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New Video on Libertarianism vs. Social Justice

I’ve got a new video up at on libertarianism and social justice. Actually, it’s the first in a two-part series. This video covers the standard libertarian critique of social justice, as expressed by Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek. The next video will suggest a way in which libertarianism and social justice might be reconciled.

You can watch the first video below. The second is due out December 17th. In the mean time, take a look at this blog post I wrote a year ago for the basic idea.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • martinbrock

    An incredibly wealthy baseball player is incredibly wealthy as a consequence of many forcible proprieties, like copyrights, broadcast frequency rights and subsidized sports arenas, not just because he’s good at baseball. Countless forcible channels influence the distribution of wealth, not only the choices of individuals compelled to funnel wealth only through these channels. Central planners certainly do dictate these channels.

    Ignoring the role of forcible, proprietary rents and rent seeking in the distribution of wealth is not libertarianism. It is proprietarianism. A libertarian response to a call for a redistributive, statutory program of “social justice” imposed on top of the myriad of forcible proprieties channeling wealth does not ignore rents and rent seeking. It rather concedes these rents and asks how the privilege of beneficiaries of these rents ought to be limited.

    For example, a progressive consumption tax might effectively forbid a very wealthy recipient of many rents personally to consume most of the rents, requiring him to reinvest the income or to distribute it charitably instead.

    • Kevin

      Would the ideal libertarian system have any “forcible properties”?

      The first part of your comment seems to argue that libertarians are justified in engaging in social calculus when their vote does not include the option of repealing non-libertarian laws. Is this correct?

      In other words, if a subsidy should not exist, but we are not given the opportunity to repeal it, are we justified in trying to partially countervail it with other laws which, on their own, are likewise non-libertarian?

      I can see the logic of it, but it also seems reasonable that such a tactic would serve to fuel non-libertarian aspects of government.

      The latter part of your comment seems to go further and categorize Lockean propriety as a matter of social justice. Could you please explain your reasoning for that categorization?

      • martinbrock

        My ideal, libertarian system has any proprieties that members of a community want, so when you join a community, you accept the community’s standards, including any “social justice” standards, like a minimum income (or not), co-housing (or not), community sponsored education or health care (or not), senior care (or not), etc.

        The only standard a community may not establish is a standard executing its members or compelling membership in the community. Membership is always at will, but a community’s standards determine what, if anything, other than himself, a member resigning membership may take from the community when he leaves it.

        A particular community could establish highly individualistic, Rothbardian property rights, requiring no participation in “social justice” and permitting members to leave at will with all sorts of property acquired while a member. I don’t expect Rothbardian communities to attract most people, but if these communities attract most people, so be it.

        Since reality is not this utopia of free, intentional communities, assuming that it is obviously leads to all sorts of false conclusions. Since non-libertarian laws effectively threaten people and shape social organization accordingly, pretending that incredibly wealthy baseball players are incredibly wealthy just because they are great baseball players (as they are) is a position that no one can or should take seriously.

        Libertarians must understand the world as it is, if that’s what you mean by “social calculus”. I wouldn’t say that any subsidy shouldn’t exist, only that you should be free not to participate by associating with others who wish not to participate; however, since you aren’t so free in reality, if you don’t like a particular subsidy, you have little choice but to try to countervail it.

        Someone who does like a particular subsidy must also countervail your attempt to countervail the subsidy. I think that’s too bad, but I don’t think the subsidy advocate imposes on you any more than you impose on him. You’re both playing the statutory game.

        Lockean propriety entitles a man to govern himself and fruits of his labor, including any improvements in natural resources that are products of his labor, as long as he leaves as much and as good of the resources of nature for others. I respect this standard myself, but I don’t respect it because I find it written on stone tablets or somehow deduce it from “existence exists”. I respect because it seems “socially just” to me.

        I don’t at all believe that “capitalism” (or whatever we’re calling the economic system in the U.S. these days) even comes close to realizing this ideal, so when I advocate reforms in this direction, I suppose I advocate “social justice”.

        • Kevin

          Thanks for your response, Martin.

          So, “libertarian government” is simply defined by the right to leave? Following that, you exclude execution… and perhaps even imprisonment? Moreover, you might not practically be able to leave if another community would not have you.

          I use a far more expansive definition of “libertarian government” which is part of why I was confused by your statements, but perhaps I’m in the minority here.

          I agree with you that we have to deal with reality, but I’m disinclined to play the statutory game and instead want to remove such games from politics.

          I’m curious which “natural resources” does Lockean propriety entitle you to improve? And wouldn’t such resources have to be infinite in order to leave as much for others?

          • martinbrock

            I exclude execution, but I don’t exclude imprisonment. You may join a community that imprisons people for smoking pot under some circumstances for example. If the community then imprisons you for smoking pot, you may leave it, but you may not leave it for some imaginary community where pot smoking is regulated precisely as you wish. You must find another, real, stable community willing to accept you on its terms.

            Murder is a better example in this context. If my community sentences me to life in prison for murdering my wife’s adulterous lover without premeditation, I might leave it for another community, but as you say, I must find another community willing to accept me, and I won’t find many communities that don’t jail murderers at all.

            I’d rather be jailed in a community that discourages murder than free in a community of murderers, and I might also prefer to be jailed occasionally, briefly and humanely, in a community encouraging responsible drug use than free in a community of junkies. Think of Otis in Mayberry.

            A government can be more libertarian than others without being ideally libertarian in this sense, but beyond a point, playing the statutory game in the name of “liberty” seems a fool’s (or a con man’s) errand. Mussolini advocated “liberty”.

            Locke refers to the land in “Of Property”. The Lockean Proviso (leaving as much and as good for others) raises many questions, but ideals generally do. The Lockean ideal is not realizable, but I don’t expect to realize it.

            My libertopia is a market in intentional communities rather than a state somehow enforcing Lockean propriety. Communities, rather than individuals, effectively own resources like the land; however, a particular community may enact individual ownership of its land.

    • Kyle Nearhood

      I really like the idea of a progressive consumption tax as an alternative to taxing income. As far as economics goes, it would be far more efficient and cause less perverse incentives.

  • jodpur

    I know that this argument is truncated for the purpose of the video, but it begs the question. Its central claim is that society does not allocate resources (like the father), and thus people who speak of social justice are making a category mistake. It begs the question in 2 ways–

    1. It assumes (or stipulates) that current economic distribution is a spontaneous order. (A dodgy proposition historically)

    2. It takes that ‘factual’ claim about the current status quo and claims that we cannot reasonably desire a different arrangement.

    • I don’t disagree, nor do I disagree with the points made by @martinbrock:disqus above. In the video that comes out on December 17th (and in the blog post linked to above), I criticize the standard libertarian view myself. Regarding your first point specifically, I think it’s important to bear in mind both the ways in which the current economic distribution isn’t a spontaneous order, and the ways in which it is. And like Steve Horwitz, I worry that left-libertarians sometimes overstate the former to the relative neglect of the latter. This is an important issue,though it’s somewhat different from the one I make in the video and blog post.

  • Andrew

    This argument takes the distinction between action and inaction to the point of absurdity. If you notice that your neighbor’s house is on fire, is it just to ignore it? Perhaps liberals confuse morality with justice, but that’s a common semantic mistake, if a mistake at all. “Justice” can be a useful term when talking about fate, acts of god, chance, etc., regardless of the presence of human agency. E.g., a tragic death may seem unjust. And when chance and complexity give rise to a situation where inaction starts to look a lot like action, “justice” becomes even more meaningful.

    Perhaps this is outside of the realm of this discussion, but it seems to me that an abstract debate like this one only matters if we expect political actors to apply their principles past the point of reason. What liberal really seeks to pursue equality for its own sake, rather than to relieve specific instances of suffering, and what libertarian really wants to ignore the most severe deprivation? We ought to address the problems we all agree about, and then resume the philosophical debates afterward, comfortable in the certainty that neither a socialistic nor a libertarian paradise will ever be brought into being in the United States. It seems that this is how it used to be, for the most part.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Excellent, Matt.

    • Daniel Shapiro


  • Sean II

    If anyone is looking for an excuse to feel depressed:

    “extended order” = 106,000 Google hits
    “spontaneous order” = 285,000
    “rising income inequality” = 1,220,000
    “growing income inequality” = 1,380,000
    “handling of the economy” = 31,900,000

    Note that the specificity of these phrases is pretty high – most of those hits actually would reflect something close to the meaning we associate with those terms. The last phrase, of course, is almost always used in connection with a named father-figure like Obama, Bernanke, Bush, Boehner, etc.

    Any way you cut the cake, it’s obvious that most people are still trying to understand the social world by using mental brute force to upscale concepts that are only (and just barely) fit to describe families and small tribes. I can’t quite remember where Hayek said that, but he was right. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a factory floor, in a barber shop, reading the pages of Mother Jones, or studying at University of Chicago Law School…the authoritarian design theory of social life still reigns by default.

    Hell, there are people who devote their whole lives to defending the market, and even some of them don’t have a good grasp on spontaneous order. They reach market conclusions from authoritarian premises – and how else can one do that, except by cheating somewhere along the way?

    We’re closing in on 300 years since the Scottish Enlightenment, but if I conducted a poll of everyone I’ve ever met in my non-internet life*, not 1 in 20 of them could make it through Matt’s video and then pass a simple quiz afterwards. They’ve been trained too long in the art of assuming there must be a planner behind everything, not to see them even where they don’t exist or don’t belong.

    * My sample is skewed upward in a big way – most of my family and many of the people I know are professors, doctors, scientists, etc. It would never occur to them to walk around in 2012, still describing everything with metaphors leftover from the miasma theory of disease. And yet, when it comes to social life, very few of their fundamental concepts have a born-on date after 1648.

  • Gordon Shannon

    Very nice summary.

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