Social Justice, Libertarianism

The Evil of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism

Some dude name Todd Seavey thinks bleeding heart libertarianism is evil. See here and here. I’ve read those two posts a few times, and my most charitable reconstruction of his argument against BHL goes as follows:

  1. Therefore, BHL is wrong and evil. [From 1-3.]

From his posts, I can see alternative interpretations of his main argument (e.g., some professor at Brown annoyed him, so therefore BHL is evil), but I believe in being charitable. None of the alternative reconstructions of his argument are more plausible than the one posted above.

In Bryan Caplan’s thread on this here, there’s a useful comment from David Friedman:

My complaint about the BHL, as may be obvious from the exchanges now going on, is that they insist that social justice ought to be part of libertarianism but are unwilling to tell us what it means. As far as I can judge by observations of usage, “social justice” means “ideas of justice that appeal to left wingers,” and its practical implication is the rule that, with regard to any issue at all, the first question to ask is how it affects the poor.


Part of me wonders whether this is deliberative obtuseness. Libertarians often adopt an (ineffective)  rhetorical strategy from Hayek: Whenever someone says “social justice”, respond that you don’t know what she is talking about. I think it’s weird for David Friedman to say he doesn’t know what we’re talking about, since we’ve defined the term many times here. Let’s define it again.

Here’s a rather generic definition:

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 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.

What makes neoclassical liberals distinct from hard libertarians?

Neoclassical liberals believe just social institutions must tend to benefit all, especially the most vulnerable members of society. Neoclassical liberals believe that liberal market societies are the best means to realize the goals of social justice. They advocate a high growth free market economy—with minimal barriers to entry, few or no immigration and labor restrictions, and little regulation—in part because they regard this as the way to fight poverty.

But, the hard libertarian objects, doesn’t a commitment to social justice automatically entail a commitment to an extensive welfare state? No, as I explained here.

What does a commitment to social justice actually mean? Well, partly it depends upon what particular theory of social justice you endorse. But Kevin Vallier and I like to illustrate it via counterfactuals. See here (Kevin) and here (me). I’ll quote and slightly modify my own post because it’s shorter.

I have a thought experiment for you.

This is directed at libertarians…

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 go badly. Imagine that they showed 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 (through no fault of their own), 80% would be near subsistence (through no fault of their own), 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 you are a hard libertarian, you respond to this thought experiment by saying, “Well, that’s too bad things turned out that way. But, still, everyone did the right thing by observing property rights, and they should continue to do so.” (If you are bad at understanding thought experiments, you say, “That’s unrealistic.” In response, see here.)

If you have at least some concern for social justice, you respond by saying, “If that happened, that would be strong grounds to change the economic regime. In that kind of society, it’s unreasonable to ask people to observe the basic institutions and rules. They have a legitimate complaint that the rules works as if they were rigged against them. Perhaps we’d need to tweak property rights conventions. Perhaps we’d even need some sort of redistribution, if that’s what it took.”

When you see what social justice is really all about, you realize how it’s a rather low stakes item ideologically. Yes, certain conceptions of social justice are incompatible with a commitment to property rights and economic liberty. (Fortunately, those conceptions are wrong, or so I would argue.) But it’s pretty easy for classical liberals to adopt some conception of social justice. That’s one reason why it’s so damaging to the “ism” when they reject it. They appear to say, “Property rights, no matter what, thought the sky falls.”

Yet once they admit that we shouldn’t respect property rights thought the sky falls, then the question is just to what degree the legitimacy of property rights depends on how well they serve innocent people’s interests.

You might think that BHL is rather statist, especially after reading Tomasi’s book. One commentator on Caplan’s blog said that BHL’ers just have a weak grasp of public choice. (I’m rather confident that doesn’t apply to me.) I’m more or less an anarchist, for what that’s worth.

  • One problem is that the word “social” is tacked onto well-known concepts in order to make them vague.  For example, the “social contract” is like contract except it isn’t written down and the terms can be changed at will by the other side, but not by you.  “Social insurance” is like insurance except with no actuarial validity.

    Given that history, it is really understandable that a term like “social justice” will be met with deep skepticism.

    • It seems to me that the word “social” in general is something that particularly tends to make many libertarians hem and haw skeptically, due to some ideological stuff that attaches connotations of something that rubs up against a sense of individualism to invokations of “society”. And since the discourse of American libertarianism has been colored by *the right*, of course invokations of “social justice” wreak of big-baddie-“leftism” to many libertarians. But this is all just ideologically loaded word-association. Maybe if the libertarian would get past some pet peeves, they can discuss this openly.  

      • Sure, Alex.  But in fairness I did give two examples of where the word “social” is used to take a specific and useful construct (like “contract” and “insurance”) and turn it into something nebulous and unmeasurable.  This is not libertarians having “ideological stuff”. 

        I am glad that people are trying to come up with a concept of social justice that might be measurable.  And taxation to fund a level of basic care (the whole “safety net” concept) does not fill me with miniarchist horror.  My concern about extending this to health care is primarily that, unlike provisions for food and shelter, the demand for health care is close to unfillable.

        In response to the thought experiment suggested above, I view it as way too possible.  I used to believe that technological change would be enough of a random factor to counter wealth concentrations, but that seems less likely to me now.

        I’m not sure I would call some sort of redistribution/safety net “social justice” though, for the reason I stated above.  It seems like a really pragmatic  approach to keeping the society liveable and fun.  

      • Ken S

        I agree with you and the BHL’s have done a good job at distancing themselves from the more peevish of libertarians on this issue. However, there are some other issues that aren’t all that open to discussion that liberals are rather peevish about too.

        It comes down to certain facts about differences in individual ‘worth’ in the current, far from ‘perfect’ but still ‘decent’ market mechanism operating today. If you start grouping these individuals in certain ways you notice patterns that annoy many liberals. A libertarian might ask why you were grouping these people in the first place, and it is a good question to ask but probably not an adequate retort to what many are concerned about. This is where Hayek’s rhetoric can come in (which I learned at this blog so no take-backsies). How we interpret social group differences is a very difficult problem for science. How we fix them is another matter. There are some favored interpretations and canned solutions sold by mainstream liberals, but they are just plain dodgy, unscientific, and probably actually are based on hubris or indoctrination.

        That said, the BHL’s are in no way to blame for the current state of affairs that’s for sure! Nor is it really necessary for them to address the issues I’m talking about right from the get-go. I’m saying all this as a person who was basically a mainstream liberal until this blog started and I decided to hear them out.

    • good_in_theory

      “In order to make them vague” is rather petty and disingenuous.  It is not surprising that ‘the social’ is more ambiguous than, say, ‘the individual.’  That does not mean that people talk about ‘the social’ or ‘social’ things because they want to be vague.

    • I think that’s true. The word “social” is also closely associated with “socialism,” which is what I worry about as a BHL.  Matt states in his Closing Remarks essay:”Libertarians sometimes worry that by allowing concern for the poor to play an important role in their theory of justice they are opening the floodgate that will inevitably let loose the tide of socialism.”

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    “”” Social justice is… (see above for the actual quote) “””

    Thank you! I really had never seen such a definition before.  

    This sort of social justice you define sounds fine to me, at least intuitively and probably after reflection 
    too.  But here is what I need to reflect upon:  if the justice is to be judged by how good the outcome is for (XYZ), then does that not give a green light for whoever is in power to do whatever they can even vaguely argue is in the interest of (XYZ).

    That’s why I feel that (a) there should be a presumption in favour of non-intervention by government, and (b) getting over that presumption means more than just about the ends,  people should also show that the means are acceptable.  For example if you want to force people to buy health insurance, you must argue the law is acceptable not because the government has arbitrary power to regulate anything economic, it is because people demand de-facto insurance anyway when they turn up in hospital.

  • Does your bleeding-heart libertarianism extend to being nice to Todd Seavey?  You say that you believe in being charitable, but it sounds more as if you believe in being catty.

    •  In Jason’s defense, Todd has gone on record claiming that we are evil for advocating a false and destructive philosophy, one that we know it is false and destructive, but that we continue to spread it because we pride ourselves on playing academic games. I’m not sure how nice a response that kind of talk deserves.

      • Brandon T.

        There is a slight irony in Seavey’s cui bono approach.  I sympathize with BHLers on this because it is very difficult to prove that you haven’t deliberately adopted your position in order to maintain and entrench your near-hegemonic power among libertarians.

  • I know.  I’m not saying he’s right.  Even though I am an atheist, I’m advocating Christian charity.

  • Is BHL equivalent to ideal utilitarianism with social justice included as one of the intrinsic goods?

    • Kevin Vallier

      No. Lots of BHLers are deontologists.

  • Right-Wing Hippy

    Libertarianism is about interpersonal justice, which is to say justice.  State socialists can’t make a claim to justice, so they seek to subvert the language.  A recent classic from this oxymoronic stable is “compulsory volunteering”.  It’s just obscurantist political twaddle.  Polluting libertarian theory with terms like social justice is unhelpful*.  If you are worried that interpersonal justice won’t address inequality then fine, but please be honest, don’t try to steal the language, just admit that you are not purist libertarians.  Accordingly, I suggest you change your strapline to “freeish markets with a little statist tinkering”.

    * Evil?

    • That’s really not true at all. 

      The basic dictionary definition of justice is quite simply “the quality of being just,” which is rephrased with similar terms like “righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.” There’s nothing in there about what exactly is supposed to be just, it can be pretty much anything. A just person, a just society, a just government, whatever. As a matter of pure linguistics, interpersonal justice has no real monopoly on the term. And as a matter of history of philosophy, there have been many different models of justice posited throughout history, and long before liberalism arrived on the scene there were quite a few deeply collectivist theories of justice. (Just look at what Plato had to say about justice.)

      • Right-Wing Hippy

        Justice means administration of law.  Law is supposed to apply equally to everyone.  The most consistent law available is the law of non-aggression against person or property. Anything else means making special exception to that law, such as theft is OK for officials whose objective is to give your money to somebody who needs it more; now that’s not law that’s sovereign decree.

        Plato was a totalitarian, I wouldn’t look to him for a theory of justice.

        • good_in_theory

          Justice means administration of law.”

          No it doesn’t.

          “Law is supposed to apply equally to everyone.”

          Says who?

          “The most consistent law available is the law of non-aggression against person or property.”

          There are many much more consistent laws available.  (For example, the law of ‘do what I tell you to do, until I tell you to do otherwise’).

          “Plato was a totalitarian, I wouldn’t look to him for a theory of justice”

          Plato offers one of the first systematic accounts of a theory of justice, beginning by surveying many multiple competing definitions of justice.  I’d look to him for a theory of justice before looking to, well, you.

          • Right-Wing Hippy

            I go back to my original point, the abuse of language, which you seem keen to perpetuate.

          • good_in_theory

            It should be pretty clear to most everyone that the only person abusing language here is you.  Words don’t just mean whatever your pet definition is.

        • * You’re insisting that anything broader than your ultra-narrow definition of justice is flawed. And yet virtually every moral and political thinker in history uses a broader definition. Not just Plato, but Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel, Mill, etc. Indeed, justice is one of the four main virtues of classical and scholastic ethics. That means your ultra-narrow definition does not correspond to reality.

          * You seem to be confusing the definition of justice (a lexicographical issue) with an account of what justice truly consists in (an ethical issue). Even if Plato is disastrously wrong about ethics, his writings are clearly relevant to lexicography. And even if an ultra-narrow account of justice is ethically correct, very little follows about the definition of the term ‘justice’. Just as defining truth doesn’t tell us what is true, defining justice doesn’t tell us what is just.

          * A law based on pure hedonist utilitarianism is every bit as consistent as one based on non-aggression. Consistency comes cheap, and consistent approaches to law are a dime a dozen.

          • Right-Wing Hippy

            Justice follows law follows ethics.  The term justice means administration of law for that reason, remove that middle step and you forfeit the claim to justice.  Consistent approaches to law are not a dime a dozen, Kant (as you mention) wrote reams aimed at his categorical imperative or universal law and couldn’t come to one of any practical use, it’s actually quite difficult to come to a theory of law that isn’t ripe with contradictions.  If you have a proposal for a law based on pure hedonistic utilitarianism then I’d be interested to hear it, since utilitarianism is the elephant in the room here.

          •  * I don’t understand how your argument is supposed to go: why exactly can’t justice be a matter of non-legal personal virtue?

            * Surely you can’t be arguing that virtually everyone who writes on justice is abusing language. After all, language is determined by how everyone uses it. It makes sense to disagree with everyone else’s ethical views, but it makes no sense to accuse everyone else of abusing language.

            * I’m not sure why you assume Kant’s ethics has no practical use. But in any case, that issue has nothing to do with the issue of consistency.

            * I have no proposal on behalf of utilitarianism. I’m only saying that it’s consistent. Or can you identify any inconsistency in it?

          • Right-Wing Hippy

            “why exactly can’t justice be a matter of non-legal personal virtue?”
            It can, if you act in a lawful way then you are being just.
            “language is determined by how everyone uses it”
            Right, but when people abuse language they are relying on the generally accepted definition to pull the wool over people’s eyes.  Social justice advocates know what justice means and they are setting up an Orwellian contradiction in people’s minds, the long term effect being a change of meaning or – more to the point – the removal of the original concept from the lexicon altogether.  For instance, liberalism (which used to mean libertarianism) now means socialism; socialists didn’t choose the word liberalism because it meant socialism, they chose it because it didn’t mean socialism.  The danger with BHLs approach is that in the long term we might lose the meaning of justice and libertarianism and struggle to express these concepts – or even to think about them.
            “I’m not sure why you assume Kant’s ethics has no practical use”
            I’m not saying he was wasting his time, but it’s impossible to live by his categorial imperative(s), they are too abstract.
            “I have no proposal on behalf of utilitarianism. I’m only saying that
            it’s consistent. Or can you identify any inconsistency in it?”

            Act for the greater good? That’s a non-starter, I struggle to know what’s for my own good.

          •  * Personal justice might concern purely non-legal matters: e.g., being faithful to your significant other, keeping promises to friends, helping a friend who has helped you before, forgiving someone who deserves to be forgiven. Or are you saying that all this is an abuse of language, a use at odds with the very definition of justice?

            * You have yet to show that social justice advocates are deviating from “what justice means”. Again, language is determined by how people use it. And people have been saying for a very very very long time that there’s something unjust about e.g. nepotism in hiring, some being born into wealth and others into poverty, being ostracized because of your ethnicity. You don’t have to agree that these things are truly unjust, but you can’t say such claims are an abuse of language.

            * Your criticisms of Kantian ethics and utilitarianism, as far as I can tell, do not even attempt to address the issue of consistency.

          • Right-Wing Hippy

            I think justice has to be enforceable, otherwise it falls under the moniker of fairness.
            Social justice advocates generally mean to call theft justice in certain circumstances.  Life isn’t and can’t be fair but it can be just.
            There is no need for me to criticise Kantian ethics or utilitarianism since neither propose a single enforceable law, it is law that has to be consistent and objectively enforceable, not ethics in general.

        • Damien S.

          “Anything else means making special exception to that law, such as theft is OK for officials”

          Or calling into question the justice of the distribution of property, such as whether it was all acquired with complete justice; cf. all the surrounding blog posts about land theories and libertarianism.  In this case “social justice” is concern not just about the justice of outcomes, which you might consider an invalid concept, but the justice of the starting position, which you should recognize as valid.

          • Right-Wing Hippy

             I do. But justice in acquisition is simple justice, no need to appeal to social justice.

      • Bryan Mills

        Please don’t feed the trolls.

        • Right-Wing Hippy


  • Bravo.

    The more disturbing way to read Seavey’s take is that we should ignore social justice … simply it isn’t “libertarian.” Are we so enslaved to our schools of thought that we should forget the whole point of economic systems is that we should avoid letting people starve, go homeless, go without medical care, etc.?

    •  “the whole point of economic systems is that we should avoid letting people starve, go homeless, go without medical care, etc.?”

      Where are you getting this information from? 

      • Wow — really? This is debatable? OK then, tell me — what’s the goal of your economic system? Don’t libertarians usually argue that *everyone* ends up better off under a system in which people are free to pursue their goals? Or does the rising tide only lift a handful of boats?

        • good_in_theory

          I’d wager that a certain variety of libertarian would say that the economic system has no goal (or point). 

          This would follow from something like, ‘only individuals engage in intentional behavior, and the net effects of the sum of individual actions are not reflective of the intention of any one individual, ergo the sum of individual economic actions is not intentional, and as such has no point and no goal, though it may certainly have all sorts of effects’

    • TracyW

      Why do we think that economic systems should have a point? Economic systems are formed by the interactions of numerous people, each with their own separate goals. It’s like asking what’s “the whole point of the English language”? 

      People have tried to run economic systems dedicated towards a single point, but typically other people disagree with them.  For example, Britain during WWII still had black markets, despite the society and the war having a significant degree of legitimacy. Was the point of the British economy to maximise the chances of winning WWII subject to a minimum living standard for the population? Or was it to get Mrs Brown a couple of eggs above her ration, and the egg farmer an extra woolly jersey above his? Surely the economy was serving, to some extent, all three interests, and a myriad of others beside. 

      • Good question. But aren’t libertarians frequently arguing that a particular economic system (free-market capitalism, regulated lightly if at all) is *superior* to other economic systems? And if so, what are the criteria for that judgment?

        • TracyW

          I think I misinterpreted your question. I think, if I now understand you right (I hope so!), you were saying something I’d phrase as:

          Shouldn’t we choose economic systems that avoid letting people starve, go homeless, go without medical care, etc.? Am I right? 

          • I would think so. Granted, the “Mill” in my user name probably indicates my philosophical underpinnings.

            But I’m also curious — if we’re not judging the merits of economic systems by how well they treat everyone within them, then what criteria ARE we using?I’ve always understood — and occasionally agreed with — the notion that libertarian-friendly capitalist systems are best for everyone involved. The profit motive provides incentive for making better products, the prospect of wealth encourages people to work hard and get educated, and those incentives provide a better world for all. It’s a principle that libertarians can sell to anyone — “liberals” (whatever that means these days), utilitarians, etc. 
            Then Seavey comes along with a “(bleep) the poor” attitude. If there’s a moral justification for such an approach, I’d like to hear it. Maybe.

          • TracyW

            As we’re people, probably lots of different criteria, many of them conflicting. Sometimes conflicting criteria within the same person.
            For example, one of the basic institutions of our society is that people can freely make their own trade-offs between earning money and leisure – people are free to retire, to stay home to look after the kids, to cut back their hours, to chose to earn $30,000 a year as an artist rather than $200,000 as an accountant, etc, if they can figure out how to fund it.  (of course, some people for physical or mental health reasons do have to quit work, I’m talking merely about people who chose to). I don’t see how this basic institution benefits the poorest and least disadvantaged, nor do I see how it helps in eliminating poverty, homelessness, going without medical care.    But it’s common, even amongst those who aren’t rabid libertarians, to take these personal decisions in their stride, and many people even advocate some of them.   I myself find the idea of having the right to choose my work, or not to work, deeply attractive. 

            (Note, I’m not going to defend this on some basic principle from the bottom up, I’ve never come across a moral theory that I’m willing to adopt fully in all situations, they all seem to lead to some unpalatable conclusions, such as “it’s fine to kill healthy people to give their organs to save the lives of 8 sick people”, or “it’d be wrong to take a single saliva sample from a person against their will to cure cancer”.) 

  • Jeff R

    For the record, I said, BHLers evinced a lack of respect for public choice, not that you had a weak grasp of it. 😉

  • There seems to be some bad spelling here that is confusing me greatly: “respect property rights thought the sky falls” x2   (???)

    “the question is just to what degree the legitimacy of property rights
    depends on how well they serve innocent people’s interests.”

    I would be interested in hearing an expansion on this.  Is the author saying that property rights should be accordingly eroded in direct correlation with the number of people in need of help from society?

    How is this at all compatible with individual liberty?

    The author also seems to have a very dim view of humanity as he sees a world where 10% control most of the resources and would let the bottom 10% starve out from under them.  I take a more glass-half-full approach that people gain immense value from being benevolent with their wealth.  Extreme pessimism about human beings seems to be a universal value of the left. 

    • Damien S.

       “people gain immense value from being benevolent with their wealth”

      I’d love to see how you reconcile this with most of history.

      •  History has not exactly been a font of liberty and freedom,  individuals living in some close approximation to a free society would be a better starting point than the entirety of human history

  • Cal

    While I agree calling BHL ‘evil’ etc. is silly and ineffective (I would consider myself one), this:

     Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on 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.

    is self-contradictory (as well as rather vague) as a definition. Do ‘advocates of social justice believe that the moral justification of our institutions depends on [how] well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged‘ or do they believe that the ‘institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including‘ the poorest. These are not the same ideas and that’s precisely the question David Friedman has been asking at unbound ( ). This question is fundamental to your position and deserves an answer. Come on.

  • “Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our
    institutions depends on well these institutions serve the interests of
    the poor and least advantaged.”

    1. I don’t think that is consistent with the content of the BHL posts I have been responding to. Thus Z&T, responding to my attempt to get them to say whether their position corresponded to Utilitarianism (the poor count, but just as everyone else does) or Rawlsianism (“the interests of the least well-off have a very strong moral priority over the interests of everyone else”–their phrasing of it),wrote:

    “This is a fine and important distinction for philosophers to make. But … .”

    And never answered the question.

    2. If that’s really the definition, does it mean that if we have two alternative sets of institutions the one that better serves the interests of the poor is more morally justified–however else they differ? That gets you back to the Rawlsian position taken more literally than Rawlsians like to take it–to claiming that a society with one person getting 100 utiles and everyone else getting 101 is superior to one where one person gets 99 and everyone else gets 1000. Is that a position you are willing to defend? If not, perhaps you can provide a clearer explanation of what you mean by “social justice.” What does it mean for “the moral justification of our institutions” to depend on something?

    • Kevin Vallier

      Re(2): Can’t we just assign the least well-off a higher weight via some kind of weighted expected utility theory? We don’t have to go to the Rawlsian maximin-wall to give the alleviation of awful outcomes (serious poverty) greater weight in our distributive calculus.

      I tried to describe a more or less coherent response to your concerns here:

      • This sounds reasonable to me.

        I agree with this line:
        “Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on well these institutions serve the interests of  the poor and least advantaged.”
        and don’t see why David thinks it is inconsistent with what I’ve been saying. In fact, in our first essay at Cato, we said:
        “the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system.”

        We then went on to point out that the point of our project isn’t to give a normative defense of a particular conception of social justice. John Tomasi has done that in his book. I don’t have a fully fleshed out theory myself, but my view such as it is is something like a hybrid of prioritarianism and sufficientarianism: The welfare of people who fall below a certain threshold have a certain but not absolute priority in considerations of distributive justice. (The worst-off people in a society where everyone is above the threshold of sufficiency, by contrast, would have no such claim).

        So I when I pointed to the considerable overlap between utilitarian, natural rights, and other positions, I wasn’t trying to dodge the issue. I was trying to make the historical point that is the subject of John and my book: that the classical liberal tradition is largely united in agreeing on the principle that the well-being of the poor is especially important in the justification of liberal institutions. Their reasons for agreeing on that principle might vary, and philosophers can imagine various counterfactual circumstances in which those different justificatory results would yield different normative prescriptions. And that’s fine, and no doubt a worthy enterprise (I don’t mean to belittle it at all). John and my point is just that it’s worth noting that that strand is there, and that it seemed to fade a bit in the twentieth century.


          Could you, Jason or another BHL please answer the question I asked immediately below. Thanks. 

      •  Utilitarianism already gives the alleviation of awful outcomes greater weight. What does “social justice” add to that, if anything?

        And if that’s all that it means, then “the moral justification of our
        institutions depends on well these institutions serve the interests of
        the poor and least advantaged” is consistent with “the moral justification of our
        institutions depends on well these institutions serve the interests of
        the rich and best advantaged.” Everyone, after all, goes into the utility calculus.

      • (Second reply)
        Having followed your link, I don’t find a satisfactory response. You write:

        “Liberty Principle:
        Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equally extensive basic civic, religious, political and economic rights and liberties.”

        What makes a scheme “fully adequate?” Given that what people regard as rights differs among people, how in principle do we decide whether your claimed right trumps mine?

        In your text, you try to fill that out with:

        “The basic idea is that each person can claim against her fellows the moral authority to act in accord with her conception of the good and her sense of justice up to the point where this claim infringes on the similar rights of others.”

        Some people’s conception of the good and sense of justice will necessarily conflict with others’, hence essentially every such claim infringes on the similar rights of others.

        “Social Justice Principle: Social and economic distributions should maximize the cooperative surplus and provide all with fair opportunities and a threshold of primary goods below which no one can accidentally and reliably fall.”

        I don’t think the concept of “primary goods” is a useful or meaningful one–and you don’t say what the threshold is. Further, you specify three requirements which are not in general consistent with each other. Are they in lexicographic order, so that you can only maximize the surplus (whatever that means–measured in utility? dollars?) provided that you give all fair opportunities etc.? If not, how are they weighted?

        Consider the situation where someone falls below your threshold because of characteristics, such as birth defects or disease, that can be dealt with, but only at a cost of billions of dollars a year. Do we judge a society better if it does or does not do so?

        I’m sorry, but this still strikes me as rhetorical fluff. I have a reasonably clear idea of what act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism mean, despite some fuzziness at the edges. I have some idea of what natural rights libertarianism means, despite lots of fuzziness at the edges. I cannot tell from what you write how, in principle, you would resolve any conflicts among what different people want, consider just, or believe they have a right to.


    BHLs/Classical Liberals/Neoclassical liberals (I think these terms are more or less interchangable) believe that government should perform certain functions (typically, national defense, law formulation/enforcement, and, if required, promoting social justice). What logic or moral considerations differentiate the functions that are legitimate for the state to perform vs. those things that are morally objectionable. If the answer is, “when the state can do it better than leaving it to voluntary action by private citizens,” does this commit you to consequentialism as a political/moral theory? Thanks.

    •  That’s a bit of a big question for the comments thread of a blog post, isn’t it? The answer certainly isn’t “when the state can do it better than private citizens,” and it’s also not a merely consquentialist approach. Most of the BHLs here believe in moral rights, even if we don’t believe those rights are as absolute as Nozickian side constraints seem to be. So state action that produces benefits only at the cost of violating rights will generally be impermissible.

      But like I said, a full response takes a bit more time and space to elaborate than I have available to me here. Gaus gives one broadly BHL-ish account in his Order of Public Reason. Tomasi gives another in his Free Market Fairness. Have you read those?


        For the reasons I outlined in two of Kevin’s earlier posts on public reason, I find this approach to morality entirely unconvincing. So, if BHL relies on this moral perspective, it will not appeal to me. But, hey, that’s just one guy’s opinion.

        • While I would certainly be pleased to hear you announce your conversion, I certainly wasn’t trying to talk you into it. Just trying to answer your question as best as I could within the confines of the medium. But again, I’d recommend looking at the books rather than just the blog for a fuller defense of the theory. As good as Kevin’s discussions of Gaus have been, they of course don’t do nearly as thorough a job at anticipating and responding to the sorts of concerns you raise as does Gaus’ massive tome.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, I read Gaus’s exchange with Richard Arneson and Eric Mack at “Cato Unbound” a little while ago, and didn’t find his responses there especially convincing, but maybe the tome itself will do it for me.

          • Fteson

            I think, for what is worth, that Arneson and Mack demolish Gaus on  this point.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks. I’m glad I’m not the only one with that impression.

  • Damien S.

    Of course, we can generalize the basic question.  Libertarians generally believe that libertarianism will lead to greater economic growth and total weath.  For a while I believed that even after turning modern liberal, figuring as many do that helping the worst off is worth reducing growth a bit.  But what if it were shown undeniably that libertarianism was significantly inferior even here, due to real externalities and other market failures?   How many libertarians would stay the course?  IIRC Milton Friedman claimed in _Capitalism and Freedom_ that it was a happy coincidence that freedom maximized wealth, and he would support free capitalism even if it didn’t — but of course, that’s an easy declaration to make when you don’t have to follow through on it.

    It’s a pretty common double-counting trick.  “I follow principle, and am not a conequentialist, but happily my principles yield the best consequences anyway.”  “No, mine do!  Not that I’m a consequentialist either.”

  • Majors Bruce

    Actually in any society, including a social democratic welfare state supported by foreign donations or remittances or rents from some fortunate occupation of a natural resource (like petro dollar statism) will always fail to protect, nurture or subsidize some percentage of the most disadvantaged.

    To make sure every illness is caught in time for treatment, every child receives adequate prenatal care and nourishment, every person is saved from suicide after a loss of love or income, etc., you would have to erect a totalitarian surveillance state and micro-managed central planning.

    What you mean is you would like a level of coddling for the less successful such that your sensibilities or those of your social democratic friends are not discomfited.

    Who gives a fuck about you or your sensibilities? I’d rather shoot you when you try to institute statism myself.

  • Glen Whitman

    I agree that David Friedman’s challenge isn’t getting the attention it deserves.  Most of the BHL’s have been dodging the difference between “the poor deserve special consideration or extra weight” and “the poor count, but only as much as everyone else.”  

    Kevin Vallier is the only BHL I’ve seen give a direct response to Friedman’s challenge.  Vallier offers the following:  “Then the least advantaged only have a claim on the cooperative surplus
    if it is required to ensure that their lives meet a decent threshold.
    Otherwise goods should be distributed in accord with the Liberty
    Principle. For this reason, I think the neo-Rawlsian principle of social
    justice is *sufficientarian*.”

    In other words, in Vallier’s version of BHL, everyone should achieve some basic minimum level of well-being.  I see some potential problems with this, but at least it’s a direct answer to DF’s question.  Are the other BHL’s are willing to sign onto this position?

    (The biggest potential problem I see is that it runs into a version of DF’s second challenge.  Between two societies, the first of which has everyone achieving the specified minimum level of well-being, and the second of which has one person falling slightly below the minimum but with everyone else much better off than in the first society, Vallier’s position would seem to say we have to take the former.)

    • “Most of the BHL’s have been dodging the difference between “the poor deserve special consideration or extra weight” and “the poor count, but only as much as everyone else.””

      To be honest, I think this is mostly just silly nitpicking. We can very well bridge the difference by saying “the poor count as much as everyone else – and deserve special consideration to the extent that they obviously are not being counted as much as everyone else”. There’s a leveling involved already in the notion of everyone counting as much as everyone else – the moment we approach a world with vast, entrenched inequalities of power. And since the poor are often in positions in which they obviously do not have the same oppurtunities as others, there is a special consideration for them relative to the basic egalitarianism of everyone counting.

      • Glen Whitman

         Just because the two principles may lead to *some* of the same (left-leaning) conclusions doesn’t make them identical.  The “special consideration for the poor” position, especially in its Rawlsian difference principle variety, ends up justifying substantially greater interventions.  Maybe this is nitpicking to you, but I think there a lot of people to whom the distinction matters.  Or is the purpose to pick a principle, any principle, that justifies libertarians moving leftward?


    You (and other BHLs) endorse this notion of social justice: “the moral justification of our institutions depends on 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.” As stated, this proposiition is intuitively atttractive and thus plausible. However, I believe this is so because no attempt is made to define “interests” or “benefit,” and thus everyone reads into this concept what appeals to them. 

    Imagine that a policymaker has a choice between two worlds. In the first the “least advantaged” group is in really bad shape from the material point of view. But, all their rights, including economic ones, are respected, and they enjoy true equality of opportunity with all other members of this society. The policymaker can realistically expect that over time, even if it takes a few generations, the lot of the worst off group will greatly improve so as to satisfy whatever social justice concerns you have.

    In world #2, the worst off group enjoys a substantially better standard of living than in world #1, but none of their rights, including economic ones, are honored, and they are denied equal opportunity with the elite members of this community. It is possible that over time their material condition will not only stagnate, but deteriorate. Which is the more just (or socially just) world?

    If it is not obvious by now, I think that the idea of “social justice” is pretty vacuous without an underlying and logically anterior moral theory against which the justice of any community can be evaluated. So, along with any calls for “social justice” that the BHLs might make, I think it is incumbent upon them to specify the moral theory they are proposing.  What do you say?

  • shemsky

    Jason, your thought experiment reminds me so much of the kinds of tricks played by religious fundamentalists to try to fool or scare people into submission. It’s just absurd. Hopefully no one takes you seriously on this. My reply to your experiment would be to say that if you want to restrict someone’s freedom, then the burden of proof is entirely on you to show that one person’s freedom would cause another person harm.

  • TracyW

    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 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.

    Does this make sense? Starting point, which I believe is pretty uncontroversial, the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society are people who are poor and deeply mentally disabled (eg paranoid schizophrenics who wrongly believe that everyone is out to get them, people for whom every mild frustration produces overwhelming rage, etc). Indeed, I don’t know if it’s better to be poor and reasonably mentally competent or rich and mentally incompetent, but poor and badly mentally incompetent is definitely a bad deal.

    Now someone deeply mentally incompetent can’t enter into an institution like marriage, and they can’t benefit directly from things like a stable money supply. Does that mean that institutions like marriage, or an independent central bank, or dating websites are not morally justified, no matter how many benefits they may bring to the rest of society? Or are they justified on the basis that the least advantaged and most vulnerable benefit from an overall improvement in society making those able to take care of them better off even if they can’t benefit from these institutions directly? And if it’s the latter, then how does “social justice” differ from a utilitarian “what’s good for the most people in society” rule? 

  • Todd Seavey

    Rather than weighing in on the important philosophical issues raised, I really do just want to pop back in to note as an aside — not out of anger but just as a public service — that Jason Brennan is a complete asshole (indeed, without even knowing him, I’m going to guess he’s one of those guys who introduces himself by saying things like, “Heh, I guess I have a reputation for being, y’know, kind of an asshole or whatever, heh”).  

    Now, that may _at first_ seem irrelevant to the important academic endeavor going on here — but that’s the thing.  I hadn’t realized the guy is a PhD in philosophy(?!?).  And yet he “charitably” reconstructs an argument in which I’ve essentially been engaged — and winning — for years as either a complete non-argument or as a reaction to one hypothetical bad Brown professor.  Think about this, other academics: WHAT DO HIS STUDENTS, if any, THINK READING THAT, if _they_, unlike Jason, know who I am, or at least recognize that I have arguments?  How “charitably” would they expect this guy to interpret _their_ arguments (the interpretation of arguments being what philosophy professors do, after all)?  I, for one — and let me put this as “charitably” as Jason might — would not want this stupid piece of shit (or SPoS) grading my paper.  Would you?  _Would anyone?_If Jason were a journalism professor, the world might be worse off — since he’d be far more relevant — but at least then he might have felt compelled to mention by way of disclosure that he is himself a former (assistant) professor at Brown and thus perhaps a bit biased in favor of _hypothetical bad Brown professors_.  I don’t anticipate, no matter how long the BHL argument drags on, having to worry that he’ll say anything worth rebutting, so it’s mutual, pal.  The others I’ll happily talk to.

    In DC on May 8, in fact, if anyone else is in town and wants to have lunch.  As long as I can get to the National Press Club by 4 and Brennan’s not there, we’re golden.

    • As a _journalist_, I’m kind of wondering why _you_ don’t have a slightly _thicker_ skin than this, particularly given the _snide_ tone of _your_ original _posts_, and whether _you_ _will_ be in for a _rude shock_ when you go to the  National _Press_ Club. 

      … _ _ _ …

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  • Philo

    Let me add, to Tracy W’s points, the observation that most of the least
    advantaged *Americans* have *more* advantages than a great many
    non-Americans.  The “social justice”
    thinkers must want American institutions to be judged on how well they serve the
    *mostly foreign* disadvantaged.

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  • Stephen Hicks

    My thoughts here: “Bleeding-heart libertarianism?” 

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  • rrelph

    From the “definition” of social justice:

    The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.

    This doesn’t feel like a definition at all… It permits anyone to say any institution or set of institutions fail the sufficiency test because it doesn’t define sufficiency… I have no problem voluntarily donating to the level of my definition of sufficiency. I have a very great problem being forced to donate to Bernie Sander’s definition. I have no problem with Bernie attempting to persuade me I should be more generous. I have very great problem with Bernie using force.

    Social institutions are *not* government institutions, just as society is not defined by government. So while I am very VERY sympathetic to the idea that society should take care of the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society, I really want BHL to define the limits of that proposition… until then, the stakes appear to me to be quite high, based on the available evidence of the American Experiment.

    All the philosophy is wonderful… but it’s too abstract. At the end of the conversation, a bill will be presented. That will diminish me and enrich someone else (assuming the incentives do not tilt so far that even someone with my work ethic doesn’t switch sides.) With government as an intermediary, the provider has no incentive to be more generous because they do not see the value to the recipient. Similarly, the recipient has no incentive to be less demanding because they do not see the cost to the provider.

    Another problem with the definition is the lack of a time frame… Must the institutions of society benefit “instantly”, “soon”, or “eventually”? If a ‘benefit’ provided is squandered by a recipient, must it be replaced repeatedly? Without these parameters, and with the vagueness of “sufficiently”, many people can justify expending all of the assets available to society “today”, even including the “full faith and credit” of future generations as yet unborn (especially those with no kids).

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