Social Justice, Libertarianism

The Conversation at Cato Unbound

My final contribution to the conversation at Cato Unbound is now up.

Here, from the Cato Unbound site, is the complete index of the discussion. Peruse at your leisure!

Lead Essay

  • A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi
    Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi propose to refocus the libertarian movement. Although they agree that individual property rights are important, they propose to return libertarianism to its nineteenth-century intellectual roots. They argue that the classical liberals valued property rights for different reasons, perhaps, than we in the movement value them now: Property rights were intended to protect the least well-off workers in society. A “neoclassical liberal” would not advocate a welfare state, but would certainly value social justice; his means of attaining it would be through the institutions of property and contract.

Response Essays

  • In Praise of Bleeding Heart Absolutism by Roderick T. Long
    Roderick T. Long criticizes the sharp distinctions drawn by Zwolinski and Tomasi between nineteenth-century classical liberals and the “Unholy Trinity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. He suggests many areas in which the earlier thinkers were not as Zwolinski and Tomasi characterize them, as well as several where Mises, Rand, and Rothbard don’t conform either. Long stresses the importance of class analysis in the thought of nineteenth-century classical liberals and points to its resurrection as a key aspect of Rothbard’s thought in particular. This, he suggests, points the way toward a “bleeding-heart absolutism” – an ideology critical of every form of state power, yet also prioritizing the moral claims of the poorest in society.
  • Natural Rights + ? by David D. Friedman
    David Friedman argues that the pre-twentieth century classical liberals were motivated not by a concern for the poor per se, but by utilitarian reasoning. The “working poor” were a large majority of society in their time, and authors like Adam Smith must be read in their historical context. Doing so reveals Smith to be a progenitor of Jeremy Bentham, not John Rawls. Utilitarianism brings problems of its own, of course, but it should not be confused with social justice.
  • Let’s Reject the Purity Test by Alexander McCobin
    Alexander McCobin argues that libertarians often engage in unproductive debates about who or what is “more” libertarian. One thing lost in these debates is that, across the wide sweep of intellectual history, significant libertarian figures have usually felt free to draw from a wide array of justifications and policy approaches. Each was a product of a particular historical era, and there is no reason to find fault with any of them simply on that account. To advance liberty, we should think and write about libertarian principles in terms that unbiased observers will find persuasive today.

The Conversation

  • good_in_theory

    Just glancing over the “Property Absolutism and Social Justice” piece, this strikes me as prima facie false, but perhaps it’s qualified in the book:

    “Most important, until very recently, all theories of social justice were developed from the assumption that little or no moral weight should be assigned to the economic rights and liberties of capitalism”

    A book from 1915, titled “Essays in Social Justice”: 

    “Moreover we can have this equality without attacking the competitive system, the institution of private capital, of freedom of contract, of freedom of initiative and enterprise, or any of the social institutions have helped us thus far in our progress”

    “We shall also find that equality is quite consistent with the private ownership of capital, with the competitive system, with freedom of initiative, freedom of enterprise, etc ”

    Another mid 1910s tract called “Social Justice without Socialism,” might also have something to say on this point.

    And the implicit assumption here seems just as false:

    “Their pluralism did not by any means commit them to social justice, since many of them were writing before that concept even existed (we are in no way claiming that pre-twentieth century libertarians were really crypto-proto-Rawlsians)”

    The concept “social justice” was allegedly coined by an Italian catholic in the middle of the 19th century, and probably developed as a concept in relation to “the social question,” also a creature of the mid 19th century.  Concern for “die Sozialefrage” might be something 19th century thinkers would know about.  Mill talks about social justice, the goodness or badness of social arrangements, and social questions at least as early as the 1840s.


  • berserkrl

    complete index of the discussion

    Not quite complete; there’s one more piece coming from me, and possibly more from Friedman and McCobin.

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