Social Justice, Libertarianism

What’s Important vs. What’s Interesting

 Here are some policy areas where classical liberals or libertarians seem to have a lot of common ground with those on the political left:

Immigration – Immigration is a net benefit to the receiving country and a matter of justice to would-be migrants.  We should allow more of it – probably much more.

“Corporate welfare” – Protectionist, promotionist, and mercantilist policies (to borrow Andrew Cohen’s terminology) are inefficient and unjust, and should be abandoned.

Agricultural Policy – Using tax dollars to prop up US or EU agribusiness is harmful to consumers’ health and pocketbooks, and is a gross injustice to poor farmers elsewhere in the world.

Anti-militarism – Many or most of the current uses of American military power are unjust. They are also, secondarily, ineffective in advancing Americans’ genuine interests.

Anti-war-on-drugs – The expansion of police and military power for purposes of preventing the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs is both unjust and disastrous in its consequences.

This list is far from exhaustive.   But notice two things about it.   First, for each of these issues we find a convergence of moral and pragmatic arguments.   Second, these areas of agreement are, on almost any reasonable measure I can imagine, much more important than most of the areas of disagreement that persist between libertarians and those on the left.   Whether our military is off fighting unjust wars or not is much, much more important from the standpoint of both justice and people’s well-being than whether or not we have a minimum wage or a single-payer health care system.

But if that’s the case, then why aren’t we talking more about these issues?   The answer is because while these areas of agreement are important, they are not all that interesting.   In fact, they are not all that interesting precisely because they are important.

Here’s an analogy.  I teach moral philosophy to college students. Over the course of the semester, we talk about different moral theories – Kantian deontology, Aristotelian virtue ethics, Millian utilitarianism, for instance – and what those moral theories have to say about different issues of moral controversy.   In order to demonstrate the ways in which different moral theories diverge, I’ll point out that a utilitarian, for instance, might favor the use of torture in a carefully constructed ticking time bomb scenario, whereas a Kantian deontologist would not.   A Kantian, in contrast, might not be willing to tell a lie in order to save an innocent person from harm, whereas a utilitarian would.

It’s interesting to think about the ways in which moral theories diverge.   Doing so opens up conversations about the underlying structure of moral theories, and invites students to critically reflect on their own moral commitments.

But, from a less academic perspective, these differences really aren’t all that important.  Yes, we construct a hypothetical in which utilitarians will say one thing about torture and Kantians another. But in the real world, where torturers are actual agents of the state with far from perfect information or motives, and where the efficacy of torture at extracting information is questionable at best, the case for torture from any moral perspective looks thin indeed.    On the other hand, that people generally refrain from lying in their interactions with one another is a genuinely important moral issue – but it is one on which all moral theories converge.

Academic and blogospheric discourse gravitate towards hard cases and areas of conflict. Those are interesting.   And because we spend so much time talking about them, we slip into thinking that they are important.  This is a mistake.

To be sure, there’s a time and a place for exploring hard cases.   That’s true for moral theory, and it’s true for political philosophy.   But let us not forget on this blog or elsewhere that this is largely an academic enterprise.   And an academic enterprise with seriously distorting effects on our perspectives.  Perhaps, too, let us try to make time to explore our areas of convergence.   After all, surely we can find something interesting to talk about in issues so important?

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • John V

    I mentioned the drug war in an earlier post:

    ..when discussing the use of the libertarian/utilitarian argument in a way that left liberals would agree on. On this is issue of the drug war and others mentioned in the OP, the libertarian argument on utilitarian grounds seems to work fine for left-liberals. In such cases, the gulf between intent and result is easily accepted and left liberal frowns on the result and is not persuaded by the intent.

    Yet, on economic issues, this gap between intent and result is rationalized in many respects and the same libertarian/utilitarian argument that left liberal will gladly use on the issues in the OP somehow loses its appeal.

    Conservatives tend to be the same way in reverse.


  • Dan Kervick

    Surely it can’t be the case that immigration is always a net benefit to the receiving country, no matter what conditions prevail in that country.

    And I think it is pretty clear that whether or not promotionist or protectionist policies benefit some given country has something to do with where that country stands in its economic development, and also with the kinds of policies its trading partners are disposed to follow.

    Does being against the “war on drugs” entail being against all criminal drug prohibition laws in general?

  • Dan: I don’t mean to dismiss the substance of your questions, which I think are legitimate. But don’t they just perfectly illustrate the main point I was trying to make?
    Doctor: I think disease is bad.
    Doctor’s comment thread: Surely, we can imagine a situation in which disease is not bad?

    Yes, but…

  • M

    Another interesting feature: almost all of the obviously-terrible policies left and libertarian can agree on are probably results of Haidt’s three “conservative” virtues: purity, authority, and loyalty. (The odd policy out is corporate welfare, and I honestly can’t imagine a political economy where it or its equivalent isn’t rife.)

    Politics doesn’t work this way, but it would be interesting to imagine what concessions an avatar of liberaltarian values could offer in exchange to an avatar of conservatism: policies that implement the latter’s values, but in a less harmful way than the wars on drugs/terror/immigrants/brown people in general.* A toothless state church and constitutional monarch? Canings for spitting bubblegum on the sidewalk? Mandatory flag lapels for all citizens?

    *Actually, come to think of it, the racial angle probably has more explanatory value than Haidt’s, which I feel is on rather shaky grounds anyway, theoretically. Oh well.

  • John V


    Excellent answer.

  • pedrovedro

    With regard to these policy areas, here’s something I think is interesting to discuss among progressives and BHLs: why are we losing the public debate on these issues, despite the convergence of moral and pragmatic arguments?

    It’s interesting to note who we’re losing to: nationalist/traditionalist conservatives, and blue-collar union style leftists.

  • Dan Kervick

    Matt, in the case of protectionism I don’t think its a matter of protectionism being almost uniformly bad, with only some rare exceptions. Rather, I think we can find abundant examples on each side: some where a country has benefited itself with some protectionist measure, and some where a country has benefited itself by opening its domestic markets to foreign competition. But I guess you are not convinced by Ha-Joon Chang’s books.

    In the case of immigration, I do think it is the case that almost every country benefits from having some immigration at all times, in some cases a lot of immigration and in other cases only a little immigration. No matter what amount of immigrants they take in, I think it is almost always the case that it is better for that immigration to come in predictable numbers, be guided by thoughtful population targets and subject to the rule of law.

    Drugs? I think some drugs are simply too dangerous for us to allow them to be circulated; others are not so dangerous. I guess I’m willing to be paternalistic in this area.

  • M

    With regard to these policy areas, here’s something I think is interesting to discuss among progressives and BHLs: why are we losing the public debate on these issues, despite the convergence of moral and pragmatic arguments?

    It’s interesting to note who we’re losing to: nationalist/traditionalist conservatives, and blue-collar union style leftists.

    I think this is a perspectival error: if the two sides are “do more” and “do less,” and the lower bound is zero, how would you distinguish “do less” mostly but not totally winning from it mostly losing or even totally losing? Looking at the trend line it certainly doesn’t look like “do less” is losing. If you asked a blue-collar worker or religious conservative whether they’ve been winning or losing (qua those identities) over the last years or decades, they’d say they’ve been getting creamed, and it’s hard to say in what sense they’re wrong.

  • Jacob T. Levy

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

  • Aidan

    I think one thing that all of these issues have in common is how inviting they are to conservative demagoguery. It is generally very easy for conservative to score cheap points against a pro-immigration, pro-decriminalization, anti-militarist opponent without really having to engage the issues at all. For it’s supposed rediscovery of libertarianism, the Republican Party does not seem to have any incentive from its base or from its ideological institutions to rethink its policies on immigration, agriculture, defense, or drugs. I think that the liberal/libertarian arguments on these issues are clearly superior on the merits, but conservatives aren’t interested in the merits, they’re interested in the politics of these issues (not that the Democratic Party has been a real model of courage on most of these issues).

  • Very smart post. The idea of us focusing too much on conflict for its own sake–because it’s fun–is something I’ve thought about much more in terms of criticizing US media institutions; but it’s just as applicable here.

    I tell ya, evolution had its moments but this whole obsession with competition thing we’ve seemed to have inherited can be a real bummer sometimes!

  • benjamin buchthal

    migration – whats a benefit to the country? how can countries (and not people) benefit? surely, some people currently living in one geographical area might lose something if others arrive. is migration always pareto-superior? and what does that even mean? and is that a relevant normative criterion?

    agricultural policy – the forceful taking of some resources to prop up some (usually big!) farms is surely a great disadvantage for all other non-subsidized producers. but the only injustice occurs to those who are forced to pay the tab.
    those whose relative competitiveness have been hurt are in no other situation then as though some people voluntarily donated extra funds to big farms in order to raise their relative competitiveness. if that is efficient or not is another question… that does not appear to be a matter of justice.
    if there are some policies that in addition restrict trade (i.e. quotas/tariffs) then its not only an injustice to foreign producers but to native consumers as well. whats basically happening is nothing else but holding up a gun in order to make sure that mutually beneficial acts of cooperation cannot be completed the way they otherwise would be.

  • Miko

    But in the real world, where torturers are actual agents of the state with far from perfect information or motives, and where the efficacy of torture at extracting information is questionable at best, the case for torture from any moral perspective looks thin indeed

    Before I start: I am categorically against torture in all circumstances. That said, this argument is only valid if you assume that the purpose of torture is to obtain true answers to questions for which you don’t know the answer. But in the real world, this is almost never the goal of torture. Let’s take the recent example of Bradley Manning: some utilitarians (mistakenly) believe that the kind of transparency in government fostered by an organization like wikileaks is bad. They also know that the rule of law prohibits them from arbitrarily harassing the staff of wikileaks, and that the public would turn against them if they violate the rule of law in certain extreme ways. Also, not being idiots, they know that Bradley Manning was clearly not recruited by Julian Assange. But, being sociopaths, they also suspect that if they torture him for a long time, then they might be able to get him to claim that he was, allowing them to persecute Assange while pretending that they are bound by the rule of law.

    So what is the goal of torture? As Orwell suggested, to make people believe that 2+2=5.

  • Incidentally, this is a better explanation of what I was trying to get at in this post:

  • benjamin buchthal

    btw, the OXFAM link has some enormous theoretical DISASTERS right at the outset:

    is EU exporting at prices below costs a problem for developing countries?

    no of course not. they are getting a partially-free lunch which is paid for by european taxpayers (they are the losers). if consumers in developing countries benefit from artificially low prices than how can u seriously claim that markets down there are destroyed?? this is pure bs. markets are destroyed if voluntary exchange is hampered, not if artificially low prices are asked of consumers.

    who is losing? – certain producers in 3rd world countries might have to adapt and start producing other stuff. this is of course not easy and with regulation, hindrances to capital flow and barriers to migration it becomes even more troublesome. but this again is not dependent on EU subsidies.

    EU subsidies has winners and losers in each region: in europe taxpayers/consumers lose while recipients of subsidies gain;
    in the 3rd world producers of the goods which are being subsidized could temporarily lose as they are forced to restructure their methods of production (i.e. turn to other goods). this can always be painful and involve monetary losses. winners, however, are all the consumers which save part of their money due to dumping prices made possible by the EU subisidy. those consumers now have extra funds to spend on other consumers goods which means that their standard of living increases.

  • Great post, Matt, but I do have one major disagreement: the debate about the justice of social insurance programs is quite important. (That’s why I wrote my book, to convince those who support them that they are unjust by their own standards). Granted, not as important as fighting unjust wars, but not a minor issue. Yet another promissory note for a future post.

  • Josh Gross

    Good post in general, but I don’t think it’s true that foreign policy is clearly more important than whether or not we have a single-payer healthcare system.

  • M

    Good post in general, but I don’t think it’s true that foreign policy is clearly more important than whether or not we have a single-payer healthcare system.

    If you’re a cosmopolitan and war is a possibility (and I’d say Schmitt was right: it always is) it is, no question. Americans overconsume healthcare anyway so single payer should really just be seen as a wealth transfer – nice, to be sure, but it’s not war. Even a minuscule budget item like foreign aid “matters” in that a dollar spent on the third world goes far longer than a dollar in the first. And if you count immigration as foreign policy, the answer is clearly yes: the amount of wealth the world forgoes (and hardly in the main to the rich!) due to restrictive immigration policies is mind-boggling.

    The only items I’d list as less important are the corporate welfare ones (including agricultural subsidies.) I’m both blithe and pessimistic about these – special favors are just what legislatures (especially ones with weak parties) do to get bills passed, and ag subs are just rents that smaller and thus disproportionately represented states extract from their larger brethren. Of course I’d say militarism, nativism &c. also reflect the structure of underlying political economy, so.

  • A very good post, especially the point made at the end about how philosophical discourse can cloud discussion of real-world issues. I would refine the wording of the initial examples (e.g. immigration) but the ultimate substance is right.

    There is, however, an undercurrent to the post that important political issues are not “interesting.” Isn’t this a matter of personal taste? To me, important issues are more interesting, precisely because major political questions occupy so many more people’s minds than matters of moral philosophy. What’s so uninteresting about studying that which captivates?

  • Ken S

    I am not against agricultural subsidies in principle, because I think a lot can be said for getting people into other areas of production besides agriculture. The transition to non-agriculture economies can certainly be rough though, and the West should have been watching and helping out with food supply issues overseas.

    I am more skeptical of corporate welfare in general although I’m sure some benefits can be rationalized in specific cases. Does subsidizing Big Oil bring down the price of gasoline? That would help poor people that don’t pay taxes anyways drive their cars (not saying this is a good thing overall), but in the long run it could hurt everyone if alternative energy and transportation sources become less economically attractive.

  • brian

    Thanks for the post, and the blog. You really are doing a service here. Our political parties are not monolithic so the political spectrum is not one dimensional (left vs right).

    The fundamental problem I see in trying to bridge this gap is status, people that belong to a political movement oppose other groups to show loyalty and gain status. For instance, there are quite a few policy agreements between the liberal left and the tea party, cuts to defense spending, agriculture subsidies etc. But try getting either side to even admit the other is not evil/racist/ignornat…

    I really appreciate the practical side to your post, governing requires building coalitions where people agree on policy but disagree on philosophy.

  • Fernando Teson

    Protectionism is bad; agricultural subsidies are especially bad because, in addition to the usual reasons (opportunity costs, etc.) they aggravate world poverty. BTW, many progressives are protectionists (as these comments show) so I’m pessimistic about agreement there, as I wrote earlier.
    Another area where BHL and progressives may agree: support for gay marriage, although I suspect the reasons given by each may be slightly different.
    For what is worth, two areas where I tend to agree with progressives rather than with libertarians: gun control and the death penalty.

  • John V


    I didn’t realize libertarians and progressives had differing views on the Death Penalty.

  • Fernando Teson

    True, take that back.

  • Very interesting post.

    I would say though, I don’t really agree that arguments about the minimum wage or universal healthcare are really more “interesting” than arguments about the war on drugs or immigration. I see what you mean by “interesting” as in genuinely intellectually difficult, but I think that all of these other policies have intellectual difficulties and even to the extent that these intellectual difficulties are “less interesting” to you, it is still very interesting to study and understand the effects of current policy and the political challenges of changing it.

    I suppose the real question I would ask is this. Why do libertarians usually prefer to ally with conservatives over liberals? In an ideal world (from a libertarian perspective) there would be a separate libertarian political party. However, given the way our country is structured (winner take all elections) there really is only room for two political parties, and those parties are dominated by either conservatives (the Republican party) or by liberals (the Democratic party).

    Either way, when a libertarian votes, they have to give something up. If they vote with the conservatives, they are saying that their opposition to universal healthcare and minimum wage is more important to them than their opposition to curtailing the war on drug, curtailing foreign interventions, curtailing corporate welfare, or curtailing certain immigration restrictions.

    Or to put it another more controversial way, if a libertarian is someone who really hates welfare, most libertarians would rather focus on curtailing welfare for the poor than curtailing welfare for corporations. Why is that?

    (As a side note, I think it is also interesting how libertarians tend to be more in tune with public choice theory and issues of regulatory capture than anyone else, yet how they are stuck supporting decisions like Citizens United on liberty grounds that nonetheless make regulatory capture much easier.)

    While libertarians can try to form alliances with either party and influence them, ultimately, libertarians are going to have to give something up when they enter the political process. It is impossible, I repeat, impossible, for liberals to give up on providing universal healthcare. No amount of discussion or alliance building between liberals and libertarians will change the core commitment to this goal on the part of liberals. Likewise, conservatives are not going to change their attitudes on immigration or drug policy or social conservatism.

    Look, a lot of libertarians are swing voters. But the vast majority have decided that the Republican party is the lesser of two evils. Why is that? I think it has a lot to do with worrying more about issues like the minimum wage and preventing universal healthcare than issues like the war on drugs and immigration or foreign intervention. The issue of which party is REALLY the lesser of two evils tends to split libertarians, but as a whole, libertarians have decided to ally with conservatives. Of course, the proportions fluctuate according to the issue of the day. A lot of libertarians voted for Obama in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then those same voters voted Republican in the midterms as part of the backlash against universal healthcare. But should it be surprising that Democrats, whenever the political cycle shifts in their favor, are going to try to implement universal healthcare? Given the position of this issue near the top of the liberal agenda, it should not be. Likewise, that Republicans are likely to try to implement social conservative policies or ratchet up the war on drugs when they get the chance should not be a surprise either.

  • Thanks for the feedback, everyone. Two quick responses:
    1) Of course, there are complications to be raised with respect to each of the issues I mentioned at the beginning of my post. I think those complications are worth exploring, perhaps in another thread. But my point wasn’t to argue for those claims here. Just to note that they’re claims that libertarians and progressives generally agree upon. And that sometimes focusing on the complexities distracts from the significance of the stuff that isn’t complex. Maybe, I think, we need more “one handed philosophers.”
    2) When I say that those issues aren’t interesting, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek. I actually do find them interesting myself. But I think a lot of people (and academics in particular) tend to find issues about which there’s a clear and unambiguous answer uninteresting. I can understand that tendency, but I don’t share it.

  • pedrovedro

    David Welker:

    Here is a post from another blog (not mine!) from a couple of days ago addressing your question:

  • I do not think that it is obvious that the left is against corporate welfare in fact. Efforts to strip out various real-life corporate welfare provisions often draw more support from members of Congress on the right than on the left.

  • Nathan P.

    I’m sorry, but as an immortalist, I can’t rate any of these issues more highly than healthcare. Only the war on drugs is an ‘easy one’ here… because it’s part of healthcare! Ending the war on drugs will improve the quality of healthcare and reduce capital costs involved in the same within the United States. Therefore, it tempts me greatly. But anyone invoking a massive governmental bureaucracy over the health system feels like someone dancing drunkenly over my grave, then breaking my tombstone with a hammer for good measure. Socialized medicine feels like a big fat “SUCK ON IT, DWEEBS” to the longevity movement.

    The obvious issues of agreement are nice but it doesn’t follow at all that they’re necessarily more important than the issues of disagreement.

    • Damien RS

      Funny, I’m an immortalist yet support universal health care with the same intensity.  So that everyone can, you know, actually get health care and thus not die needlessly.  And the US has almost the lowest life expectancy of any developed nation, a result that holds true even if you look only at whites, say.  So consequentialism and evidence would seem to say “support universal health care!”

      Which needn’t involve any massive governmental bureaucracy, especially over medical decisions.  Even with Obamacare, the bureaucracy between you and your doctor is going to be the private insurer, not some new government bureaucracy.

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  • Stephan Kinsella

    Missing: intellectual property. One of the biggest threats to liberty and prosperity on the planet.

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