In a market economy, no one literally distributes the wealth. But that doesn’t mean the concept of social justice is nonsense. Matt explains why:

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  • Kyle Nearhood

    I reject Rawls’ formulation. To me, a just society is one in which the most good is done for the MOST people (not the least well off) as long as each individual has freedom and opportunity.

    • Sean II

      Sometimes one can learn a great deal by talking to people who know nothing. Many years back, I dated a very smart but non-intellectual girl who, come to think of it, may have been just a bit more anti- than she was non-.

      Who knows how it ever came up in conversation between us, but one evening I found myself trying to describe Rawls to her, despite being handicapped by my own very limited understanding. I told her about as much as I then knew: that he was a big deal lefty philosopher from the 1970s whose ideas had come to dominate the field, that Ayn Rand hated his guts, how the original position thing was supposed to work, and that Rawls believed inequalities should only be tolerated in so far as they served to benefit the least well off.

      She says: “Oh, so noblesse oblige then. What’s the big deal about that?” I assured her that no, this concept really was something new, widely considered to be a breakthrough theory of justice. She says: “Yeah, it sounds like the Bible though. ‘The poor will always be with us, do them good whenever you may’, ‘Let no man seek his own but every other’s wealth’, all that stuff they talk about in homilies when they’re trying to make our parents feel guilty.”

      At the time I thought she was a total embarrassment, an idea-hating philistine who should feel lucky to be with someone so thoughtful as me. Now I think that I was a hugely gullible idiot and she was really on to something.

      What Rawls seems like to me now, is a man who went to great and sometimes bizarre lengths trying to defend, disguise, and otherwise make a fuss over what really is an unbelievably banal set of core ideas.

      To get where he was going (i.e., where he started and quite obviously always planned to end up), he went on a strange journey indeed. As you point out: why would we build a moral philosophy by carving humanity into sections and saying “whatever happens, we need to make the rules ONLY on behalf of this one section here, which I call ‘the least-well off'”? But of course Rawls couldn’t just say “we mustn’t forget about the poor” or “a decent society won’t just let bunches of people starve in the streets”, because then the banality of what he was saying would be all too obvious.

      A society designed on behalf of the poor is, in one obvious sense, similar to society run on behalf of nobles, or clergy, or dead ancestors, or whatever. If you are the least well off and I’m not, and the rules must be arranged to serve you but not necessarily me, then it sure seems like one of us is using the other as a mere means.

      Not to mention: why assume the poor will always be with us? When we’re all living in a glittering future and the “least advantaged” live as far away from absolute scarcity as Kim Kardashian does today, are we still supposed to let the needs of that segment determine the whole structure of society? And if yes, what would make them any different, at that stage of history, from any other privileged class?

      I’m with you Kyle. I don’t see how we get from “let’s talk about justice” to “As a first step, let’s focus just on 10% or %5 of humanity.” But hey, what the hell do I know…

      • Kevin

        I’m not entirely sure where Kyle was going, but I agree with where you ended up. Favoring any group in law makes me cringe, whether it is the poor or “the most people”.

        Whatever happened to liberty and justice for all? Equality under the law?

        • j_m_h

          What if one (liberty & justice and equality under the law) is not a proper subset of the other? Which then gives?

          • Kevin

            Are you suggesting that equality under the law is not an element of justice?

            Could you give an example?

          • j_m_h

            Is subjecting everyone to an unjust law an act of justice?

            If you say that doesn’t count I think you’re accepting that the two set are not fully defined by at least one of the sets alone.

            Even if the law is just, I’m not sure the equality under law holds everywhere as just because we’re claiming that the differential benefits provided and burdens imposed imposed by any law is just — which is a problematic claim.

            Note, I’m not suggesting that we can only use outcomes to define justice, I’m merely saying we cannot completely ignore them.

          • Kevin

            Is subjecting everyone to an unjust law an act of justice?

            Relatively speaking, yes. In a democracy, subjecting everyone to an unjust law is more just than subjecting only a minority, because the majority created it and they have the power to change it. A minority does not have that power.

            In general, I’d say that equality under the law is necessary but not sufficient for justice to be served.

            I’m not suggesting we ignore outcomes, I’m saying that the outcome of a differential in wealth is not in itself immoral, and that forcing wealth equality by itself is immoral.

            It seems to me that Matt is observing the great outcomes of the free market and concluding that we can all agree that the laws should therefore aim at those outcomes, but that’s a dangerous inversion of the actual process.

            As Milton Friedman said (regarding equality of outcome): “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

          • j_m_h

            I can understand your view of necessary versus sufficient — and I certainly agree it would not be sufficient. At the same time I can conceive of a world without law in which justice can exists — so would question the necessary conclusion.

            I don’t see that anyone here is suggesting that differentials in wealth wrong from the start or even that anyone is calling for forcing wealth equality. Of course we’ll always have a practical issue of transitions but these are not what we’re talking about here, nor should they necessarily be seen as a barrier to changes.

            Last, I don’t see that anyone is suggesting we trade freedom for equality so we don’t need to fear the results Friedman points to.

            I’m going to repackage Matt’s thought experiment. Is it possible that alternative sets of rules exists that both result in the poorest in the society being better off than they are now which remain such that the market order still functions with all it’s allocative efficiency and, with the same level of resources produces a larger pie?

            True, in the above there may be inherent transfers that exist as we’re talking about two different sets of rules. Given that none of us have some right the ensures the rules cannot change, are any transfers due to the transition really unjust? Aren’t they similar to the differential impact of any given law?

          • Kevin

            At the same time I can conceive of a world without law in which justice can exists — so would question the necessary conclusion.

            Even then everyone would be subject to the same set of laws, it would just be the empty set. It also seems to me that a just world without law would be functionally equivalent to a just world with just laws that never need to be enforced.

            I don’t see that anyone here is suggesting that differentials in wealth wrong from the start or even that anyone is calling for forcing wealth equality.

            Matt advocates the principle that “the rules of a just society should work for the maximum advantage of its poorest members”, which implies that there is something so wrong with differentials in wealth that the poorest inherently deserve maximum advantage by law. How else do you justify that principle?

            The terms “rules” and “society” above are somewhat misleading because the principle is not being applied to voluntary social rules and pressures, but rather to “laws” and “government” whose sole distinction is the authority to violently coerce. When the force of law is used to give maximum advantage to the poorest, then we are forcing wealth equality, which comes at the price of liberty.

            I’m going to repackage Matt’s thought experiment. Is it possible that alternative sets of rules exists that both result in the poorest in the society being better off than they are now which remain such that the market order still functions with all it’s allocative efficiency and, with the same level of resources produces a larger pie?

            Current laws include regulations, taxes, subsidies, cronyism, and even welfare that harms both the free market and the poorest in society, so I think that pursuing liberty would help the poor. Beyond that, the way to help the poor is voluntary charity, where social mores play an important role.

            I don’t know if there is wiggle room in the core laws of the free market to justly favor the poor. I’m open to considering specific examples, but I can’t think of any.

            True, in the above there may be inherent transfers that exist as we’re talking about two different sets of rules. Given that none of us have some right the ensures the rules cannot change, are any transfers due to the transition really unjust? Aren’t they similar to the differential impact of any given law?

            I’d imagine that if we are transitioning from a less just law to a more just law, then the transfers would be just.

    • Kevin

      Are you defining justice as the most good for the most people?

      That almost sounds like a tyranny of the majority, except you then qualify it with “as long as each individual has freedom and opportunity” which confuses me, since the whole question here is: when should individual liberty be sacrificed for the greater good, right?

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  • Kevin

    Rawls’ / Matt’s claim that “the rules of a just society should work for the maximum advantage of its poorest members” implies that there is something immoral about being rich or poor, doesn’t it?

    That’s the basic problem with social justice: being rich or poor is not inherently just or unjust.

    Meanwhile, equality under the law actually is a moral principle of justice, so law maximizing the advantage of the poorest would in fact be unjust, just as it would be unjust for the law to work to the advantage of the rich.

    Yet Matt asks us to assume the latter — that the laws supporting the free market actually work to the advantage of the rich while “alienating” and “exploiting” the poor — in order to conclude that such laws would be unjust. Well, yes, because he assumed his conclusion.

    I’m open to examples of Matt’s theory, but I don’t see any. He pointed to the laws that helped make Derek Jeter wealthy, but he doesn’t reveal which free market laws were unjust or how he would tweak them. Of course, there are a myriad of unjust laws, but they invariably hinder the free market rather than supporting it.

    Do free market advocates care about the plight of the poor?

    Is the just way of demonstrating care by compelling it through the law?

  • ben

    Wait – so because governments already mess up free markets and the decentralized order of a free society, it is moral for governments to intervene even more to try and counter the injustice it is itself causing?

  • j_m_h

    I think Matt’s suggestion that there is a lot to think about in this area is valid. While I’ll hesitate to call any of the reactions “knee-jerk” some responses appear to be very reluctant to steps away from one’s current view even as a thought experiment.

    For those who strongly advocate the “free market distribution” I’m wondering how many have considered the Public Choice implications of corporate allocations of the production surplus they generate? If so, has any consideration been given to what portion of total pie this might amount to? (Get’s to the comment about underlying institutions supporting markets)

    I also like the implication that “government action” might not need to take the same direct intervention (e.g., transfer payments or minimum wages). Other approaches might be available if sufficient consideration given. As a bit of an aside here I’d also question if only one complex of prices-outputs is consistent (in that it would largely sustain in a market setting) with a given level of GDP or similar aggregate measure.

    Last, I think different people might be conceiving of the idea of a good society being evaluated by how well of the the worst are as part of that evaluation. For instance, I don’t really see how Kevin get to the conclusion that it’s necessarily a zero-sum game where if the lot in live of the poor in the society is better than any other society that the rich are therefore the source of that improvement.

    • Kevin

      What part of what I wrote gave you that impression? The free market is not a zero-sum game.

      • j_m_h

        Clearly, after a re-reading, no part of what you wrote — a too quick skim by me. Sorry Kevin.

        • Kevin

          No problem. :)

  • Justin Anderson

    Kudos to an excellent and provocative thought experiment brilliantly laid out. I will certainly need to reflect further on the unrealistic (albeit stirring) thought-experiment posed at the beginning of Matt’s video.

    As for my “knee-jerk” reaction – allow me to pose a similar question and one that is probably more realistic than the idea “if free markets hurt the poor relative to other systems, would you still favor it?”.

    Let’s say it is scientifically “proven” (let’s dodge the mis-characterization of science from the outset – it makes reliable predictions and “proves” nothing) that joining a religion (pick one) tends to make the poor (or even everyone) more happy, is it “socially justified” to arrange the rules of society, however “non authoritatively”, to encourage, indoctrinate, etc, people into joining that “proven to make you happy” religion?

    I think you get into an awful mess when setting up “social justice” as the modus operandi for your Libertarian ends. I think you would agree that the desirability of the spreading of a happiness-inducing religion is necessarily a question for the individual.

    People are pragmatic (and communally-minded, see evolution) and little is done without agreement, and as such, using “social justice” as a starting point to build consensus is a good and proper political thing to do. Social justice arguments persuade people (irrationally as I hoped, and likely failed, to lay out with the religious example above) far better than principled positions questioning the “social justice” premise.

    I am a minarchist because I believe (pragmatically) that under such a system I will maximize my own, and my loved ones, long term benefit (whatever that means to me). I also prefer the mental stability that comes from a consistent (at least as far as I see it thus far) system of belief without obvious contradictions in its deductions (maybe I am just too stupid to see them…). A (relatively small) part of that “long term benefit” is being in an environment absent of (excessive) poverty and even in a world without said poverty and to that extent only (to the extent that it affects me and my loved ones), I concern myself with questions of wider organization and political consensus amongst my fellows. In no way does that include a notion of “social justice” other than as a tool of persuasion to build consensus for my world-view.

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