After Matt’s recent on-line interviews where he discussed BHL (for example, here–well worth listening to, as is another on Kosmos), I saw numerous comments circulating about the view. Some of these–comments from libertarians that fail to see why they should be concerned about social justice–took me by surprise. I realize they should not have. After all, many seem to think libertarianism is simply not concerned with social justice at all. Notable libertarians have claimed as much. Unfortunately, in my view.
The point pushed by non-BHL libertarians against BHL, I think, goes something like this: if justice requires everyone getting their due, libertarian justice is the view that what people are due is what they voluntarily acquire and nothing more need be discussed. Of course, what people acquire, they acquire in society so this could be called social justice. But other libertarians seem to think that “social justice” concerns some supposedly fictional category of things society owes to individuals even if those individuals did nothing to acquire them. That category, though, is not fictional–and no one really thinks it is. Libertarians that are not of the BHL variety believe that society owes individuals protection from harm (or aggression), for example. So the only difference can be what is included in the category. I don’t think, though, that BHLs are significantly more likely to suggest that welfare checks or minimum basic incomes or such are in the category. Indeed, I don’t think we differ at all about what is in the category. Perhaps some of us do.
So where do we differ? I would suggest that the difference is far more in the empirical details we recognize then in the theories we espouse. (Confession: I did not believe this before and I am still not sure I fully do.)
Here’s one of my key assumptions: suffering is bad. We all agree about that, I assume.
Now, a society that is set up in such a way that suffering is likely to occur is to that extent a bad society. Now it may well be that no society could avoid all suffering, but surely some are set up in such a way that suffering is more encouraged there then in other societies. Attempts at socialism, for example, seem to create more suffering then attempts at free markets. This much all libertarians are likely to agree to.
Here’s an important empirical assumption: there are no genuinely free markets currently in existence.
To clarify. Its not merely that all markets have legal systems of coercion that allow them to operate. That’s true of course: free markets require prohibitions on theft and fraud and coercive legal structures (whether state run or not) help prevent them. But free markets are markets where the only legitimate use of coercion or force is the prevention of harm or the punishment of those causing harm. Existing markets all go far beyond that, though. In existing markets, the legal systems are state legal systems and they all use coercion in ways that have nothing to do with preventing harm or punishing harm-doers. In particular, they use coercion to benefit some subset of the population. Perhaps socialists want to use coercion to benefit the poor, but real-world capitalists (not theoreticians) use coercion to benefit the rich or socially/politically connected.
To tie this all together: in the real world, coercion is used to benefit the rich or socially/politically connected. The coercion causes some to have their interests set back. In some cases, some are made to suffer–which is bad. It seems to me that BHLs are libertarians who recognize these empirical facts. We see the tremendous suffering and look to see why it exists. We don’t blame libertarianism or free markets, we blame bastardized markets where real world political powers intervene. Other libertarians likely agree with that assessment if they consider it, but seem to think only that we need only to come closer to the ideal of genuine free markets and not to worry about the existing suffering. BHLs go further. How to go further and how much further to go are difficult questions I can’t address here.