Social Justice, Libertarianism

Social justice

I’m somewhere between the strong opponents of the concept of “social justice” among libertarians and my BHL colleagues who embrace it Tomasi-style. But a facebook discussion prompts the following thought: do we need some concept like “social justice”– some norm that’s not derivable from the individual-level rules of just conduct in the way that the non-aggression principle supposedly is– in order to talk about what’s wrong with an established church?

In American terms, I want to isolate the problem of establishment from the problem of free exercise. That is, my question isn’t: What’s unjust about restrictions on religious liberty? but: What’s unjust about the state endorsement of one religion over others? For Rawlsians, like for “public reason” libertarians like Gerald Gaus or Kevin Vallier, I take it that religious establishment is one of the easiest of questions– a core case of the injustice and disrespect that’s involved in a particular kind of non-neutrality. But for the strongest critics of “social justice”-type language, it strikes me that it would be hard to articulate the wrong of religious establishment– symbolic endorsement and formal identification of the state with a particular church, provided that it not come with taxpayer support or with restrictions on the religious liberty of dissenters. Maybe something could be jerry-rigged, but I’ll bet that for many of my fellow American libertarians, there’s something unsettling about having to jerry-rig complicated arguments for what we take to be a very easy case.

Does that strike you as right? Is this a case in which many libertarians tacitly rely on a kind of argument of which they (or we) officially disapprove when it goes under the name of “social justice”?


    I’m not sure that “jerry-rigging” is all that necessary. Given the immense coercive power of the state and its terrible history of abusing this power, an endorsement of that sort carries with it an implied threat of future harm. If I threaten you with an unloaded gun, I have not yet harmed you in any direct physical sense, but it nevertheless constitutes a clear example of aggression. So too the state’s endorsement of religion (or non-religion). The gun may be empty now, but in the future…

    • TracyW

      But this dangerous power is there even if there’s no established church. The Communist states were formally atheist, that didn’t stop them from being terribly repressive.

      • ben

        Atheism *was* their established state religion.

        • TracyW

          And during WWII Stalin turned around and started endorsing the Orthodox Church. He was still terribly repressive (not quite as repressive as during the Great Terror, but still terribly repressive). I don’t think that the religious factor makes a different to the dangers of state power.


        Prof. Levy’s challenge is: On what theoretical basis do non-public reason libertarians condemn a state’s symbolic endorsement of religion. My answer is that it plausibly threatens future harm by signaling that the state may stray from its morally legitimate purpose of enforcing the laws in a fair and neutral manner. You correctly point out that the state always strays. But I don’t see that this is a rebuttal to my point. The fact that the state does this in practice does not imply that it would not also be wrong to commit even the relatively venal sin I have identified. Of course, we condemn even more forcefully the greater sins.

        Your historical point might be a practical argument for anarchy, but then we would like to know what anarchy looks like in practice, and this is an entirely separate discussion.

        • TracyW

          I don’t think it plausibly does threaten future harm compared with a state without an established church. You haven’t shown that states that have an established church are more likely to harm in the future than ones who don’t.

          To add to the Communist countries I cited earlier, a number of US states notoriously strayed from enforcing the laws in a fair and neutral manner in the case of Indians and blacks.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I don’t think that I have the burden of proof you describe. I think it is more like this. Imagine that a particular state has strictly up to this point adhered to the rule of law. Then, it endorses a particular religion (or atheism, for that matter). Could non-public reason libertarians condemn this move? I think so, for the reason previously given. If all states were morally pure and guaranteed to stay that way, I would simply bite the bullet and say “no problem,” but why a morally pure state would take such a step is beyond me. What is the (innocent) purpose?

          • TracyW

            Ah, so you’re talking hypothetically, not about real world states.

            In this hypothetical model, I agree that such a move would be weird, and would make me worried about the future. And therefore if a state in the real world currently without an established religion moved towards establishing one, it would worry me. But, as you say, for the signalling reasons, not because there was anything wrong with an established religion alongside otherwise religious freedom.

    • The mere existence of a state poses the threat of future harm and abuse. But I don’t think that the bullets are conspicuously closer to being loaded in Norway or Denmark than they are in the U.S. or France. I do view this as jerry-rigging: the insult to those who are symbolically excluded from the polity (or those in whose name something is endorsed which they have conscientious reason not to endorse) isn’t really parasitic on the implied future threat, and isn’t much affected by probabilistic assessments of how likely or unlikely future restrictions on religious liberty might be.


        I respectfully disagree. If the state took a symbolic position on something it could not possibly influence, say, whether there was other intelligent life in the universe, I think we would all be indifferent. The fact that religious persecution has been a feature of the state causes us concern. The comparison between the U.S., France and other states is confounded by too many other variables to be useful.

      • “the insult to those who are symbolically excluded from the polity (or those in whose name something is endorsed which they have conscientious reason not to endorse)”

        I find this a peculiar train of thought. We have an established church here in England. I do not belong to it. I am not even a Christian. But I do not feel insulted because the C of E receives state endorsement. I regard politicians and bureaucrats as a bunch of assholes: it is not possible for me to feel insulted by anything they may think or say. Not do I think I am symbolically excluded from the polity. Most people I know in this polity regard politicians and bureaucrats as a bunch of assholes whose opinions should not be taken seriously. Nor do I accept that the endorsement of the C of E by the political establishment is done in my name. Politicians and civil servants may say that they act in my name, but saying so does not make it so, especially when the people saying it are just a bunch of assholes. I think you may be taking politics a little too seriously. Surely, it is a mistake to be in awe of a bunch of assholes?

        Okay, that is a kind of jokey way of responding. But there is a serious point. The government is not the community. It does not represent the community. It is not the case that the government is the father and the citizens are the needy children trying to win daddy’s approval.

        • Sean II

          I’m confused, Danny. In history class we Americans are taught that you all live in constant fear of the ultimatum: “tea and cake or death”.

          Is that not true? I’d hate to believe my teachers misled me in any way.

          • I am afraid that most teachers are assholes too. Sorry to disillusion you, Sean.

          • Sean II

            It’s okay, because at least I can still be confident knowing that Lincoln set out to free the slaves when he was nine years old, Roosevelt got us out of the depression, and free markets have been empirically discredited because it was no fun working in a bakery circa 1905.

  • martinbrock

    “Church/state separation” is a practically meaningless construct. Every state has a state religion. Some state religions incorporate a supernatural mythology. Others don’t. This distinction between state religions hardly seems the most salient.

    I’m happier with a state that doesn’t harm people for advocating a faith other than the state religion, but no one subject to a state is ever free of a state religion, and I don’t much care whether or not a state religion has a supernatural mythology. I don’t believe in any supernatural mythology, so the mythology itself doesn’t threaten me at all.

    Obsessing over a state’s sanction of one immortality myth or another, while it vaporizes a hundred thousand people in the blink of an eye with a nuclear weapon, seems ridiculous to me. I’d much rather a state force everyone to bow to its favor god once a week than vaporize a hundred thousand people while pretending “neutrality” toward religion.

  • ben

    “provided that it not come with taxpayer support or with restrictions on the religious liberty of dissenters”

    I find it difficult to imagine a scenario of “state endorsement of one religion over others” in which the above condition is truly met.

    If there actually is a scenario of an established church that is 100% free from state coercion (or imminent danger of coercion, see post by MARK_D_FRIEDMAN), then although it might be “unfair”, I think that indeed it shouldn’t be considered unjust in the sense that in a libertarian society the constitutional/legal rules must guarantee to prevent it at all cost.

    If a gut-reaction conception of justice as “fairness” clashes with the principle of individual liberty, I don’t see that as a failing of the latter, I see it as an indication that the former is not a solid basis for determining justice in the context of political theory.

  • TracyW

    Are you perhaps suffering from status quo bias here? Having an established church doesn’t strike me as a problem here in the UK. .

    In other words, maybe there’s nothing wrong with an established church under the conditions you establish, regardless of whether you include the concept of social justice.

    Although maybe I’m suffering from status quo bias

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  • Fallon

    From the 2 hours I spent listening to Gaus, not due diligence really but anyway, I would not easily identify him as a libertarian. Maybe his personal values align with libertarianism. Public Reason logic leads, for Gaus it seems, inevitably to state run “democracy” as a conclusion. Why would PR by Gaus’s design result in something structurally different than other democratic schemes, like that of High Liberal Corey Brettschneider for instance?

    Or is “democracy” in Gaus’s case just required religious political dogma, meaningless except for making radical views palatable to those in power in the same way that Marxism-Leninism statements had to accompany all Soviet publications– regardless of actual point of content? The difference might be that M-L had some identifiable common meanings; “democracy”, not so much.

    • Kevin Vallier

      The core ideal of public reason liberalism is that coercion (most often coercive laws) must be publicly justified. Given the diversity of religious views in liberal societies, some non-trivial group will have defeater reasons for any religiously non-neutral law.

      As for democracy, Gaus thinks it is publicly justified as a fair method of resolving a significantly circumscribed set of legal, political and moral disputes, namely those that cannot be solved by devolving choice via jurisdictions to individuals, such as the uniform specification of property rights, determining the limits of free speech rights and the like. The state can more easily create uniform, fair legal specifications of abstract rights and potentially move us from bad social equilibria on various social practices (say the pre-Civil Rights era political equilibrium on Jim Crow laws) to better ones. The main line of argument in The Order of Public Reason is that democratic orders historically have been the best protectors of individual rights, despite being very imperfect. So Gaus favors a constitutionally limited democratic order for a number of reasons that are not dogmatic.

      • Fallon

        Thank you, Kevin. I would add that Soviet dogma came to be generally excepted as empty sloganeering (though still used in the court system to send people to gulag) while “democracy” here in the US has definite meanings. The problem is that these myriad definitions of democracy, some more nebulous than others, are not compatible. How can Gaussians get along with, say, Deweyites?

        (Although, the neoconservative post-Trotsky democracy variant doubles all too smoothly for Bush Family types exploiting democratic legitimacy for fascistic plunder. e.g. war contracts)

        More questions emerge. How does Gaus’s “Constitutional” democracy stand up to the problems of “incentives and information” as per your recent POD post?

        Gaus may believe that history proves the liberal constitutional
        democratic form the best– but that does not mean he has history right
        or that it is logically optimal. Leaving history aside for now leaves
        the reasoning. Hoppe may not be the best political scientist– as Matt Z
        ‘s criticisms combined with RPLong’s mitigation suggest– but his take
        down of democracy using economic reasoning is much much stronger.
        Instead of the Hayekian “incentives and information” problems, Hoppe
        exercises Misesian insight and makes it an “incentive and property”
        Does Public Reason have to go to constitutional democracy or is it compatible with anarchic “competing” forms of law? If there must be ‘one law to rule them all’, how would Gaus’s one law theme (democratic competition and PR tolerance) be compatible with e.g. Hans Hoppe’s ‘anarchic property’ as the one fundamental principle?

        In other words, can Public Reason per Gaus stand without a monopoly state form of government?

  • Kyle Nearhood

    One of the problems we see today is not an “establishment” of religion, nor a repression of religion, but rather we see some arms of government being used to protect an aggressive religion from criticism. Throughout Europe, and even in Canada we see Islamics involved in all sorts of hate speech and hate crimes but being protected from even mild forms of criticisms by rules of political correctness.

    • martinbrock

      Drone strikes must be mild enough criticism to slip through the cracks of political correctness.

      • Sean II

        Nice quip, Martin, but come on…you know the establishment is perfectly capable of the hypocrisy required to carry out murderous wars and drone strike while simultaneously helping to foster a taboo against defamation by mere words.

        What we’ve got in the united States since 2001 is a government that is shameless about killing muslims, and painfully shy about offending Islam.

        Think about it: we’ll drop bombs on Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan with no problem, but imagine the universal outcry if we dropped leaflets saying “Cut the crap. Women are people. Allah does not exist. Death is final. Stop kneeling so much, it makes you look ridiculous.”

        The same people who are gonna go watch Zero Dark-Thirty this holiday season and have themselves a good old-fashioned jingoasm – I’m talking about liberals and conservatives, each for different reasons – would tear you apart for writing a leaflet like that.

        Welcome to the worst of both worlds.

        • martinbrock

          Politicians are pathological hypocrites by nature, but I don’t see much reluctance to criticize Islam in the U.S. The POTUS himself speaks of “Islamo-Fascism”, and Islam more generally gets plenty of criticism even in the widely circulated media. All the talk of coddling Muslims with political correctness sounds more disingenuous to me.

          I have no quarrel with a billion adherents to a thousand year old religion around the world, and I don’t believe that religion primarily motivates Islamist militants in the middle east. How people kneel is none of my business, and I don’t take seriously any politician’s sanctimonious concern for women and children he isn’t bombing at the moment, regardless of any leaflets he drops with the bombs, but if you don’t hear politicians of every stripe mouthing platitudes about women in Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, you can’t be listening very attentively.

          • Kyle Nearhood

            I did not mention the US, but purposefully stated Europe and Canada. In the USA we still have free speech, (for the moment). I also do not think that the majority of Islamics are bad people. But a significant number are committed to our (anyone not of their sect.) death or subjugation. And that is a problem. It is not a problem amenable by Drone strikes, but it is nevertheless a problem. And if you do not recognize that, then you probably need to reconsider.

          • martinbrock

            Maybe you’re right about political correctness in Europe and Canada, but I don’t believe that most or even very many Islamist militants are committed to the death or subjugation of anyone not in their sect. This formulation of their motives only obfuscates.

            I protect myself from Islamist militants, as much as I can, by trying to persuade the state subjugating me not to antagonize them. I can’t possibly protect myself from madmen zealously following some inexplicably murderous ideology, but fortunately, I don’t encounter many of these men, because they are largely mythical. State religions of all sorts, including the secular religion of the United State, promulgate these myths.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You say: “I don’t believe that most or even very many Islamist militants are committed to the death or subjugation of anyone not in their sect. This formulation of their motives only obfuscates.” Why, then, do the Shia hate and kill the Sunni, and vice versa? Why do some prominant Islamic clerics still uphold the moral legitimacy of slavery for non-Muslims? See

          • martinbrock

            Protestants killed Catholics, and vice versa, in Ireland quite recently, and Christians warred with other Christians and with Muslims and others in the past, but it’s ridiculous to generalize from these killings to “Christians are committed to the death of subjugation or anyone not in their sect”.

            Predominantly Islamic nations still have heavily church-dominated states, so the line between religion and politics in these nations is not always clear, but a blurry line doesn’t make the distinction meaningless.

            Some prominent Islamic clerics presumably believe all sorts of nonsense. When the Jerusalem Post reports Rabbi Yosef saying that gentiles exist only to serve Jews and comparing gentiles to donkeys, middle eastern media report that a few million Jews expect to enslave everyone else on Earth, but I needn’t take either Yosef’s statements or these reports seriously.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Your comparisons are ludicrous. Hundreds of years ago, before the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Christians used to kill other Christians en masse, no longer, not even in N. Ireland. Even there, it was at heart a political not a religious conflict. Muslims still kill other Muslims today on a large scale, and it is based on a relgious dispute going back to the 7th Century.

            99.999% of Jews think this statement by Rabbi Yosef is idiotic, and Jews don’t kill other Jews or anyone else in the name of Judaism, but this is not the case with respect to the many hideous pronouncements by Muslim clerics, like the one of slavery, or the various fatwas commanding the deaths of literary figures like Salman Rushdie. Bury your little libertarian head in the sand if you like, but don’t expect me to join you there.

          • martinbrock

            Writing “ludicrous” doesn’t change anything. Iraqis and Iranians did not kill each other by the millions in the Iran/Iraq war for religious reasons despite the fact that the Iraqis were overwhelmingly Sunni and the Iranians overwhelmingly Shia, any more than Englishmen and Germans killed each other because the English were predominantly Anglican and the Germans Lutheran.

            When sectarian violence predictably erupted in Iraq following the U.S. occupation, the killings weren’t simply sectarian either. The predominantly Sunni Baathists had killed many Shia before the occupation, but they had also killed many Kurds who are predominantly Sunni.

            Israelis kill in the name of Israeli nationalism, and some people make little distinction between killing for this nationalism and killing for Judaism.

            I’m sure that most Jews don’t take Yosef seriously, but I doubt that 99.999% think him idiotic, and you presumably have no poll to this effect, any more than you have a poll showing support among Muslims for enslaving non-Muslims.

            My little libertarian head sees the political motivation behind reducing one’s political enemies to mindless ideologues with no legitimate political agenda who wage total war for ideological dominance and can only be defeated through total war.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Your last paragraph is pure ad hominem. You have not and cannot cite any evidence that I have attempted to “reduce one’s political enemies to mindless ideologues with no legitimate political agenda who wage total war for ideological dominance and can only be defeated through total war.” This is just garbage.

            As for the rest, I am losing patience. You seem to be an educated person, so you must be familiar with the significance of the “Renaissance,” “Reformation” and “Enlightenment,” i.e. transformative developments in European history and Christianity. If you believe that Islam has generally experienced a similar evolution you are very sadly mistaken.

          • martinbrock

            An ad hominem attack refers to you personally, and I don’t refer to you personally. I describe a rhetorical tactic that you might or might not be using, and you take personal offense at my description to the tactic.

            On the other hand, “your little libertarian head” does refer to my little head. I’m aware of the dimensions of my head compared with the world surrounding it. The diminutive dimensions of my head is precisely my point. Any generalization in my head can be no larger or more inclusive than the head. The world is infinitely more complex.

            I never anywhere suggest that Islam has experienced any sort of transformative development. “Islam” describes a thousand year old religion with billions of adherents around the world. I don’t suggest any generalization applicable to so many people with such diverse characteristics. I know Muslims in the UAE and in Canada, and they seem enlightened enough to me, but I don’t generalize from these examples any more than I generalize from the Islamist terrorists described in newspapers.

          • Sean II

            Hey Martin, if things come to a point where I can’t point out – to a libertarian – that women In Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. live under a wretchedly unjust regime of legal and social inequality (thanks almost entirely to religion and religiously sanctioned traditional values), if I can’t mention any of that without being accused of “mouthing platitudes” …I’m afraid it’s impossible to finish this thought politely.

          • martinbrock

            Platitudes are not false. People of all sorts live in wretchedly unjust regimes of legal and social inequality, but the status of women in Afghanistan had little if anything to do with the U.S. occupation, and as the notorious Time cover effectively pointed out, the occupation has little effect on the status of women.

            In Iraq, the status of women under the neo-fascist Baath party was more like what you presumably imagine as “legal and social equality” than was most of the middle east before the occupation, and the status of women has moved in the opposite direct since the occupation, so I can only wonder why anyone would be dropping leaflets extolling the virtues of legal and social equality, except to score platitudinous political points.

            It’s just a fact that the status of women did not motivate these occupations to nearly the extent that it motivated the political propaganda. If you want to take personal offense at this fact, I can’t stop you.

          • Sean II

            This is exactly what sets me off me here, Martin. Who said anything about the status of woman in the middle east motivating our two wars? Certainly not me, and I’m pretty sure not Kyle or Mark or anyone else either. No one is defending the wars.

            What puzzles me is, you seem not to realize that it’s possible to be anti-war, anti-drone, anti pre-modern ideology of wretched superstition and chauvinism, and anti preening, self-congratulatory posture of phony “tolerance” for said ideology.

            But you must be wrong, for in the name of the compassionate and the merciful, I declare that I am all of these things myself.

            BTW: You know what is the dead giveaway on the phony tolerance thing? Hardly anyone ever finds it necessary to litter their speech with disclaimers to the effect that “I think millions of statists are good people at heart” or “I have no quarrel with the statist people”. We just go ahead and make our case against statism, explaining why we think it’s wrong, and talking about how to build a world without it. And we don’t worry too much if we hurt the feelings of a few statists, especially if those statists happen to derive their entire sense of self-esteem from their adherence to the statist idea.

            Now, as an ideology, Islamism today is every bit as stupid and at least half as dangerous as statism. But let someone start explaining why, and how, and in what details, etc…and some hero always has to be the first one to rush forward and insist that the vast majority of people who believe this terrible idea should in no way be held responsible for believing this terrible idea, and should not have their feelings hurt by any too blunt demonstrations of the idea’s injustice and stupidity.

          • martinbrock

            I’m aware that you are anti-war and pro-woman, and I think that’s great. I’m also sure that Bush and Obama are genuinely pro-woman and also pro-child and pro-baseball and apple pie. I just don’t know how that’s relevant to anything.

            If you want to hurt the feelings of proponents of superstitious chauvinism, that’s also fine with me, but I doubt that dropping leaflets while bombing them has the effect you want on their feelings. In reality, typical Islamists think they’re as pro-woman as you think yourself. In fact, they imagine you terribly anti-woman.

            Islamist statism is still statism, and I have no sympathy with it. I also have no desire or intention to rescue anyone from it or even to rescue anyone from other people’s attempts to rescue them from it, so I’m hardly any sort of hero.

  • Peter

    Symbolic endorsement is no more unjust than endorsement of one language over another. I believe the US came to separation as a political compromise, not for any moral reason.

  • Sean II

    I’m curious how the state could take any position on anything “without taxpayer support”?

    Shouldn’t the argument be: All speech has costs. When the state speaks, those costs are paid by coercively collected taxes. There is no way to say which taxpayer bought which item in the state’s budget. Therefore, if the state speaks for a religious establishment, if it prints one pamphlet, buys one building, wires one microphone, makes one television broadcast, etc…it is forcing someone to pay for speech he does not endorse, and has no public reason to endorse.

    Indeed, even if some religious faction agreed to foot the bill for all such speech entirely through donations, the problem would only be pushed back by one degree. Without taxes extracted by force, there wouldn’t be a state around to receive those donations.

  • I’m a bit confused as to how social justice would help in this instance (without going full out Rawlsian.) Would you mind spelling out the (theoretical) argument a bit?

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