Gerald Cohen claims that libertarians are hard deontologists. Libertarians believe everyone is a self-owner, that our rights derive from self-ownership, and that only libertarian political regimes are compatible with our self-ownership. He portrays libertarians as insensitive to the consequences of private property regimes. If a system ends up leaving many people destitute–not because they are lazy or lack skills, but just because they are unlucky–libertarians say, “Too damn bad.”
As far as I can tell, hardly any libertarians actually believe this. Instead, most think that the consequences of private property regimes matter. They think that one–if not the only or even the primary–test that a property rights regime has to face is that it tends to make people better off. Most libertarians care about the consequences of economic rights.
In what way do they care? Well, they aren’t utilitarians, or, at least, they aren’t modern act utilitarians. Many consequence-sensitive libertarians claim to be utilitarians, but they misidentify their own moral views. Here’s a simple test. Read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If you think Omelas is an unjust society, then you aren’t an act utilitarian.
Libertarians are not simply concerned with maximizing total economic output, either. I’ve never met one who thinks pushing the production possibility frontier outward is intrinsically valuable. Instead, they view economic growth as a means to making people’s lives go better.
Many libertarian think tanks, intellectual centers, policy institutes, and scholars focus on economic issues. They repeatedly try to show that free markets (economic liberty, property rights, etc.) generate good consequences. In particular, they try to show that free markets generate good consequences for the least advantaged and downtrodden. Why bother?
Libertarians argue that minimum wage laws hurt the poor. Why not instead just argue that minimum wage laws interfere with employers’ economic rights and leave it at that?
Libertarians argue that state socialism tends to immiserate most people, especially workers and poor farmers. Why not instead just argue that it violates people’s economic rights and leave it at that? Libertarians argue that command economy socialism cannot make efficient decisions. Who cares?
Libertarians argue that private savings regimes work better than social security. Why not just argue that social security violates people’s economic rights?
Libertarians argue that free trade helps poor countries grow richer. Why not just argue that protectionism violates people’s economic rights?
Etc. Look at the range of issues discussed here. Or, since David Henderson recently approved of Stephen Hicks’s straw man attack on this blog, look at what Henderson chooses to write about. Why does Henderson care? If he were a self-ownership hard libertarian, none of the stuff he writes about matters at all from a moral point of view.
The best explanation for why libertarians focus on these issues is that they think, in one way or another, that it’s important that an economic regime tends to serve everyone’s interests, including the poor. (Sure, put in caveats, such as that we don’t blame a regime if unconscientious or lazy people squander their wealth or opportunities. Even Rawls and even some Marxists say that.) Now, given what the left means by “social justice”, that means that most libertarians actually count as accepting principles of social justice.
The problem, though, is that F. A. Hayek misunderstood what a bunch of leftist philosophers were fundamentally getting at. In light of his misunderstanding, he wrote a book where he mistakenly said social justice is a mirage. Now, as a result, many libertarians will reflexively dismiss any explicit appeals to social justice even though most of them are implicitly committed to it.
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