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.