Social Justice, Libertarianism

Getting Over Social Justice

Every eight months or so, we seem to go through a bout of philosophical navel-gazing here at BHL. Some of you readers really dig that stuff, and, truly, God bless your hearts. The rest of you tolerate it, and wait patiently for it to blow over.

The most recent episode has centered on the issue of “social justice.” David Friedman thinks the phrase lacks a clear meaning. Jason Brennan, Kevin Vallier, and Andrew Cohen have been making heroic efforts to defend it. I haven’t had much to say in this debate, apart from a few comments over at David’s blog, but as you can imagine, I’m with my fellow bloggers as opposed to David on this particular issue.

But that’s not the argument I want to make in this post.

Instead, I want to let you in on a little secret.

When I started this blog, I didn’t have a fully worked out theory of “social justice.”  And I still don’t. I put the phrase “Free Markets and Social Justice” in the tagline of this blog not because it reflected the airtight conclusion of a stringent philosophical theory, but because I thought it would make for a striking and provocative motto. And it did, although it seems to have struck and provoked at least some people in rather the wrong way…

That’s not to say that the phrase is just marketing. I don’t have a full theory of social justice, but I do have some fairly well-considered moral beliefs in the neighborhood of a theory. And I think I can defend those beliefs philosophically, even if I’m not completely sure yet how to fit them all together. These, for instance, are two of the most important beliefs that motivated me to start this blog and that still drive a lot of my thinking today.

  1. There are serious and probably insurmountable problems with the traditional utilitarian and selfownership / Non-Aggression approaches to the defense of libertarianism.
  2. If the left was right in its belief that libertarian institutions would impoverish the poor, or fail to provide them with sufficient real freedom, or lead to the oppression of socially marginalized groups, and so on, then these would be very good reasons to doubt that libertarian institutions are morally justified.

Let’s call the first of those “BHL’s Negative Thesis,” and the second “BHL’s Positive Thesis.” The recent debate about social justice is related to the Positive Thesis. (Or, more precisely, to the corollary of that thesis – that not impoverishing the poor, or leading to the oppression of marginalized groups, etc., is an essential part in the moral justification of libertarian institutions.) And that thesis does, of course, have some pretty serious gaps in it – gaps that a full theory of social justice would hopefully be able to fill.

For those of you who think the working out of such a theory is an interesting and worthwhile project, carry on. I’ll read along eagerly, and maybe even contribute to that discussion a bit myself from time to time.

But what about those of you who think that all this talk of “social justice” is a waste of time? Or an incoherent mess? Or the first step down the slippery slope toward socialism?

To those of you who think this way, I want to say – no problem.

There is still room for you in the big tent that is BHL, even if (like our own Jacob Levy for instance!) you think that the focus on social justice is a mistake. Here are three reasons why.

1. Some of you are turned off by the idea that social justice involves a special focus on the poor. Why, after all, should the justification of social institutions depend on how they affect some particular group of people? Doesn’t this violate key classical liberal norms of impartiality, generality, and equality before the law?

To this I respond – fine! If the idea that justice requires paying special attention to the poor bothers you, let’s say instead that social justice requires ensuring that social institutions work sufficiently to the benefit of all. You can’t get more impartial than that. But, now, how are we going to check if this condition is met? Where are we going to look to see whether everyone’s interests are being sufficiently well-served? Presumably not at those who are doing the best in society, right? No, if social institutions are going to be failing anybody, it’s usually going to be those who are doing worst. So if we want to see if social institutions are working sufficiently to the benefit of all, we need to look at the interests of those on the bottom – the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. We focus on their interests not because those interests matter more than the interests of others, but simply as a useful heuristic – because that is where things are likely to be going wrong in a society, if anything is.

2. But perhaps even that’s too much for you to swallow. Too vague, or too collectivist, or too incompatible with your own preferred theory of rights or political justification. No problem! If you don’t like BHL as a substantive philosophical theory about the justification of coercive social institutions, you’re still welcome to use the rhetoric. Of course, I think you’re missing something important if all you see in the BHL program is a rhetorical strategy for reaching out to the left. But, look, if all the Rothbardians in the world changed nothing at all about the substance of their philosophical system and just started talking more about how state oppression hurts women, minorities, gays, the poor, and other economically and socially marginalized groups (kind of like, well, this guy), I’d be pretty happy about that. So if that’s as far in as you care to dip your toe, we’re still glad to have you in the pool.

3. After all, when it comes to the policy issues that matter most, it doesn’t really matter much whether you’re a BHL, a left-libertarian, a right-Rothbardian, a (Milton) Friedmanite classical liberal, or whatever. None of those perspectives would justify anything like the system we currently have in place in the United States. And so regardless of where we see the end-goal, we’re all fighting in the same direction of greater liberty.

This point sometimes gets obscured by the fact that libertarians (and especially libertarian philosophers!) like to spend their time talking about issues that are interesting, even if they’re not the issues that are the most important. But a lot of issues are uninteresting, philosophically speaking, only because the arguments on one side are so obviously much, much better than those on the other. There simply isn’t any halfway good libertarian or classical liberal case to be made for continuing US policies of agricultural subsidies, highly restrictive immigration control, an expansive and oppressive war on drugs, or war on terror that goes light years beyond what any reasonable appeal to self-defense could justify. These policies are flat out wrong from any libertarian perspective. But they are also policies that tend to be especially harmful to the economically, socially, and politically marginalized. So, at the very least, us BHLers are on the same side as you other libertarians on the issues that matter most. And maybe, just maybe, we’re even in an especially good position to change hearts and minds on them.

So, if the idea of social justice rubs you the wrong way, don’t worry about it. I think you’re wrong, of course. But that’s a disagreement we can have within the Bleeding Heart Libertarian camp. A commitment to social justice isn’t anything like a necessary prerequisite to becoming a card-carrying member.

So, now that you’re on board, where should I send your t-shirt?

  • Jameson Graber

    This post pretty much sums up why I follow this blog. Half the time I’m not even sure if I’m “really” libertarian, but when you put together a list of the most important political issues I know about–the ones you listed in your second to last full paragraph–the libertarians are pretty much the only people I agree with. (Also, I think Hayek is pretty great, so maybe that makes me libertarian.) So I will definitely keep reading your blog to see if a real theory of “social justice” starts emerging, and in the meantime I just might buy one of them t-shirts…

    • In many cases the poor are prohibited by government from being able to use the talents they already possess to make a living for themselves. Also the poor suffer from government laws and regulations that make life here in the USA considerably more expensive than it needs to be. Consider the cost of our “military adventures” in the Middle East since 1990. I’ve seen a figure quoted of “$6 trillion dollars when you calculate in all the long term costs involved. This same six trillion dollars would have been of far greater benefit spent on things that benefit everyone instead of on the military. As it is, we taxpayers are going to be paying for this for the rest of our lives. Our drug laws have given the US the world distinction of being the world’s jailer. We hold more people in prison, jail, on probation, etc than any other country on Earth, including China and India, that have several times our population. Again, our taxes pay for all this. For the additional police, the courts, the lawyers, judges, corrections officers, etc. Total cost of all this is likely to be a couple hundred billion dollars a year when you consider all the aspects including the welfare costs. In a decade these drug laws are costing us $2 trillion dollars in additional taxes, deficits, whatever. Frankly, we can’t “afford” the governments we have! What we need is a federal government that tends to defending the country (which is what it used to do), conducts relationships with other countries (State Department), is responsible for “coining money” (as per the Constitution) and regulates commerce between the states along with delivering the mail. (as per the Constitution). All other tasks should be turned over to the states to deal with as they see fit. Right now we have duplication of services between state and federal agencies. Naturally this means we’re paying twice for the same service. Our infrastructure is now falling apart while we continue our Middle Eastern “adventures”, prosecute people for things that effect no one but themselves, have state and federal agencies both doing the same task, and have created a deficit that will take likely take generations to pay off. So I think both the Democratic and the Republican Party should be given an “F” on their report card and told that we no longer want either one of them around wasting yet more of our money!

      • Damien S.

        One can disagree with the wars and the war on drugs without being a libertarian, though. As for not affording the government we have… US tax rates are fairly low, for a rich country.

  • I think your mistake is on focusing on “social” justice inbstead of talking about plain old-fashioned “justice”. There are many, many, ways in which libertarian philosophy is fundamentally about fairness and justice. I can also see how certain arrangements of institutions and rules can inadvertently cause harms to individuals, but I don’t see the reason why this needs the qualifier “social” injustice. The goal should be to create institutions that are general and equitable, and therefore just. Justice is an outcome of having a system of just rules. Adding the “social” modifier seems to me to be just a roundabout way of trying to arbitrarily designate any outcome you don’t like as unjust, and then start making the rules less general, less equitable, and less impartial (i.e. less conventionally just) until you get the outcome you want. Thus the concept of “social” justice seems to be fundamentally in conflict with conventional justice.

    • If we limit government to the role it should have, most of these problems stop being a problem. I see no reason why we can’t “certify” people on the knowledge they have as “proof” that they are capable of performing jobs that now require a diploma from a “government school”. The concept of a “diploma” merely states that the individual in question “served their time” and didn’t flunk out. It is a proof of nothing more. Plus we need to reform our tax system so that it does not encourage American corporations to relocate themselves outside the US. The way to do this is to change from a tax on income and property to one based upon financial transactions. A “Penny on a Dollar” 1% financial transaction tax could replace the personal income tax, the capital gains tax, and the corporate income tax. This also eliminates the infamous 1040, and makes April 15th just another day. No deductions, no exemptions, every economic transaction is taxed at the rate of 1%. Yes, this may cut federal revenues, but there is no justification for a lot of what the federal government does today. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid are different issues, but if the cost of living goes down, the cost of health care goes down, the need for these will also be lessened in turn.

    • Damien S.

      AIUI, English common law developed separate notions — and courts — of ‘law’ and ‘equity’. Laws were the rules of course, hopefully general and just, but one could appeal to courts of equity on grounds that an outcome was unjust and needed redress.

      “Justice is an outcome of having a system of just rules”

      And how likely is it that limited and conflicted humans can concoct a perfect system of rules that can govern all the complexity of reality without error or need for correction?

    • fletch92131

      I agree with you, Dr. Thomas Sowell would say that social justice is justice!

      • Sol Logic

        That sounds interesting from Sowell. Do you know where he has spoken on this before?

        • I think he has touched on this in at least one of his many books. But which one I’m not sure.

  • Valdenor

    Hi, Zwolinski! This post have even remembered the concept of Contigent BHLs in your post “What is Bleeding Heart Libertarianism? Part One: Three Types of BHL”. I understanding that “neoclassical liberalism” ( is the most consistently strong version of “bleeding heart libertarianism”, but it isn’t the single version. I believe that commitment to social justice is essencial for future of libertarianism, but it is controversial.

  • Sean II

    A truly classic post. There are times when I get the impression that libertarian philosophy is not about the love of wisdom (or liberty), but more about the love of esoteric quibbling or perhaps the love of infighting-for-sport-and-profit.

    This post puts the sophia back in the philosophia, and thus helps me reconnect with the philo part of the bargain, lately so much forgotten.

    That, and also this was a really great argument: “We focus on their interests not because those interests matter more than the interests of others, but simply as a useful heuristic – because that where things are likely to be going wrong in a society, if anything is.”

  • Jt

    The argument in #1 sounds right, but it is not. Consider two countries, Mexico and the US. If you look at the poorest people in each society, they would look pretty similar. The Mexican poor are worse off, but at the extreme end of the distribution everyone is doing pretty badly. Similarly, if we look at the richest people in both societies, they would look pretty similar. We would be very mistaken, however to draw the conclusion that Mexico and the US are pretty much the same in terms of life prospects and justice. To see the picture properly, we need to look at the median person or the average person in the society. If you do that, you see glaring differences. This is why all economists since Adam Smith (including Adam Smith) think you should look at something like the per capita income or average wealth to see how well a country is doing.

    Rawls, in his justification for the difference principle, makes a similar mistake. He assumes two properties, “chain connection” and “close-kindness” which amount to something like what Matt has argued here. The only problem is that there is no proof for either. Neither Rawls nor any of his followers (as far as I know) have defended these two essential premises. There is no reason to think that the condition of the poor tells us very much about the society we are in as a whole.

    Further, the worst off in our society are prisoners, the indigent mentally ill, and drug addicts. Insofar as any policies will help these people they tend to be policies concerned with actual justice. Drug law reform, for instance. Our drug policies have a much greater effect on the life prospects of the poor in this country than our social welfare policies. Why then are we so obsessed with the latter?

    The basic fallacy is that we should be concerned with the premise of “positive argument.” There is no reason to think that libertarian policies would make the poor or anyone (aside from those who profit off of government rents and redistribution) worse off and a lot of reason to think they would make almost everyone better off. In any case, if that is your concern that is where the debate should be, whether libertarian policies will be generally beneficial or not. Accepting a false premise and then using that to introduce something that is the opposite of the entire classical liberal approach (patterned conditions of distribution being equate with justice) is ludicrous.

    It is a great benefit of classical liberalism that it benefits everyone, the poor included. It is not a special moral justification for classical liberalism that it especially benefits the poor. Classical liberal instituions of justice and property incentivize individuals to internalize externalities and teaches people to become reciprocal cooperators rather than receivers or takers. That is the central message. It may be time for a BHL reading group on Schmidtz’s part of Social Welfare and individual Responsibility to remind everyone what the core is.

    • John,

      As I said in my discussion of #1 above, the focus on the worst-off is a heuristic, not a rule. So I don’t mean to claim that injustice will manifest itself always and only at the lowest end of the social order. I just think that it’s a good first place to look. Your examples of prisoners and drug addicts seem like confirming evidence of this, to me.

      Moreover, focusing on the “average” individual will miss some of the most egregious cases of societal injustice. Take a country in which 10% of the population are held as slaves. Or in which women, gays, or a religious minority group are oppressed. The average citizen of such a country might be doing such fine. But they might be doing fine in spite of glaring injustice – or, perhaps in the case of slavery, even because of it.

      I’m not sure if your last paragraph is suggesting that I (and the other BHLers) need to reread Schmidtz’s book for my (our) own benefit, or whether you just want us to talk about it more for the benefit of our readers. I suppose I’ll assume the latter, since I’m not sure what I’ve said here to give you any reason to make the former claim. It’s certainly a great book, and I teach from it regularly in my courses.

      • jt

        On the last point, I meant for the benefit of the readers primarily. The focus there is creating and understanding incentive compatible institutions for economic growth and freedom.

        You are right on the slavery example, but surely that would factor into our assessment of the justice of the society. Imagine that the slaves were not the poorest members of society. If they are pretty well off compared to everyone else, it would still matter that they are slaves.

        I was not clear, I don’t think the plight of prisoners tell us very much of interest about how a society is doing. My point is that the tails of the distribution give you very little information. The average may also be misleading (though I suspect less so). If it is a heuristic, it is not a very good one for your purposes. In the same way, looking at the rich (as the left often do) to indict capitalist society is also misleading.

  • martinbrock

    Social Justice involves exceptions to particular conceptions of Property, and for many libertarians, particular conceptions of Property are moral absolutes. People accepting conflicting moral absolutes can never agree. Property is also a fuzzy concept. If a BHL concedes Property to Rothbardians or other libertarians, s/he loses any argument before it begins. We might as well confront disagreements over Property head on.

    Many assertions of propriety can be cast as personal preferences rather than natural rights or universal moral absolutes. Rothbardians can have their conception of Property when dealing with other Rothbardians, but they can’t impose it on people with a different conception of Property, and they can’t simply assume that all of the world’s resource are available for absorption into their communities via homesteading. If a Rothbardian will not concede this point, agreement with other libertarianians is impossible, and any further discussion is a waste of time, both for the Rothbardian and for the other libertarians.

  • Russell Frege

    I have no comment on the substance of the post.

    If you’re looking for a topic that is both philosophically interesting and politically topical, you might investigate some of the issues around state power and indigenous rights in Canada. I sort of have not idea what a libertarian should think. Many First Nations have explicitly collectivist ownership and social structures. I can imagine the libertarian refrain to set them free and institute property reforms. On the other hand, one could see government efforts to institute private property reforms as exercising government force to dispossess a marginalized group of their rights on behalf of powerful interests. Rather than having to deal with collective treaty rights and obligations, industry would like to bargain with and threaten eminent domain against individual property owners when it comes to things like pipeline right of way.

    Personally, I don’t think of these issues from any sort of libertarian perspective. To be honest, my political philosophy might not be much more sophisticated than “I’m against shit that pisses me off. Who’s with me?” and more often than not that means siding with the weak against the strong. If put on the spot I tend to appeal to some mix of utilitarian and Rawlsian considerations that might not actually be coherent. What can I say? Philosophy is hard and I work in another area. Nevertheless, it is interesting to me to know how issues are approached from different, more systematic perspectives and this is one where the BHL philosophical point of view might bear on a pressing political issue.

  • Ross Levatter

    Matt, by way of promoting the BHL approach to libertarianism, offers: “If the idea that justice requires paying special attention to the poor bothers you, let’s say instead that social justice requires ensuring that social institutions work sufficiently to the benefit of all. You can’t get more impartial than that. But, now, how are we going to check if this condition is met? Where are we going to look to see whether everyone’s interests are being sufficiently well-served? Presumably not at those who are doing the best in society, right? No, if social institutions are going to be failing anybody, it’s usually going to be those who are doing worst. So if we want to see if social institutions are working sufficiently to the benefit of all, we need to look at the interests of those on the bottom – the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. We focus on their interests not because those interests matter more than the interests of others, but simply as a useful heuristic – because that where things are likely to be going wrong in a society, if anything is.”

    Let me show why I think this is one of the fundamental problems with the BHL approach, using an in-the-news example as analogy: “The IRS requires ensuring that tax collection works sufficiently to the benefit of all. You can’t get more impartial than that. But, now, how are we going to check if this condition is met? Where are we going to look to see if anyone is cheating? Presumably those pre-disposed to be anti-government, right? If tax collections are going to be failing to collect the right amount, it’s usually going to be from those who are actively working against taxes. So if we want to see tax collections are working sufficiently to the benefit of all, we need to look at the tax collections of those who most oppose taxes– the right wing, the Tea Party, and the anti-government types. We focus on their tax collections not because their taxes matter more than the taxes of others, but simply as a useful heuristic – because that’s where things are likely to be going wrong in tax collection, if anything is.

    Perhaps there is a grain of truth in this hypothetical IRS rationale, but that’s a dangerous approach, just like it’s intellectually dangerous to argue that because Steve Jobs was doing well that the government had done nothing to harm his interests. If the government said it would confiscate all assets per family greater than $500 million, Steve Jobs would still have been doing quite well, but most of his fortune would have been confiscated.

    As numerous commentators on the IRS scandal have pointed out, the IRS claim they were focusing on the Tea Party because these were new applications and they had to assure new applications were proper, doesn’t make sense. If there were a true concern about improper new applications, a random assessment of ALL new applications, not just Tea Party applications, would make sense. Similarly, if BHLers are truly concerned about the welfare of everyone in society, they should assess in some fashion everyone, not just the poor (a group that is both dramatically better off than the poor in the rest of the world and dramatically better off than the poor in America a century ago.)

    Kevin, in the comments on his post about the emergent nature of social injustice, said he was fine with individuals suffering some specific injustices to correct a social injustice not of their making. This is not an interesting variant of libertarian theory. It is the antithesis of libertarian theory. Just as Marx argued the dictatorship of the proletariat makes man more free, in some sense, at least a few BHLers apparently want to argue accepting injustices against some people gives us more justice, in some sense. It is not surprising more than a few libertarians have a problem with that.

    If I were to be so bold as to suggest a BHL project, it would be this: Nozick famously argued against the danger to liberty of any patterned theory of justice. Libertarians naturally worry about dangers to liberty. So it would be interesting if a BHL philosopher would explain either why Nozick is wrong or why special concern for the poor, up to and including potential redistributions of the sort Jason and apparently Kevin are willing to endorse, do not constitute a patterned theory of justice.

    • Kevin Vallier

      “Kevin, in the comments on his post about the emergent nature of social injustice, said he was fine with individuals suffering some specific injustices to correct a social injustice not of their making.”


      • Kevin Vallier

        Man, so much no.

        • Ross Levatter

          Would you have a problem if I had said “accepting of” rather than “fine with”?

      • Ross Levatter

        Gee, Kevin, it was certainly not my intent to distort your position, and I appreciate you commenting in response. Here’s what I had in mind, your comment from less than 1 week ago:

        In response to TracyW saying, in part: “[Kevin’s post on emergent social injustice] does raise the thought, that under some circumstances any attempt to correct a social injustice may result in committing individual injustices (eg passing over the most qualified person for a job)” you replied, “I think you’re absolutely right that correcting social injustices may result in committing individual injustices. Nothing rules that out in principle. That’s an upshot of my analysis, one that I think is plausible. Justice in the end, I suppose, is multi-dimensional, and increasing justice along some dimensions may sometimes require reducing it along others.”

        Of course, this is a blog, not a referred journal, so I felt comfortable simplifying this to your being “fine” with that result. Your comment didn’t sound to me like you’re admitting but deploring a logically possible outcome. It sounded like you’re congratulating Tracy for seeing the implications of your view.

        Could I ask you to clarify?

        • sandy

          I second that request for clarification, seeing as I too understood Kevin’s comments in the way Ross presented them.

        • Kevin Vallier

          I’m acknowledging a possible outcome. I do not favor committing an injustice against an individual to correct a social injustice, nor am I fine with it. Nor would someone interested in charity have said as much.

          Here’s what I mean, since others somehow got the wrong idea as well. In some possible cases, people may have reason to forgo pushing for redress to promote a more just institutional structure. A case that’s not at all incompatible with traditional libertarianism: redress for apartheid in South Africa. Had everyone insisting on pushing for full redress for grievances, South African institutions may not have been able to bear the stress, which would generate more injustice in the end by destabilizing a regime. In that case, there were trade-offs that had to be made. But by acknowledging this possibility does not mean I am fine with committing injustice against individuals to correct a social injustice! That’s a mighty uncharitable way to characterize my view.

          • Ross Levatter

            You really want to go with BOTH “that’s a mighty uncharitable way to characterize my view” AND “others somehow got the wrong idea as well”?

          • Ross Levatter

            OK, Kevin. You don’t “favor” it. You merely note it as a logical possibility. But surely you notice there is a difference between what you are discussing and, say, the claim, “I’m not saying I FAVOR a woman wearing sexy clothes and walking in the wrong section of town being raped, I’m just saying it’s a logical possibility.” The difference is you’re CONSTRUCTING this theory of social justice. It would be like inventing an engine that worked really well in cars except every 5th car blew up. You’re not IN FAVOR of cars blowing up, but you constructed an engine with that effect. That’s a DEFECT in your engine. Do you similarly see a theory of social justice that “may result in committing individual injustices. Nothing rules that out in principle” as a DEFECT in such a theory? What is the upshot of your analysis?

          • Ross Levatter

            I don’t generally give multiple responses to one comment, but the more I re-read Kevin’s statement the more shocked I become. Apparently Kevin opposes, like any libertarian, “committing an injustice against an individual to correct a social injustice.” When he said to Tracy less than a week ago, “I think you’re absolutely right that correcting social injustices may result in committing individual injustices. Nothing rules that out in principle” he expected, it seems, people to conclude he was speaking not of having the State “committing individual injustices” but merely that “people may have reason to forgo pushing for redress to promote a more just institutional structure.” That is to say, to voluntarily forgive and waive the violations of rights against them necessary to achieve social justice.

            Of course, to forgive an injustice requires that first the injustice occur. If Kevin anticipates routine and extensive “forgo[ing of] pushing for redress,” it’s not at all clear why he doesn’t simply assume people will voluntarily assist in the first place, eliminating the need to commit individual injustices.

            And yet Kevin thinks any other interpretation than that he was referring to “people [who] may have reason to forgo pushing for redress to promote a more just institutional structure” is uncharitable. I must say I work diligently to apply the principle of philosophic charity in my comments. But even I am not quit that eleemosynary.

    • j_m_h

      This counter argument fails in my opinion. In Matt’s case he talking about evaluating the general outcomes produced by a set of institutions which are assumed to be beneficial to everyone in the society. In your case you’re talking about the actions of a specific institution with regard to a specific segment of the population.

      • Ross Levatter

        Jmh, you might have a point if I offered a “counter argument”. But as I explicitly noted, what I offered was an analogy. Every analogy is imperfect. That’s what makes them analogies rather than identities. So it is not sufficient to merely, as you have done, point out a distinction. You would have to also explain why that distinction is important as regards the analogical point I was making.

        • j_m_h

          Analogies will be imperfect and so will most theoretical models and arguments in general. That seems a poor defense. Lets say Matt’s argument is p therefore not q. You come in and say, by was of analogy, consider this q case. That’s not quite accurate I agree but I think captures the situation fairly well.

          Seems to me that your analogy is categorically different from the setting Matt is talking about, not merely different in detail. Whether you’re making a counter argument or offering an analogy for rejecting the vehicle used needs to be similar. Your analogy would be useful if Matt was saying we should look at those who disagree with the existing social setup and culture.

          A more accurate analogy for you would be to replace “don’t like government” with have abnormally high incomes given their tax payments/refunds. Even though we’re still talking about a single institution we’re no longer talking about targeting a group of people on personal characteristics but on the results we see emerging from the underlying system — in this case tax regulations and codes.

          In the more analogous comparison I’m not sure there’s much objection to the IRS policy in terms of evaluating the justness (or in this case fairness might be more accurate) of the institution.

  • David Friedman

    “No, if social institutions are going to be failing anybody, it’s usually going to be those who are doing worst.”

    The problem with this, and a more general problem with conclusions about the justice of some outcome, is that you need a baseline, something you are comparing the result of these particular social institutions too. The quote implicitly assumes that the baseline is equality, hence that we can identify who the social institutions are failing by who has a bad outcome.

    I can think of several alternative baselines, and I’m not sure I see strong arguments for choosing one of them. The baseline could be outcomes in a Hobbesian state of nature. By that standard, the fact that the big tough bully who would do relatively well in a war of each against all does no better than anyone else in a market society with property rights effectively enforced is obviously unjust–the institutions are failing him, since he is the one doing worst relative to baseline. Everyone else is getting protection from him, and he’s losing the opportunity to beat up on them. And if we take an absolute rather than relative version of that standard, the blind beggar sleeping under a bridge might be, by that baseline, getting more than his fair share, since in the Hobbesian state of nature he would be long dead.

    The baseline could be the pure laissez-faire society–in which case any alternative is unjust, since some people in the alternative do worse than there. It could be the outcome of an idealized market, where each person gets his marginal product–in which case the blind beggar is again one of the winners, since he is getting enough charity to survive and producing nothing.

    Until you have some basis for the baseline of comparison, I don’t see how the approach you are suggesting here can work, and I see no good grounds for choosing one. If you follow out the tempting line of argument of saying that people shouldn’t be blamed for things that are not their fault, neither their situation in life nor their personal characteristics are their fault, hence everyone deserves the same thing, you run into the problem that one of the characteristics we don’t deserve is being people, so why do people deserve more than dogs, or ants, or trees, or stones?

    • martinbrock

      If a property system permits an ingenious few to consume most of total production, by writ of broad patents for example, so that others may only subsist, the ingenious few seem to be big, tough bullies in your sense.

      In a world with any forcible propriety and any inequality, how do I know that something of the sort is not happening? That the ingenious few really are the most ingenious is not evidence to the contrary. Why should the most ingenious dominate everyone else so completely? Why not the physically strongest instead? I understand why the ingenious prefer the former to the latter, but this preference doesn’t justify the outcome in my way of thinking.

      Standards of propriety are goods that people subjectively prefer, and only a free market can effectively price them. We know which standards satisfy personal preferences only by observing the standards that emerge when people are free to choose among competing alternatives. Lockean property rights are worth enforcing if people invest themselves in communities enforcing Lockean property rights, within a larger context in which people may freely organize themselves otherwise.

      Enforcing particular rules is useful insofar as communities enforcing these proprieties persist though their members may choose communities enforcing other rules.

      People have more than dogs, because people dominate dogs.

      • Copyright and patent was originally meant to operate for a period of time after which the copyright or patent would expire and the subject at issue would move into the public domain. However, abuse of these laws by the politically powerful has allowed the establishment of monopolies that effectively prevent competition from arising and reducing costs closer to the actual free market cost of production. The problem occurs because those with great wealth have the means to corrupt the political system to their own advantage. Especially given the increasing cost of running for political office.

        The solution for this problem was created by the Greeks of Athens some two thousand years ago by the replacement of a system of selection via a lottery to replace a system of elections. A “Demarchy” is a political system where representives are selected by a lottery, not by vote. Unlike a “democracy”, a “demarchy” is far more difficult to corrupt, offers a level of representation impossible in a democracy since candidates for political office are much more representative of the people as a whole. In a demarchy, we’d have representation from all economic classes on a basis proportional to their number among the general population. Going by national polls, about 1/5th of the representatives would be politically libertarian. 1/2 would be women. Minorities would be represented in proportion to their percentage of the population. The professions would have representation relative to their percentage of the population, a tiny fraction of what they enjoy now. Obviously under a demarchy the current over representation of the wealthy, the professions, would be much different. We would have truly “representative” government, something we do not have now.

        • martinbrock

          The first U.S. copyrights lasted 14 years, at a time when authors wrote with quill pens, type was set by hand, pages were printed by a literal press one at a time and books traveled to market on a horse drawn carriage.

          Choosing legislators at random seems an improvement over our nominal “democracy”, but I doubt that choosing our rulers differently would help much. The problem is that they exercise too much authority, regardless of how they’re selected.

    • RL

      Social justice, Thrasymachus style

    • Kevin Vallier

      I would think that MZ’s baseline could be something like (i) having non-controversial, basic rights respected and (ii) having sufficient resources to live a minimally decent life, fleshed out in terms of some sort of philosophically familiar currency, like primary goods or capabilities. Those doing the “worst” would be those with resources below the baseline and whose basic rights are respected the least.

      You might reply that there are possible societies where the worst-off have their non-controversial, basic rights respected and have sufficient resources to live a minimally decent life. In that case, Matt’s heuristic wouldn’t be so good. But I don’t think Matt needs to worry about that contingency.

      Of course, you could double-down on your previously expressed concerns about the vagueness of ideas like “minimally decent life,” but I figure we’ve been through that already.

      • Valdenor Júnior

        I think that this guideline is satisfatory! One post about capabilities approach, or about significance of difference between “develop capability” and “respect capability”, could be an excellent post! David Schmidtz wrote about Amartya Sen: “Sen focuses on capabilities, but his focus seems limited to the subtopic of how to develop capability. He says little about how to respect capability” ( ) Reading your opinion about this matter could be very interesting.

        P.s. I’m brazilian, I don’t write english so well..

        • matt b

          Your English is just fine. Thanks for the link.

      • David Friedman

        My question isn’t whether one can define a baseline–I offered several possibilities. It’s how one can show that one particular baseline is the right one for judging the justice of a society.

        • Kevin Vallier

          I thought Matt had defended his baseline in other posts.

          • David Friedman

            I described my reasons for rejecting that defense, by Matt and others, in some detail in a series of posts on my blog and comments here.

  • David Friedman

    “libertarians (and especially libertarian philosophers!) like to spend their time talking about issues that are interesting,”

    Libertarians, and other people, also like arguing with people who take them seriously. That’s part of the reason why so much of the effort in small movements, such as ours, goes to internal conflict. It’s much more fun arguing with someone who, while he may disagree with you on the details, agrees that you (like him) are basically right and the rest of the world wrong and between you you have the secret the world needs than arguing with someone who thinks you are a nut.

  • sandy

    I was already starting to interpret the recent series of BHL posts as an attempt to break ties with us Cartoon Libertarians (outside of this blog known simply as Libertarians), so you could more freely hang out with liberals without having to “explain yourselves” on our behalves or be embarrassed by us…

    Kinda like the US had to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, because China would not accept any diplomatic contact otherwise.

    But this post sounds pretty conciliatory, so I guess I’ll take that outstretched hand and keep hanging out in the big BHL tent for now… 🙂

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I think one can make a pretty good case that liberty empowers the poor more than any other group. Those who are already middle class, and especially the wealthy will continue to thrive for the most part if their society either increases in government control or decreases. But the poor can usually only make their way out of poverty, at least in large numbers, when you have the workings of liberty, in particular a more or less free market.

    • sandy

      But you can make that case without demanding that it be covered by the word “justice”.

      • Kevin

        … because justice usually implies that the use of force is warranted.

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  • Ryan Long

    This is a little if-by-whiskey IMHO. The people who disagree with BHLs on the whole social justice thing didn’t bring it up in the first place. Now MZ is saying that even if they disagree, it doesn’t matter anyway because we’re all libertarians working toward similar ends. True, but then why bring up social justice at To start an argument over something that doesn’t matter anyway?

    It reminds me a lot of left-wing extremists who introduce heavy leftist extremism into a discussion and then declare that “the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” By introducing a new extreme, they push the “middle” over to their own preferred extreme. This has been a classic political devise used by leftists for at least 100 years.

    I feel this all the more strongly considering what MZ says about wanting “Rothbardians” to simply “start talking” about social justice. Again, we can draw parallels to the leftist notion of “starting a conversation,” “getting people talking,” and so on. If it doesn’t matter, because we are all working in the same direction, then why initiate a conversation that doesn’t matter?

    It’s these kind of rhetorical devices that occasionally make me feel that there is something a little underhanded about BHL. If I’m wrong on substance, I want people to argue against the substance of my position, not tell me that it would be nice if I start talking more about their own position. That’s not a debate. I don’t know what it is, but it feels a little misleading to me.

    • Jameson Graber

      “That’s not a debate. I don’t know what it is, but it feels a little misleading to me.” I don’t know, is a blog like this supposed to be about having a debate? For me it’s a way to follow new ideas coming from a broadly libertarian camp. A priori I presume we’re here to have a discussion about whatever the authors post.

      I actually view the whole “moving the middle” as a fair rhetorical strategy. Intellectuals who get excited about an idea and keep talking about it will naturally tend to influence the world of ideas. This doesn’t have to be part of a big plan to move the middle toward a particular ideology, since that will be more of a natural result rather than a direct intention. Hayek himself favored the idea of attracting more intellectuals with “utopian visions” of a liberal state (see “The Intellectuals and Socialism”) and I consider this web site a helpful step in that direction.

      • Ryan Long

        Two follow up questions:

        1) What is the difference in your mind between “having a debate” and “having a discussion?” I ask this because you made this differentiation.

        2) If “moving the middle” is a valid rhetorical strategy then everything I said about evading the substance of alternative positions in favor of massaging the message applies. Do you think the BHL authors would actually agree that this is their intent? Can we get the BHL authors to confirm or deny that this is their motive?

        • Jameson Graber

          To me “having a debate” would imply that two (or more) sides with well-defined positions on an issue are invited to defend those positions. That doesn’t really seem like what this blog is for. All the posts seem to be at most work in progress. Any reactions there may be in the comments hopefully serve to help refine the ideas that are there, but I wouldn’t really call that structure a debate.

          As for the intent of BHL authors, I presume they’re not trying to be underhanded, and in any case we probably couldn’t get them to admit it if they were. My prediction is that, whatever their intentions are, the things they publish will have an influence on libertarianism, in particular that they will “move the middle” (of libertarianism), and that this may just be for the better.

          • Ryan Long

            I guess I don’t understand. You have phrased things as though you disagree with me, and yet the conclusions you reach are nearly identical to mine. Perhaps we both see it the same way, but you count it as being a good thing because it creates a libertarianism you happen to prefer, and I see it as a bad thing because it is more marketing and less substance.

            Fair enough.

  • ksvanhorn

    I think there’s a very good reason to object to the term “social justice” — it seems to be most commonly used to promote policies that involve massive individual *injustice*.

  • Part of the problem is that the poor are often prevented by laws and regulations from using the talents they have to support themselves. Then the professions enjoy a lot of advantages from government laws and regulations that they use to increase their own incomes at the expense of everyone else. Prescription laws benefit doctors by giving doctors a monopoly over access to medical drugs. This allows doctors to force patients to make unnecessary office visits and have unnecessary lab tests in order to maintain their access to prescription drugs. Lawyers also have their own favorite laws that give them a legal monopoly over certain services. All in all, these laws and regulations increase the American cost of living by over a trillion dollars a year, or about $3,000 a year for every man, woman, and child living here in the USA. On my libertarian blog at “” I explain how government functions to favor certain people over others, and allows the “favored people” to enjoy monopolistic laws that considerably increase their incomes at the expense of everyone else.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      A perfect example of what you are talking about are laws that limit the number of cab drivers in a city. It hurts the public who need more access to cabs and it hurts struggling entrprenuers who would like to offer a taxi service. But it allows the city to make money on selling liscenses and helps the taxis who are in existance to gouge the public.

      • We have a great number of laws and regulations that do exactly that. The public is the loser both in the economic sense and in the sense of having less choices. As a libertarian, I want more choices for everyone!

      • Damien S.

        As a liberal, I agree. Problem is I don’t agree it’s true about all regulations, or that we’d be better off with laissez faire. I prefer Clean Air Act + loose taxi regulations to Clean Air Act + stupid taxi regulations to no Clean Air Act and no taxi regulations. Unfortunately, at best I can only vote for options 2 or 3 in current politics.

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  • Bryan C. Winter

    Ha. I just said something like this in BHL Like last week.

    The effects of institutions matter. But you can create social justice without giving people money, or making ‘favorable’ laws. You can instead remove a regulation that prevents them from doing something to counter-act bad actors.

    We don’t talk much about health-care, but if we opened the marketplace on drugs, made most over the counter, and removed the need to see a doctor for a prescription, people could webMD 90% of their basic medical needs, and this would save huge amounts of waste, and reduce the price of drugs enormously. This would create social justice.

    The rules designed to protect people are actually hurting them in an objective, real and measurable way, because people are so afraid of something bad happening, they make a law that prevents anything from happening at all.

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  • Andre Levy

    Not sure what the whole hoopla is all about… Social justice simply means absence of privilege.