Social Justice, Libertarianism

Hasnas on Tomasi

The latest issue of Cato’s Regulation magazine contains a brief but worthwhile review of John Tomasi’s Free Market FairnessThe review, written by John Hasnas of Georgetown University, is generally sympathetic, but is quite critical on a few points in ways that I suspect will resonate with those of you who are skeptical of the BHL project.

Like many of you (and some of us!), Hasnas has his doubts about the utility of the term “social justice.” Tomasi uses this term in a highly specific way – to refer to the requirement that the basic structure of society be designed so as to maximize the holdings of the least well-off citizens. Understood in this way, social justice does not necessarily require redistributive government programs. At the very least, such programs will only be justified if they actually work to improve the condition of the poor. What’s more, such programs will only be justifiable if they do not violate citizens basic liberties, and given that Tomasi defends a “thick conception of economic liberty,” this is a relatively high hurdle to clear. Nevertheless, writes Hasnas, the use of the phrase “social justice” to describe this idea is a “major impediment to effective communication” – “guaranteed to be misinterpreted by libertarians (and others) as referring to the type of redistributive social policies that were excoriated by Hayek.”

Hasnas’ most telling points, however, have to do with Tomasi’s claim that a just society will guarantee a certain level of material holdings on the part of the poor. Hasnas’ intuition, and it is one that strikes me as important, is that
“the way the poor obtain their holdings is just as important—if not more important—than how great their holdings are.” Hasnas’ recalls stories that his uncle told him about his life as an impoverished immigrant – stories that emphasized the virtues of self-help and community and the shamefulness of seeking alms from outsiders. “”The stories demonstrated that what made life meaningful for the poor—what made them capable of being “responsible self-authors”—was not merely how much material wealth they had, but how they got it.”

The printed version of the review is based on Hasnas’ longer (and, I think, more critical and persuasive) comments at a Cato Book Forum earlier this year. You can watch Hasnas deliver those comments here. More on Tomasi a the BHL Symposium on his book here.

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Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • T.Cushman

    I am not a trained political philosopher, but have always thought that my own variety of social theory is close to philosophy, especially since I work in areas of human rights. I work across the disciplines now. A few comments: 1. I’m not sure why the object of social justice should be to maximize the benefits of the least well off. One could just as easily say, “here is a “decent” benefit, and is only available to those who actually qualify, rather than to those who claim benefits that are not deserved Which leads to point 2: the real problem with social justice as a practice is that it expands upward into the social stratification system so that it ceases to be “justice”, but rather social good that people without desert are increasingly able to claim, thus rendering the safety net conception of justice meaningless. Point 3: all projects of synthesis are vulnerable toward drifting to one or the other side, despite the best intentions of the synthesizers. I would need more space to outline where I think JT drifts in FMF, but I think this reviewer indicates my position. And 4, which may be the most fundamental: one of the problems I see is , as the reviewer notes, semantical. Terms such as “social justice” ,”free markets”, “libertarian”, and thinkers such as Rawls, Nozick, Hayek, are so cognitively laden with meanings that have their own valence that they may no longer be useful for analysis. As soon as one enters into the intellectual field, to use Bourdieu’s term, one is pulled this way and that by non-logical, non-rational meanings and clusters of positive and negative emotions, which make it hard to advance an argument that will be acceptable to the different thought communities involved. I realize that one has to use the terms and thinkers that exist historically, but to what extent can new wine be made from old grapes, all of which taste sweet or sour depending on who’s doing the tasting. I’m not sure what the solution is, but what I’m pointing to here is the lexical challenges to advancement beyond the “frozen sea” . I’m writing a long review essay on the book, in which I’m exploring some of these ideas. Thanks, T. Cushman

  • Murali

    I, myself may have been antecedently pre-disposed to BHL project did not come to the same kinds of conclusions as Hasnas. I mean, it takes a fair bit of reflexive antipathy to actually think that Tomasi’s rhetoric is actually offputting. This does not reflect well on Hasnas as a philosopher.
    In the same monograph, he on the one hand, says that painting libertarians as extreme Nozickeans concerned primarily with Self ownership is a strawman and at the same time admits that he remains unconvinced to leave said icy shores to come to the FMF ice breaker.