Social Justice, Libertarianism

Lebar v. Vallier on Social Justice and More

Friend of the blog, Mark Lebar (here) thinks Kevin’s response to David Friedman regarding social justice is basically misguided. Mark accurately claims that “if the concept of social justice is going to be at all interesting, it cannot simply be redescribing the sort of injustice that occurs when individuals violate the rights of others.” He then asks “What does the social injustice supervene on?” and responds that “The crucial point is: whatever the answer to that question, it is not a property of individuals.” I’m not so sure about that.

Kevin had said he is “a moral individualist in the sense that [he] thinks injustices can only be done to individuals, families or to voluntary associations” and not “groups defined independently of their members” but that “social injustices can be committed independently of human design.” I think this is exactly right. Mark thinks Kevin is merely “paying lip service” to moral individualism properly understood. I don’t think so.

If I understand Mark’s main worry, it’s that whereas what we ordinarily call injustices can be normative properties that supervene on individuals, social injustices would have to be normative properties that supervene on groups. He tells us that “without the thought that the normative property (the social injustice) supervenes on facts about groups, rather than individuals, there is no injustice here to be found. And that’s just where the BHL’ers would like to be able to find injustice.” I think this is right, but perhaps confusing. The reason is simply that groups are nothing more than collections of individuals, so if something supervenes on group G, it supervenes on the collection of individuals that make up group G. Once this is seen, there is no real problem at all in thinking about social injustice and remaining committed to normative individualism.

But there is a different way that I would prefer to go with this. I’m not a rights theorist; I tend to think harms are more basic than rights. I won’t go into that here, but to play with Kevin’s definition of social injustice a bit, I would prefer to say that social injustice “obtains when an institutional arrangement generates a distribution of goods [broadly construed] that” does harm, “independently of the deliberate design of individuals comprising the institutions.” Social justice, then, requires having a system that does not cause such harms. Our system (i.e., that of the current U.S.) does such harms. To that extent, our system contains social injustice.

Let me spell this out just a bit. First, harms are not the same as hurts. Harms are injuries—the relation to jurisprudence is important. With Joel Feinberg, we should say harms are wrongful setbacks to interests. Second, there are individuals who find themselves harmed—having their interests wrongfully setback—in our society, though no particular individual harmed them. I’ll spell this out using an example from my forthcoming book:

It is obvious that agent A might not intend to harm B, but might nonetheless culpably engage in an activity that results in B having interests set back—and the fact that A was culpably involved matters. So, for example, if you buy an iPhone on the “five finger market” and it turns out that the iPhone in question was mine, you have culpably engaged in an activity—theft and black market purchase of stolen goods—that leaves me with my interests wrongfully set back. You are culpable—and so can be said to participate in the harm to me—because you should have known not to buy an iPhone where you did. You may not have harmed me on your own, but you did participate in a system that harmed me. … Given that you were not solely responsible, you may not have to pay the full restitution on your own. It may be that there should be some sort of systemic assistance program meant to compensate those who suffer harms (genuine harms, not mere hurts) attributable to many agents, though not all individually identifiable. This becomes more plausible as larger and larger groups cause the harms in question.

This sort of harm, I would say, is a social injustice. It’s not that there is some social group that is harmed (groups are not harmed, though the members of a group can be harmed in ways directly related to their being members of the group). It’s that the social system caused a wrongful setback of interests to an individual.

Let’s return to Mark’s worry. He rightly noted that “if the concept of social justice is going to be at all interesting, it cannot simply be redescribing the sort of injustice that occurs when individuals violate the rights of others.” He then asks “What does the social injustice supervene on?” and responds that “The crucial point is: whatever the answer to that question, it is not a property of individuals.” But what we have just seen is that a social system—itself made up of individuals acting in various ways—can harm individuals. So perhaps we should say that the social justice is a normative property that supervenes on such social systems such that no individual has her interests wrongly setback by that system. (I realize this may be problematic as stated since there is a normative property supervening on something that includes a normative property.)

Now David Friedman might worry that my definition of social justice differs from those definitions previously offered by Jason Brennan and Matt Zwolinski. I think Jason’s post answers that worry pretty definitively, but my definition is perhaps interestingly different in that it specifies what ought not happen, while Jason and Matt’s specifies what ought to happen. They want to “ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives” (Jason) or “serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged” (Matt). I actually think that the best way to do that (on either formulation) is to prevent harms in the first place, but I will stop here for now and perhaps post about this issue at a later date.

Published on:
Author: Andrew Cohen
  • shemsky

    Did Agent A, in fact, have reason to know whether or not the iPhone was stolen? You’re not real clear about that. If he knew the iPhone was stolen then he willfully participated in theft and there is no question that he is culpable. If he didn’t have any reason to know that the iPhone was stolen then he is a victim of theft as well as the rightful owner of the iPhone. I don’t see this as social injustice. I see it as certain individuals commiting crimes against other individuals, even though it may be difficult to identify some of the individual perpetrators and victims.

    • Sean II

      Yes. If the buyer knew or should have known, then his actions are already condemned by a non-social understanding of justice. If he didn’t know or could not have known, then he’s just another victim of the scheme, and the matter again falls under a more traditional notion of justice.

      In either case, I think Cohen is confusing an economic problem with an ethical one. The cost of finding the buyer to recover the iPhone and inflict punishment (if he knew) is too high for the effort to be worthwhile*. But admitting this fact does NOT mean we endorse the theft or the receipt of stolen property, and so does not challenge our ideas about justice.

      * Had the buyer instead purchased something more valuable from his fence – like say, the Headpiece to the Staff of Ra – we’d be tracking him down wit da’ quickness (best believe!), and the whole analogy would fall apart.

      • shemsky

        Where I think that Andrew errors is in saying that a social system caused a wrongful setback of interests. If the law had said that it was ok to knowingly accept stolen property, then Andrew would be right in saying that a social system caused a wrongful setback of interests. And the first course of action should be to change the law. But that’s not what the law says.

        • Sean II

          That’s one of the ways he errs. The other is that his context doesn’t go back far enough. We still need to learn something about what came before the theft.

          Staying with his example, we would do that by asking “Hey Andy, where’d you get that cool phone in the first place?”

          Can his answer really be this: “Funny you should ask. I got it from the very same people I now intend to coerce, to get me compensation for losing it.”

          Again…are we really calling that justice?

        • TracyW

          Actually, I think in most countries it’s okay to knowingly accept stolen property if it happened long enough ago – there’s a statute of limitations on how far land claims can go back (the US is unusual in not having that limitation).

          The logic is that after the passage of X years, uncertainty about who really owns a piece of property is so great as to be a wrongful setback of interests. If A didn’t start legal claims on their property within X years, A probably didn’t value it that much compared with the current owner. And society benefits from people not wasting time and effort in litigation over long-ago matters.

  • Sean II

    Let’s play with the stolen iPhone example, because I think you left some important parties out of the picture. As I see it, the situation includes all of the following:

    a) You, the phone’s original owner
    b) The thief
    c) The fence
    d) The (no excuse to be un)knowing buyer
    e) The phone company (it’s CEO, workers, shareholders, etc.)

    So first of all, it’s interesting that you should take yourself to be a victim of social injustice here, since current law – based on good old-fashioned, regular justice – already provides for penalties against b), c), and d). Yes, it may be hard to get d) charged with “receipt of stolen goods” for reasons of evidence, but that crime does exist, and you can certainly use state coercion to get the phone back if you catch him with it. The only trick being that in real life, the cost of catching him will nearly always be greater than the cost of replacement out-of-pocket. But that’s a practical question…and you know, damn the market for making those phones cheaper and easier to get than a lick of decent service from your local police department!

    But that isn’t the big problem. Let’s say I accept that you really are a victim of social injustice in the above-described scenario. What do you want to do about that? You say maybe “…there should be some sort of systemic assistance program meant to compensate those who suffer harms (genuine harms, not mere hurts) attributable to many agents, though not all individually identifiable.”

    The first response for a libertarian is likely to be “Okay great, let’s call it ‘insurance’ and make it voluntary”. This allows each person to buy protection against cases where his interests are set back, but where it’s not possible or practical to seek remedy against all who contributed to the set-back. I realize this does not cover all imaginable cases…but hey, you picked the analogy, I’m just playing within its rules.

    The next question is more serious. Assuming you want your social injustice assistance & compensation program to be funded by coercion and carried out by the state, we’ve got a problem. In practice that can mean only one thing: you’re going after the phone company to collect some taxes.

    You can’t get any money from b) and c), because they’re career criminals who don’t pay taxes. You can’t get much money from d), because he’s the kind of guy who buys stolen cell phones. You must not be able to get enough money from a) – from yourself, because then you could just buy insurance and no state coercion would be required. Put it all together and we see that to fully fund your program, you’ll have no choice but to go after e), the cell phone company and its various stakeholders.

    But the parties grouped together under e) did nothing wrong! In fact, they did something right. They made a phone so cool people would want to buy and steal it, and in the process accumulated a bit of money. And for that sin we are now proposing to punish them with a coercive levy, i.e., by taking some of e)’s money away, to buy protection for a) against the behavior of b), c), and d).

    Forgive me, but doesn’t that seem a lot like a straight-up, no-doubt-about-it, no- adjective-required, INJUSTICE?

    And if that’s the case, if that’s really what all this “social justice” talk is getting at – constructing an argument whereby innocent individuals will be made to suffer intentionally inflicted injustice, to compensate other individuals for harms suffered spontaneously or without design – if that’s what it is really about, then why not just talk about “the limits of justice”?

    Why not just talk about “social justice” as the thing that arises whenever we decide to throw individual injustice out the window? It doesn’t sound very pretty, but I bet David Friedman would accept that definition in a heartbeat.

    • Kevin

      Good analysis, Sean. Cohen seems to be arguing that an inability to obtain complete justice from individual perpetrators or facilitators warrants widespread punishment. It’s like a teacher not knowing who shot a spitball at her, so she punishes the whole class. Social justice!

      Nevertheless, I think it is great that they keep trying to find a specific example that works. It’s far better than reasoning about abstractions.

      • Sean II

        I agree. I don’t think Cohen’s was a bad example. On the contrary, I fear it was probably a pretty good one, which does not bode well for me ever using the term “justice” to describe what happens when we steal things from innocent or even praiseworthy people, in order to compensate the unintentionally injured and unlucky.

        Don’t get me wrong, I might be persuaded to tolerate such stealing, and of course any amount less than we have at the moment would be a welcome step, but I prefer to call it something else besides “social justice”. Possible terms include:

        “The Utilitarianism Ransom”
        “Assuming the Original Position”
        “Mandatory Birth Accident Insurance”
        “Sure It’s Stealing but…Fuck You, Pay Me” (remix)

        I don’t see what’s wrong with any of these. They’re descriptive, catchy, and probably less prone to controversy than the old “sosyal adalet”.

        • Kevin

          Ha! Those are great. I especially like 2 and 4. 🙂

          I think your Terminological Justice could really help our legislative process. Perhaps it should be required that all bills be named by the opposition.

        • matt b

          To steal means to take something that does not belong to you/ that you have no right to take. The term is meaningless, then, without a theory of rights regarding the possession of external materials. When libertarians say “welfare is theft” that claim rests upon the theory that people have an absolute/ near absolute claim to property. Maybe that’s right but the way you and other libertarians use “steal” implies that government welfare spending is just obviously theft and there obviously wrong. This can only be correct if the hard libertarian theory of property is obviously correct and it’s just not obviously correct. Not “obviously incorrect” but “not obviously correct.” And the “fuck you, pay me” is just polemical overkill since BHLs have strong respect for individuals and think there’s a strong presumption in favour of people keeping what they earn.

          • Sean II

            Well, these discussions need to have some boundaries or they just become absurd.

            Yes, it’s true that one could counter my point by calling the whole origin of property rights into question…but 1) That’s not what Cohen is talking about in this thread, and 2) The basic legitimacy of a basically libertarian regime of property rights has been stipulated (if only for the sake of simplicity) by nearly everyone involved in the May 2013 Battle Royale to decide the fate of “social justice”.

            Simply put: this conversation is happening downstream of the question of property rights. Here we are supposed to assume you came by what you have legitimately, and the question is merely “when and why and how can it be taken from you, despite that fact”.

            Finally, you’ve misunderstood the meaning of “Fuck You, Pay Me”. My point is simply that I’d rather suffer a theft which calls itself a theft, than suffer a theft which calls itself something else and thereby subverts my language and ideology in the bargain. You’re right to suspect some rhetorical mischief here, but it isn’t coming from me.

    • Andrew

      I may not have used the best example, but it doesn’t strike me as getting you what you want either. The situation is not reducible to one that includes only the thief, the fence, you, and me. The idea of a thief and a fence presuppose an entire system of rules. That is, without an entire system of laws about what “theft” is and what “fencing” (selling stolen property), these concepts make no sense. The system that gives them their sense is social. Hence this is a situation of social justice in my book.

      • Sean II

        Ah, but that’s exactly why I brought the phone company into the analogy. The social system which you credit with giving life to these concepts is (like Soylent Green) made out of people. You left some of those people faceless, in order to make hurting them seem painless.

        But some of those people – like the phone company owners and workers in this example – are blameless, and yet you propose to penalize them. You can wave that away by saying “it’s social”, just as easily as you can wave that away by saying “it’s magic”, but either response leaves me unimpressed. You still haven’t said why it is just to punish those particular innocent people.

        Also…as I’m sure you know, there certainly are theories which give very clear meaning to concepts like “theft”, even in the absence of any “system of social rules”. Many of us take the man on a desert island to have his rights even before anyone shows up wanting to abridge them. It’s not that he lacks a concept of theft, it’s just that there aren’t any thieves around.

        • Andrew

          I’ll eventually do a post on harms internationally that will answer this better. Obviously, I don’t mean to wave a magic wand called “it’s social!” I do mean to recognize that there are social rules that contribute to harms and that insofar as we all contribute to there being such rules, we are complicit in the harms. I would not, though, call the response a form of punishment.

          • Sean II

            “I would not, though, call the response a form of punishment.”

            Well, yes…that opens the door on another one of these painful definition fights.

            Some will say, “If I take $100 from Andrew to make someone whole for something Andrew did not do, then I have punished or penalized him.”

            Others will say, “No, it’s only a punishment if I take $100 from Andrew with the intent of punishing him. As long as I do it to make someone else whole – like say, a victim of cell phone theft – it’s not a punishment of Andrew.”

            I say “Hey, let’s ask Andrew, see how he feels!” Or maybe not Andrew, since he seems to have a dog in the fight. Shit, bad example. Maybe some other Andrew. Maybe we could ask tennis player Andrew Roddick instead.

          • Who cares whether we use the word “punishment” or not?
            Can we agree that the person or people from whom the compensation is extracted are harmed?
            You’re talking about intentionally inflicting a hurt on some individuals in order to compensate others for hurts that were unintentionally harmed. I have a hard time seeing how that can be called “justice”.

          • Andrew

            No, I would not agree the person is harmed. Whether he is or not depends on whether the taking was wrongful or not. Much more must be known before we can make that judgement. Obviously, some taxes do harm those forced to pay them. Not all do though.

          • TracyW

            Well, if you don’t like the word harmed either, what word would you use to describe someone who has had compensation involuntarily extracted from them? (And what taxes don’t harm those forced to pay them?)

          • Andrew

            Maybe “s-o-l.” Taxes used to pay for the protection of negative rights alone almost certainly don’t harm those who are forced to pay them. (I do not think, of course, that there are currently such taxes.)

          • TracyW

            s-o-l? That sounds awfully opaque. I will continue to use the word “harm”.

            Thanks for giving an example of taxes that you consider might not harm those forced to pay them.

          • TracyW

            But, in the case of theft, the harms only come from the existence of goods that can be stolen in the first place (if they weren’t goods, no one would be harmed by them being stolen, eg if a gang of thieves showed up and stole all the crumbs from my kitchen floor I wouldn’t feel harmed at all). So, yes, there are social rules that contribute to there being iPhones, so that said iPhones can be stolen, but surely, therefore, any complicitness of us all in the harms of theft is more than made up for by our complicitness in the wonderfulness of there being iPhones in the first place.

      • TracyW

        I don’t follow. Why would we create a system of laws about theft and fencing without the concepts in the first place? The disadvantages of theft given the scarcity of resources are pretty obvious even with a very incomplete system of rules. That’s why I presumed you gave theft as an example of a wrong, that it’s one we can agree on even if we don’t agree about a full system of laws. And that’s why there can be so much debate about whether taxation is theft: the concept of theft makes sense even if people don’t agree on whether taxes are legitimate or not.

        • Andrew

          Fair enough; I was a but unclear. The concepts are present “before the system” as it were, but what they are in any given system is very much dependent on the system. A system without corporate entities of which can own shares is not a system where such shares can be stolen. A system whereby an individual or group can have property in the pelt of an animal, but not it’s meat (the example is real; I borrow it from Dave Schmidtz) is not a system within which one can steal meat. Etc.

  • Pingback: Social injustice and harms | Pileus()

  • Ross Levatter

    It says a lot that the clearer the concept of social justice becomes, the less appealing it sounds…

    • matt b

      Less appealing to who pray tell? Hard libertarians that’s who. Now you guys might be right that social justice is incoherent/ and or awful but let’s not pretend that this is anywhere close to a majority opinion whereby anytime anyone spends even a few minutes looking into social justice they spit out whatever they’re drinking and go “Oh god no!”

      • you don’t have to be a hard libertarian to see that the concept of social justice is incoherent and contradictory

        • matt b

          It really isn’t at all if you look closely and calmly at what’s been laid out on this blog. I think a lot of libertarians will forever associate the term with Marxists and left-liberals and therefore are beyond persuasion when it comes to incorporating it into libertarianism even though social justice and libertarianism are entirely compatible.

          • Ryan Long

            It would not be fair to dismiss all opposition to the concept as a libertarian hang-up on Marxist language.

          • matt b

            Agree with you there but I think it’s a big factor. People like Rand for example rejected social justice and would do so even if Marxists or left-liberals never used the term but for a lot of libertarians I think language is a big part of it.

          • Michael Philip

            my beef with the whole term is that justice is necessarily in a social context. (the need for justice never arises for a lone individual on a desert island). You don’t need the adjective “social” before it.

          • Murali

            That doesn’t make it an incoherent unless you think justice itself is an incoherent concept. That just makes the social redundant.

            Put another way, if the social is there merely to signal solidarity with the worst off and people who have been done in by the system, what kind of douche does it take to be a person who wants to signal the opposite?

      • Sean II

        Now you’re just using “hard libertarian” as a cheat to evade the issue. You should take care that label does not in your hands become an excuse to ignore challenging people or arguments.

        In this thread, Cohen presented an analogy about social justice and I pointed out that his analogy, if properly filled in, led to the repugnant conclusion that innocent people should be penalized simply because they’ve managed to create some value worth taking.

        You don’t have to be puffing on Ayn Rand’s cigarette holder to see a problem with that. The argument I’m making above is probably one of the most mainstream, and least specifically libertarian I’ve ever made on this board. Millions would agree with what I’m saying here: that justice should not involve punishing people who did no wrong, to compensate other people for wrongs suffered by accident, or at the hands of unpunished third parties.

        Perhaps Cohen’s analogy is flawed, but in attempting to clarify the idea of social justice, that’s what he came up with, and it is to that which Levatter and I are responding.

        • matt b

          I’ll respond to both your posts here just because it’s a little more organized. So I’d like to begin with a question. Do you consider the following two situations to be equivalent (a) a guy approaches you in an alley and says he wants a new 60 inch flat screen and you’re going to pay for it or else get well acquainted with the curb. (b) the government taxes you to provide education vouchers for poor kids. Do both situations involve theft? I think if you used theft to describe the first situation it would be totally uncontroversial but using theft to describe the second situation would, at the very least, be very contentious, even among libertarians. So I guess we get to this question of what you consider “punishing people who did no wrong to compensate other people for wrongs suffered by accident” to mean. Is a system in which people with greater means are taxed to any extent whatsoever to provide assistance to those of lesser means a form of “punishment” If so, do you think Hayek and Friedman, with their support for a limited welfare state, were in favour of punishing the successful?

          • shemsky

            Matt, you know damn well that if the government is given the power to tax that they will not stop at taxing people to pay for education vouchers for poor kids. You’re being very dishonest here.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Perhaps Matt is experiencing here the triumph of hope over experience.

          • Sean II

            I like Matt, but lately he’s been on a mission to become the world’s first BHL extremist.

          • matt b

            Haha really? How so? I mean really? Name one extreme/ extremist thing I’ve said. And please note that rejecting the view that all redistribution is automatically theft is shared by Matt, Jason, Jacob and other bloggers on here, not to mention people like Milton Friedman and James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek. Are they BHL extremists too?

          • Sean II

            “Name one extreme/ extremist thing I’ve said.”

            Well, as I recall, you did once deny that taxation is theft.

            In fairness, I think you probably meant to say something much more subtle, like taxation sometimes might be permissible theft, or maybe just “theft with an explanation”, but…that’s not how it came out.

            What makes this an extremish thing to say? Well, like I told you, I’ve known Democrats who, though being in favor of some fairly heavy taxes, still would not try to deny that they are taken by force and without consent. They just think the things we “get back” for those taxes make the act of taking alright. Gotta love their candor.

            So that makes you a slightly odd creature: a professed libertarian with a view of taxation that seats him to the left of some, though of course not all, Obama supporters.

          • matt b

            I covered a bit of this in my other response but just quickly: theft is the unjustified taking of X. If you think taking X is justified, for whatever reason, then you don’t believing taking X is theft. Justified theft is an oxymoron. Maybe we just have different interpretations of the meaning of theft. Given that most words have fuzzy meanings this is quite understandable. Maybe you consider theft to be “taking stuff without people’s consent” so taking a penny to save the world would be theft but justified theft. If that’s your understanding of the meaning of the word that makes sense.
            And just for the record I never denied that they are taking by force/without consent but by my definition this is a necessary but not sufficient condition of theft. In any event, on taxes we both want to see deep across the board cuts in rates.

          • Sean II

            “If you think taking X is justified, for whatever reason, then you don’t believing taking X is theft. Justified theft is an oxymoron.”

            Covered elsewhere but worth repeating: you are just flat out wrong here, wronger than I’ve ever seen you be. Theft IS the taking of rightfully acquired property without consent. That’s what the word means.

            The definition you’re trying to use is esoteric, and clearly designed to automatically equivocate you into a favored philosophic outcome. In the process you’re ignoring a long tradition of consequentialist thought which says “though this be theft, yet we must suffer it to be done.”

            The idea you’re pushing is “if we suffer it to be done, then it cannot be theft”. Okay fine, make that argument, but do not pretend that it’s already enshrined in the definition of the word. And Matt, since your whole purpose here is to negatively judge other people for using “theft” as it is traditionally defined and not as it’s defined in your own imagination, what you’re doing is just totally unfair.

            Until or unless you can get the legal definition changed according to your preference, you CANNOT decently go around insulting people who say “taxation is theft”.

            They’re using the term as it appears in the reference books and as it’s used in common parlance, and you’re using it in some eccentric, rarefied way. They’re playing fair, you’re not.

          • good_in_theory

            “Theft,” like “violence,” is typically used as a moralized term (contrast with “taking” or “force”, which are more ambiguous). As a moralized term, legitimate/moral “theft” or “violence” is something of a contradiction in terms. If we’re operating off of who is more forceful in presenting what they think the common sense understanding of words is, well, many people don’t conceive of paying taxes as participating in their own being thieved.

            If one wants to get into legal definitions, we’d be dealing with larceny in particular, I guess, but in any case theft is defined as *unauthorized* taking. And I’m pretty sure no tax man has been tried successfully in court for his duly authorized taking of tax money.

            But since apparently taxation conforms with the legal definition of theft, I expect you’ll have some documentation of IRS workers being imprisoned? Doesn’t need to be the IRS, I suppose, any country’s tax-worker will do. So, any evidence that taxation is considered theft as a matter of law?

            Or might it be that your vision of reality is the one which would require changes in law, because tax workers don’t get arrested for doing their job.

          • Sean II

            GiT, I’m gonna break character and refrain from spelling out what’s wrong with that argument. I think most readers here will spot the problem easily enough on their own.

          • good_in_theory

            I guess I’ll miss out on another “just so” story about your own anecdotal account of the way things “really” are masquerading as evidence.

            Any conception of theft is contingent upon a theory of ownership and authority. Your commitment to a theory of ownership and authority that omits the state doesn’t erase the reality of millions of people who, either in a sophisticated or naive fashion, take state-based theories of propriety as valid.

          • Sean II

            Yeah, I already dealt with that issue in another comment. For purposes of scope-limitation, this little chat has been taking place under the assumption of a minarchist liberal property regime (or whatever you want to call it when people are mostly presumed to own their stuff, but there is a state that comes around and takes some of it).

            Obviously, neither an anarchist nor a socialist would have much to say here. So what?

          • good_in_theory

            Then you might not want to make claims about what words “really mean” when you actually mean, “what words mean in a particular context given a set of controversial and not universally shared background assumptions.”

          • Sean II

            The thing is, GiT…that’s all on you. When you come in here as a troll, you know damn well you’re entering a realm of shared background assumptions. After so many threads and so many comments, you can’t pretend not to realize you’re surrounded by libertarians. Every third post in this joint is based on the idea “pretend a libertarian order has been established and this or that problem arises…” It’s not like the assumptions are unclear or undisclosed.

            To use a classic joke structure borrowed from old celebrity roasts: I don’t come to your job and knock the background assumptions of statism out of your commentary.

          • good_in_theory

            Odd, because the authors of this site’s discussion of the topic going on here since April, I guess, focused on the lack of shared background assumptions. In general I see rather different background assumptions between Long, Vallier, Zwolinski, &etc. Rather, one could put it as people having shared foreground conclusions but divergent background assumptions.

            And the ‘social justice’ debate this is part of started out by… foregrounding the plurality of background assumptions at work.



            “The postwar libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard crystallized many of the insights of the libertarian intellectual tradition into a coherent body of doctrine for perhaps the first time. But in that process of crystallization not only impurities, but genuine insights were expunged. The result was a philosophic system that brilliantly exhibited some of the key elements of libertarian thought, but that simultaneously severed those elements from their original historical and economic context, and therefore presented them in a way that would have been largely unrecognizable to their intellectual forbears.”



            “Libertarianism prior to the twentieth century was, as we noted in our original essay, a much less systematic political theory. But it was also, and partly in virtue of its lack of systematization, a far more pluralistic moral philosophy—one that embraced a less parsimonious but (in our view) potentially more sophisticated view of the messy terrain of morality.”

            Or see this recent instance in a post cited in the lead here where a question at hand is whether or not there is agreement between some BHLs and other Libertarians with regards to moral individualism, whether there’s a ‘cartoon’ moral individualism at work.


            (the conflict being between “the idea, roughly, that all sources of value, obligations, and so on are individuals*” and the idea that, ” injustices can only be done to individuals, families or to voluntary associations.”

            To spell out the discrepancy, the view that all agents (subjects) are individuals is not the same as the view that all patients (objects*) are individuals.)


            But in any case the discussion of social justice going on on the site doesn’t involve pretending a libertarian order has been established in the least.

          • Andrew
          • Sean II

            Yes, very interesting, but not relevant to my point. I’m well aware that arguments exist for a wide range of positions, including: a) All taxation is theft, b) All taxation is theft, but some theft is necessary, c) Some taxation is not theft, because it’s justified, d) No taxation is theft, e) Etc…

            That’s not the issue. The present dispute began when Matt B suggested there must be something wrong with people who hold positions a) or b).

            My purpose is to show him why that is unfair. You do not defeat my purpose by reminding me that position c) exists. I already know that. My complain grows from the fact that Matt is acting like position c) enjoys some clear and obvious superiority, such that only a mouth-foaming hard libertarian would ever dispute it. He’s wrong.

          • Sean II

            Andrew – to further clarify:

            My aim here is not to establish that all taxation is theft, within a meaning that makes no taxation permissible. That’s an interesting argument and all, it’s just not the argument I’m making.

            My aim is simply to establish that, contra Matt B, it is not insane to go around pointing out that all taxation is theft, within a meaning that defines theft as non-consensual taking of property. In fact, by that meaning, taxation clearly is theft, so the insane thing would be to deny it.

            In other words, Matt and I are not arguing about whether all taxation is theft. We’re arguing about the reasonable range of debate within libertarian circles, and whether that includes the claim “all taxation is theft”. He seems to think not, I definitely think yes.

            Do you see the difference?

          • Andrew

            Yes, I see the difference–though i do not understand your second paragraph here. But leaving that aside, here’s the thing: only if anarchism is true is all taxation theft. As a matter of fact, most people do not endorse anarchism, so most people will think your claim misguided. One should not define theft merely as “non-consensual taking of property,” by the way. If everyone in the group consented to the leadership and all of its rules and the leadership imposes a tax, the tax will not be theft, even if one member of the group is unhappy with and thus does not consent to the taking of “his property” for the payment of the tax. His consent to the system makes it just.

          • Sean II

            1) “One should not define theft merely as “non-consensual taking of property,” by the way.”

            Okay, but one of us will still have to call the law dictionary and tell it otherwise. And while we’re at it, we’ll need to change the common parlance as well, since mine is far and away the more typical usage of theft.

            I’ve already given plenty of evidence on that point, but consider: if you strike up an ethics chat with an ordinary person and say: “When is it okay to steal a much-needed vaccine?”, I promise you not one of them will ever correct you by saying “I don’t understand, Andrew. If it’s okay to take the vaccine, then it must not be stealing.” They’ll say stuff like “If you really need it” or “If you find a way to pay the pharmacists back later”, etc.

            Different meaning, that.

            2) “If everyone in the group consented to the leadership and all of its rules and the leadership imposes a tax, the tax will not be theft”

            As you know, that never happens, and no such consent exists. We were all just born here, and our only options were other similar nation-states. There was never a chance for any of us to give or withhold our consent.

            3) “His consent to the system makes it just.”

            To use another legalism: asked and answered.

          • Andrew

            RE #1: if you push the same person, they’ll likely understand the points necessary.
            Re #2: Of course not. I am concerned with ideal theory.

          • Sean II

            “Re #2: Of course not. I am concerned with ideal theory.”

            That is no excuse for believing things that obviously are not true.

            Social contract theory fails on the level of ideal theory. One needs not go out and take a poll to falsify it.

          • Andrew

            I don’t recall endorsing social contract theory.

          • Sean II

            Yeah…wherever did I get such a crazy idea?

            Could it have been when you wrote this: “…If everyone in the group consented to the leadership and all of its rules and the leadership imposes a tax, the tax will not be theft…”

          • Andrew

            I can see how you could misread that. The “if” is ambiguous. In any case, while I respect the social contract tradition and think you underestimate it’s power (and perhaps misunderstand its variations), I don’t currently consider myself a social contract theorist.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Wait a second, didn’t the Stones have an album titled “Let it Bleed”?

          • Sean II

            If we’re talking about Stones’ albums, I prefer Exile on Main St.. Much more germaine to my argument with Matt B.

          • matt b

            Isn’t that how Obama got elected 🙂 I find this to be a little frustrating though Mark. When I criticize hard libertarians I always hear “Look we’re talking ideal theory Matt.” Okay that’s fine but then I talk ideal theory about a world in which we have limited redistribution along BHL line and I always get “Oh that’s not how government operates” and so on and so forth. So if it’s okay for hard libertarians to talk about an idealized version of laissez-faire why is it not okay for a BHL like me to talk about an idealized version of a re-distributive state?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            It is okay to talk about “an idealized version of a re-distributive state.” I know exactly what you mean and even sympathize with your goal. I just don’t think it gets us very far.

            At the level of ideal theory when we say that the state should provide vouchers for poor kids, we are saying that without accounting for unintended consequences or problems of implementation, we think it is a good idea based on all the relevant moral considerations. But what the anarcho-capitalists are saying is that any government that would give you the things you like (vouchers, national defense, safety net for the innocent needy, etc.) will inevitably also give you a ton of things you hate (crop subsidies, massive entitlement programs, paternalism, bloated national defense [they would say constant aggression against innocent nations], etc.). So, we are not really debating the desirability of vouchers, but the desirability of government itself.

            If this is the choice, how do we select one over the other?
            Frankly, I have my instincts here, but no convincing arguments. You will no doubt say that we can reform the state to keep more of what you like and less of what you don’t. And personally I sure as hell hope you’re right, because the choice between the massive state and anarchy seems pretty grim to me. But the historical record does not seem very promising, does it. The size of Western democratic governments always seem to be growing, not shrinking. Most people can’t even imagine what a minimal state would look like or how it could function. So, the prospects of reform don’t seem very promising to me. This is why I feel more comfortable operating at the level of ideal theory than arguing politics, at least with respect to what I publicly advocate.

          • shemsky

            Mark, would it ease your anxiety about anarchy if individuals were simply allowed to withdraw from the state, keep the property that the state already recognizes that they own, and peacefully coexist side by side? That way, people who wanted to remain a citizen of a state would be allowed to. They just wouldn’t be able to force dissenters to remain bound to their preferred form of governance. Some people might make the free rider argument against this scheme, but I don’t believe that the free rider problem justifies forcing people to remain in a relationship they want to leave or pay for things that they don’t want.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi Shemsky:
            As a matter of theoretical justice, anarchy is the ideal solution: no argument here from me. I wish I had confidence that human nature would permit us to enjoy this ideal. I am afraid it is not.

            In the world that actually exists, there are states that are far worse than ours, governed by murderous psychopaths. If those of us who hate coercion move to some desert island somewhere and set up shop, what is to prevent naked aggression against us? There are also legitimate questions to be answered about whether private protective agencies would work as hoped, but I will not go into that now.

          • shemsky

            But under the scheme I outlined above, individuals who wanted to remain under the protection of the state could do so. They just couldn’t prevent others from leaving the protection of the state and setting up their own separate institutions. It would be similar to allowing individuals to opt out of social security. Those individuals electing to opt out would then be allowed to live with whatever arrangements they created for themselves and other willing parties, so long as they didn’t violate the rights of the citizens of the state.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Sorry, Shemsky, I don’t think I properly understood what you were suggesting. I didn’t understand that your proposal was that current citizens of the U.S. could stay within our borders and opt out of paying for national defense and other services. I agree that citizens should be able to opt out of most state services and in exchange avoid the taxes required to fund them. However, I do hold there is a free rider problem regarding national defense, as it is a classic example of a public good that benefits all, even those who say they don’t want it.

            This is a complicated subject, and I owe you a good argument as to how this position can be accomodated within libertarian principles. I discuss it in more detail in my book, but here is an abbreviated version:

          • shemsky

            I do recognize that the free rider problem is real and should be a concern. But I think that there are other problems whose concerns may outweigh the free rider problem. Even regarding national defense, decisions need to be made regarding how much is needed and what methods are appropriate in which circumstances. The fact that we now have a massive homeland security program whose methods are at times very questionable comes to mind here. We also have a central intelligence agency that is largely unaccountable to the general public What constitutes the right amount of defense and what are the proper methods to carry out a defense program?.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You are right to point this out. And, this is why my defense of coercion to fund national defense only works if the regime in question is relatively just and peaceful relative to the remainder of the international community. So, if you hold the view, a la Rothbard, that everywhere and at all times ALL states are equally bad, then you can never justify that coercion. But, without trying to sort out which are the relatively peaceful nations and which the aggressors, I and many other people believe there are material differences.

          • good_in_theory

            Who disallows disallowances?

          • matt b

            I really enjoyed reading this, Mark. Tough questions for sure.

          • matt b

            I’m not being dishonest at all. I was asking Sean whether or not he would object to a government whose redistributive activities were limited to providing vouchers for education for poor kids. The question was whether a government that did this would be engaging in theft. The question of whether it’s even realistic to have a government that is limited to such forms of redistribution is a separate one.

          • shemsky

            Unless you really believe that it would be realistic to expect a government whose redistributive activities were limited to providing vouchers for education for poor kids, what is your point in asking Sean whether or not he would object to such a government? That sounds disingenuous to me. Even if you expand that idea to “a government that is limited to such forms of redistribution”, it’s still absurd.

          • matt b

            Do you think Friedman, Hayek, or Buchanan were “disingenuous” when they called for a government that provided vouchers to those in need and said that redistribution should be limited to aiding the poor and not reducing inequality as such or paying for whatever the middle class majority wants? Presumably you do and presumably you consider those figures “absurd” since they thought we could reform the welfare state along these lines?

          • shemsky

            What I think is right or wrong is not dependent on what Friedman, Hayek, Buchanan, Rand, Rothbard or anyone else has said is right or wrong. Like any other person, they can be right about some things and wrong about other things. The idea that you can give the government the power to tax and that power to tax will only be used to aid the poor is absurd, no matter whose mouth it comes out of. Your arguments from authority are meaningless. For a nice change, how about giving us an argument from matt b.

          • matt b

            I gave you my argument: taxing people to provide the basics to those who truly cannot secure the basics for themselves is not theft if by theft you mean “unjustified taking.” You found this argument to be absurd and disingenuous since everyone knows government could never be limited to such redistribution. I simply pointed out that if my argument is absurd and disingenuous then so were the arguments of the people I mentioned who said basically the same thing in terms of asserting the legitimacy of redistribution for the end of providing the basics. They, like me, didn’t think it was crazy to imagine a welfare state that functioned in this fashion.

          • Sean II

            “Do both situations involve theft?”

            Yes, and even though I shouldn’t have to defend that usage to anyone who comments here, I will give you several reasons why “theft” is perfectly appropriate here:

            1) SCALE. If someone picked up a penny I dropped, I would not call that theft. But compared to my property tax, flat-screen TVs are a bargain. I’ve had the same cheapo 50″ LCD since 2009, but the public schools keep taking my money year after year. If quantity is a factor in determining the existence and severity of theft, the state is running way ahead of your street mugger.

            2) METHOD. The mugger threatens me with violence, which I can only escape by giving him what he wants. The state threatens me with violence, which I can only escape by giving it what it wants. Do you dispute this?

            3) RESULT. In both cases, I leave the encounter with less than I had before. I don’t plan to watch TV at the thief’s house even if he invites me, and I would never send a child to public school, so in both scenarios I’m empty-handed.

            4) I SPEAK ENGLISH. So…when I want to indicate that something was taken from me without my consent, I can say the word “theft” and everyone understands me. Indeed, I can say that to you or to the Democrats who live next door, and everyone will know exactly what I mean.

          • matt b

            Sean if you told the Democrat or the centrist or even the Republican next door that when the government taxes you, no matter what for, they are engaging in theft most people would actually not agree.. I find your response all the more frustrating because you insist, in capitals no less, that you speak English as if I’m trying to distort definitions when, in reality, the hard libertarian definition of theft whereby a knife to the throat in an alley is no different then government taxing people no matter what for is deeply at odds with how most people think of theft. If it wasn’t then hard libertarians wouldn’t have to go around explaining why Government Is An Evil Mugger. It would just be obvious.

          • Sean II

            I mostly answered this above, but I think you’re mistaken about an easily verifiable fact. Probably spending too much time hanging around with philosophers.

            Go talk to regular folks about the checks they have to write for property and personal property taxes. Ask them about the deductions from their paycheck. I think you’ll find that, left or right, they have no trouble calling the process “theft” and saying things like “look what the bastards stole from me this month!”

            Now, the same people will of course turn around and say “it’s all worth it…because we gotta have public schools (D) or Nimitz class aircraft carriers (R) or whatever”, but that’s a different proposition. Most people are not coming at this like Elizabeth Warren, with complicated arguments about how wealth is a social product, etc. Most people are just saying “Okay so taxes are theft, and while I don’t like that, I can’t imagine a world functioning without them. Where would we get X, Y, and Z without taxes.”

            Do you see the difference?

          • matt b

            Theft, by definition, is the unjust taking of X. You do agree with that right? Okay then if people believe that the government taking their money to fund things is justified (as you say they do with your R and D examples) then they don’t believe it’s theft. And I think you may be the one hanging out with too many philosophers as I’ve never heard ordinary folks describe taxation as theft. Only time is when there’s an expense scandal and they’ll say “Damn politicians stealing our money.” But they do not view Medicare as theft or fighter jets as theft. It frustrates a lot of libertarians, even pinko commies like me, but people just generally have this view that when the government does it it’s not theft, typically because they hold to this silly idea that whenever the majority supports it you have an obligation to give in.

          • Sean II

            “Theft, by definition, is the unjust taking of X. You do agree with that right?”

            NO! I do NOT agree with that, and I’ll give you a couple of good reasons why you shouldn’t:

            1) That’s not the definition.

            Here’s what wikipedia says about theft: “In common usage, theft is the taking of another person’s property without that person’s permission or consent with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.”

            Here’s the basic legal definition: “In law, [theft is] the crime of taking the property or services of another without consent.”

            2) That’s not how anyone uses the term.

            When people describe Les Miserables, they say “After stealing a loaf of bread, Jean Valjean…”.

            That doesn’t mean they aren’t rooting for Valjean in the story. It doesn’t mean they consider his theft unjustified. It just means “he took something without consent”.

            And that’s exactly what we mean when we say “taxation is theft”.

          • Andrew

            Taking one’s definition from Wikipedia is not a good idea. In any case, consider “theft is the taking of another person’s property without that person’s permission or consent with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.” The fact that it is the other person’s property is what makes it the case that taking it without permission is theft–because doing so is unjust. The same goes with the legal definition you offered. Both assume theft is unjust taking. The definition Matt B offered is right. If the thing taken was not property of another, taking it may not be just (we need to know more).

          • Sean II

            “Taking one’s definition from Wikipedia is not a good idea.”

            Now why would you say that? Language is consensual. Wikipedia is mostly based on a consensual process. What better source could there be?

          • shemsky

            Well, now they got you, Sean. Since taxes are not fraudulently taken, they are not theft. They are only extortion. That’s not so bad, is it? 🙂

          • good_in_theory

            Well, extortion is a variety of theft, so no luck there…

          • Sean II

            Hmmm…spoke too soon. Now I’m right back to feeling bad again.

          • Sean II

            Why didn’t anyone say so before? Now I feel all better.

          • Andrew

            Did you read after “my any case”? I was not merely suggesting you we’re wrong because you relied on a non-authoritative source. So, I’ll pass over the debate about Wikipedia.

          • Sean II

            “Did you read after my “in any case”

            Of course, but I found the rest of that comment to be a rather pretzeled attempt to salvage a losing (if somewhat trivial) point about that the dictionary says or doesn’t say about theft.

            Besides, when a libertarian of all people disses Wikipedia, I find that sufficiently curious to drop what I’m doing and dwell on the point. “Authoritative source” is not exactly a phrase that rolls off the libertarian tongue.

          • Andrew

            Why should a libertarian especially like Wikipedia as an authoritative source of anything? That is, why would a libertarian like it more than anyone else? I don’t actually trust Wikipedia for much–if I find information there (I admit I sometimes do) and it matters for anything serious, I always seek confirmation from a more authoritative source.
            NOTE: I understand why libertarians should like wikipedia as a voluntary enterprise. But that doesn’t mean much here. I think people should be able to do all sorts of things I would not be involved with.

          • Sean II

            It’s not that libertarians are supposed to “like Wikipedia as an authoritative source”. That misses the whole point.

            We’re supposed to be skeptical of authoritative sources, and we’re supposed to like Wikipedia precisely because it isn’t pretending to be one.

            I’m just stunned it should be necessary to explain this here. The whole libertarian outlook militates against the notion of “authoritative sources”. We are supposed to be the guys who never say “thus spake the experts, let’s take them at their word”.

            Wikipedia claims no authority, and asserts no expertise. Its process is spontaneous, open, consensual, evolutionary, and transparent. It’s everything we claim to want and aspire to be.

            Good lord…am I really having to spell this out? Here?

          • Andrew

            Apparently I am dense. Or not. I see no reason to think libertarians should reject authoritative sources. Perhaps we should be skeptical of them–in the classic sense of that word–but that doesn’t mean rejecting them. I’d take Encyclopedia Britannica over Wikipedia any day. I would take John Simmons’ pronouncements about Locke’s theory over almost anyone else’s, any day. That doesn’t mean I accept either blindly. It means I appreciate that the authors have expertise. I am most definitely not opposed to expertise. Indeed, I think there are people with expertise about libertarianism.

          • Sean II

            “I’d take Encyclopedia Britannica over Wikipedia any day.”

            Yes, well, who doesn’t love a good illuminated manuscript? If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: this awful Gutenberg contraption is going to spoil the written word!

            Why, consider an example: If I want to know what caused the Great Depression, Britannica just comes right out and TELLS me: “The fundamental cause of the Great Depression in the United States was a decline in spending (sometimes referred to as aggregate demand)…”

            That sure settles things for me, and best of all, leaves me untroubled by any messy “dissent” or “controversy”.

            What does Wikipedia do? Well first of all their article is much longer and more complicated (yuck!), and to make matters worse, it lists out all these different, “heterodox” views without even telling me which one is right! And don’t get me started on the “talk page”, where I can find out about even more controversies that took place during the article’s construction. I need all that stuff like a kick in the head!

            Obviously, Andrew, I could go on, but I don’t need to since someone neatly summed up the comparison right here:


            Although the results should not have surprised YOU.

          • Andrew

            Everyone makes mistakes. That does not mean there are no experts. I think we ought to listen to experts, whether they be experts at giving medical care, electrical contracting work, moral theory, or pretty much anything else. That doesn’t mean we should let their pronouncements blind us, of course.

          • Sean II

            “I think we ought to listen to experts, whether they be experts at giving medical care…”

            Great example. My wife’s a doctor, and she has access to a fabulous set of references, apps, databases, etc., many of which are not available to the general public.

            Guess where she goes first, whenever it’s time to look something up? That’s right. Indeed, the most recent Wikipedia search on the browser I’m using right now was “Organ of Zuckerkandl” (Britannica online entry: none).

            You know why she needed that information? To do a pre-operative briefing for a surgical case. That should tell you something, and that something is big and profound.

          • Andrew

            Fortunately, your wife is an expert and can judge whether the Wikipedia article is likely accurate or not.

          • Sean II

            Not at all. She’s going there precisely to find out stuff she doesn’t know, and to do it in the quickest way possible.

            The field of medicine is far too vast for anyone to have the kind of expertise needed to judge all or even a significant fraction of those articles. Hell, if she had that, she wouldn’t any references at all.

          • matt b

            I don’t have a problem with your use of the word theft to describe taxation then. If you all mean by theft is “taking without another person’s consent” then sure taxes are theft. But that does not tell us much since it still leaves open the question of whether it is permissible to do so unless one believes that simply taking X without a person’s consent tells us everything we need to know about that action irrespective of context and consequences. I might go so far as to say someone who held that view would be cartoony.

          • Sean II

            The same problem cuts both ways, though.

            If you say “taxes taken with justification are not theft”, you still have to establish justification. By itself, the word play doesn’t tell us what to do in any real-life situation.

            If some other guy says “taxes are taken without consent and therefore theft”, he still has to explain why consent is important, and why it is more important than whatever the taxes were going to accomplish. His word play also fails to give us answers in the real world.

            But that’s all a sideshow to me now, because my main purpose is to counter-balance this nasty business of libertarians smearing fellow libertarians for saying things that are clearly not wrong, or at least clearly still debatable…things like using the legal/dictionary definition of “theft” in a sentence…or things like believing in a deontic principle of non-aggression which as with any other deontic principle (consider the Difference Principle or the Categorical Imperative, for example) gives rise to serious problems in real life…or things like using an analogy to “slavery” to describe situations which do indeed resemble slavery in certain obvious respects…or things like calling contemporary politicians socialists or fascists.

            It’s not just about this thread, Matt. For awhile now, you have been peppering your comments with these little asides meant to suggest the above-listed positions are just self-evidently crazy, and that the people who hold them should somehow be taken to task for poisoning the movement.

            You’re wrong in principle, and in practice. Comparing involuntary relationships to slavery is not obviously wrong. Calling taxation theft is, according to the textbook definition, obviously right. The non-aggression principle is no worse, and indeed no better, than any of man’s other attempts to find a universal moral law. Describing Mitt Romney as a fascist or Barack Obama as a socialist is not some outrageous, lunatic abuse of terminology, it’s just an exaggeration in point of degree.

            And as I’ve said a hundred times, you DON’T KNOW what’s holding the movement back, because no one knows that. Is it too much to ask that while uncertainty reigns on this question, we refrain from arrogantly blaming each other for the fact that liberty is unpopular. Liberty has been unpopular for 40,000 years, so it’s not like we have evidence enough to indict specific ideas and call out individual libertarians by name.

            These other libertarians that you spit on as they try to change their world…they don’t deserve it. They’re your friends, and you’re supposed to be theirs. And there are a million interesting debates to be had, which don’t begin with you (or Brennan or whoever else) dismissing them as mere crazy people.

          • matt b

            I started writing a brilliant response to this and my computer froze (that’s my excuse for everything as in “Honey I was making you a five course meal and then”…) but no really so I’ll be a little briefer but still respond fairly extensively. So Sean you’re obviously an unusually bright and funny guy and don’t need me to tell you that. You’re also quite good at disagreeing strongly without slipping down the slope of invective and rudeness (though our disagreement about decorum still persists) but you’re never rude. So that’s why I found out strange to read a post that, uncharacteristically, generated a great deal more heat than light.

            To begin with, I brought up the points about theft because for a lot of libertarians calling social programs “theft” ends the conversation. Taking stuff without people’s consent is wrong, period. When one brings up concerns about a system of absolutely property rights the rebuttal is often painfully bereft of sophistication. People tend to repeat “self-ownership” about 80 times and think they’ve won the argument. One would have to engage in a great deal of self-deception to deny that there aren’t a lot of libertarians who operate in this manner.

            So now we get to the more heat than light point. Sean, pointing out the deficiencies in how hard libertarians define and discuss the concept of theft is not “smearing” them. If I said “Hard libertarians believe social programs are theft. That means they like suffering and want as much of it as possible” that would be a smear. Simply critiquing a particular conception is not an attack, much less an unfounded, absurd attack (the definition of a smear I think you’d agree), on a person or group of persons.

            Writers on here have critiqued the difference principle and I’m sure all reject the CI. Lest you think I go soft on the left, let me say that I think the difference principle, as Rawls conceived of it, is shot through with flaws and border, yes, on cartoony.

            And here’s the heart of our disagreement. Calling Obama a socialist just makes you sound like a FOX News asshole. Seriously. And calling Romney a fascist is just stupid. Bland as fuck plutocratic bore sure. But fascist? That type of language immediately leads to anybody who is not a libertarian just leaving the room of conversation. The minute you use those words people stop listening.

            You have acknowledged that certain libertarian rhetorical strategies are clearly mistaken (Walter Block saying slavery was kinda cool with cottages and what not and the only problem was not being able to leave) so I don’t see what’s wrong with me doing the same thing. I think it’s just empirically obvious that saying shit like that is going to turn off way more people than it’s going to turn on. Other stuff is less obvious. For example, Ron Paul is not my type of libertarian but he’s attracted lots of people so I don’t pretend my approach is clearly the best one.

            Here you are just being wildly hyperbolic. I did not “spit on” anybody. I did say believe in an absolute version of the NAP is insane, yes. And I stand by it. And I stand by a bunch of related criticism about…. ideas! Never attacked people, just pointed out disagreements over understanding. I know a lot of hard libertarian and they’re super nice, likeable people. To me, being able to separate out biting criticism of ideas from personal relationships is first and foremost. I find it strange that you conflate the two here.

      • TracyW

        I do wonder if anyone else spends even a few minutes looking into social justice. I’ve been encountering the phrase for years, and this debate here is the first time I’ve come across someone who actually explains it, including in online debates where I’ve openly questioned the concept (the advocate always in the past went straight to personal insults).

        • matt b

          I’m sure that’s true. There are a lot of people on the left who resort to demonization and absurd ad personam arguments when they are challenged. That’s why it’s good to challenge people on what they mean when they use terms like social justice and it’s wonderful that this blog is so open to hearing those challenges and responding thoughtfully.

  • Theresa Klein

    “such that no individual has her interests wrongly setback by that system”
    Aren’t you kind of begging the question here? The word “wrongful” presupposes the a theory of moral rights and wrongs. Whether a person to ends up with less than a “minimally decent standard of living” isn’t unjust unless you presuppose that there is something wrong (morally) with that. How do you even determine what counts as a “wrongful setback of interests” as opposed to just any old setback of interests? How do you distinguish hurts from harms, without a pre-existing theory of regular old-fashioned justice?

    • Andrew

      Great important question. I’m not begging the question but am recognizing that there is much hard work to be done. To have a complete theory about these things, one would need a theory of wrongfulness. Indeed, one would also need a theory that explains when interests are setback–also a difficult issue, though people often don’t recognize it. In the book I have coming out, I talk about this but do not offer a complete theory. Fortunately for us, it turns out that pretty much all moral theories (including religious theories, but especially philosophical theories) agree about the vast majority of cases.

  • TracyW

    On the stolen iPhones, isn’t the thief of the iPhone the one liable, who should pay full restitution? What’s the need for the concept of social justice in this case?

    • Andrew

      TracyW: what if the thief is now dead? Do we say “oh well, no restitution possible?” Perhaps in some cases we do, but I think we do better to recognize that the theft was part of a social system that made it (conceptually) possible and, perhaps, created the conditions in which it would take place.

      • TracyW

        Ah yes, as I understand it, that’s pretty much what we do do. To take more nasty injustices than theft, if someone commits rape or murder and then dies before they can be brought to justice, sadly society does have to say “no restitution possible”. Although it’s probably a good idea to phrase it much more sympathetically.

        I agree that it’s important to recognise that it is pretty amazing that we live in a social system in which iPhones get built in the first place, making them available to steal, but personally I wouldn’t mention that to a friend or acquaintance who had just told me their iPhone was stolen. The I, Pencil view of the world is for more emotionally-neutral moments.

      • It seems as if the problem BHLs have is not that someone’s iPhone is getting stolen, but that some people have iPhones and other people don’t, because some people benefit more from the social institutions we have than others. So the “restitution” you want to make is not to people who have had their phones stolen, but rather to people who never had a phone in the first place, because you thinks it’s “socially unjust” for some people to have better access to iPhones than others.

        • Andrew

          I do not think everyone has to have the actual ability to possess an iPhone. I suppose I do think that everyone should, at birth, have the same opportunity as anyone else, at birth, would to grow up to have the ability to buy an iPhone. That is, basic equal opportunity of good living strikes me as important.

          • Ross Levatter

            Andrew, what does this even mean? How is it conceivable that, say, a child born with Trisomy 21 have the “basic equal opportunity of good living” of someone born with the genes that allow him to be intellectually and athletically gifted and handsome? How can something so necessarily vague and ambiguous be important as a fundamental goal for a good society?

          • Andrew

            I admit that there are some human beings born such that they will not be able to live a good life; that is unfortunate. For those that are capable of it, though, they should have the opportunity. I do not think its nearly as vague and ambiguous as you suggest. I think there has been quite alot of good work done spelling out what it means.

  • TracyW

    I tend to think harms are more basic than rights.

    Does this make sense, in terms of your definition of harm, which you distinguish from hurts? You call “harms” “wrongful setbacks to interests”.

    But wrongful setbacks to interests require some concept of what makes a setback wrong. If A refuses to sleep with B despite B’s desperate desire to, A may have set back B’s interests, but no one would say that A had wrongfully setback B’s interests, because we assume that A has a right to only sleep with people they chose.

    Or, if A wants to win a Nobel prize, and has published some research to that end, but B really really hates A, and wishes to harm A, and thus proves (to any neutral party’s satisfaction) that A’s research is hopelessly flawed and widely publicises this fact, thus depriving A of any chance of their Nobel Prize, we would not then say that B had wrongfully setback A’s interests. That’s because we think that A has no right to have their research go unexamined.

    Note that in both these situations, it’s quite possible that the victim would have preferred to have had their iPhone stolen.

    So it strikes me that rights are more basic than harms, by your definition.

    • Andrew

      I agree with your assessment of the two examples (though I find the character if B in the second case morally deficient). Nonetheless, I don’t think rights are more basic than harms. I actually think that most people can more easily recognize wrongs and hurts then they can recognize rights. This isn’t really surprising since rights are incredibly complex things. Your slapping me is not very complex. My giving you the right to slap me–removing any wrongfulness–is more complex.

      • TracyW

        You’re switching between definitions of words here. Perhaps people can more easily recognise hurts against them than they can recognise rights, but you earlier gave an explicit definition of “harms” that’s different to merely hurts as it includes the concept of wrongfulness.

        And recognising harms and hurts can be very complex as well. Eg if A steals the affections of B, who is the love of C’s life, how has A hurt C? Perhaps C could not be hurt, as if B’s affections could be alienated by A then they never really belonged to C in the first place. But we can certainly imagine C being hurt by the events even despite this philosophical argument. Does it matter if B was married to C before A’s intervention, compared to if C had never even dared mention his feelings to B?

        • Andrew

          No, I said it right: I do think most people can better recognize hurts (setbacks to interests) AND wrongs, then can they can recognize rights. People realize your slapping me hurts me. They also recognize that absent some special conditions, it wrongs me.

          Oh, and in your case, I think it’s clear that A has hurt C. I think it’s also clear that absent some special conditions, A does not wrong C. A may wrong (and, given the hurt, harm) C if there is a special condition–like C’s being already in a committed relationship with B. do you not think this is clear (I.e, that most people would see this immediately)?

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