incentive to ensure that the functions are carried out in other ways. If such mutual aid attempts fail, the short-term consequence will be mobs of hungry people robbing the rich (in large enough numbers to overcome any hypothetical defense agencies that might be around; if the rich are obtaining their wealth through false claims about a negative right to property in land, this “theft” will be a justified recovery of stolen property, if not, well, it’ll happen anyway) and the long-term consequence will either be 1) the rich deciding that it’s cheaper to pay for social insurance through voluntary organizations than it is to pay for beefed up defense agencies or 2) the extinction of humanity. (And in the latter case, we as a species won’t have had any right to survive a second longer than we did.)

    So, in summary: even if economists discover that functions currently performed by the state are necessary, there would still be no reason to advocate for state provision of those functions.

  • Mark LeBar

    David, we could argue about how well markets produce what people need to live good lives, but that wasn’t part of J’s counterfactual. He was thinking that people who think both that rights are important and that economic freedom are important should consider what to say if those two were to come apart. My response was to the idea that that thought experiment makes very good sense.

    But if I were to reply, I’d say two things: first, it is pretty difficult to undermine the empirical evidence at least that the existence of robust market societies has correlated with improvement in human well-being (at least the things people seem to care about with good reason, such as not starving, not having half their babies die, and so on) unprecedented in human history. (As Dave Schmidtz points out, the issue isn’t that there aren’t still poor people, though the most desperate poverty now occurs where market societies don’t really exist, not where they do. The issue instead is that now is the first time in human history in which poverty isn’t virtually universal, or at least a general rule.) Second, there is no evidence that there is any other form of human social institution that can deliver those sorts of desirable outcomes in any thing like the same way. Those, I take it, are pretty much bald empirical facts. And that’s all that’s needed to get the basic libertarian commitment that J is interested in up and running.

  • Mark LeBar

    I might add that any view of well-being (and you know I am an objectivist about this, not a subjectivist) that denies that reductions in starvation and infant mortality and increases in life-expectancy count for better lives would be grossly implausible as a theory of well-being. That markets also produce crack because people like crack whether it is good for them or not is certainly something to cherish. On the other hand, people being free to direct their own lives — and make their own mistakes — as they will is certainly to be cherished, even though some of us make a hash (no pun intended) of it. A further constraint on plausible accounts of human well-being is, I take it, that by and large we see people as responsible for what they choose to do, rather than blaming the institutions that makes it possible for them to have those choices.

  • David Sobel


    These days I would think any sane person would think that markets should play an important role in a well-ordered society. The choice is between such a society with a social safely net, incentives for attending college, and prohibitions against crack on the one hand, and a pure market based system. When that is the comparison, do you want to say that robustly the more market-based, the more the society produces what people need to live well?

    But it was really the second half of my response to you that I thought mattered to the main question before us.

  • anomdebus

    I evolved from consquentialism to deontology on the question of economic policy wrt optimal outcomes. There are a number of reasons for this change: I don’t have to presume what other people’s preferences are, the measurements are vague at best and consequentialism can lead to a never ending battle royale of slight improvements.

    If the case were so stark as you suggest, I would advocate switching to the best alternative, which isn’t necessarily between the failed choice and another. However, if we were talking about just a small difference in outcomes, I may not switch even if a command economy outperformed market economy by a small percent. This is where preference lies, the vig of preference perhaps. To get me to go against my preference I would need to be paid to do so.

    John | 03/10/2011 at 10:21 AM,
    I am interested in hearing your reasons for thinking that local/regional collectivism will do worse underneath a libertarian federation than libertarians would under a collectivist federation. At this point in my life, I am more interested in allowing other people the freedom to live under the government of their personal choice rather than enforcing the majority’s choice on the rest. The best way seems to me to be light at the top levels and more power the closer you get to the individual level.

  • Mark LeBar


    No, that was the kind of supposition I was claiming to be like Loren (I suppose) in thinking I have no idea what to say about. On par with, “Imagine creatures just like us except that they are immortal.” I can’t imagine what it would mean to be like us except not social in the sense that sociality essentially involve cooperation and exchange. Maybe you can imagine what such beings are, but I can’t, certainly not enough to judge what impact that would have on their moral relations. I think Adam Smith follows Aristotle in thinking that is pretty much an essential feature of what beings like us are, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can make hay out of counterfactuals in which “we” are not like that and still anything recognizable as the subjects of the sorts of moral judgments we are, given the actual constitution we have.

    More to the point: I think our moral intuitions have been forged under conditions in which we are decidedly *not* like that, and I am not confident we really have any idea what we would think were that not so.

    I didn’t mean to be making the comparative claim you are wondering about in your first paragraph here, though I think there are real questions about what institutions best advance the prospects people have for leading decent lives. (For example, I doubt that incentives to attend college are among them.) I meant simply to be accepting the assumption that I took to drive J’s original thought experiment.

  • anomdebus

    nb – when I said “slight improvements” I was thinking closer to “miniscule improvements”

  • David Sobel


    Ok, that surprises me a bit. I think I can imagine a human who does not want to trade but who remains entitled to the same sort of moral concern we get. But in any case I should have said earlier that you have made the idea that such counterfactuals need not be addressed intelligible to me in a way no one else has. And for that, as Daniel Tosh says, I thank you.

  • David, that’s good to know. Thanks!

    I suspect that a large part (maybe all) of the explanation of our difference in judgments about what counterfactuals we think we can make sense of is explained by or underwritten by our differing philosophical anthropologies. Suppose, for example, that you had a really simple-minded hedonist view about what motivates us, and thus in a crucial sense (for practical purposes) what we are like. Then I think the counterfactual would be much more imaginable, because the pertinent features of human life would be as it were only fortuitously occurring in the same beings. They’d pull apart easily. Other views vary to the degree they see those things as linked in ways that tie to more or less essential features of what we take ourselves to be like. That would explain a lot about our different assessments of the plausibility of such judgments, no?

  • David Sobel

    That could be, Mark. Sorry I am distracted by trying to make sure I am getting your view at least as it is relevant to Jason’s question. Gotta do more thinking before I have anything coherent to say.

  • pedrovedro

    I am wrong about economics.

    I believe, based on observation, that today’s economists know about as much about economics as 16th century physicians knew about medicine. Therefore, I am unwilling to put much weight on my empirical beliefs about economics in deciding my policy preferences.

  • John

    anomdebus – The original statement didn’t mention structure, just a blanket statement. The idea is not well developed in my mind so this response may be a bit jagged and certainly incomplete.

    While I don’t think the argument is ever put as such I think can be summarized as: A libertarian order gives the people a largest set of liberties. Subcultures wanting additional restrictions can form subgroups with those more limited sets of liberties. As long as these restrictions are voluntarily accepted the groups size can grow to any size without threatening the larger libertarian order. The reverse is not true because even if small enclaves of capitalists in a socialist order were tolerated their success would result in growth that results in the larger order having to reject a defining principle. That rejection could not happen so the socialist order ultimately has to eliminate the subculture. The other solution is the socialist order becomes a libertarian one.

    What I wonder about is how the “socialist” feels about living in a libertarian polity? Do they really feel like a full fledged member? Do they truly have a voice in the government? Is there a dissonance present of living under a system that allows the persistence of an unjust social structure? I think we’d end up seeing the same tension here as existed with slavery. Or perhaps the better analogy would be the current debate on outsourcing work to lower cost labor overseas.

    So maybe this is the thought experiment — if a libertarian society included enough socialist to affect a change in the society’s constitution, via previously defined processes, preventing private ownership of large scale production is it still libertarian?

    If the answer is “That could not happen because taking away the right to own any property is not a right other’s have and so the state/government cannot have that power.”, then I suspect the underlying idea that socialistic enclaves within a larger libertarian world works is not as certain as might appear.

    I think you are correct that a federalist structure would increase the potential for a successfully mixed setting. I think one still runs into the issue of individual values, the person’s sense of membership within the various level and how the values associated with the various level resonate with the person.

    Probably too many words and not enough clarity….

    A last comment that I think fits in somewhere in all this. I think the “right” libertarians focus largely on entry and exit and don’t sepend much time thinking about voice. In other words, the don’t spend much time with how the contract is negotiated, only delivery on or termination of the contract.

  • I’ve raised arguments like this with some rights-oriented libertarians, but they explicitly reject consequentialism for moral absolutism. I jump off of this Wikipedia page, which has some features they seem to favor.

    But since the “initiation of force” is fundamentally unjust, nothing ethically just can derive from violating it. They never quite come out and say that it would be right to implement an anarcho-capitalist model even if it necessarily led to Somalia-like outcomes, but they dance around it; they optimistically assume that Libertopia-like outcomes are also among the possibilities.

    I think that the situation is one that is difficult to wrap their minds around: protecting property rights always leads to the best outcomes, so it’s a pointless hypothetical, like asking “what if tomorrow, up was sometimes down?” Since an act is moral or not in itself, a morall just act can’t then be made immoral because bad stuff happens. The moral universe requires actions to be moral or not, not simultaneously moral and immoral, and anything that strays from that ideal is traipsing down the slippery slope of “the end justifies the means.”

    But it’s certainly possible to construct a similar thought experiment to the one above with other rights-oriented reasoning: Say slavery. Or take a world infected with a fertility virus, to which the only response is significant abrogation of the rights of women.

  • David Sobel


    The component of your view I want to explore first is the part that says that, I think, (call the following claim 1) there are features of humans that makes it the case that our being governed by a classical liberal state leads to people producing what people need to live good lives, that feature of us (call this claim 2) is also a key component in what it is about us such that we merit mainly a negative conception of our moral rights (freedom from interference with our person and our property).

    I want to focus only on just that above part for now. I want to abstract away from your additional claim that it is hard to imagine the falsity of 1 in the sort of creatures we have shaped our moral opinions about.

    If the story in the first paragraph were true, then I am thinking, Jason’s question would be blunted in a sense. If we are wrong about economics, that is, if claim 1 is false, then claim 2 is false, but that is not because there are really consequentialist grounds to 2. So Jason’s question poses, perhaps, a false dilemma. It need not be the case that the fall of 1 leading to the fall of 2 shows that it is really utility grounding 2 all along. But it would still be the case that if 1 were false, 2 would be false as well (or at least in need of some new grounding).

    I guess I am wondering if that is how you are thinking of how the first paragraph thesis blunts Jason’s question (or perhaps you don’t think it does, all on its own.)

    Sticking just with the thesis in paragraph 1 still. I am tempted to say that I would think one would need to add some things to it. First, I suspect the argument will look better if we say instead that 1A) being governed by a classical liberal state will BEST produce what people need to live good lives, or, even better, will provide people the best opportunity to live good lives. If 1 were true but 1A were not, then there would be some other form of government which would better bring about what we need to live good lives. And it that were the case it would feel mysterious to me why the features of us that ground 1 but not 1A were the morally salient features of us. But perhaps that is because I am slipping into a quasi-consequential understanding of the rationale for the position in the first paragraph.

    So a question is if it is because 1 (or 1A) is true that negative liberty is morally recommended or is it that, as it were, features of us that make 1 true are features that Aristotelians, for other reasons, focus on. But nonetheless, if 1 were false, those features would necessarily disappear. Simpler, it seems to me, to say that it is because 1 is true, and because it matters that people live good lives, we morally should treat people in the way that will lead to people having opportunities for good lives. That has a consequentialist stink to it, but I wonder if you mind that.

  • Ray

    I would definitely support whatever works best.

    That being said, I don’t think there’s much to be gained from pointless hypotheticals like this.

  • Dave:

    I’m not sure I’m entirely following you, but I think I agree that the idea of the way I am suggesting thinking about things is that if (1) (or 1A) is false, then (2) is also false, but it’s not the case that the truth of (2) makes(1) (or 1A) false. There could be a common cause (or source, or ground) for the truth of both claims, and that would be my view. That common source is a story about our being end-seekers and social, and the way those features of our nature wash through into (i) the productive activities that are produced under market-liberal political and legal institutions, and not under others (or not to anything like the same degree) and (ii) the kind of regard it makes sense for us to accord to each other, in light of the fact that we are beings who are like that (viz. end-seekers, in roughly the way Aristotle characterizes).

    That also means, you’re right, that (1A) is really better as an expression of what I would want to claim. It’s really a comparative claim, and I probably wouldn’t even resist making it out to be a necessary condition on social arrangements that would produce the material conditions of human well-being. (1A) is weaker than that but stronger than (1), which is okay I think, at least in this context.

  • “They are “doing pretty well” in spite of the welfare state’s toll on economic output, not because of it.”

    This statement is flatly contradicted by both 1950’s US economies and most of Western Europe. You may wish to reevaluate your stance. Markets inevitably concentrate wealth into the hands of a random minority. Unless you are committed to approving a situation where a majority of the wealth is concentrated I’m the hands of a minority, then some redistribution scheme is required.

    A libertarian appears to be someone who understands how markets work, but doesn’t know when, where or why markets fail. This leads them to the logically consistent but empirically false conclusion that a market is always the appropriate method for distribution.

  • Pingback: The Evil of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism | Bleeding Heart Libertarians()

  • Damien S.

    This is pretty  much why and how I stopped being libertarian.  Encountering facts about universal health care vs. the US, triggering “you know, Sweden sounds like a nice place to live on all accounts, despite all the ‘socialism'”, leading to “those worries I always had about defense and the environment and providing for the poor are actually fundamental problems, not unsolved problems to be handwaved away in hopes of future solutions.”

  • Pingback: Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists « Politics & Prosperity()