One of the themes in my recent conversation at Cato Unbound with David Friedman was whether utilitarianism or social justice is a better concept for thinking about the moral obligations we have to the poor. I recently continued that conversation on this blog with a short critique of utilitarianism. In that post, I wrote:

Some [advocates of utilitarianism] … are generally sympathetic to the idea of bleeding heart libertarianism, but think that utilitarianism does a better job explaining and defending its attractive qualities than do appeals to “social justice.” Actually, even though he sounds less sympathetic, I think this is basically David Friedman’s position too.

In the comments, David Friedman wrote a thoughtful and interesting response. Rather than allow it and my reaction to be buried in the comments thread, I thought I’d post both here.

First, David’s comment:

Pretty close. I argued against the hard line natural rights position in the second edition of _The Machinery of Freedom_, published in 1989, so perhaps you should say that BHL’s are generally sympathetic to my position?
But I find both halves of the “social justice” terminology unconvincing, and not only because it is terminology mostly used by the left. I’m not sure it makes any sense to offer a moral evaluation of the entire structure of a society, which is what I gather some of you mean by the “social” part. A society is, in Hayek’s terminology, a self-generating order, not a deliberate construction, and I think moral evaluations are ultimately about the acts of individuals.
And I don’t think all moral judgements are about justice. It may be a virtuous act for me to feed a hungry man even if he has no morally legitimate claim against me, hence my failing to do so is not unjust.
Further, insofar as you are going to put any content into your idea of social justice, I continue to find the idea of judging a society by how well off the worst off people (or some subset thereof) are unconvincing. It’s a good thing to help badly off people get better off, but it’s also a good thing to help people who are living pretty good lives to live much better lives—I don’t see why one would want to make a distinction of kind between those two, which I think talk about social justice does.
Finally, going back to the historical issue and Adam Smith in particular, I don’t think he was particularly sympathetic to the worst off people—as I pointed out in the Cato Unbound discussion, the poor he was talking about were the bulk of the population, and he explicitly justified his concern for them on that basis.
So far as the people at the very bottom, they show up in an interesting bit of his discussion of taxation. Smith thought tax burden should be proportional to income–that’s the first of his maxims of taxation, although he is willing to bend it a little to accept taxes that don’t fit if they have other desirable characteristics. He also thought that the wage level was largely determined by the cost of necessities, along the lines of what is sometimes called the iron law of wages. He concluded that taxing the necessities of the poor was wrong, not because it burdened them but because it didn’t–such a tax would result in a rise in wages, and so be passed on to the not poor.
His conclusion was that the poor (meaning the working class) should be taxed by taxing their luxuries. That wouldn’t reduce the laboring population and drive up wages, because the bulk of the poor were responsible sorts who would respond by reducing their consumption of luxuries.
What about the irresponsible poor? Things would go badly for them and their kids, but that wasn’t a big problem, because weren’t very useful people anyway:
“If by the strength of their constitution they survive the hardships to which the bad conduct of their parents exposes them, yet the example of that bad conduct commonly corrupts their morals, so that, instead of being useful to society by their industry, they become public nuisances by their vices and disorders. Though the advanced price of the luxuries of the poor, therefore, might increase somewhat the distress of such disorderly families, and thereby diminish somewhat their ability to bring up children, it would not probably diminish much the useful population of the country.”
I don’t think Rawls would approve.

David touches on a number of points worth addressing, so let me take them in turn.

First, I think it’s absolutely true that BHL (or at least this BHL) is generally sympathetic to the position David sets out in The Machinery of Freedom. The appendix to that book was one of the first things I read that started moving me away from the kind of Randian natural rights position that first attracted me to libertarianism. And I heartily agree with and endorse much of what David says in the main body of the book as well. Perhaps it’s easy to overlook with all the intra-libertarian disputes we’ve been having about the importance of social justice, but bleeding heart libertarians are, after all, libertarians. And we find much of the canonical libertarian analysis of social and economic issues pretty convincing.

So what about the standard (Hayekian/Nozickian) critique of social justice? Like David, I take this seriously, and think that it is important to recognize the ways in which social institutions are spontaneous orders, and the way in which this fact undermines certain kinds of moral critique. But, perhaps unlike David, I’m not convinced that this prevents us from making any moral evaluations of social institutions, and specifically not the kinds of evaluations on which arguments about social justice depend. After all, even if certain social institutions are spontaneous in their origin it is still within our power to change them in certain ways, and it’s that possibility (the “can”) that makes moral judgements (“oughts”) possible and relevant. I’ve addressed this issue in somewhat more detail in this blog post.

David says that not all moral judgments are about justice. I agree, and would go further. Not all moral judgments are about justice, and not all judgments about justice are about social justice. Regarding the first of those claims, I think that sometimes it would be virtuous of me to aid another person, but not obligatory. But I do believe that there are other cases in which it would be obligatory, not merely supererogatory. Easy rescue cases of the sort I discussed here, for instance. I’d be curious to hear David’s take on these. Regarding the second claim, if we take social justice to be a claim about distributive justice, then it’s important to remember that even for Rawls distributive justice is not the whole of justice. Forcibly transplanting eyes from the sighted to the blind is impermissible on Rawlsian grounds due to the lexical priority of the first principle of justice over the second. And something like this seems eminently reasonable. Even if we don’t grant basic liberties against involuntary servitude and other forms of physical coercion as in all cases lexically prior to considerations of distributive justice, they are at least  valid considerations of justice that need to be taken into account alongside of considerations of social justice in order to form an all-things-considered judgment of what justice requires.

Finally, I want to turn to David’s comments on Adam Smith. David says that “the poor [Smith] was talking about were the bulk of the population, and he explicitly justified his concern for them on that basis.” To me, this suggests an ambiguity between comparative and non-comparative senses of term “poor.” In a comparative sense, only a minority of the population can be poor – roughly 50% will be richer than average, and 50% poorer than average. In a noncomparative sense of the term, however, it’s possible that everyone will be poor, and it’s possible that no one will be poor. Prioritarian moral theories tend to focus on “the poor” in the comparative sense, while sufficientarian theories focus on the noncomparatively poor. My own view, at least as far as I’ve worked it out, 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).

Now, David’s discussion of Smith might suggest that he was concerned not with “the poor” at all, but whatever affected the bulk of the population. Or it might suggest that he was concerned with the poor in a noncomparative sense. On that latter interpretation, Smith was troubled by the fact that policies hurt the poor, and this was aggravated by the fact that the poor constituted the bulk of the population. Both of these interpretations seem reasonable extrapolations form the quote David provided, and I don’t know that anything Smith says elsewhere in his corpus will help to decide between them.

As for Smith’s harsh-sounding comments, I think we have to be a little careful here. Even BHLs like me who think that the needs of the poor have a special moral claim on us as a society still face a big problem about what to do about that segment of the poor that is genuinely lazy, irresponsible, imprudent, etc. Actually, we face two big problems. The first is the old problem of moral hazard. Every time we lower the cost of bad decisions, we make it more likely that people will make those decisions. And this means that even if our goal is to help the poor, it does not follow that we should do everything we can to keep them from suffering right here and right now. Anyone who is a parent is familiar with the tension between helping your child learn the lessons she needs in order to develop into a responsible, independent adult, and protecting her from unnecessary pain. This is something we need to keep in mind if classical liberals like Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer sometimes sound uncaring.

The second and deeper problem is reconciling our belief in an obligation to the poor with a belief in personal responsibility. I, for one, do not think the mere fact that one is poor is sufficient to give one a claim against others. If the reason one is poor is that one has freely made bad choices, or freely taken reasonable gambles that didn’t pay off, then one’s claim on others for relief is at least greatly diminished if not eliminated entirely. Personal responsibility and individual choice matters. This is a crucial insight of much conservative/libertarian thought, and not one that BHLs should abandon. Indeed, this is an issue on which conservative/libertarian theorists are winning. John Rawls in Theory of Justice wrote in a way that seemed notoriously dismissive of personal responsibility, claiming that the a social structure that generates inequalities cannot be based on moral claims about personal desert, since after all our characters are largely the product of genetic and environmental circumstances over which we have no control. But later egalitarian theorists have not followed Rawls in this respect, and for good reason. On this issue, BHLs would do better to ditch Rawls and follow instead theorists like Richard Arneson, who take seriously the value of personal responsibility and the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor to which it gives rise.

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  • good_in_theory

    How can judgments about the deserving and undeserving poor not be essentially paternalistic?  The conservative moralism of this sort of rhetoric disturbs me, in a way that it seems as if it should disturb BHLs.  IIRC, it has disturbed some BHLs on this site (Jessica Flanagan specifically, I believe).

    The social darwinism/social hygiene and moral perfectionism implicit in these sorts of moral hazard concerns are odious.  But insofar as this is where libertarianism is in cahoots with social conservatism, that makes sense, I guess.

    •  I’m not so sure. In general, if we refuse to give reward R to person X because X hasn’t done what it takes to deserve it, this isn’t paternalistic. I don’t see why it’s necessarily different if we’re talking about the deserving and undeserving poor. Paternalism seems to necessarily involve restricting a person or withholding something from them for their own good. If one’s rationale for withholding assistance is that the person hasn’t done what it takes to deserve it, that might be objectionable in some way. But not because it’s paternalistic.

      If, however, one withholds assistance from a person not because they are intrinsically undeserving but because you believe the assistance will do more harm than good to them, then yes I suppose that is paternalistic. But it’s not clear to me that that is a decisive reason to reject the policy. If government is going to be in the business of helping people, then shouldn’t it also be in the business of trying to ensure that its help is effective rather than destructive? We expect – demand! – that parents be paternalistic toward their children. If someone is made a “ward of the state,” should not the state act paternalisticaly toward them, for similar reasons?

      And don’t even get me started on social darwinism.

  • ” It’s a good thing to help badly off people get better off, but it’s also a good thing to help people who are living pretty good lives to live much better lives—I don’t see why one would want to make a distinction of kind between those two, which I think talk about social justice does.”

    This strikes me as in need of attention. I DO think that it is more pertinent to help the worse off get better off than the better off get even better off. This, because of something like a point of diminishing returns; roughly, I think there is a big difference between helping those who are at risk of starving or becoming homeless gain food or housing and helping those who have modest food and shelter gain more food or larger shelter. In the former case, NOT helping has more serious consequences than in the latter cases, and the difference between, say, starving and not starving is weightier than the difference between having enough food for survival and having enough food to be comfortably full. 

    In plain language, I suppose dI see a distinction between the two cases because the worst off will experience worse consequences as a result of our refusal to help than will those who are “living pretty good lives” already. 

  • “…for them and their kids…”

    I think that’s the crux of the issue.  If you consider children the property of their parents then who gives a crap how many of them starve, how many of them never get an education, how many of them are born into slavery because their parents were slaves, etc?

    If you’re a libertarian, however, that boat won’t float: a child is not the property of anyone else.  And consequently, contrary to some of the Victorian (and conservative, and hard-Libertarian) philosophies, the potential starvation or death by (otherwise affordably treatable) illness of a child is not a “goad” to the parents efforts and a whip should they not succeed.  The starvation of a poor persons child instead is the death of a citizen no less and no more significant than any other citizen.

    It gets even more real if the child does not starve or die of illness but only grows up undernourished, injured, uneducated, and otherwise incapable of full participation in public life (I won’t say “social” because I know some libertarians refuse to believe such a thing as society is possible because there are only collections of individuals and thus there can be no such thing as groups.) 

    And if through public negligence a child who might otherwise have borne the weight of the public becomes instead a burden on the public.  Rinse and repeat.

    Note: the metric of whether someone’s child is “their kid” or not, and
    whether the consequences are the parent’s responsibility, burden, or
    whatever, or not, is what happens to the parent when the child turns
    18.  Or, a little further out, when the parent dies of old age.  At some
    point they stop being the parent’s “wages of sin” and become the wages
    of whoever has to pay in either money, time, property for prisons or
    gallows, or charity.  Usually, incidentally, the somebody is their peers, i.e. our children.

    Anyway, it’s rather jarring to see someone a) claim to be a libertarian and b) claim that citizen groupings are an invalid construct who c) nevertheless can utter a sentence like “for them and their kids.”

    If children weren’t a reservoir of future adults instead of the private property of parents then agitation for social justice wouldn’t be very compelling at all.

    As I’ve said before, I don’t care if people want to call something that walks like a social justice and quacks like social justice “Utilitarianism” because they don’t believe in social justice.  As long as the net results are produced people can call it call it whatever they like.


    • ethel

       There’s also the argument that putting too much effort into figuring out who is deserving versus undeserving is a huge waste of time (hence money) as well as an invasion of privacy. It’s usually simpler and cheaper not to bother.


      Anyway, it’s rather jarring to see someone a) claim to be a libertarian
      and b) claim that citizen groupings are an invalid construct who c)
      nevertheless can utter a sentence like “for them and their kids.”

      I’m not sure who you meant to address here. The offending language comes from David’s comment, but the way I read him he was interpreting Smith, rather than stating his own position.

      At any rate, I don’t think most people, David included, who use the phrase “for them and their kids” mean to imply anything like that children are the property of their parents. My children are my children in the sense that I fathered them and I (along with my wife) bear the primary responsibility for raising them. Calling them mine doesn’t imply that I think I can do whatever I want with them.

      But all that aside, you raise a serious and valid concern. Even if some people don’t deserve our assistance because their misfortune is the result of their own free choices, their children have done nothing to deserve their fate. And so if we were to deny all assistance to the parent, we would in a sense be punishing the child for the sins of his father. And that seems deeply unfair and inhumane.

      So far, I’m entirely on board. This is a serious problem. The hard problem is to figure out what lesson we should draw from this. Is it that the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor should play no role in considerations of social policy? Maybe, but I’d need to see a few extra argumentative steps to convince me of this. Perhaps the answer is complicated. Perhaps we decide as a society that no child should ever, ever starve because his parents are too irresponsible to feed him. Perhaps we accomplish that by providing the parents with food stamps; perhaps we accomplish it by taking children away from parents whose behavior threatens to starve them. Even so, we might tolerate (indeed, I think we must tolerate) children having worse life prospects, and worse childhoods, because their parents have behaved irresponsible. There’s a difference between starving and not getting a very good education, not living in a very nice home, etc.

      I don’t really have any settled answers here. It’s a tough issue.

      •  “…the way I read him he was interpreting Smith, rather than stating his own position.”

        Same.  I wasn’t accusing David, just the attitude.  I was just going off on what’s probably the biggest unstated factor in the BHL vs conservatarian social-justice debate: in any given society up to 50% of the population is neither deserving nor undeserving but nevertheless dependent on the health, wealth, and attitude of people they’re literally assigned to sight unseen.  For between roughly 30% to 15% of their entire lives.  (If things turn out well.  100% of their lives if not!)

        It seems like a pure social-justice play to say every new human deserves an even shot — something even Milton Freedman acknowledged.  But it also seems like from a pure utilitarian perspective it’s possible to make a calculation on behalf of one’s own children that helping the children of others (even “undeserving” others) to become at least ordinary citizens rather than burdens when their generation takes up the reins of the world.

        Because, again, pretty much by definition if an “undeserving” parent doesn’t give much of a crap what happens to their children before they turn 18 they’re sure not going to give them much though after they turn 18.  But in actuarial terms for the next 40-60 years not only we but everyone else’s children are going to have to deal with them.

        So I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not like social justice is a one-way street.  Nor is it necessary to be a closet (non-“classical”) liberal to be a BHL.



    Hi Matt,
    #1. You say: “Perhaps it’s easy to overlook with all the intra-libertarian disputes we’ve been having about the importance of social justice, but bleeding heart libertarians are, after all, libertarians (your emphasis). I don’t mean to quibble, but I have heard you and other BHLs repeatedly descrbe yourselves as “classical liberals.” Do you now believe these terms can be used interchangeably?

    #2. I believe that “justice” and “social justice” are extensionally identical, such that a society’s basic structure cannot be “just” without also being “socially just,” and vice versa. Do you agree? So, based on this and other posts, I am assuming that  the latter term is used to describe a feature or characteristic that a social system must have in order to be “just.” But I believe that the BHLs would agree that for the basic structure of a society to be just it must satisfy a number of other tests as well, including (without limittaion) equal respect for all persons, equal opportunity, and the enforcement of a fairly stringent set of rights, including to property–and these features may conflict with the demands of social justice.

    So, unless you are going to argue that “social justice” always takes priority over (or “trumps”) all these other requirements of justice, it seems misleading to focus on it, since trade-offs with other values might cause us to forgo “social justice” in certain cases. Why not focus on whether a system satisfies all the dimensions of justice, i.e. whather it is “just” (full stop).  What, if anything, is so special about social justice?

    •  Briefly, since I’m heading out the door…
      1) It depends on the context. I sometimes use the term libertarian in a broad sense to encompass anarcho-capitalists, minimal-statists, and classical liberals, when the distinction between them isn’t as important for my purposes as much as the distinction between all these groups and other families of political theory.
      2) I don’t believe that they are extensionally identical, but I do think that a society cannot be fully just unless it meets the requirements of social justice. So social justice is an important part of justice, and I focus on it because I believe it is a part of justice unjustly (hah!) neglected by many libertarians.


        Thanks. Perhaps, when yo0u get a chance, you can describe a case where “justice” and “social justice” are not extensionally identical.

        • Sure. Since as Kevin and others here have said, social justice is something that applies to the basic institutions of society, then most questions of micro-level interpersonal conduct will not involve issues of social justice, even if they will involve issues of justice: e.g., my stealing your wallet.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Fair enough, but that was not really my question. With respect to the basic institutions, are the term extensionally identical? With respect to the system, can it be “just” w/o also being “socially just” and vice versa?

          • No it can’t be just without being socially just, for reasons I’ve already explained (social justice is a part of justice). Yes it can meet the requirements of social justice without fully meeting the requirements of justice. Take the definition Jason gave here ( A society can satisfy this while being unjust in other ways. So the two are not extensionally equivalent.

  • Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, for Matt, actually does in some way overlap with Social Conservatism? And this includes a notion of “the deserving poor” under meritocratic assumptions? *cringe*

    A big part of the problem with such a socially conservative narrative is the presumption of natural meritocracy imposed onto social phenomena that is actually heavily affected by institutions, and assigns dubious moral weight to people on the basis of their failure to sucessfully play the game of those institutions.

    •  So it’s not paternalism if we do it? Only if it’s done to us?

      “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, for Matt, actually does in some way explicitly and proudly overlap with Social Conservatism?”

      I was reading a piece on the Googly Interwebs somewhere about a book that just came out on the recent psych research into political orientations and basic psych profiles that influence/determine that sort of thing. Basically, conservatives value order and tradition, liberals value novelty and experimentation; cons have neat workplaces, liberals have messy ones; etc.

      I was contemplating how libertarians fit into that narrative and initially, I thought they must be a whole ‘nuther kind of beast; neither fish nor fowl. But the more I consider it the more it seems to me that libertarianism is firmly conservative in nature. The thinking is very categorical with little room for shades of grey.

      Example (ripped from the headlines, so to speak): Abortion. Despite all the noise from certain quarters, polls show that most people (like 60-70%) are reasonably satisfied with the legal status quo. And that status quo reflects the inherent moral ambiguities of the situation. I consider it an inherently liberal (in the classical sense) solution. But my experience has been that libertarians will tend to come down totally on one side of the issue or the other. Either the woman’s rights are the only things that count; so much so that some writers like Mises will even assert that there is no legally enforceable parental duty to care for children. Or, on the other hand, others, like Ron Paul, will come down on the side of “abortion is murder” and even deny exceptions for rape, incest, or maternal health like the most Jesus-y of Republicans. No middle ground, no ambiguity, no compromise allowed in either case. That, to me, is a fundamentally conservative mindset in either case.

      • Rod, 

        Was the piece you were reading about Jonathan Haidt’s newest book The Righteous Mind? Good book, if you are interested. And Haidt does talk about libertarians and how they tend to fit in on his scales. 

        “I was contemplating how libertarians fit into that narrative and initially, I thought they must be a whole ‘nuther kind of beast; neither fish nor fowl. But the more I consider it the more it seems to me that libertarianism is firmly conservative in nature. The thinking is very categorical with little room for shades of grey. ”

        I think that largely depends on the libertarians. In fact, Haidt suggests that libertarians score about the same as liberals when talking about “order and tradition” versus “novelty and experimentation” (your words, not Haidt’s). 

        So, you have the type of libertarians – like Hayek, Mises, and James Buchanan – who are really concerned with developing institutions that make possible some sort of “spontaneous order” where innovation and experimentatoin can take place relatively free of constraint. (Interestingly, Hayek wrote an article called “Why I am not a conservative” and Buchanan, a book called “Why I, too, am not a conservative.”) And none of the three authors were very “categorical” in their thinking (even though Buchanan starts with pretty Kantian premises).

        Then there is the type of libertarian, perhaps like Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, or Robert Nozick that may be a bit more “categorical” in their way of thinking, basing their libertarian philosophies on a fairly infexible conception of natural property rights. 

        Anyhow, a digression – but I do hope that you will, if you haven’t, delve into Haidt and maybe some of the libertarians I mention that probably would have scored “liberal” on Haidt’s surveys (when it comes to valuing novelty and experimentation.”

    •  Alex, these are all good questions. I think what they suggest is not that the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is unsound, but that the implications of such a distinction for social policy are quite unclear. You should take a look at Arneson’s paper. I think you’d really like it. Here’s the conclusion, with which I am quite sympathetic:

      factors the make it easy or difficult, and more or less costly, for an
      individual to

      as she ought, are densely intertwined with aspects of her circumstances for which it is sensible
      to hold her accountable. Sorting out these factors and deciding to what degree
      an individual
      is truly deserving can be hard, even intractable, even in a small-scale and
      local context
      that does not stretch out over time. “Judge not,” says the Bible.

      society might care a great deal about bringing it about that to the greatest

      the good fortune that each individual enjoys is proportional to her true deservingness. Such
      a society could set its institutions and practices giving top priority to this
      aim. But this is very
      definitely not the society we inhabit. The major institutions that distribute
      good fortune are the
      family and the market. Neither of these institutions is responsive to
      individual deservingness.
      Market prices are determined by supply and demand. The family distributes care
      and concern according to ties of blood and marriage; as a parent I do not try
      to determine which
      children are more deserving and help them–I try to give my own children every advantage.
      We could try to institute very different institutions that would attempt to
      establish a republic
      of virtue, a moralized meritocracy, in which people receive benefits according
      to their fine-grained
      deservingness. This would not be a crazy project, but it is hard to conceive

      institutions must assume in order to make progress towards achieving it, and it
      is clear that
      any attempt to reform society in this way would leave us all far worse off in
      material terms than
      we are under current institutions.

      question then arises, given that we don’t in fact care enough about
      deservingness to

      the market and reshape the family in order to try to tailor individual good
      fortune to individual
      deservingness, why does this issue suddenly loom in importance when we are discussing
      social welfare policies that address the alleviation of poverty? We blandly
      tolerate such
      facts as that Japanese language teachers earn more than Spanish language
      teachers even
      if both are equally deserving, because there is greater demand for instruction
      in Japanese.

      social values comparable in importance to market efficiency are at stake in
      choices about social
      welfare policy for the poor, why not forego the attempt to create a republic of
      virtue in this one
      domain? A pincer movement is formed by two considerations: (1) the massive
      actual irrelevance
      of fine-grained desert to the working of major institutions of our society, and
      (2) the massive
      difficulty of monitoring individuals’ fine-grained deservingness scores even on
      the assumption
      that we could coherently and nonarbitrarily assign weights to the various dimensions
      of deservingness so as to generate a single interpersonally comparable measure
      of individuals’
      overall desert. The pincers exerts pressure to forego the attempt to make the treatment
      of individuals responsive to desert a major consideration in social welfare
      policy directed
      toward poverty relief. This decision to downplay deservingness results from
      thinking through
      its nature and implications rather than from ignoring it.


    Three thoughts. First, if you subsidize irresponsible behavior, you will get more of it, and this also has negative implications for future generations, including the children of the irresponsible.

    Second, it is wrong to coerce people, at least in the absence of weighty consideration that justify doing so. On the conception (roughly) of “justice as desert,” forced redistribution in favor of the irresponsible does not pass this test. Righty, few people will willingly share their resources with the irresponsible, when there are deserving people in need.  Therefore, we should attempt to funnel respources to the “innocent” needy.  

    One way NOT to do this is to assign the task of poverty alleviation to a massive, central bureaucracy, whose officials have no contact with the recipients of aid. Before the welfare state, the needy received help through fraternal organizations, mutual aid socities and religious institutions. They knew the folks they were dealing with, and with scarce resources in hand, would demand that those receiving aid took reasonable steps to find work. I suggest we go back to the future here, and allow private organizations to compete for the right to administer our tax dollars based on the effectiveness of their programs.

    Finally, on the “cosmopolitan” conception of justice in vogue with the BHLs, virtually none of our taxpayer aid should go to domestic recipients, since their level of need cannot remotely compare to the needs of those starving to death or dying of easily preventable diseases in Africa and elsewhere. I disagree with this theory, but I think you should acknowledge it in the context of this discussion.

  • Damien S.

    “In a comparative sense, only a minority of the population can be poor –
    roughly 50% will be richer than average, and 50% poorer than average.”

    Sure, if you assume a bell curve like distribution, and not a pyramid or power law one.

    Say 50 people get $1/day, 25 people get $2/day, 24 people get $10/day, and 1 person gets $1000/day.  99% of the population will be below the mean average.

  • shemsky

    The problem I see is that you are trying to find the one single solution that accomplishes social justice. It can’t be done, Matt, because people just don’t agree on what that is. What one person views as social justice another views as injustice. I think this has a lot to do with why Americans are so divided and are becoming more and more hostile to each other’s views. We should agree to allow each person to act on their own conscience with regard to what they are going to do to help others that they have not harmed. That way the poor will be taken care of to the extent that other people view them as worthy of being taken care of and are willing to do so. I don’t see a better solution that doesn’t strike me as being the same mindset as religious fundamentalism. We might as well be trying to pick one religion to force on everyone.

    • good_in_theory

      Ah, the “everything else is unreasonable so just enforce my preferred ideology as the default” solution.

      • shemsky

        How exactly do you turn “allow each person to follow their own conscience” into “enforce my preferred ideology”? Your comment makes no sense at all. It sounds similar to the religious fundamentalist view that not being allowed to force others to follow their religion constitutes discrimination against their religion.

        • Because “allow each person to follow their own conscience” functions as a catch-phrase tied up with what are a bunch of other things in the web of the ideology – you have assumptions behind what that means and what is voluntary. Yea, people following their own conscience, in context, means “people having a right to be sociopathic” – because you’re placing such a high value on individuals *not* having social obligations. Which is itself an ideological thing that can be disputed.

          It’s mighty convenient to present something ideologically loaded as the default position. The only real default position is to say nothing.

          • shemsky

            I see where you’re coming from, Alex, but does it make much sense to say nothing if you think something wrong is being proposed?

          • Of course not. Just don’t pass it off as the default position.

          • shemsky

            I’m not sure what you mean by passing it off as the default position. That’s something good_in_theory came up with, not me. In my opinion, it’s the most just and the most practical position.

  •  I think an important component to measuring “social justice”, even if we have trouble defining it, is to look at how many relatively poor folks a society produces. There are always going to be some people in any society that, for one reason or another, are going to be having a rough time of it. But if a society has a LOT of people in that situation then something bad is going on.

    •  I think an important component to measuring “social justice”, even if we have trouble defining it, is to look at how many relatively poor folks a society produces. ”

      Does society produce poor folks? I don’t ask that in a sardonic way, but one question that the debate over “social justice” (whether in libertarian circles or not) is to what degree society “produces” poor folks. I think the question is important because it helps get at what idea of dessert we are basing “social justice” on. If I produce a broken leg in you, I think it is clear that I bear responsibility for remedying that situation (particularly if I produce it deliberately, but also if I produce it from negligence). But in what sense can we say “society produces poor people”? First, who exactly produced the poor person (or the poverty that the person has)? Did they do so deliberately or through negligence (or neither)? 

      My mind is not quite made up on the idea of social justice simply because it is difficult for me to see how “society produces poor people” because (a) society is not an entity but a collection of many people pursuing their own individual projects, and (b) as such, it is really hard for me to see how society’s members can collectively be held responsible for “producing” poor people. 

      • This is why I tire of talking to libbies at times; it just gets tedious. By “society” I’m talking about the institutions, laws, rules, regulations, customs, norms, etc. that the individuals live, act, and participate in. Even an anarchist society will have at least some of these things.

      • j_m_h

        Hmmm. Interesting question.

        I don’t think this will be a controversial proposition but let see. Assume five different type of society can exist. Let’s run 5 experiments with the same population and see if the same people end up in the same economic position. (We can adjust this to say run 5000 experiments, 1000 for each society to get some “average”). 

        If we see that certain types of people are more and less successful in the different societies doesn’t that suggest that social structure will “produce poor people”.

        I suppose one can reject the above hypothesis but if one does, what assumptions about human nature is one making. Additionally, would those assumptions be consistent with arguments such as Hayek makes about who is attracted to positions of power in a centrally planned society?

    • I don’t know if Rawls was influenced by Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty,” but they both seem to be concerned about the same thing: Why is poverty co-arising with progress? And if so, is it really progress?

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