Rights Theory, Libertarianism

Tomasi Book Workshop Part I

The Pacific APA is holding an author meets critics session on John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness in late March. I’m one of the critics, along with Steve Wall and Paul Gowder. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post my comments for the session. I’ll blog after the session about Tomasi’s response (or perhaps he’ll blog his response here instead).


No one gets extra credit for having the most morally ambitious or demanding political theory. Nevertheless, Tomasi has produced the most morally ambitious and demanding liberal political theory yet. We all grew up being told that we must choose: social justice or a strong commitment to economic liberty, but not both. Tomasi’s says justice requires both, thank you very much. You don’t get to choose one or the other. Some will regard his book Free Market Fairness as an attempt to apologize for a certain form of welfare state capitalism. Not so. Tomasi has come not to apologize, but to cast stones. Just as people in the Rawlsian camp—who often refer to themselves with the self-aggrandizing label of “high liberal”—look down upon classical liberals and libertarians for having underdeveloped moral concerns, so Tomasi looks down upon Rawls, Nagel, Freeman, and so many others in the field, considering them in important respects backward, parochial, conservative thinkers.

Tomasi’s project is to try to imagine a set of institutions that both 1) provides an expansive range of permissible choices for each citizen and 2) at the same time acts to ensure that citizens have the means to realize this freedom.

Immanuel Kant begins the Critique of Pure Reason by saying he had to deny knowledge to make room for faith. Similarly, 20th century left-liberals believe they had to deny a basic right to economic liberty in order to make room for social justice. But, Tomasi asks, what if no such denial is needed?

Among the critics here today, I’m the closest to Tomasi in terms of ideological disposition. By any sensible criteria of classification, Tomasi and I are in the same ideological class, even if we have lots of disagreements. Indeed, Tomasi and I have even written an essay together for David Estlund’s Oxford Handbook describing, in the abstract, what we regard as the new wave of classical liberal thought. While most introductory political philosophy textbooks think Nozick is an exemplar of libertarian thinking, we regard the hard libertarianism of Rothbard, Nozick, and Rand as a kind of aberration in the mainline of classical liberal thought. Classical liberalism has always been animated by a deep concern for the poor and vulnerable. Adam Smith revolutionized economic thinking by saying that the wealth of nations is measured not by the size of the king’s treasury or the number of ships in the armada, but instead by the fullness of the common man’s stomach and the opportunities available to his children. Early classical liberals did not employ the language of “social justice,” but they nevertheless were animated by these concerns. The new wave of classical liberals are much more willing to talk in these terms.

While I accept many of Tomasi’s conclusions, I’m still worried about many of his arguments. That said, I find the strength of the approach lies not so much in this particular argument or that, but in the broad kinds of gestures Tomasi makes. To hard libertarians, Tomasi says, “Once you understand what the concept of social justice really means, surely you must find it attractive. Suppose I showed you that you could accept social justice without this coming at the expense of your other cherish moral ideals. Wouldn’t you want to?” To soi-disant high liberals, Tomasi says, “You thought you must relegate economic liberty to a low status in order to preserve social justice. But, come now, suppose it turned out we could get social justice and economic liberty at the same time. Wouldn’t you want to?” Whatever the merits or demerits of Tomasi’s explicit arguments, these gestural sort of arguments seem compelling to me. If you really are a liberal first and foremost—rather than, say, a deliberative democrat—you think by default people ought to have a huge range of freedom. And if you are at all a humanitarian, you’d better not be advocating social institutions though the sky falls. Instead, you should think one test of good institutions is that they give everyone a stake in those institutions.

In this essay, I discuss five main concerns with Tomasi’s book. These are:

  1. There’s good reason to think that Tomasi shows why, from a Rawlsian point of view, economic liberty should be on par with other liberties. But at the same time, I’m worried that he just exposes how weak the Rawlsian argument for liberty is. One might read Tomasi not as proving economic liberties are basic, but as instead proving that the Rawlsian test for basic liberties isn’t very good.
  2. One might worry that under not so favorable conditions, Tomasi’s insistence that economic liberty is a basic liberty means that there’s no room for social justice. Call this the exclusion problem. I want argue there is no exclusion problem, despite what critics might think.
  3. Tomasi needs to explicitly deal with the issue of immigration. This is not a side issue, but rather a core question about the legitimacy of government and territorial sovereignty.
  4. There’s good reason to think Tomasi shows that his favored institutions can realize justice under “ideal conditions”. But, at the same time, I’m worried he just exposes how boring ideal theory is, as it’s very easy for an idealized description of many different kinds of regimes to realize justice in those conditions.
  5. John doesn’t really show that classical liberals or libertarians must embrace social justice. Rather, he just shows that for many of them, such an embrace would be more comfortable than they realize.


The Argument for Moral Parity

 Tomasi wants to argue that the economic liberties are on par with civil liberties. I agree with this conclusion, or at least, something very close to it. Again, I think Tomasi’s best argument is gestural: If you really are a liberal, you have to assume by default that people do have thick economic liberty. They only reason would deny this is if you thought you thought it necessary to carve out a sphere for social justice. So, if someone like Tomasi shows you can have both social justice and economic liberty, you should rejoice.

However, I’m not sure I find Tomasi’s actual arguments compelling. Part of the problem is that he relies upon a Rawlsian foundation for trying to explain what determines our sphere of rightful liberty. He does a reasonable job showing that Rawlsians have no special reason to exclude economic liberty, but the problem, from my perspective, is that the Rawlsian argument for liberty is pretty lame. [N.B.: I realize Rawls has other arguments besides the moral powers argument. I’m focusing on this here because it’s the argument Tomasi relies upon.]

Samuel Freeman summarizes Rawls:

For Rawls the basic liberties include liberty of conscience and freedom of thought and expression; freedom of association and the rights and liberties that maintain freedom and integrity of the person (including freedom of occupation and a right to hold personal property); equal political liberties and the rights establishing the rule of law. Rawls explicitly rejects economic rights, including ownership of means of production, as among the basic liberties, saying that the scope of economic rights are to be defined and regulated by his second principle, including the difference principle.[i]

On the Rawlsian theory, liberties get to count as basic liberties just in case they bear some sort of special relationship to our “two moral powers,” i.e., our capacity to develop a sense of justice and our capacity to develop and act upon a conception of the good life. The trick is figuring out just what this special relationship is.

Now, frankly, trying to explain where liberties and rights come from is a difficult project. But I don’t find the Rawlsian theory of this persuasive, and for that reason, I don’t find Tomasi’s version of it persuasive either. However, Tomasi’s version seems as good or better to me than the orthodox position.

So, what’s the special relationship between a basic liberty and the two moral powers? Samuel Freeman says that a liberty is basic only if it is necessary for all citizens to have that liberty in order to develop the two moral powers. Freeman might say, “I, Freeman, am proof that thick economic liberty isn’t necessary for all people to develop their two moral powers. I have the two moral powers despite not exercising thick economic liberty.” Tomasi’s response to Freeman is that Freeman is mistaken—in fact, his capacity for responsible self-authorship is stunted without such freedom.

I’m not so sure. People in Denmark and Switzerland enjoy much more economic liberty than people in Russia. Does this mean that Russians can’t develop a sense of justice or a conception of the good life? That seems deeply implausible. In fact, perhaps only a handful of countries allow citizens to have the range of economic liberty Tomasi thinks important, yet, despite that, most citizens in those countries can and do develop the two moral powers.

Victory for high liberalism? Nope. It is also deeply implausible that that it is necessary to have massive amounts of freedom of speech, freedom of participation, democratic freedom, or the other Rawlsian basic liberties in order to develop a sense of justice or a conception of the good life. Again, people in Denmark and Switzerland enjoy much more civil liberty than people in Russia. Does this mean that Russians can’t develop a sense of justice or a conception of the good life? Obviously not. In fact, only a small handful of countries in the world actually afford their citizens the full scope of Rawlsian basic liberty. However, in the overwhelming majority of the unjust countries, the overwhelming majority of people develop (or at least could develop) a sense of justice and a conception of the good.

If Freeman’s test of what makes something a basic liberty is the right test, then I regard this as an argument against liberalism. That is, Freeman’s theory of what makes something a basic liberty ends up being a reason to reject, not to embrace, liberal political philosophy. In fact, it seems to me very little liberty is strictly speaking necessary for the typical person (let along all people, as Freeman would have it) to develop the two moral powers. People in deeply authoritarian or totalitarian regimes will have a difficult time having the proper evaluative horizons open to them for them to authentically develop the moral powers, but even in such countries, it’s not strictly speaking impossible. To develop the two moral powers, you don’t need much freedom of speech, freedom of marriage rights, much freedom of association, or much political liberty. You don’t need to have the right to vote or run for office. You don’t need to have full freedom of bodily integrity, and you don’t need to be free of physical harassment from state officials. You don’t need to have the right to choose your own occupation. And so on. Freeman and Rawls say that X is a basic liberty only if it is necessary for all people to have that liberty in order to develop the two moral powers. But it’s really easy for us to imagine people developing the two moral powers without having much liberty. Epictetus surely developed his two moral powers more than most people, and he managed to do so while literally being a slave. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn developed his two moral powers despite living in a totalitarian regime and despite being imprisoned in the gulag. And you can find other historical examples of people who have developed their two moral powers despite lacking much freedom. So, if Rawls and Freeman are right about what makes something a basic liberty, then basically nothing is a basic liberty.

No [more than minuscule] set of freedoms is actually necessary for people to develop the moral powers, unless we go and redefine the moral powers such that freedom is constitutive of them. But then that’s just question-begging.

Elsewhere, I’ve seen Freeman say that X is a basic liberty only if it is necessary for all people to develop and exercise the two moral powers. This won’t help matters. After all, if Necessarily (P and Q), then necessarily P and necessarily Q. [Sorry, modal logic notation doesn’t show up on the blog.) So, the class of X’s necessary to both develop and exercise the two moral powers is equal to or smaller in size than the class of X’s necessary just to develop the two moral powers.

On Freeman’s behalf, let’s change the “and” to “or”. Let’s say something is a basic liberty only if it is necessary for all people to develop or exercise the two moral powers. The problem here is that this new test is probably both too narrow and too broad. But it depends on just what counts as sufficiently “exercising” the two moral powers. Consider political rights. The typical person in a democracy could effectively exercise her sense of justice and the good life without having the right to vote, join political parties, or run for office. The typical person could effectively exercise her sense of justice and the good life even if we arbitrarily placed a bunch of restrictions on her freedom of religion or occupational choice. E.g., suppose the United States forbade Americans from worshipping Zeus. Surely, this is a violation of freedom of religion. But since pretty much no one wants to worship Zeus, this won’t actually impede anyone from exercising their moral powers. (Unless, however, you decide to define “exercising the moral powers” in a question-begging and tautologous way, such that one exercises the moral powers only if one has certain freedoms. That’s fine if you want to do it, but then you’ll never be able to settle debates about our sphere of rightful freedoms.)

So, we need another relationship between “basic liberty” and “two moral powers.” Fill in the blank: X is a basic liberty just in case it ___________ the two moral powers. Some candidates:

  1. …might be useful to developing…? That can’t be right. It’s too broad. I’m pretty sure that a special educational program, a version of Émile, in which we allow teenagers to murder, say, a homeless person, would be conducive to developing people’s two moral powers. Imagine the shock most people who feel after having killed another. This might be a big moral developmental milestone. At any rate, it will be easy to imagine things that 1) clearly violate what we should regard as each others’ rights but 2) are helpful or conducive to developing our moral powers.
  2. tends to be conducive to developing…? Again, this will be too broad, if not as broad as the last suggestion. It will also be too narrow. Rawlsians tend to think that political participation rights are important basic liberties, but the available evidence in political psychology strongly suggests that exercising these rights tends to impede rather than promote most people’s capacity to develop their two moral powers.[i]
  3. tends to maximize the development of…? Same problem as before.

[i] See, e.g., Jason Brennan, “Political Liberty: Who Needs It?,”; Drew Westen, The Political Brain; Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind.

  • Murali

    I’ve had a very similar worry, that very little seems necessary to develop our moral powers. What I’ve been told is tha we must interpret the development and exercise of the two moral powers broadly. i.e. they denote the basis for the full variety of claims that people make against one another in the circumstances of justice. The way in which this is different from mere preference satisfaction is that it denotes two features:

    1. Some things are more important to us than others. Some of the claims we make are based on values more central to our conception of the good.

    2. The idea is that what makes a system acceptable to all is not just that under it we can sucessfully advance many of our claims, it is that the claims that we can successfuly advance against others pertain to something that is of central importance to us. For example, if the only successful claims a person could advance were those that were peripheral to his conception of the good and justice, that person would not have sufficient reason to accept that system.
    Thus AFAIK, Tomasi doesn’t think that it is what everyone needs to develp or exercise their two moral powers. Rather, as long as it is something someone could reasonably need to develop or exercise his two moral powers. Since different people may find different things central to their conception of the good, and behind the veil the parties have no idea what proportions of people hold what conceptions of the good, behind the veil, we will choose as wide a scope and extent of liberties as we can to secure the conditions such that no one would interfere with the pursuit of our deeply cherished goals whatever they may turn out to be and so long as the afforded liberty is compatible with an equal liberty of others to similarly pursue their goals.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Jason, you say “we [you and John Tomasi, or perhaps the entire BHL?] regard the hard libertarianism of Rothbard, Nozick, and Rand as a kind of aberration in the mainline of classical liberal thought. Classical liberalism has always been animated by a deep concern for the poor and vulnerable.”
    Phrasing it that way suggests that if you like Nozick’s argument, you must not have deep concern for the poor. CL has always been X, Nozick is an aberration, ergo Nozick is non-X. I agree with you and John that “CL has always been animated by a deep concern for the poor and vulnerable,” but deny that (what you call) hard libertarianism is antithetical to that. That strikes me as the kind of misreading of libertarians that I expect from lefty communitarians, but for which there’s actually no examples.

    • Is Nozick animated by a deep concern for the poor?

      Not that I really think he’s any less animated than your typical leftist philosopher. I don’t regard adopting a left-wing ideology as the same thing as having sincere concern for the poor. However, Nozick didn’t seem to think that part of the justification for libertarian institutions was how well they serve the poor, though I can find passages that suggest otherwise.

      • Aeon Skoble

        I think one can be concerned about the poor without accepting the Rawlsian justificatory criterion that the well-being of the poor is WHY a system is morally legitimate. So when you or John say “we care about the poor, unlike those “hard libertarians”” you are running together two different things, one of which is false (that people like Nozick don’t care about the poor) and one of which is true but misleading (that the welfare of the poor isn’t being invoked as a justificatory criterion for the theory).

        • Aeon Skoble

          I’m saying all this, BTW, in the context of liking John’s book quite a lot. I gave it a favorable mention in my last Freeman column, and I used it for a book club with some of my students last semester.

          • matt b


            Does this mean you could live with the (big) limited government libertarianism that Tomasi sets out even if it involves a more than mimimal state, indeed if it involves a state at all?

          • Aeon Skoble

            Matt- I will be happy to have any increase in liberty. Saying “full anarchism or don’t bother” strikes me as counter-productive. Anarchism shows that there’s no good reason to have the state, but it’s not going away any time soon. But more liberty would improve people’s lives. Tomasi’s world is more free than the one we live in now, so I’d be delighted to move there.

          • matt b

            I see, I see. Do you think an anarchist society could realize Tomasi’s (modified) Rawlsian principles?

          • Aeon Skoble

            Do you mean, would an anarchist society work to the best advantage of the least well-off? Yes.

          • matt b

            I think one of many tricky aspects for me, and as I said to Jason I’m trying to give anarchism a fair shake despite being quite skeptical, is environmental protection. It’s the classic case of an externality requiring government. How does an anarchist society deal with concerns of this sort?

          • Aeon Skoble

            It’s question-begging to define it as an externality requiring government. For one thing, looking to the government to “fix” the problem ensures that the problem will be handled in ways that benefit the well-connected (see: Buchanan; Public Choice). I suspect a better solution involves expanding, rather than contracting, how we understand property rights. (see: PERC).

          • matt b

            Sure property rights are a neglected component of improving the environment but how do you deal with air pollution through property rights in an anarchist society? No own owns the air.

          • Aeon Skoble

            I’m not an expert on this, but I think the way you make it work with property rights in airspace as opposed to the actual air.

          • matt b

            Okay Aeon, I’ll look into it. And to be fair anarchists get a lot more “Oh yeah how would that work” stuff then left and right statists receive criticism for their support over different aspects of the same awful status quo.

        • Sean II

          It wouldn’t bother me so much if the tone was “we care about the poor unlike those hard libertarians”. What I keep hearing around here is, “like leftists, we care about the poor…”

          The point Jason makes – “I don’t regard adopting a left-wing ideology as the same thing as having sincere concern for the poor” – is too often ignored in this precinct.

          Rawls, for example, lived a long time past 1971. At one point do we say his failure to critically examine the practical results of welfare state policies means that he renounced his own principle, backing an arrangement clearly to the disadvantage of the least well off.

          Reason 347 why I am not a philosopher. If a guy prescribed Laetrile in 1971 he could pardonably consider himself as someone with a sincere concern for cancer patients. But if he kept on prescribing Laetrile in 2001, he would just be a reckless, unpardonable quack.

          A philosopher pulls that same trick, and nobody bats an eye.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Right on. Those people killed with kindness are still dead, and the welfare state has damaged the lives of millions of innocent kids.

          • matt b

            I don’t think this is quite right, Sean. I’ve never heard any of the BHL’s say hard libertarians don’t care about the poor. The argument, as Matt Z puts it, is that they don’t regard the fact that libertarianism would improve the lot of the poor as a central component of the moral justification for libertarian institutions and don’t think if they turned out to be wrong on this point that it would fundamentally undermine the moral foundations of their philosophy. Moreover, almost all hard libertarians, if you said, something like “Would you accept a small decrease in property rights for a large increase in the welfare of the poor” would regard this as wrong. So, for example government spending 10 percent of GDP instead of 8.5. and increasing taxes accordingly to provide for some welfare programs would not be acceptable for a hard libertarian even if it meant a 2 percent poverty rate rather than a 10 percent poverty rate. You can say this is unrealistic of course but even if it wasn’t hard libertarians would still object to doing it.
            As for Rawls, I’m not sure he ever said, you know, “Damn this welfare state thing is going better than I could have ever hoped.” If he had said something like “To the extent we have any problems with our welfare state it’s a product of insufficient spending” then yes that would be quite damning but I’m not sure he ever articulated such a position.

          • Sean II

            Man, I’m starting to feel bad since nothing I’ve written here has anything to do with poor, neglected Tomasi.

            I’ll try to dredge up some quotes to support the claim that BHL’ers have and do accuse hard libertarians of indifference to the poor, but give me some time on that.

            I’m pretty sure Rawls was smart enough to avoid getting pinned down to any policy specifics, so I won’t even bother to search for any smoking gun quotes from him. I’ll simply note that he had 30 years to stand up and say “Um, not what I meant guys”, and to my knowledge, he didn’t do it. No doubt he would regard such avoidance as a feature of being a philosopher, not a bug. Mark that down as reason #349 why I’m not.

            But I do have something to say about your statement here: “…Moreover, almost all hard libertarians, if you said, something like “Would you accept a small decrease in property rights for a large increase in the welfare of the poor” would regard this as wrong…”

            To be fair, you have to consider the entire hard libertarian response , which I understand as having four parts: 1) A small decrease in property rights would not bring a large increase in welfare; 2) The small decrease in property rights would likely encourage a series further decreases, amounting to a large decrease in time; 3) A small decrease in property rights would fall heavily on marginal players, and thus still might ruin individual lives and fortunes; 4) a small decrease in property rights would still be a violation of rights; and 5) There are other, perfectly good ways to increase the welfare of the poor.

            Now, you can see that’s a much different position from the straw man of saying “For hard libertarians, a 1% property tax would have the same moral status as Treblinka.”

          • matt b

            First of all, you must publish reasons 1 to 349 somewhere. That would be a fun read.

            I’d be interested if you could find some quotes because I really have not gotten that idea from even the most bloody bleeding hearts on here or anywhere else. I guess you could say the entire term bleeding heart speaks to that but I think Matt Z and company just used it because bleeding heart is typically followed by liberal so they wanted to demonstrate you could be a libertarian and still care.

            Yeah no fair enough, fair enough. I wonder if Rawls was one of the many victims of confirmation bias. A cure has not yet been found.

            I don’t think anybody would claim hard libertarians believe that apart from me some crazy shrill Marxists on Alter Net. I’m not totally unsympathetic to the hard libertarian response, especially as you formulate it. I think at the end of the day the hard libertarian and I just have irreconciliable differences on the moral significance of property as such. That does not mean we can’t still remain married but we might agree to see other arguments from time to time and shack up with them.

    • matt b

      Hi Aeon,
      I think you’re absolutely right that people like Nozick had concern for the poor and truly believed that free markets and extremely strictly limited government would be better for them. However, to borrow Matt Z’s phrase, the fact that libertarianism is good for the poor is “not an essential component of the justification” for libertarianism in his case. It’s an appealing fact or, if we’re being a little more unassuming, likelihood of a libertarian society but it’s not at the core of the moral justification for libertarianism leaving us with the question of what Nozick would say if he turned out to be wrong about libertarianism’s impact on the poor and vulnerable. While he’s not as aggressively hostile to consequentialist considerations as some natural rights libertarians my guess is that he would say “Unless they are dying on the street, let’s stick to my vision.”

    • matt b

      Also in relation to my last comment, I think an important difference that is often overlook between Nozick’s hard libertarianism and Rand’s Objectivism is that you can be a Nozickean and hold that we have fairly far reaching duties to aid the poor but that the duties in question do not rise to the level of coerive enforceability. With Rand, the idea of far reaching positive duties is fundamentally incompatible with Objectivism unless you can somehow demonstrate- you need to justify your charity commie!- that aiding others is consistent with ethical egoism. If people think I’m misrepresenting Rand, I’d urge them to go read her many quotes on charity or youtube peter schwartz, he of the libertarianism is a perversity of liberty fame, who tells us that people who spend considerable amounts of time aiding poor people in the thirld world are morally suspect.

      • Aeon Skoble

        I’m not an official Objectivist, but I’re read almost all of Rand’s works, and she does think that there’s a role for benevolence when, e.g., someone is in dire straits. But she is very concerned, rightly IMO, about the idea of charity being abused to the point of undermining the very institutions that might alleviate poverty.

        • matt b

          I respectfully challenge you to come up with textual evidence to support this interpretation. Consider this quote “It is morally proper to accept help, when it is offered, not as a moral duty, but as an act of good will and generosity, when the giver can afford it (i.e., when it does not involve self-sacrifice on his part), and when it is offered in response to the receiver’s virtues, not in response to his flaws, weaknesses or moral failures, and not on the ground of his need as such.” In other words, if the next Howard Roark is starving because the benighted populace does not appreciate his genius throw him a (T) Bone. But if it’s just some guy you don’t know, whose disabled and isin’t capable of Roark like greatness then carry on. So yesterday when my friend saw a poor women on the street and gave her money he didn’t look at her and say “She is virtuous. I will aid her.” He didn’t know how virtuous she was. But he could see she was cold and tired and, horror of horrors, he gave her money because of her need. To the vast majority of people, this would be considered admirable. To an Objectivist, it’s wrong.

          • Aeon Skoble

            Not trying to dodge your challenge, but all my Rand books are at the office, so I can’t look stuff up til after the weekend. But while we’re waiting, just in general, is it your contention that her attitude is “I don’t care about poor people, let ’em starve” as opposed to “poor people don’t have a natural moral claim on the resources of the better-off, and in any case a society in which everyone’s liberty is respected will do a much better job of helping them get better lives”? Because I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. Consider Roark’s rationale for helping Keating (rough paraphrase off the top of my head, but this is close): If you want to do things for people, you have to be the sort of person who can get things done. But to get things done, you have to love the doing, not the people. I’ll be happy if people find a better life in the [affordable housing] I create, but that’s not my motive for designing it.
            On Rand’s view, the best way to help the poor is to let creativity and commerce flourish. She would deny that the well being of the poor is _why_ creativity and commerce should flourish, but she would certainly agree that this will have the _effect_ of helping people live better lives.

          • Sean II

            My Rand books are all within arms reach, but I refuse to open any of them because this question can easily be answered with the dust jackets closed.

            The whole thesis of Atlas Shrugged is that the poor benefit disproportionately from their interaction with, not the rich as such, but the “men of the mind”. Rand goes well beyond the usual, modest libertarian claim that trade is ex ante beneficial to both parties. What she’s saying throughout that book is “Reggie Hammond and the lowest paid janitor at Hammond Motors both have something to offer each other, but don’t get confused: on a desert island or in a mountain redoubt, Reggie Hammond can do without the janitor; the janitor will starve or freeze or die of a cut finger without Reggie Hammond and others like him.”*

            Clearly that means Rand favored a system she believed to be characteristically beneficial to the poor. Mix in the fact that she thought left-statists didn’t really care for the poor, and in fact made their lives miserable whenever they weren’t just ending them with Tokarev bullets, and I think you have your an answer.

            * Of course I meant Lawrence Hammond. Reggie Hammond was Eddie Murphy’s character from 48 Hours, a distant cousin.

          • matt b

            I don’t think even Rand would say let them starve. Her heart may be a few sizes too small but she’s not totally heartless. I think your description of her view is more reasonable than her actual view which seemed to be that not only do they not have a claim which would justify coercion even in the most extreme instances of material need but that they would not have a moral claim as such. In other words, not only can the government not tax Bill Gates to feed the starving disabled man but the starving disabled man can’t even reasonably ask him for some food. I take your last point but let’s put it this way: If in Objectivistopia 20 percent of people were suffering like hell and we could end that or mitigate it by having government spend, say, 10 percent of GDP instead of 7.5, Rand would be against doing that. I think that says a lot about her views on the weak and vulnerable.

          • Sean II

            Reason number 348 why I’m not a philosopher. To talk of whether or not it’s just to extract a further 2.5% of GDP to help the suffering poor ignores far too much of what we know about the world.

            We know, for example, that a big fat chuck of that 2.5% will be immediately captured by middle-class bureaucrats, administering the program. We know the rest will create some weird incentives on its way to the poor – incentives which may well outweigh the benefit they receive. We know that 2.5% will be taken from the margin of the economy, which is where the poor live and operate, thus harming them in ways hard to notice.

            I get that Liz Anderson is allowed (really, required by the territorial nature of academic publishing) to ignore these things when writing papers on the ideal justice of taking 2.5% to help the poort, but…that’s no reason why I should ignore them!

            Even Rand – bitchy, nasty, dexedrine-manic Rand – seemed to understand much of what I’m talking about here. The debate has never been: “Let the rich keep X% of GDP while the poor starve” vs “Let the state take X% so the poor don’t starve.”

            As Rand understood it, the debate was always between: “Take X% in the name of the poor, and the poor get screwed even worse” vs “Don’t take X% and the poor will actually end up better off.”

          • matt b

            I hear you Sean, I really do. However, and maybe this is an area of total disagreement between us, but I do believe some government initiatives can help the poor and vulnerable and have and people like Rand oppose those too. Their standard response is “These programs don’t work” but when challenged on what they would say if they did, if only hypothetically, the response is “Well I’d still oppose them” That’s a position you can hold on the grounds that all redistribution is theft but I wish the people who hold it would be more forthright about that belief rather than hidding behind the lack of efficacy argument.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN


            I totally respect the humane feelings that stand behind this statement: “…but I do believe some government initiatives can help the poor and vulnerable and have…” However, please seriously consider this challenge: “how can you ever really know this?” It’s not like government programs take the form of (say) delivering food to an identifiable group of people that is clearly about to starve to death without it.

            Far from it, they typically involve millions of people and trillions of dollars, with the ever-present waste, fraud, abuse and unintended consequences. It is not so clear how many people are actually helped, and what the situation would have been if the government had not acted. Moreover, these programs cause huge unknown and unknowable ripple effects in the economy, presumably for the worse. On the other hand, the coercion used to fund and administer these programs is obvious and unmistakable. So, you are always weighing a certain harm against a speculative benefit.

          • matt b

            Take a look at unemployment benefits. That’s a pretty obvious case of government helping people when they are out a job. Now you could say, as I have, “Fewer people would need these benefits if government had a more limited role in the economy.” However, there will always be some people out of work, especially in a dynamic free market and it seems implausible to deny those people don’t benefit from unemployment benefits. More broadly, I would point to the DC opportunity scholarship program that was recently killed by the Democrats in Congress as a program that delivered clear benefits to poor kids. I think the EITC has been beneficial too.

      • Sean II


        About this: “…who tells us that people who spend considerable amounts of time aiding poor people in the third world are morally suspect.”

        I’m also not an objectivist, but I have to agree with the conclusion in one sense. Whenever I meet anyone who starts telling me how much he cares about the poor, I count that as Exhibit A for the charge of: “This guy is probably a major d-bag.”

        When I meet someone who actually went to Senegal and fixed cleft palates, it’s a totally different reaction. I think: “This dude seems pretty awesome.”

        But do you realize how massively the former outnumber the latter? And didn’t you notice that most of the characters in Shrugged are rich assholes who sit around in parlors talking about helping the poor?

        • matt b

          I hear what you’re saying but, to be fair to myself, in my original post I was defending people who actually do things like go to Senegal, not those who bask in the light of their supposed righteousness. I just find Objectivists to be pretty cold people. To me, when you’re debating whether giving hungry people food because they’re hungry is maybe a bad thing to do, if it’s inconsistent with your philosophy, then you’ve gone off in the wrong direction.

          • Sean II

            But hold on a minute. “When you’re debating whether giving hungry people food because they’re hungry is maybe a bad thing to do…then you’ve gone off in the wrong direction.”

            The problem is, there’s no escaping that debate. The whole of the welfare state, and of the outright socialism from whose block it was chipped, is predicted on the idea that you can scale up the seemingly simple act of giving hungry people food to a national or global level.

            That, as we have learned, doesn’t work out so well. So when Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman or William Buckley or Charles Murray are arguing about hungry people and bread, they are opposing the idea that you can cure general hunger by giving away food as a matter of policy, or cure general poverty by giving away money as a matter of policy.

            None of them actually intend to throw Jean Valjean back in jail, you know? None of them ever came out against individual acts of charity. If that’s what we think we’re arguing against here, then it’s just a total scarecrow.

            That said, I will grant you that Randians use a way too aggressive heuristic when it comes to deciding who they’re enemies are. If you catch one on the wing and start talking about giving bread to the hungry on an individual level, he’s likely enough to miss your point and denounce you as a communist. No doubt about that. I just think it’s a question of really bad arguing style, more than it is a question of really bad ideas.

          • matt b

            I’m a huge fan of Milton Friedman. Not very original, but he turned me into a libertarian more than anybody else. I hate when people go from “I have good intentions” to “I have good intentions therefore any plan I have is bound to work.” And you are right, the only way to cure general hunger and general poverty is dynamic global free market capitalism. No doubt about it. However, Friedman realized that even in this world some would be in need through no fault of their own and he supported a welfare state to deal with that. As did Hayek. I think Buckley and Murray as well, at least in principle. But Rand says “Look most people are going to be fine under my system. They may have to work really hard if they have low skills but if they can work they’ll be okay. As for the few who can’t, well help them if you want I guess but, no, on second thought don’t. Their need is not grounds for helping them.”

          • Sean II

            The problem for you is here: “As for the few who can’t, we’ll help them if you want I guess but, no, on second thought don’t.”

            Bi….um, not nice person that she was, Rand didn’t actually endorse that “on second thought” part. I finally broke down and dredged up a statement from her. Here it is:

            “My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”

            I think this bears out the idea that Rand – writing in the leftist heyday between World War II and Jimmy Carter, mind you – was simply doing her “Oh no you don’t! I know what you mean by charity, you dirty hippie pinko bastard!”

            Nasty as that as, problematic as that is for the libertarian image, it still doesn’t prove she was anti-charity. It just proves that she flew off the handle most of the time she heard the word charity, preferring to see it as a code word for something else. Add in her notorious flair for understatement, and…well, you know.

          • matt b

            I don’t think that quote supports your interpretation and I think this one positively undermines it you dirty Rand apologist you!: “To view the question in its proper perspective, one must begin by rejecting altruism’s terms and all of its ugly emotional aftertaste—then take a fresh look at human relationships. It is morally proper to accept help, when it is offered, not as a moral duty, but as an act of good will and generosity, when the giver can afford it (i.e., when it does not involve self-sacrifice on his part), and when it is offered in response to the receiver’s virtues, not in response to his flaws, weaknesses or moral failures, and not on the ground of his need as such.”
            Now you could say that if you interpret that quote charitably, pun definltey intended, she just means don’t give a piece of bread to the poor rapist or something. But she very specifically says charity is not proper on the grounds of “need as such.” Not “Coercive redistribution is not proper on the grounds of need”, not “Voluntary charity to bad people is not good”, but voluntary charity for people in need who aren’t bad, don’t violate rights, isin’t good either. Now you seem to think that by charity Rand meant various shades of lefty ideas about wealth distribution and redistribution. It’s possible. Objectivists have this thing where the meaning of words are fixed and they decide what the meanings are (Rand’s argument that not only was her conception of selfishness valid but that it was the only valid conception being the most obvious example) But I don’t buy it, Sean. I think the entirety of her writing argues against the view that she approved of even voluntary charity. Consider that today, Objectivists never ever say “Of course helping people in need of the basics so they don’t suffer through no fault of their own is not bad. It may not be morally obligatory but it’s certainly not all problematic and is probably admirable.”

          • Sean II

            Well, let’s switch gears then, and stop trading text passages like a couple of Protestant ministers. Here’s a question which I think important for all BHLs:

            Imagine Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard are reanimated as zombies, with the proviso that they each believe whatever they believed at the time of their death, but – as a side effect of zombification – are incapable of changing their views (tempting as that might be, in light of all the wonderful things written here at BHL).

            Rand gets the United States, Nozick gets Mexico, and Rothbard gets the stateless territory formerly known as Canada. Each can set up whatever arrangements they like in the area granted them. (Finally, even though we all know she totally would, assume Rand doesn’t launch an immediate invasion of Canada and Mexico to crush the savage perversions of reason going on there).

            Let ten imaginary years pass, then ask: Is there any libertarian who doesn’t believe the poor in those three realms would be better off than they are right now – even without a UBI, and even without an explicit pursuit of social justice?

            If so, then against what is all this talk of social justice poised? Is libertarianism not already the only movement that credibly promises vast improvement in the lives of today’s poor?

          • Sean II

            In other news, I think I finally figured out the precise limit (25 lines), beyond which comments get folded up with the new “see more” feature.

            Let’s all marvel at how the incentives are working to change my behavior and force me to put a higher price on brevity than that which I have hitherto assigned it.

          • matt b

            First of all, the protestant ministers line was hilarious. Second of all, I feel like one of those hectoring Meet The Press centrist scolds saying “it’s more complicated” but here I must say “it’s more complicated.” So Rand gets the U.S, Rothbard gets Canada, and Robert Nozick gets Mexico. Very good. So I’m guessing the first thing Rothbard does is shut down all taxpayer funded programs for the poor. I’m guessing the same with Rand and Nozick. So when some kid in South Central L.A. gets up to go with his Mom to use their food stamps to buy something to eat they discover “The government/ new stateless order has ended all funding for these programs and returned the money to the makers.” Oh shit. Well that’s not good. Now over time, yes things might be much better but I don’t get the sense that either Rand or Rothbard (maybe Nozick though, maybe) were “let’s slowly and steadily phase these programs out” type people. They were more like “This ax ain’t that sharp” type people. Now if these three libertopias all had open borders they would justify short term losses for the native poor, short to medium term and even long term losses actually assuming standard libertarian beliefs about open borders are correct so I’d be for it but in Rothbardland I’m not sure if we get open borders (anarcho-capitalists are divided on this). I think in Randland we do and probably Nozickland as well though I know Nozick man Mark Friedman is skeptical of open borders though that may be more his own opinion than Nozick’s. Oh and just give Rand the Canadian army and she won’t be any to launch any invasions 🙂 So yes I guess my answer is it probably would be better with open borders and completely free trade, though not neccesarily better for all of today’s North American poor.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi Matt,

            Just so you know, I can hear what you say about me here. Actually, not skeptical about open borders as a noble ideal, but voicing the caveat that open borders might potentially–in the real world–come at the cost of rights: http://naturalrightslibertarian.com/2011/12/libertarianism-and-immigration-a-reply-to-michael-huemer/

          • matt b

            I hope you didn’t take that comment in the vein of “Meanies like Mark are against open borders because their mean and their meaness is not nice.” My dad spent some time in Paris recently meeting with some clients and they said “You go on the bus and you get all uncomfortable because around you are Islamic families with their kids and wives covered up and you feel like you’ve walked into the 6th century.” So I treat the externality argument as a serious concern. I just think the harm done by open boderders is enormous that it overwhelms the potential for problems in our moral calculation.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I was kidding! (not very successfully it seems). But the serious thing is this: if I have a moral right to live under the rule of law, I believe that right is strong enough to outweigh great potential gains in utility on the part of others from open borders, particularly if we assume that I did not cause the conditions giving rise to their hardship. If you believe the contrary, then you should be prepared to defend violating rights on consequentialist grounds in a variety of other contexts, i.e. freedom of expression, economic liberty, redistribution of resources, etc. This view does not make me a defender of the status quo on immigration–I am not.

          • matt b

            Leave the comedy to Sean 🙂 No I figured you were but just in case you had taken it as a moralistic criticism of you I wanted to put that to rest. So I think your argument here is quite problematic on a few fronts. So obviously you, Mark D Friedman, are not responsible for a poor villager being poor a poor villager. Neither is our government except insofar as it uses coercion to prevent the poor villager from eating and that’s what immigration restrictions do! So our government is responsible for global poverty in a huge way because it makes it impossible for most of the global poor to improve their situation. Michael Huemer’s “starving man” argument is absolutely right. In preventing the poor from coming here, our government is acting no differently than a guy who prevents the starving man from entering a market. Now you are correct that it’s possible that you could have some adverse consequences and rights violations. But systematically employing coercion against the global poor is such a massive rights violation that we would have to a reason to believe that the rights violations that would occur as a result of open borders would be worse than the status quo in order to have a good (libertarian) argument for supporting the status quo. So the rights of millions are violated through closed borders resulting in death and mass suffering. What do you think would open as a result of open borders that would be as severe? Moreover, as Ilya Somin and others have argued, there’s ways to deal with externalities such as denying newcomers the ability to vote for say 20 years. More fundamentally, as Bryan Caplan has noted, the average American isin’t JS Mill and the average immigrant isin’t Mullah Omar so the idea that open borders even with allowing newcomers to vote would usher the end of freedom in America is a tad far fetched.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Very briefly: You say, “But systematically employing coercion against the global poor is such a massive rights violation that we would have to a reason to believe that the rights violations that would occur as a result of open borders would be worse than the status quo in order to have a good (libertarian) argument for supporting the status quo.” No, this relies on the “utilitarianism of rights” approach, rightly rejected by Nozick amd more recebntly by such philosophers as Francis Kamm. You can’t violate my rights in order to prevent a greater number of other rights violations.

            You say: “What do you think would open as a result of open borders that would be as severe?” Do your own investigation of the current situation of the long-time Jewish community in Malmo, Sweden (that country’s third largest city) as a result of recent Muslim immigration. This is just a microcasm, obviously, but illustrative I believe of the potential for rights-violations.

          • matt b

            This is a deeply problematic argument on multiple fronts. To begin with, there’s a huge difference between, say, our government handing you over to someone who wants to kill you in exchange for him releasing the five people he’s assembled as collateral and saying that we will accept the potential for an increase in criminality because the alternative, the status quo, is mass death and suffering. By your logic, if, in 50 years, Hawaii, for some reason, became a state with more rights violators than any other state it would be fine for us to send the army to prevent people from Hawaii from crossing into other states. If tens of thousands of people suffered as a result then oh well. Quite simply, you don’t have a right to have your safety marginally increased at the cost of imposing severe suffering on hundreds of millions of people. Now you could say that it’s not a marginal increase as a result of closed borders but a big one. Of course, there’s no evidence that immigrants commit crimes- rights violating activities- at a higher rate than natives. I would recommend Bryan Caplan’s writing and research here. Also, there’s nothing about open borders that excludes the possibility of background checks. Now you can say “You can’t really do a background check for Islamist extremism.” However, I would say American culture, a vibrant melting pot, is not the same thing as Sweden. We’re also a lot more philo-semitic than Europeans. And, not too sound too Rush Limbaugh-ey, but we’re not a bunch of namy pamby pc weaklings when it comes to defend liberal political norms.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Your Hawaii analogy fails because Hawaiians have a right to travel anywhere in the U.S., based on the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. If what are now the “states” existed merely as some sort of voluntary association, and in 50 years Hawaii became filled with violent, intolerant people prone to attack those of different religions or beliefs, I would indeed oppose letting them all into my state as a matter of right. I didn’t say anything about an army.

            I am not asking for a “right to have [my] safety marginally increased.” First, I am not concerned about “safety” per se but the maintenance of the rule of law. Second, my “safety” is what it is, I am not asking for anyone to “increase” it for me. The issue is whether I have a moral right not to have it endangered by open borders, assuming that my empirical assumptions are reasonable. I understand that you believe they are not. Great, but that isn’t a philosophical counter-argument to mine. You can have the last word.

          • matt b

            Let’s try a different analogy (though I think my original one was quite apt). But let’s imagine that aliens came down tommorow to South Central L.A. and captured all the residents. 10 years later, there is lower crime, the rule of law is much more secure, people can walk around there safely. Then one day we see people being dropped from spaceships onto the ground in Haiti. It’s our people from South Cenral. They tell us it was one weird, crazy time and they’d like to tell us all about it. But, by your logic, we say “Look you coming in would threaten the rule of law we’ve finally established in the area you used to live. Sorry” The problem with your argument is that is premised on the moral permissibility of massively violating the rights of hundreds of millions of people (a real, far reaching, and devastating harm) in the name of protecting Americans from an uncertain, potential harm. And yes I think your empirical assumptions are wrong. There’s zero evidence that immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than natives. America is not Sweden and there are a number of ways to address externalities regarding voting for example. Indeed, the only way we could ever get anywhere close to open borders is by having such measures in place. Now I’m not denying there’s no risk, not denying that the rule of law may be more secure with closed borders but I don’t think we have the moral right to impoverish and, in effect, kill millions because of some possible risk to the rule of law.

          • Sean II

            So maybe I’m cheating the thought experiment when I say the evaluation period should be 10 years.

            But maybe you’re cheating when you suppose Rand & Rothbard would be foolish enough not to design some kind of gradual transition. Fanatical they may have been, stupid they were not.

            Just make sure to be fair. Food stamps go away, but so does the drug war, the minimum wage, occupational licensing, and maybe most important of all for the US poor, the public schools.

            I’ve actually visited America’s ghettos (unlike, say, Rawls) and let me tell you something that will no doubt seem silly at first:

            The best short-term thing that could happen to many people in the hood would be an immediate amnesty for all traffic warrants and fines, along with an end to vehicle licensing inspections and fees. I swear, the most common cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is a $100 ticket, twice doubled to $400, + $50 court costs, followed by a traffic stop, a seizure, and a $500 impound fee, with job loss thrown in for those who can’t get out of jail in time to make it to work.

            When you think about the poor in an imaginary Randian state, make sure to consider the removal of those petty tyrannies which, though they seem silly to us, make the difference between wealth and poverty for people at the margins.

  • Greg Whitfield

    “Samuel Freeman says that a liberty is basic only if it is necessary for all citizens to have that liberty in order to develop the two moral powers.”

    I can imagine Freeman having said this, but would you mind pointing to where exactly he did?

    • Among other places, conveniently right here on this blog!


      • Greg Whitfield

        Thanks, that’s helpful. It’s unfortunate that he isn’t clearer about what’s necessary there, and further unfortunate that Rawls saddled us with talk of developing and exercising the moral powers, as though those are separable activities. The first power is tougher, but does anyone think people develop a capacity to rationally reflect on and pursue a conception of the good while not actually exercising the capacity? Surely you have to actually live according to some (more or less well defined) conception of the good before you can reflect on it or others. In any case, the necessary bit is unfortunate not, I think, because it’s wrong, but because it only applies in the context of the original position. So when you write: “suppose the United States forbade Americans from worshipping Zeus. Surely, this is a violation of freedom of religion. But since pretty much no one wants to worship Zeus, this won’t actually impede anyone from exercising their moral powers”, you seem to miss the point that behind the veil, you’d have no idea how many people worship Zeus. Robert Taylor makes the same move in a P&PA paper, except his example is meant to give pride of place to religion by noting there are lots of people who would feel the strains of commitment as intolerable under a state that didn’t allow them to practice their religion, but very few would feel that way under a state that doesn’t allow some intense non-religious pursuit (very few Socrateses). You’re both bad Rawlsians (though that’s probably only a worry for one of you). If the parties to the OP thought that way, they’d be failing to take the interest of the reasonable people they represent seriously — so it’s ruled out. Our principles must account for the full range of reasonable conceptions of the good. Proportion and even actual existence are irrelevant. The right test is whether the parties to the OP would think that some of the fundamental interests of the parties they represent would be pursuable/realizable under a given set of principles/basic liberties. The question for Tomasi, then, is whether there can be an ‘economic socrates’ (there can), and whether or not such a person’s conception of the good would count as reasonable (beats me).

  • matt b

    I’m a huge advocate of open borders (it’s one of the few issues where I’m totally in agreement with hard libertarians) and yet I find it one of the toughest arguments to sell non-libertarians on. They say things like “50 million people would come tommorow” which I don’t believe is likely but what do you say to those sort of objections beyond the fact that it’s not likely?

  • matt b

    Since Nozick has come up, I think our resident Nozick expert Mark Friedman needs to drop whatever he’s doing and come and give us more specificity regarding Nozick’s views on the poor and vulnerable, coercion, and the state.


      Hi Matt,

      My blushes…of course. But, for the record, I hereby disclaim any greater authority on this topic than at least some of our BHLs. See, for example, Matt Z’s excellent piece on Rawls’ and Nozick’s different understanding of the “seperateness
      of persons” concept: “The Separateness of Persons and Liberal Theory,” Journal of Value Inquiry 42 (2009): 295-306 (I think an ungated version is be available on his homepage).

      Nevertheless, since you ask, I believe that Nozick is committed to principles of pure procedural justice, which he thinks trump any distributional concerns. However, within this architecture, the needs of disadvantaged and least talented are addressed (incidentally) by his adaptation of Locke’s famous proviso, requring that non-appropriators not be made worse off, either at the time of original resource acquisition or in subsequent generations, by the system of private property he envisions.

      Of course, the big question is “worse off compared to what?” One possible answer is “worse off compared to what would exist in a state of nature if people generally behaved in a moral, law-abiding way.” And, we might regard a minimal safety net as the “price” that the successful (under capitalism) must pay to the unsuccessful (under capitalism) for their being involuntarily trust into a system of private property.

      Separately, there is also his well-known caveat about possibly violating side constraints to avoid moral catastrophes

      • matt b

        I figured that’s what you’d say (not that you’re predictable but that was my understanding of Nozick as well). So it seems to me that you seem open, at least in principle, to programs like food stamps and Medicaid so no one starves, dies of a cheaply preventable disease and so on and so forth. In other words, more Friedman than Nozick on the moral permissibility of a welfare state but then you bring up the idea of the proviso and moral catastrophe and I wonder if Nozick might have said those things were acceptable if voluntary efforts fell short. But, and you would know better than me, but I think you adopt a somewhat more expansive view of what would constitute moral catastrophe than Nozick which in turn leads you to be comfortable with a minimal welfare state.


          Hi Matt,
          The difficulty in separating my attitude towards a safety net and Nozick’s is that he really wasn’t very clear on this point. He sketched out a pathway by which such relief could be justified, but didn’t fill in the details. For example, those who suffer under free market conditions shouldn’t fare worse than they would have under some other type of property system, but which one, and how will we know what the outcome would have been under this alternative? In my book, I attempt to interpret him in a way that is consistent with what he actually says, and which is generally attractive, but I am sure there are competing, plausible interpretations. I do believe that the best interpretation of Nozick would not imply support for those who are destitute through their own irresponsibility, but as a practical matter maybe it is too difficult to separate these cases.

          • matt b

            I think this is a tough issue. You probably know his name, it’s escaped me, but there was one of Nozick’s critics who said something along the lines of, you know, “Even if those who were poor through no fault of their own would be helped under Nozick’s system somehow, those who acted irressponsibly would not and by my lights that’s unacceptable.” I want to say Jonathan something, but I’m not sure. It was one of the sources cited in the IEP article on Nozick i believe but anyway I think that’s a problematic argument for libertarians to accept. A pretty widespread libertarian moral view is “you made your bed now sleep in it.” But then I think about what life is like for so many and I wonder if that’s not too harsh. Think about it: you’re a black kid in South Central L.A., your dad is in jail, your brother is a drug dealer, your mother does not work and is overweight. Sure you have food, shelter, and taxpayer funding schooling (though it’s probably not good). If I see that kid when he’s 12 and ten years later he’s unemployed and pre-diabetic and has a child with a women he had unprotected sex with part of me is going to say “What the hell man. Never heard of a condom and there’s a job opening down the street and for god’s sake don’t drink three cokes a day” and another part of me is going to say “This kid was not raised in a way that met his basic developmental need, he was never taught how to behave in a way to increase sucess” So I think the line between deserving and undeserving poor, probably most clearly or at least most recently laid out by GMU’s Bryan Caplan in a recent debate, strikes me as a blurry one, not a hard one.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Jonathan Wolff is the name you are searching for. Agreed: the line is blurry, but for purposes of ideal theory, I think what matters is that there is a line. With respect to your specifics: yes, but we punish people under the criminal law on the assumption that they are responsible for their decisions, even those from very disadvantaged backgrounds. Is it wrong to do so?

          • matt b

            Jonathan Wolff. Very good, thank you. So that’s an interesting point. I would say that there’s a distinction which exists between punishing for someone for doing active harm- holding them morally responsible for violating the rights of others- and holding somebody morally responsible for failing to take opportunities to actively pursue the good (broadly defined as getting some sort of job, deffering gratification, not blowing one’s money). In the former case, they hurt somebody, violated their rights, and must be punished. In the second, it’s more a matter of somebody not seizing opportunity and you can respond, as the left does, by saying “Look if you had X background you’d feel like a nobody, you’d feel worthless, you wouldn’t know what it meant to act responsibly or why willpower was so important and so on and so forth” or by taking the Bryan Caplan position and going “Come on you didn’t need not dropping out of school would be bad, you didn’t know that drinking till 3 and then not setting your alarm meant you’d probably be late and your boss would fire you.” I tend to think the approrpriate position, the right blend between compassion and tough mindedness, is somewhere in the middle.

  • endgames

    this is not an ideological battle of left vs right, GOP vs Dems, Socialism vs liberty. This is ethnic warfare against white people.

    Why are hostile globalist elite defending Israel as a Jewish ethnostate with Jewish only immigration, but ravaging white majority Europe, North America into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Gulag with dystopian non-White colonization?

    Why do gullible Whites kowtow to hostile Jewish & crypto-Jewish elite, who butcher White soldiers in bankrupting wars, infiltrate & subvert our banks & spying agencies, indoctrinate us in classrooms & mass media, & plunder our jobs & wages?

    East Asia is 99% yellow. Africa is 99% Black. West Asia is 99% Brown. But 3rd world colonizers are annihilating Whites, just as Chinese colonizers are annihilating Tibet.

    “Native” Americans are not native. They invaded from East Asia. Not just Whites, but Muslims, Jews, China, India, Mayans, Africans all are guilty of slavery, imperialism. Whites were victims of Islamic, Jewish, African imperialism, slavery.

    Gullible Whites should reject subversive Jewish ideologies like libertarianism, feminism, liberalism, socialism, and hostile slanders of racism, collectivism.

    Love to all humanity, but White people must unite & organize to advance their families, their fertility, their interests. Reading list:

    • ThaomasH

      This is non-responsive to the topic at hand.

      • Sean II

        I can’t tell if that comment came from some very elaborate bot, or just some very bot-like person.

        • matt b

          I was consdiering a response but I don’t like to give the white nationalists any attention except for Ron Paul (JUST KIDDING).

          • Sean II

            Oh c’mon, Matt, everyone knows the Ron Paul bots are really programmed by Lew Rockwell bots. Let’s try to keep it fair.


          Is there such a thing as a “moron-bot”?

          • Sean II

            Yes. I believe they call the prototype “Ezra Klein”.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Indeed, but I think this prototype failed its beta-test because it was too moronic even for gullible Americans–wait, I might have that wrong…

  • I enjoyed reading “Free Market Fairness” and am looking forward to more of your (and others’) comments. Your post also prompted me to pull out of my drafts folder the first in a series of posts I was planning to write on the book; consider it my own decidedly amateur and non-philosophical contribution to the discussion.

    But back to your post: I get your point about weaknesses in Tomasi’s and Freeman’s arguments on where liberties and rights come from, and would appreciate any pointers you’d care to give to what you consider to be more compelling arguments. (Maybe you do this in “Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know”? I’m only partway through the book.) Speaking personally, I also had trouble seeing how Tomasi’s “responsible self-authorship” argument would take us from justifying economic freedom as a basic right for individuals to justifying the same for corporations and other collectives. Again, as a philosophical n00b I may be totally missing a vital point here, so anyone here feel free to school me if you’d like.

    • matt b

      You raise a very good question and it’s not one I think Tomasi has dealt with in any great depth. Maybe Jason could illuminate his thinking here. For example, when liberals say “Workers should, by law, get a break every five hours” it makes sense, if you accept the merits of the hard libertarian view, to say “People have a natural right to property and to do absolutely anything they want on their property and if the guy who has been standing for hours on end without a break does not like it then he can go somewhere else.” I don’t accept the merits of that view but, internally, it makes sense if you accord absolute or near absolute weight to property. What does not make sense, though, in any way, shape, of form, as I see it, is to say “Oh well mandating that they get breaks every five hours diminishes the employer as a responsible self author.” Same thing goes for a lot of other health, safety, and occupational regulations libertarians oppose though not all (occupational licensing clearly threatens self-authorship given the power of some people to block others from working to limit the supply of competition). That’s why so much of the libertarian case against such regulations is consequentialist (they increase unemployment, lead to lower wages, fewer options) or natural rights based (their property, their choice). And for a philosophical noob you seem to learn pretty fast.

      • Thanks for the comment. Maybe I’m misreading you, but it seems as if there are two different issues here. One is how the responsible self-authorship argument plays out at the employer-employee level, say between Amy (of Amy’s Pup-in-the-Tub) and one of her pet groomers, where both parties are individual humans. Here I can see someone making the argument that respect for the status of Amy and the groomer as responsible self-authors requires that government not interfere with their ability to agree to a voluntary work arrangement that presumably (if it’s truly voluntary) each sees as beneficial from their own point of view.

        The other issue is what happens when we replace Amy with PetSmart. The groomer is still an individual human responsible self-author, but now the employer is not. I don’t understand exactly how Tomasi would propose to extend the responsible self-authorship argument to PetSmart the corporation. Maybe we can finesse the issue by focusing on the groomer and treating PetSmart as sort of an impersonal force of nature: Government shouldn’t interfere in the groomer’s responsible self-authorship in voluntarily entering into what others might see as an exploitative work arrangement, any more than government should interfere if the groomer wants to jump into a pit filled with rabid wolves.

        But if that’s the case, in what sense can we speak of PetSmart the corporation having rights of economic freedom? We wouldn’t say this of the wolves. Hence my confusion…

        • matt b

          To me this is actually fairly clear. PetSmart is simply composed of individuals. It’s just a larger version of Amy’s Pup in the Tub so the idea that Amy should be able to own produtive property to advance herself as a responsible self author applies to the many Amys that compose PetSmart the corporation. At least, I think this is what Tomasi would say.

          • Right, that’s a straightforward argument. However corporations as currently constituted seem more than just aggregations of individuals; for example, a corporation can incur obligations without any particular individual or group of individuals within the corporation being fully liable for fulfilling those obligations. I don’t have any good answers myself as to how this would affect treatment of corporations within Tomasi’s scheme, just some nagging questions and a vague sense of unease.

          • matt b

            A good point. I wonder if Tomasi might be sympathetic to libertarian Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron’s argument that the legal structure regarding corporate power be changed to make corporations more accountable, to ensure that if they are treated as persons it should be consistently and not only when it benefits them. It was a long time ago that I listened to the talk but I think he was quite critical of the entire network of protections afforded to corporations by the law. I think there’s a lot of important questions left unanswered by Tomasi but I guess that’s why he calls market democracy a research program rather than a comprehensive philosophical statement. Just lots of research left to be done me thinks.

  • My apologies, on rereading the post I’m confused about the argument regarding developing and exercising one’s moral powers. On the one hand, we have “… very little liberty is strictly speaking necessary for the typical person … to develop the two moral powers.” This is a statement about the set of prerequisites for developing one’s moral powers, the claim being that this set is very small. On the other hand we have “if Necessarily (P and Q), then necessarily P and necessarily Q. … So, the class of X’s necessary to both develop and exercise the two moral powers is equal to or smaller in size than the class of X’s necessary just to develop the two moral powers.” This is apparently a statement about two sets of prerequisites, but seems like it would be better interpreted as concerning states of the world in which the prerequisites are present, a very different thing.

    To see if I’m understanding this aright: It’s plausible that there are many possible states of the world in which the prerequisites are present for developing one’s moral powers: living in Denmark or Switzerland for sure, but also living in Solzhenitsyn’s Russia or being a slave like Epictetus. There is also a set of prerequisites for exercising one’s moral powers. It’s plausible that the states of the world in which these prerequisites are present include living in Denmark or Switzerland, but not living in Russia or being a slave. So if we want to both develop and exercise our moral powers then we take the intersection of the states of the world in which we can develop our moral powers with the states of the world in which we can exercise them. This intersection set is indeed equal to or smaller than the set of states of the world in which we could develop our moral powers. However the set of prerequisites for both developing and exercising our moral powers is equal to or larger than (not equal to or smaller than) the set of prerequisites for just developing our powers, since in forming the intersection of the sets of states of the world we will end up with the union of the two sets of prerequisites.

    So we can conceive of states of the world in which we can develop our moral powers but not exercise them (because we lack the prerequisites to do the latter), as well as states of the world in which there are no external barriers to exercising our moral powers but we are unable to develop them–for example, if we’re locked in a dark closet without human contact from birth to adulthood and then released from imprisonment into Libertopia.