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.
- There are serious and probably insurmountable problems with the traditional utilitarian and self–ownership / Non-Aggression approaches to the defense of libertarianism.
- 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?