Jason Brennan writes
Social justice is a moral standard by which some people judge political and economic institutions. Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.
And that’s one reason why I don’t think “social justice” is (or, perhaps, “should be”) central to bleeding-heart libertarianism. This has been a source of frustration to me in watching the back-and-forth between my old friend Todd Seavey and my much newer friends here at BHL: the concept of “social justice” is coming to occupy an outsized place in the understanding of BHL, and so arguments about the latter are decaying into arguments about the former.
Here I in part blame the estimable John Tomasi, whose important Free Market Fairness does the same thing. (I’ll be talking more about this at the APSA roundtable on the book.) John is concerned to build libertarian policy on Rawlsian foundations, and to persuade libertarians to embrace “social justice” a la Rawls rather than rejecting it a la Hayek. But the methodological claim– we should understand arguments about the best liberal society as arguments about social justice– sometimes eclipses the substantive arguments as to why a libertarianism inflected with attention to the moral concerns that animate left-liberalism is the most attractive combination.
I have two key objections. The first is, perhaps, idiosyncratic. The second really should not be.
1) “Justice,” says Rawls, “is the first virtue of social institutions.” Montesquieu, for one, disagreed, saying that justice sometimes needed to be moderated and tempered; its rigor and its formality could be too demanding. Now this is a difficult thought for post-Rawlsian political philosophy. More or less whatever anyone thinks is the morally best system all-things-considered gets called the “just” system. We can find arguments in favo of less equality or less liberty or less security, but the idea of an argument in favor of less justice probably strikes my colleagues here as an abuse of language.
But Rawlsian “justice as fairness” is actually a meaningful departure from earlier conceptions of justice, and I think comes at the cost of some conceptual slackness. From being the jurisprudential and legalistic virtue of social institutions, it has been transformed into being the ultimate, all-encompassing virtue. In other words, we can (I think we should) morally evaluate political-economic rules with reference to their effect on the least-advantaged without calling that concern “justice”– and without thereby diminishing the importance of that consideration. Here I think David Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice is the better guide. His understanding of justice is itself pluralistic, but he also says that justice itself sits in a wider pluralistic moral universe, and may sometimes be judged against standards outside itself. The argument he posted here about property rights and utility seems to me in the right spirit– and in a spirit that’s quite difference from the justice-absolutism that tells us we haven’t really cared about something politically until we’ve classified it as justice.
Wearing my political scientist’s hat, I’ll say: we should think about security like this– as a fundamental value of political systems, but one that is at least partly external to justice. It may be impossible for a society to meet its necessary threshold of security without committing injustice, as when it faces a choice between utter military defeat and reliance on conscription, or extrajudicial imprisonment. Insisting that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions” tempts some into incorporating security within justice, so that the demands of military necessity count as demands of justice, and tempts others to deny that there could ever be circumstances when the two values conflict. These both seem to me obstacles to clear thinking. In my view the values of the bleeding-heart– centrally, the attention to need as a criterion with very substantial moral weight of its own– can, and should, conceptually stand (at least partly) outside “justice” in a similar way.
2) The Rawlsian definition of social justice is constructed on the idealized model of a closed society, entered only by birth and exited only by death. The sense in which both Jason and John use “social justice” bears the legacy of that deep moral mistake.
The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.
Like Bryan Caplan and Will Wilkinson (different as those two are!), I think that we who care about freedom should be deeply outraged by the wrongs done by the system of border controls to keep people in poverty. I think this is a central, defining issue for bleeding-heart libertarianism. And the language of social justice renders it invisible, because the poor people being hurt are not already “members” of the “society” whose institution are being evaluated. It doesn’t just say that the harm done to the non-members is less important than the effect on the poorest members; it denies that the former is a consideration at all. When combined with the “justice is the first virtue of social institutions” mindset, that leaves my bleeding-heart libertarian colleagues in the paradoxical position of hiding from view arguably the greatest-magnitude source of state harm to impoverished human beings.
“Social justice” has long sounded to people as if it makes “justice” more social-as-opposed-to-individualistic. But that is always, always just one side of the coin. The social is also more particularistic rather than universalist; the social pertains to a society, and (implicitly or explicitly) “social justice” enhances the importance of the society’s boundedness for justice.
The concern for material need, for the moral importance of poverty and deprivation as such, and for the moral importance of the individual human beings who are poor– and all of this in the immediate term, in a way that cannot simply be answered by appealing to institutions that enhance long-term growth– these unite the bleeding-heart libertarian with the Rawlsian left-liberal. But that doesn’t mean that Rawls was right about everything foundational; and his conceptual apparatus about justice in general and social justice in particular does not meet (my understanding of) our intellectual needs here.