Social Justice, Libertarianism

Social Injustice as Emergent Property

David Friedman has recently challenged BHLers to clarify our understanding of social justice (also see here). David has expressed some frustration that BHLers have sometimes offered definitions of social justice that seem inconsistent with one another.

I differ a bit from J about how to understand social justice, so I thought I’d offer another answer to David’s question (see J’s reply here, and David’s reply to J here). To do so, I’m going to focus on social injustice rather than social justice. I think we can get a clearer grasp on what social justice is by focusing on its opposite.

I take it that the term “social justice” can be used to cover individual rights-violations. For instance, if John rapes Reba, he has committed a grave injustice, one that could be called a social injustice. However, this is not the conceptual home of the concept of social injustice. A social injustice is often taken to contrast with an individual injustice. In particular, one core intuition that grounds the coherence of social injustice is that social justice need not be the result of any deliberate action on the part of individuals to realize socially unjust states.

In other words, social injustice comes about through human action, but not necessarily human design. Sound familiar? It should. Social injustice is an emergent property of certain kinds of social, moral and political practices. Let’s illustrate with the familiar example of institutional racism. I take it that an institution is racist insofar as it reliably outputs states of affairs where a racial group fails to receive its due based solely on the racial properties of its members. Thus, even if no one in the institution is racist, they participate in practices that result, say, in blacks having fewer opportunities than whites simply because they are black. In other words, the institutional rules operate such that unequal outcomes are caused primarily by racial differences, even if no one person is acting in a racist fashion. Institutional racism is a paradigmatic case of social injustice. It is an emergent property of a social institution that commits an injustice without any individual acting in an unjust fashion.

I recognize that the “emergent property” aspect of social justice hasn’t been talked up that much on the blog. But that’s what all the talk about justifying institutions rather than individual actions ultimately presupposes.

The common libertarian reply to these cases is that only individuals can act unjustly. There’s no such thing as a group or collective agent that could commit an injustice. Thus, if, say, blacks and whites have different opportunities due to their racial differences but no individual acted in a racist fashion to bring about the inequality, then there can be no injustice by definition. Unequal racial outcomes may be morally regrettable, but they can’t be unjust. I think this view is mistaken. And I think even Rothbardians can acknowledge as much, since left-Rothbardians have pioneered using the concept of social justice prior to us neoclassical liberals. Consider Charles Johnson’s paper “Women and the Invisible Fist” as an illustration of a left-Rothbardian approach to social justice.

So in light of all this, let me try to define a social injustice:

Social Injustice: A social injustice obtains when an institutional arrangement generates a distribution of goods [broadly construed] that is unfair [broadly construed], independently of the deliberate design of individuals comprising the institutions.

There is a lot to unpack here. First, yes, I use the term “distribution” fully aware that in some important sense there is no “distribution” of certain goods by a central authority. I mean something much more innocuous –a pattern of holdings. Second, by “goods” I mean the “currencies” of injustice offered by philosophers (primary goods, capabilities, opportunities, or welfare). We don’t need to settle on a currency to make sense of the concept of social injustice.

The last clause allows social injustice to occur independently of the deliberate design of individuals, which means that we can usefully understand social injustice as a kind of emergent property of institutions and the distributions they generate.

The key term, and the one that risks making the definition circular and/or question-begging is “unfair.” By “unfair” I just ask people to input their preferred system of moral and political principles. “Unfair” is a placeholder term.

To illustrate, insert Rothbardian libertarian principles into “unfair.” For a Rothbardian libertarian, a distribution is unfair if it comes about through violations of the non-aggression principle (there are some caveats here I can’t review). So, imagine a spontaneous order process that imposes negative externalities on a property owner (call him David). Say, for instance, that David lives next door to a public park where people are allowed to smoke (call it Smoker’s Park). The smoke produced by any one smoker would normally dissipate quickly, and have no noticeable impact on David’s person and property. But since so many people smoke in Smoker’s Park, David’s home and possessions begin to reek of smoke. And on some afternoons, he and his family choke from smoke inhalation. Arguably David’s person and property have been aggressed against in the sense that people together have imposed a cost on him that they could only do so fairly with his consent. But no one person caused the rights violation. In that case, I think it is fair to say that a Rothbardian social injustice has occurred.

The problem with some of the definitions of social justice that David has reviewed is that they run together social justice with Rawlsian social justice. A Rawlsian conception of social injustice involves inserting Rawlsian principles into the “unfair” term. This is how we reach the definitions of social injustice that my Rawlsian buds and I have offered. For instance, on a Rawlsian view, a social injustice obtains when economic institutions fail to provide sufficient primary goods to citizens to allow them to enjoy the worth of their basic liberties, even if no individual participant in those institutions tries or intends to thwart said enjoyment. Similarly, if we focus on political liberalism, a social injustice obtains when coercive economic institutions generate distributions that some can reasonably reject.

Different theories of justice can employ the ideas of coercion, aggression, sufficientarian principles, primary goods, minimally decent lives, and the like to specify a conception of social injustice. But I take it that the concept of social justice is that of injustices arrived at via a spontaneous order process. Social injustice is an emergent property of individual activity. It is the kind of injustice that results from human action, not human design.

Given the way I have defined “social injustice” many libertarians will reply, “Oh, ok, that’s fine. Big deal. Is that all you BHLers care about?” I can’t speak for my co-bloggers, but from my vantage point libertarians all too often ignore social injustices because of their sometimes flat footed (dare I say “cartoon”?) moral individualism. I’m a moral individualist in the sense that I think injustices can only be done to individuals, families or to voluntary associations. In a real sense, I don’t think injustices can be committed against “Americans” or “blacks” understood as groups defined independently of their members. So traditional libertarians are right that emphasize that the idea of social justice can sometimes be deployed in inappropriately collectivist ways.

But social injustices can be committed independently of human design. That’s a significant claim that departs from many threads of libertarian thought popular today. And my view on the matter is one of the reasons I joined the blog.

A second reason I joined the blog was to draw connections between political liberalism and libertarianism for anyone interested. I hope to draw another connection in my next post, where I will explain what I think is cool and neat about Rawls. Then I can explain why I adopt a broadly (’93, not ’71) Rawlsian understanding of social injustice. That will complete my answer to David’s question.

Update: Mark LeBar, a friend and fellow philosopher, has an outstanding criticism of this post that you can find here.

  • martinbrock

    Libertarian justice is the justice that people freely choose. Raping Reba is not unjust because some academic philosopher derives its injustice from a utilitarian principle or other first principles (as I once assumed myself). It’s unjust because Reba doesn’t want to be raped and will not freely associate with other people tolerating rape.

    A free community does not tolerate rape, because people generally don’t want to be raped. Freedom essentially excludes “rape” tautologically. Strictly speaking, a free community requiring anyone to have sex with anyone else on demand does not tolerate “rape”, because rape is involuntary definitively, and everyone in a free community accepts the community’s standards.

    Would anyone freely join a community on these terms? I wouldn’t join it, but I’m not prepared to answer this question for everyone else. Anyone joining this community freely has the justice s/he wants, and that’s good enough for me. Choice is justice definitively.

    Standards of justice (the sort of justice I prefer) generally emerge from free communities. “Social justice”, in the narrow sense we’re discussing here, is a reaction to other standards of justice, particularly private property rights.

    A community enforcing exclusive rights to natural resources prompts a reaction among its members. Free people need not respect these rights and only these rights. They may respect these rights only along with other rights, like a jubilee or a right of the disabled to consume without a market exchange.

    No single standard of “social justice” applies to free communities. We discuss statutory standards of social justice, complementing statutory property rights, only because we are not free. Statutory property rights (rights to exclusive use of resources) are a forcible imposition, and the forcible imposition of social justice is retaliatory force.

    A free society needs no imposed social justice, because it has no imposed property rights. In a free society, people have the mix of property rights and social justice they want.

    • j r

      The free society that you describe sounds an awful lot like it would have to be filled with people like the main character from the movie Momento or perhaps that Tom Hanks Saturday Night Live character Mr. Short Term Memory. It doesn’t really seem to accord to how people actually live in the world, which tends to be a problem for societies.

      • martinbrock

        I haven’t seen the movie or the SNL skit, so I don’t know what you mean here. The world I describe is like the real world when people are beyond the reach of states (as most people are much of the time). The rules respected by free people are like the rules respected by your circle of friends. A person violating these rules is not your friend. This person could be someone else’s friend, but he’s not your friend. Rules of this sort exist, and most of them are not codified in any statute.

        People actually living in the real world often fear other people threatening to lock them in cages for smoking pot or herding them into genocidal extermination camps. I don’t deny this reality. I just don’t like it.

  • daniilgorbatenko

    If morality is a feature of individual actions and beliefs only, it can’t be at the same time an emergent property. And neither can a sub-type of morality, justice.

    it is of course possible to deny that morality is a feature of individual actions and beliefs only. But this would be a denial of a fundamental rational intuition about morality, akin to a denial of, say, the intuition about humans having free will.

    • martinbrock

      I disagree. Morality is an emergent property because it is a feature of individual actions and beliefs, particularly the beliefs of individuals interacting with other individuals. No individual chooses the standards governing interactions between individuals. An individual may only choose among standards acceptable to other individuals, and this subset of standards acceptable to many individuals can only emerge from the interaction of individuals. It cannot be deduced from first principles, any more than market prices can be calculated by central planners.

      Personal morality is the price of interacting with other persons.

      • daniilgorbatenko

        You’re right in a limited sense that is, however, irrelevant to what K. Vallier wrote. Moral properties emerge from (supervene on) non-moral ones (such as the attitude of a person towards the action, the physical details of the action, etc.). But they may only relate to individual actions. Vallier, however, implies in his definition of social injustice that they can also relate to aggregates of individual actions that are not in themselves immoral.

  • TracyW

    Thank you – this is the clearest explanation of the idea of social justice I’ve ever come across.Though it 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).

    • Kevin Vallier

      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.

      • Ross Levatter

        OK, Kevin. Now you’ve provided (I think) the most clear understanding of what BHLers are talking about when they speak of social justice. And it’s clear why it makes sense to refer to such people as BLEEDING HEART libertarians. But what your response above makes very unclear is why it is in any way reasonable to call such people bleeding heart LIBERTARIANS.

        I imagine a philosophically astute mugger in a back alley demanding my watch and wallet. When I protest (hands raised and in a purely intellectual sense) he explains that he, through no fault of his own, has been unable to live a minimally decent life in our society, and so he decided to become a coercive institution, albeit quite a small one, that would correct the matter, sadly by committing individual injustices. “Justice in the end,” he reflects sagely, is multi-dimensional, and increasing justice along some dimensions may sometimes require reducing it along others.”

        As he debates whether, now that he has possession of my Rolex and my cash, it would be ethically better to run or bludgeon me over the head (the problem, it appears, is multi-dimensional), I ask if there is a name for his personal philosophy. “I’m a libertarian,” he says, “though admittedly of an unusual sort…”

        It has long been thought a hallmark of libertarianism that libertarians apply the same ethical code to government actions that most people readily apply to individual actions. Mike Huemer has just written a book based on the implications of that fact. It would appear BHLers would either have to deny that long-held viewpoint, arguing contra Huemer that there are actions the government can take (by way of instituting social justice) that it would be wrong for individuals to do, or else they must tip their hat to the philosophically astute mugger for doing his little bit for social justice.

        • Kevin Vallier

          I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. I was offering a generic definition of social injustice in this post, not a definition of *libertarian* social justice. But I did give an example of Rothbardian social injustice. So surely my account of social justice is compatible with libertarianism!

          • Ross Levatter

            KV: “But I did give an example of Rothbardian social injustice. So surely my account of social justice is compatible with libertarianism!”

            Are you sure, Kevin? If I gave stealing a peanut as an example of Rothbardian injustice, it would not follow that my solution–death by torture–is an example of libertarian justice. So the fact you give Rothbardian examples of social injustice does not mean your proposed solution–social justice as you define it–is compatible with libertarianism.

            I don’t understand what you don’t understand. You are describing a scenario where achieving something you feel important (in this case, social justice) “may result in committing individual injustices”, which is kinda a paradigmatic example of an UNlibertarian activity. Yet you call it a form of libertarianism (as opposed to a theory that has some similarities to libertarianism in some respects but is fundamentally different in key aspects). I was simply trying to explain, by way of humorous hypothetical, why there is an obvious tension there.

          • Kevin Vallier

            Hmm. The idea was to take a political philosophy that is considered paradigmatically libertarian and show that we can develop a conception of social justice compatible with it. That’s the sense in which one can believe in social justice and libertarianism. What is hard about that?

          • Kevin

            The problem is that plugging in Rothbardian fairness collapses the term “social injustice” into a meaningless distinction, so the purpose of creating the term “social justice” must be to plugin other forms of fairness. Your definition seems particularly oriented toward judging fairness by a state or “pattern of holdings” and not how that state was achieved.

          • Kevin Vallier

            “The problem is that plugging in Rothbardian fairness collapses the term “social injustice” into a meaningless distinction.” Eh, tell that to Charles Johnson and Roderick Long, two of the smartest left-Rothbardians around. They’re written loads on the topic. I linked to one of Charles’s main papers on the subject.

          • Kevin

            But it is your concise definition which makes the collapse so clear. I am trying to narrow down the disagreement here rather than bringing in potentially extraneous factors.

            Rothbardian fairness does not apply to “a pattern of holdings” but rather only to the process of achieving that pattern, so either it cannot be substituted into your definition or that clause must be struck. You implicitly strike it by skipping over the pattern to reach the unfair process.

            Your final clause seems intended to assert that social injustice need not derive from individual acts of injustice. This is foreign to the Rothbardian sense of fairness but since you do not exclude individual bases for social injustice, it is compatible. Nevertheless, that clause can also be struck without changing the final meaning.

            At this point, no distinctly meaningful factors remain in your definition, which suggests that you are essentially adding a logical disjunction in order to achieve compatibility. It’s like making Y compatible with X by defining the logical combination as “Y or X”. Sure, that final term is compatible with both, but none of the key features of Y need exist in X.

          • Jake Witmer

            To me, all of this seems well and good, but it’s also highly abstract bullshit that isn’t going to impact the emergent order of society, because it’s too abstract and too philosophical to have any political impact whatsoever. In order to have any political impact, ideas must be clearly-stated with as little sophistry and “narrow discipline” technical terms as possible. The “nattering nay-bobs of negativity” here who are “niggling over nitnoids” in Vallier’s essay are wasting their time. Vallier’s point is good, but it is not beyond the “libertarian” (contrarian) capacity for being made into a straw man, and vigorously beaten down.

            Nothing is beyond that capacity, as that capacity is infinite.

            At some point in an intellectual war, the philosopher must become the soldier. Sadly, the dog of libertarianism doesn’t hunt, and there are 10,000 chiefs for every 1 brave (if that). While real-world libertarianism is both theoretically possible and strategically-attainable, there are virtually no people working on any strategy that could possibly result in increased individual freedom.

            I worked for a little while on expanding individual freedom, but have worked at it less and less the more I realized that the people I was working for do not want individual freedom. This is because they are very stupid, and continue to be very stupid, and it is impossible for me to raise their level of philosophical concern. They made their money by being very narrowly-focused (something I continually strive toward), and this means that when I speak to them about individual freedom, they have no comprehension of what I am talking about, until the 45 minute mark.

            Then, they tell me I should “run for office,” indicating that they still don’t fully understand.

            Perhaps the human race is just a bridge to a more legitimate and less destructive market-based cybernetic species, Homo economicus. It certainly seems to look that way from my perspective. The goal of the libertarian movement should be to become supermodified, and superhuman.

            This is the only way libertarians will likely be able to have a meaningful impact on reality. They are simply too stupid to do anything else. So, engineers and “Aspergers” syndrome technology geeks, I laud your efforts at improving and deploying the optimal human-machine interface, and would love to work with you, at any stage of the coming progression.

            For anything else, I’m just too tired, stupid, and human.

      • j_m_h

        A while back when this blog was talking about justice and social justice in earlier threads I was struck by the idea that there can be no such thing as “the just society”. As in most situations in life, margins exist and trade-offs on these margins must be made. For the most part corner solutions are not the optimal outcome.

        While the terminology here is “justice” and “social justice” I wonder if the more accurate terms would be “justice” and “institutional justice”. In this distinction we see justice as involving interpersonal relationships and social/institutional justice the relationship between social institutions and people.

        • Hume22

          The institutional question. This is a hugely important debate (Cohen vs. Rawls vs. Nozick vs. Sen vs. Estlund vs. Dworkin, etc etc). This is partly why I disagree strongly with the Rawlsian claim that political philosophy can be done without metaphysics and metaethics. Cant do it, can settle these questions without resort to fundamental claims regarding the nature of morality/values, the foundations and structure of moral values/principles, the metaphysical status of institutions, institutional orders/arrangements, etc.

        • “I wonder if the more accurate terms would be ‘justice’ and ‘institutional justice’.” I very much like this suggestion; see my separate comment on the thread between you and Sean II.

          But as I noted in that comment, we then have to justify why we should refer to “the relationship between social institutions and people” as a matter of justice. If we consider that relationship purely as a matter of emergent properties and spontaneous order in which any adverse consequences are simply a result of “aggregates of individual actions that are not in themselves immoral” (to quote daniilgorbatenko), then it’s hard to make that case.

          • j_m_h

            Perhaps I’m not following but one way I look at these types of things might be in line with your thinking/question here.

            When we think about justice between people that is necessarily informed by the large context and institutions in which the people grew up and govern/inform on how the people interact with one another. From that perspective it’s impossible to envision a way that we can then apply that concept of justice to those overriding institutions.

            Then if our understanding of justice is simply some emergent pattern lacking any standard beyond the encompassing institutions, what is this justice that we’re talking about? It seems to lack the core elements of what I sense justice must have. So if justice is something that may be informed by social institutions but also be something more than merely the emergent pattern then we should be able to say something about the justness of these institution and the relationship between the institutions and the people living within the institutional structures.

            Perhaps this means I’m simply agreeing with your post.

          • I think the point you’re making is not identical to mine, but is an important and related one. What I read you as saying in your second paragraph (“justice between people that is necessarily informed by … context and institutions”) is that to the extent we conceive of justice as relating to interactions among people within a given institutional framework then that concept doesn’t really extend to judging the framework itself “from outside”. This is especially true if the institutional framework is seen as a spontaneous order not deliberately designed by anyone. Hence “social justice” as oxymoron: complaining about the resulting state of affairs being “unjust” would be like claiming injustice in the fact that we have bad backs due to evolved bipedalism.

            I guess I’d make two responses to that: First, people have always been willing and able to take the external view and judge their own societies as falling short in some way, whether in comparison to other actual societies (past or present) or in comparison to imagined future alternative ones. And as I noted in my other comments, if institutional frameworks aren’t spontaneous orders in the truly strong sense, but rather are subject to ongoing construction by people who know what they’re doing and intend to do it, then I don’t think it’s out of place to use the word “justice” in this context.

    • j_m_h

      This may be true but I’m not sure that your example is one that supports the conclusion. There’s an assumption that some external “most qualified” metric exists for any position. I don’t see why a free society would necessarily preclude employers from seeing both diversity (and sometimes a different take on “qualified”) as a component of qualified candidates.

      I saw just today a news story about how SAP has started a corporate policy of hiring autistic people for a number or technical positions. It seems that someone finally figured out that autistic characteristics are actually very good for certain jobs. (This is also in line with Walter Williams “compensating differences” in a free society and free market setting.)

  • I think if you are going to claim that some form of injustic is emergent, then you need to articulate the mechanisms through which the injustice emerges, and address the injustice by addressing those mechanisms. You can’t just say “Well, it’s Emergent! it just pops into being from the ether!”, otherwise people could just make stuff up. (I don’t like X, therefore it’s “emergent injustice”, I don’t have to explain how it came about.)

    For example, to take your racism example, one CAN come up with a plausible explanation of how unconscious racism and network effects in employment can cause economic disparities between blacks and whites. But the way to address that is to explain the network effects and act to address the network effect by (say) encouraging whites to be more open to networking with blacks and so forth. Which is (really) addressing an individual-on-individual injustice of low-level racism. That would be the correct and just way of dealing with the “social injustice” of low-level racism.

    By contrast the usual approach taken by the left is to say “Inequality! therefore injustice! therefore Wealth Redistribution!” . Instead of actually examining the economic mechanisms through which differences in economic outcomes emerge and making some determination as to whether, based on how those mechanisms operate, there is some injustice occurring, and how to address that directly at the root cause of the injustice, they just want to ignore economics and go directly to the desired outcome. Inequality therefore injustice therefore redistribution.
    And in the process of course, trampling upon and causing injustices to the individuals from whom wealth is to be redistributed.

    • martinbrock

      People identifying with “the left” might accuse you of oversimplifying what they say, but they’ll often characterize “the right” as simply. “Inequality! Therefore justice! Therefore redistribution is theft!”

  • Ryan Long

    Two comments:

    1) Your using a negative externality as an example of a “social injustice” is contentious. Virtually every human action has downwind consequences that might be considered negative, but most of us would stop short of calling every negative consequence a “social injustice.”

    2) Must of what this post and previous posts have indicated is an if-by-whiskey fallacy. Everyone except an Objectivist agrees that negative externalities are negative. The disagreement is not “in the center of the cluster,” as Brennan would say, but rather everywhere but the center.

    If your claim is that the difference between a BHL and a traditional libertarian is that BHLers favor using government to attempt to correct negative externalities, then that is a substantial claim. But will the BHLers actually confirm in writing that this is a key difference between them and other libertarians?

    • Cole Gentles

      “If your claim is that the difference between a BHL and a traditional
      libertarian is that BHLers favor using government to attempt to correct
      negative externalities, then that is a substantial claim. But will the
      BHLers actually confirm in writing that this is a key difference between
      them and other libertarians?”

      I don’t think this is quite correct, as both Steve Horwitz and Sarah Skwire are BHLs and I am pretty certain both consider themselves anarchists.

      • Ryan Long

        That was sort of what I was getting at, Cole. 😉 Every time we get close to a concrete claim, it is contradicted elsewhere in the BHL “textbook.” Hence each assertion presents us with more questions than we originally had.

        I am trying to figure out whether BHL is a set of beliefs, or if it is rather more of a mood or sensitivity shared by a collection of people who actually believe very different things.

        • Cole Gentles

          I here ya…. I think it’s sort of a ‘sensitivity’ thing, as you said. It seems to be a manner of adopting terms used by the left, but in a way that renders the terms completely meaningless as, at least it from what I can tell, if you ask 10 different BHLs to define one of the terms, you’ll get at least 15 different answers! 😉

        • If you’re looking for a “textbook,” you’ve come to the wrong place. What you have here is a group of academics who have different but partially overlapping beliefs.

          I think it’s uncharitable in the extreme to characterize this all as amorphous mush, let alone, as David Friedman calls it, “dishonest mush.” If you sense some uncertainty and wiggle-room in what we say here, you’re right. Part of that’s because we’re all still thinking through these issues ourselves. And part of it is because of the subject matter. This is moral and political philosophy, and as Aristotle noted “it is the mark of an educated man
          to look for precision in each class of things just so far
          as the nature of the subject admits.” Terms like “minimally decent life” might not be the sort that we can define with mathematic precision, but it strikes me as rather thickheaded to act as though we therefore have *no idea* what they mean.

          • Ryan Long

            It is certainly no more uncharitable than calling those libertarians who disagree “cartoon libertarians,” right? Charity begins at home.

            I understand that you all agree “at the center of the cluster,” but the center of the cluster is completely uninteresting, and for that matter BHLers are no different than normal libertarians “at the center of the cluster.” Hence, defining yourselves as a different branch of libertarianism while proving to be incapable of describing exactly what the differences are – and in some cases claiming that this knowledge need not even be articulable (!!!) – presents a serious definitional problem for you at BHL.

            It is generally understood that discussions cannot advance to higher stases until they have satisfied the definition stasis. My criticism of BHL is that it seeks to advance to higher stases by ignoring the serious definitional problems it faces. Every request for greater specificity results in greater ambiguity. This is not a good long term strategy for BHL.

            All of which would be perfectly excusable if it were not also the position that other libertarians were cartoons.

            I hope that BHL sorts out its rather serious definition stasis problems. Until it does, I will bow out of the comments sections of your posts so as not to keep cluttering them up by making the same observation over and over again.


          • Ryan, I never said, not even once, that anyone who disagrees with me is a cartoon libertarian. What I said was that people who tend to hold one of a bunch of listed silly beliefs or who tend to react to certain things in a bunch of silly ways tend to be cartoon libertarians. Rejecting all that stuff on the doesn’t make you agree with me, so it’s not like I painted people who disagree with me as cartoons.

          • Ryan Long

            Jason, your comment hinges on the word “anyone,” which is not a word I used. So you are defending yourself against a stronger claim than the one I’m making. At any rate, anyone who goes on record calling a subset of people “cartoons” can hardly beg for charity after the fact. It hardly matters whether you were referring to one libertarian or many.

            At this point, I think it makes more sense for you to simply acknowledge that error and move on.

          • I’m not asking for charity, but justice.

          • Ryan Long

            That was genuinely funny. 🙂

          • j_m_h

            Should someone suggest he’s getting it? 😉

          • Like I said, Ryan, we’re working through the ideas as best we can, and trying as best we can to answer your questions. Even the ones that don’t seem to be based on much of an effort to understand what we’re trying to say. If you’re not satisfied with that, I’m sorry. If you’ve got a beter set of ideas, I’m opening to hearing them. But, for the record, I never called you, or Rothbard, or Rawls, or anyone else a “cartoon.” And this isn’t my post here. We are not Borg here. We’re different people, with different ideas, who have said different things. Take it for what it is.

          • Ryan Long

            Matt, I’m certainly not trying to hold you to account for others’ arguments. Perhaps in the fray, you missed what I think is the crux of why I’ve been so involved in the comments here:

            I am trying to figure out whether BHL is a set of beliefs, or if it is rather more of a mood or sensitivity shared by a collection of people who actually believe very different things.

            It looks to me as though “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” are libertarians who share a certain set of what Cowen might term “mood affiliations” despite their having very different beliefs.

            Note that I am not proclaiming this to be a fact, nor am I in any way suggesting that this is what you have argued. I am simply stating that this is the impression I have been left with in light of the many different viewpoints expressed under the same umbrella term. To that end, all I can say is that I do not appear to be a BHL myself, and I think you would probably agree. 🙂

            I do commend your efforts, but as I have said too many times already, I think you could benefit from dedicating some of your future posts to clarifying the definitions of the terms that BHLers use in such a way that provides greater cohesion among the various BHL authors. I’m not here to cause trouble, and as noted above, I intend to read more and comment less in the future. 🙂

            No ill will intended.

          • Cole Gentles

            ” Terms like “minimally decent life” might not be the sort that we can
            define with mathematic precision, but it strikes me as rather
            thickheaded to act as though we therefore have *no idea* what they mean.”

            When you’re arguing that there is a role for the state to intervene in the affairs of peacefully acting individuals (as is implied in articles like “Why I Am Not An Anarchist”), I do not think there is anything thickheaded in asking that the rule for these interventionists rely on objective measures and not ones which, however strongly you may assert that we have an idea as to what things like “minimally decent life” mean, it is a simple fact that things like this mean very different things, to many different people, at many different times and places.

            When you’re arguing for taking an act of aggression against me when I have taken none against you, the burden of proof is on you.

          • Yup. I made an argument in that post that tried to meet that burden. If you saw a problem with it, let me know. And if you have a plan for a moral or political system that relies *only* on precisely objective measures, I’d love to hear that too. It certainly would be utterly unlike anything the world has ever seen.

          • Cole Gentles

            I read the article a back when it was written and don’t recall seeing anything that came close meeting that burden, but I’ll revisit it. However…..

            “And if you have a plan for a moral or political system that relies
            *only* on precisely objective measures, I’d love to hear that too.”

            But, Matt, I didn’t make the claim: you did! I hold that it’s an impossibility. This is exactly what (well, one of the final straws) made me anarchist.

            I also find that David Friedman’s system comes as close as is possible to satisfying the needs for a moral and just economic and political system based on exactly the fact that there is no precisely objective measures for these things.

            As he mentions in Machinery of Freedom, there are essentially three way to have a system: violence, exchange, and love (based on persuasion… which exchange, ultimately is as well).

            Friedman’s system is based entirely on exchange and love: it allows for the fact that you, or I, may be wrong in our assertions about our measures of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘minimally decent life’ or whatever. It allows for the dignity of a human being to choose between what might be two very bad options.

            You, however, seem content with the violence method. Of saying ‘Well, I’d LIKE to persuade you that I have met the burden for an objective measure of a minimally decent life, but… well… if I haven’t persuaded you, I’m perfectly willing to use aggression in the form of a state to force you to comply.

          • So your system is an anarchist one, not a state-based one. That’s still a system, and it still requires philosophical defense. And, I suggest, you’re going to have a very hard time coming up with a defense that meets the standards to which you want to hold BHL.
            For instance, your point about anarchism being based on “exchange” and my system being based on “violence” depends entirely on an underlying theory of property rights. After all, property rights are violently enforced too. So if you want to claim that *that* kind of violence is OK, and mine is not, you owe me some explanation of the difference. And I bet we won’t get more than one or two steps down that path before you start appealing to concepts that are just as “fuzzy” as the ones to which I have been appealing.

          • Cole Gentles

            The difference, and what I hear little to no discussion about, rests on one undeniable fact which, personally, I think is the most important factor of all (if I was to write up my own theory of rights, this would be paramount): Nobody truly knows anything.

            That’s extremely broad, so let me see if I can explain what I mean by this without getting too long winded….

            In a very Hayekian sense, you and I, and every other human being that has every walked the earth, never has enough information to know if the ends any of us wishes to pursue are ends that would be the most beneficial either to ourselves or anyone else. Maybe your ends are right. I don’t know… but neither do you. Maybe MY ends are right. You don’t know… but neither do I. Maybe they seemed perfectly right in the short term, but in the long term, and on net, the results were terrible. Maybe they seemed terrible in the short term, but in the long term, and on net, the results were excellent.

            In addition, in a dynamic real world sense, the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of ends would change with circumstances, observation, etc.

            The second you use positive aggression to force me to pursue ends you believe are desirable, you are acting upon a conceit that says you KNOW a great many things that you simply can not. That somehow you KNOW that forcing people to feed a starving child if they are in front of them is right, when in fact you DON’T know that acting in that fashion will not have consequences which result in more children starving in the long term.

            The only principle consistent with the unknowable nature of the the future, and each of our lack of being omniscient, is one that says you may not force me to feed this starving child in front of me because he is hungry, may die, and your heart is breaking; and I may not stop you from feeding him based on my belief that on the overall, and in the long term, less children will starve if we all behave in that manner.

            Either one of us using aggression to force the other to act in the manner consistent with our preferred ends would nullify the possibility of the other person’s ends being pursued, and therefore, if we ARE wrong, we will have caused far more damage due to our miscalculations than we otherwise would have.

            And that brings us the difference between aggression (the violence I accuse your system of favoring) and defense. The former is used to force another human being to take a positive action… to use them as a means to achieve ends they can’t possibly no to be the right ones. The other is the negation of aggression so that each of us can pursue our ends while trying to convince each other through persuasion, example, and result, that our ends are the better.

            Your system would throw me in a cage if I did not agree money should be taken from me without my expressly given consent to pursue ends I may find objectionable for whatever reason.

            Whatever system ultimately arose through anarchy would not allow for aggression against anyone choosing to opt out. Otherwise it would cease to be an anarchic one. This may leave that person in a bad position, with very poor choices, but at least it would afford them the dignity of being the one to make it without a gun being put to their head.

          • martin

            So if you want to claim that *that* kind of violence is OK, and mine is not, you owe me some explanation of the difference.

            Really? We have to explain the difference between a mugger shooting someone and taking the victim’s wallet and the would-be victim shooting the mugger and keeping his wallet?

          • martinbrock

            No. You need to explain the difference between a property holder shooting someone picking wild berries on his property and a property holder not entitled to shoot someone picking wild berries on his property because his community’s standards do not prohibit picking wild berries on his property.

          • martin


            First: my example was meant to illustrate there is a relevant difference between violence to keep what’s yours (and defend yourself), and violence to take something from someone else. That’s why I chose a clear-cut example.

            Your example is less clear-cut, but I’m inclined to think that because they are wild berries, the property owner has no right to interfere with the berry picking.

            So the difference would be that the property owner shooting or threatening to shoot the berry picker would *NOT* be justified, while the community preventing him from shooting the berry picker (violently if nescessery) would be.

            Btw. I don’t think the community standards are very relevant to this case. Community standards could demand you sacrifice your firstborn, should you abide by that? Only if the property owner himself had once made an appeal on those standards regarding a case of berry picking (or something similar) they would count for something I think.

          • martinbrock

            Rothbard might disagree with you, but my point is not that the wild berry dilemma has one true resolution. My point is that different standards may emerge in different communities.

            A free community demanding that members sacrifice their firstborn presumably has few members. I doubt that ancient Hebrews ever much stoned their children for apostasy. Most only shook their heads and quietly told Moses to fuck himself.

            I advocate a universal right to life, not subject to any community standard, and since a child cannot express its own will, I could oppose this standard forcefully even if parents in the community accepted it. I also advocate a universal right to leave a community at will. That’s why I’m a minarchist rather than an anarchist, strictly speaking.

            Community standards are relevant, because a property owner has only the property rights that members of a community will respect. Property rights emerge just as standards of social justice emerge. In a broader sense, property rights are standards of social justice.

            I don’t oppose any standard governing the use of parcels of land that members of a community freely accept. If you own a parcel of land in a community, you must accept the community’s standards of propriety, because your neighbors’ willingness to respect a standard is the only legitimate source of the standard.

            If you don’t like a community’s standards, you should be free to leave it and join another community, but you have no right to a community respecting standards of propriety that you dictate.

          • martin

            If you don’t like a community’s standards, you should be free to leave it and join another community, but you have no right to a community respecting standards of propriety that you dictate, in my way of thinking.

            What if you leave the community and join your own community of one?

          • martinbrock

            I have no problem with it, but in a community of one, you have few property rights. In my lexicon, your “community” is the group of people agreeing to respect particular property rights and joining forces to defend themselves and their chosen rules against forces outside of the community seeking to impose different rules, including respect for different property rights. If you separate yourself from all communities, it’s hard to say what property rights you have, because no one agrees to respect any rights you claim.

          • martin

            So it’s OK for such a community to attack other communities?

          • martinbrock

            It’s not OK with me, but we must discuss the meaning of “community” here. If any individual may unilaterally declare himself a “community” and claim some “community resources”, then the whole idea of intentional community is nonsensical, and the whole idea of property is similarly nonsensical. You don’t have property because you claim it. You have property because other people will respect your claim.

            As a practical matter, a community has a minimum size, say a few hundred people. A minimal state establishing the utopia that I imagine would not accept the charter of smaller communities. This state prohibits communities killing members and requires communities to permit members to leave, essentially enforcing an individual right to life and an individual right to habeas corpus.

            When a person exercise this right to habeas corpus comes before it, the state may only offer the person an opportunity to join another community willing to accept the person on its terms. If no other community will accept the person, he remains in his current community on its terms (possibly in a cage) until another community will accept him. A person may also commit suicide or, possibly, join some least common denominator community comprised of everyone else that no other community accepts, essentially the state of nature.

            If you want Rothbardian property rights within this federation of intentional communities, you find at least a few hundred other people who also want Rothbardian property rights, and you obtain resources either by claiming unclaimed resources or by trade with other communities, and you’re off to the races. If you prefer a community with productive means held jointly and produce distributed according to some egalitarian principle, you’ll also find communities organized on this principle, because more than a few hundred people want both sorts of community.

          • martin

            Do you realize that you roughly ascribe to communities the rights that a Rothbardian ascribes to individuals? (I say roughly, because you also throw a state in the mix.)

          • martinbrock

            Yes. I get along with Rothbardians. Rothbardians also assume a state, even if they don’t acknowledge it explicitly, and they throw in some additional, universally enforced standards of propriety that I don’t want enforced universally.

            I have no problem with individual titles to land, even title in perpetuity of the Rothbardian sort, if the proprietors and their neighbors want to respect this standard, but I don’t expect free communities generally to adopt Rothbardian standards, and I don’t want Rothbardians enforcing their standards beyond the boundaries of their own communities.

          • martin

            So if a single Rothbardian clears a piece of unused wilderness, considers it his property and somehow manages to keep members of your communities off it, he’s imposing his conception of property rights on them. But if a group of a hundred Rothbardians does the same with a hundred of such pieces (each the same size as the one in the first example, so in total a hundred times as much territory) they are not?

          • martinbrock

            Yes, in the state of nature, a single Rothbardian in your scenario imposes his conception of property on others insofar as he forcibly excludes them from the parcel.

            In the utopian state I imagine, the hundred Rothbardians do not impose their conception of property on others. The state, rather than the Rothbardians, imposes the Rothbardians’ monopoly of their territory on others, but it also frees others peacefully to organize other territory otherwise.

            The hundred Rothbardians respect one another’s claims freely. They may exclude others, who will not respect Rothbardian property rights, from their territory, because they may not otherwise live by rules of their choice alongside others freely choosing to live by the same rules.

            Imagining that a single Rothbardian does not impose his conception of property on others is imagining a Rothbardian state imposing this conception of property on everyone else.

          • martin

            Yes, a single Rothbardian in your scenario imposes his conception of property on others insofar as he forcibly excludes them from the parcel.

            OK, so imagine this non-Rothbardian band wandering into some territory where they’ve never been before. They encounter the Rothbardians homestead, consisting of a house, garden and some farmland where he grows his crops. They tell him to clear off because they want it for themselves. He tells them to get lost.

            You’re going to say with a straight face that he’s imposing his conception of property on them?

            In the utopian state that I imagine, the hundred Rothbardians do not impose their conception of property on others. The state, rather than the Rothbardians, imposes the Rothbardians’ monopoly of their territory on others

            That makes it allright? ‘The state, rather than the Rothbardians, sacrifices the children of others’ – doesn’t sound really reasuring, does it?

            How does this state get financed?

            but it also frees others peacefully to organize other territory otherwise.

            So how is it determined what territory a non-Rothbardian community gets? Not by homesteading I suppose?

          • martinbrock

            That makes it alright? ‘The state, rather than the Rothbardians, sacrifices the children of others’ – doesn’t sound really reassuring, does it?

            I’m not discussing what’s alright in any universal sense here. I’m discussing people’s preferences.

            I imagine a state permitting people to form communities organized by any rules that the people freely accept, in the sense that a community may not kill or hold members against their will. I’m not discussing any state that you imagine sacrificing children.

            Your Rothbardian may have his Rothbardian property in a community of like-minded people. Why force people who are not like-minded to live by Rothbardian rules?

            How does this state get financed?

            I won’t evade this question. The state threatens to harm people who will not bear its cost, just as your Rothbardian threatens to harm people who will not bear the cost of being excluded from his parcel. If you expect your Rothbardian to enjoy his property rights, regardless of roving bands of non-Rothbardians with contrary conceptions of property, you must answer the same question yourself.

            So how is it determined what territory a non-Rothbardian community gets? Not by homesteading I suppose?

            Homesteading is a theoretical possibility, but in reality, people don’t much occupy lands that they homesteaded on some ideal, Lockean frontier. Since it has never existed, the state that I imagine must follow existing states, so it cannot occur through homesteading, any more than a Rothbardian state could occur through homesteading.

          • martin

            Your Rothbardian may have his Rothbardian property in a community of like-minded people. Why force people who are not like-minded to live by Rothbardian rules?

            But if “my” Rothbardian has his Rothbardian property in a community of like-minded people, people who are not like-minded are being “forced” just as much to live by Rothbardian rules.

            (I wish I could respond more, but I don’t have the time now.)

          • martinbrock

            I say “your Rothbardian” only because you proposed the lone Rothbardian scenario.

            I don’t know you why you say that a non-Rothbardian outside of a Rothbardian community is forced to respect Rothbardian standards just as much as a non-Rothbardian forced to respect Rothbardian standards anywhere a Rothbardian claims resources.

            If I want to walk wherever I please whenever I please and I’m willing to have no inviolable space myself, I might join a community with no private spaces. I’m not saying that’s a likely community standard, but it’s possible hypothetically. If a Rothbardian may claim property subject to Rothbardian standards in this community, I and others in the community lose our freedom to walk where we please when we please in the community.

            If I want to organize my labors with productive means held only for use, and not subject to perpetual rents, I may have what I want in a community of like-minded persons without impeding the ability of Rothbardians to form a community with different standards.

            Rothbardians with perpetual title in another community may be absentee landlords without laboring themselves with their resources, but these people are remote from me, and more significantly, these people may not organize resources in my community by their standards.

            Maybe the Rothbardians following their rules with their resources are happier or wealthier, and maybe they aren’t, but either way, my neighbors and I have the goods we produce (both tangible and intangible), and Rothbardians have the goods they produce, and we all may know how life develops in both communities.

            Subjecting all resources to Rothbardian standards or to another standard does not permit this experiment to take place, so people outside of the Rothbardian community don’t seem to forced just as much as they would be if all resources were subject to Rothbardian standards.

          • martin

            I don’t know you why you say that a non-Rothbardian outside of a Rothbardian community is forced to respect Rothbardian standards just as much as a non-Rothbardian forced to respect Rothbardian standards anywhere a Rothbardian claims resources.

            I didn’t say “anywhere a Rothbardian claims resources”.

            In your system people of other communities will be forced to stay off the territory of the Rothbardian community. Which amounts to them being forced to respect the formerly lone (now part of a community) Rothbardian’s property rights in land (as well as the property rights of the other Rothbardians).

            (Again I don’t have time to respond further at the moment, sorry.)

          • martinbrock

            Yes, Rothbardians may exclude non-Rothardians from a Rothbardan community and vice versa in my way of thinking, but a Rothbardian may not claim land on a frontier and expect everyone else to respect Rothbardian property rights, even if the Rothbardian arrives first, not if we want people to consent to the rules governing them.

            Boundaries between communities are also necessary if we want people to consent to the rules governing them. A “community” is definitively a group of people agreeing to live by the same rules, so a community of one is not meaningful. A Rothbardian compelling everyone around him to respect his Rothbardian property rights is not a free association. It’s just one person dictating to other persons.

          • martin

            Yes, Rothbardians may exclude non-Rothardians from a Rothbardan community and vice versa in my way of thinking, but a Rothbardian may not claim land on a frontier and expect everyone else to respect Rothbardian property rights, even if the Rothbardian arrives first, not if we want people to consent to the rules governing them.

            But why would people who don’t consent to staying off one Rothbardian’s plot suddenly consent if they have to stay off a hundred Rothbardians’ plots?

          • martinbrock

            Non-Rothbardians may expect Rothbardians ultimately to see the light and leave Rothbardian communities for communities more like theirs, and they may be right; however, I don’t suppose that anyone consents to community boundaries.

            I’m not an anarchist, strictly speaking, so I may posit a state forcing non-Rothbardians to respect the boundaries of Rothbardian communities and vice versa. A community may accept visitors on its own terms, and members of different communities may trade subject to any constraints that their communities impose.

            The state does not regulate trade otherwise, but it necessarily compels respect for community boundaries and so must regulate trade affecting boundaries somehow.

          • martin

            Intentional community does not rule out Rothbardian communities, but universal respect for Rothbardian standards does rule out many other possible intentions

            Within a Rothbardian system people can form communities with all sorts of rules. To get back to your berry picking example: people who think berry picking on private property should be allowed can form a community called Free Berry Pickers and put up signs reading “FBP”, showing to other members where they can pick berries. No Rothbardian is going to disallow that. As long as they pick berries on property of members of that community.

            From the perspective of FBP members this might be a system of property rights different from Rothbardianism, while from the perspective of Rothbardians it’s just people exercising their right to allow other people on their property. If one of the FBP members wants to turn “Rothbardian” he or she only has to take down the sign. No voting with feet required.

            Or another example: a community like Twin Oaks is no problem in a Rothbardian system. (I think I saw you mention Twin Oaks somewhere on BHL.)

          • martinbrock

            Rothbardian property rights permit communities to form, but a FRB community is not a collection of individual property holders posting FRB signs in which an individual may decide to exclude berry pickers by removing his sign.

            Members of an FRB community join this community because they want to pick wild berries anywhere in the community. No member of the FRB community may prohibit berry picking anywhere in the community, because one member doing so is forcing everyone else in the community to respect his will rather than their own will.

            Someone interfering with berry picking in an FRB community violates the community’s standards and may be expelled, just as someone picking berries on Rothbardian property excluding berry picking violates the Rothbardian community’s standards.

            If many people in an FRB community decide that they no longer want unlimited freedom to pick berries anywhere in a community, the community may shrink, of course.

            As long as Rothbardians don’t expect to kill people or hold them against their will for violating Rothbardian standards in a Rothbardian community, and as long as they don’t expect to hold territory regardless of how many people ultimately decide that they don’t want to be governed by Rothbardian standards, then their community is like any other I imagine.

          • martin

            If the members of the FBP community want to make sure individual members don’t start prohibiting berry picking, they can set up a contract, e.g. that a member loses his property to the other members if he starts prohibiting berry picking.

            If it’s only *wild* berries they want to pick, they can find some unused area that contains wild berries and start picking them. Maybe put up a sign “FBP picking zone”. That way they will have homesteaded the area for berry picking.

          • martinbrock

            Rothbardian property rights permit something like the FBP community, but Rothbard supposes that individual proprietors precede the community, and I don’t suppose so.

            Proprietors contracting as you suggest presumes that a Rothbardian community already exists, that people already respect the rights of proprietors to exclude berry picking and thus to contract as you suggest.

            People desiring an FBP community may agree on a free berry picking standard before any individual claims territory, and people desiring a Rothbardian community must also agree on Rothbardian standards before any Rothbardian may contract as you suggest.

          • martin

            How about other rights? Like not being murdered, raped, robbed or defrauded? Do you need a community for those also?

          • martinbrock

            Yes. If you don’t want to be murdered, you need neighbors who will not murder you. I imagine a state preventing communities from killing people for violating community standards, but I don’t imagine this state preventing people killing you, because no state can prevent people from killing you.

          • martin

            Yes. If you don’t want to be murdered, you need neighbors who will not murder you.

            If you have neighbors, and you’re not able to defend yourself – yes.

            But that’s a practical thing. Do you have the right not to be murdered? Should they refrain from murdering you even if they could do so and get away with it? If they would inform you of their intent to murder someone, would you say “there’s no agreement with him not to murder him, so he has no right not to be murdered, so sure go ahead” or would you say “don’t do that, that’s wrong”.

            I imagine a state preventing communities from killing people for violating community standards, but I don’t imagine this state preventing people killing you, because no state can prevent people from killing you.

            How can they prevent communities killing people if they can’t prevent people killing people?

          • martinbrock

            If you have no neighbors or if you defend yourself entirely by your own force, you’re in the state of nature. Rights are artifacts in my way of thinking, so you have no rights in the state of nature. A gazelle has no right not to be eaten by a cheetah. It only has an opportunity to run faster. Rights exist only when humans follow rules that humans create.

            I’m not an anarchist, and I imagine a state forbidding communities to kill members. I expect communities generally to forbid murder, and I further impose a rule against capital punishment. This right to be free of capital punishment is a product of my imagination. It’s not natural or logically necessary or anything similar. It’s just a fiction that I author. I imagine myself an authority, the monarch of a state. Subjects of my state are like actors in a play that I write.

            A community does not murder a member in my way of thinking, because the community decides when a killing is murder and when it is not. People will kill one another accidentally and in self-defense, and I don’t imagine a state forbidding suicide, even assisted suicide. No state can prevent accidental killings by outlawing them, and I don’t imagine a state telling communities how to distinguish lawful killings from unlawful killings. I only imagine a state forbidding communities from killing or holding members against their will.

            A state really cannot prevent a community from killing its members, any more than a community can prevent members from killing one another. The state that I imagine only forbids communities to kill members, so a community killing members offends the state, and the state overpowers it to disrupt it. The state revokes the community’s charter, so it’s not a lawful community anymore.

            The state then somehow recognizes another lawful community governing the former community’s resources, and the former community’s members may join any other community of their choice. Maybe the state compels an election among the former community’s members or something, but community members may not elect to impose capital punishment for any offense.

          • martin

            An elaborate reply, but you didn’t answer these questions:

            Should they refrain from murdering you even if they could do so and get away with it? If they would inform you of their intent to murder someone, would you say “there’s no agreement with him not to murder him, so he has no right not to be murdered, so sure go ahead” or would you say “don’t do that, that’s wrong”.

            And I have another question: since the Brockian minimal state and the Brockian communities don’t exist yet (or do they?), do any currently living people, or did any people living in the past, have rights?

          • martinbrock

            Should they refrain from murdering you even if they could do so and get away with it? If they would inform you of their intent to murder someone, would you say “there’s no agreement with him not to murder him, so he has no right not to be murdered, so sure go ahead” or would you say “don’t do that, that’s wrong”.

            I thought I did answer this question. In the state I imagine, I have an absolute right to life everywhere. Not only may my neighbors in my community not lawfully kill me, because my community’s standards don’t permit it, the community itself may not kill me either under any circumstances.

            And I have another question: since the Brockian minimal state and the Brockian communities don’t exist yet (or do they?), do any currently living people, or did any people living in the past, have rights?

            Again, everyone always has the rights that their neighbors are willing to respect. You can talk all day about rights that your neighbors are not willing to respect, but these nominal “rights” exist in reality only if your neighbors will respect them.

            The Brockian minimal state (that I’ll now call a “liberal archipelago”) only recognizes this reality while imposing a requirement that communities not war with each other and not kill their own members wishing no longer to associate with the community. You can have any rights you want in the archipelago, except a right to kill your neighbors, as long as you can find other people who agree that you and they should have these rights.

          • martin

            I thought I did answer this question. In the state I imagine, I have an absolute right to life everywhere.

            Maybe I should have been more clear, but I didn’t ask how things would be in your state, I asked in general.

            Below the quote from you I was responding to, and my reply and the questions:

            Yes. If you don’t want to be murdered, you need neighbors who will not murder you.

            But that’s a practical thing. Do you have the right not to be murdered? Should they refrain from murdering you even if they could do so and get away with it? If they would inform you of their intent to murder someone, would you say “there’s no agreement with him not to murder him, so he has no right not to be murdered, so sure go ahead” or would you say “don’t do that, that’s wrong”.

          • martinbrock

            A right to life is not natural or logically necessary or God’s will or anything similar in my way of thinking. A human right to life is no more fundamental than a dog right to life or an ant right to life. Human rights are artifacts. Human communities respect a right to life, because human beings don’t want to die and so will exchange respect for other people’s right to life for other people’s respect for their right to life.

            If someone informs me of their intention to murder someone else, I might say, “People around here strongly respect a right to life and not a right to kill, so if you choose to kill this person, people around here will try very hard to make you regret it. That’s all I can tell you, because that’s all I know.”

          • matt b

            Matt’s reply here gets it right on. We all favour a system that uses violence to one extent or another. Conservatives think it’s okay to use violence to prevent people from smoking pot and watching “obscene” pornography. Left-liberals and libertarians do not. But left-liberals and libertarians disagree about whether it’s okay to use violence to, say, force people to hire racial minorities. And then libertarians disagree amongst themselves on the legitimacy of a social safety net. The point here is that when it comes to force, anarchist hard libertarians have no advantage. You favor violence to enforce property rights. Okay. Maybe that’s valid. But maybe it’s valid to use force to ensure no one starves if voluntary charity failed. The point here is that everyone who holds XYZ is right and ABC is wrong favors using force at some point to ensure compliance by dissenters. It’s just silly to act as if anarcho-capitalists have escaped the problem of justifying that.

          • j_m_h

            Matt, I think this is a very good comment to make. It does seem that at times the blog is presenting a polite “this is the case, please get on board with us” type position. I think that’s merely the natural way academics are going to write — how else can you get published!

            As you point out, and I think this was mentioned when the blog started, the real goal here is to explore ideas that are consistent with libertarian and classical liberal thought in ways that are perhaps a bit novel. This can be important (Sarah’s last post on Stories directly applies here) for both understanding the bigger view of the philosophy and for making the thoughts accessible to others coming from a different background.

    • Cole Gentles

      …. I did agree with the rest of your overall post, though.

  • Cole Gentles

    Am I missing something, or does this simply add up to re-defining ‘negative externalities’ as ‘social injustice’ in order to adopt a more left-friendly term?

    • The Smoker’s Park example is clearly a negative externality, as the cumulative effect is just cumulative, not “emergent”. It’s a bad example, but I think he is trying to get at something a little more complex than just cumulative negative externalities.

      • Cole Gentles

        “as the cumulative effect is just cumulative, not “emergent”.”

        Well, but emergent is a cumulative effect, no?

        ” I think he is trying to get at something a little more complex than just cumulative negative externalities.”

        He may be trying but, so far, in my opinion, he is failing.

        • Well no. “Emergence” has a specific meaning in physics. It refers to an orderly process that emerges from an apparently chaotic system that is in turn governed by underlying orderly processes.
          So you have this Order-Chaos-Order phenomenon. The “emergent” property is the second-level order. In the case of “smokers Park” there is no intermediary chaotic aspect to the system. You just add a bunch of smokers together and get more smoke. That’s totally linear. There’s no chaos theory there, and thus no “emergence”.

          • j_m_h

            While that’s probably not a bad description I’m a bit concerned about borrowing from physics for social processes and then requiring social philosophy to meet the physics standard. There are two distinctly different settings.

          • martinbrock

            I would only dispute “apparently chaotic”. A chaotic system is not only apparently chaotic. The growing uncertainty of a state of the system is not an illusion. Order can emerge from chaos because the indeterminate state in which the system settles has predictable characteristics.

            For example, the position of three bodies subject to their mutual gravitational attraction is unpredictable in general, but particular ensembles of three bodies have characteristic behaviors nonetheless. The precise positions of Sun, Earth and Moon may become less predictable over time, but the Moon continues to orbit the Earth while the Earth continues to orbit the Sun.

            The injustice in the Smoker’s Park scenario does not emerge because many smokers congregate in the park. If fewer people, or only one person, creates as much smoke with a bonfire, the same injustice occurs. The injustice emerges from the disagreement between David and owners of Smoker’s Park, and this disagreement involves subjective values.

      • Kevin Vallier

        Smoker’s Park refers to a kind of negative externality, but that’s not the relevant feature I’m after. Even if Smoker’s Park includes a cumulative negative externality, the property “socially unjust” is instantiated at the group level, but not the individual level. That’s what makes it emergent. The externality is cumulative, the injustice emergent.

        • Cole Gentles

          It just seems to me that there a a number of perfectly suitable terms to describe what you are talking about. One being ‘unintended consequences’, and another being ‘life’. It seems like a lot of pretzel twisting to get this to fit with the term social justice, both as it is classically used (however vaguely) and as you are trying to justify its usage.

        • martinbrock

          The injustice of Smoker’s Park is emergent in a different sense. It doesn’t emerge from the congregation of smokers as much as it emerges from the interaction of this congregation with David. David is a person bothered by the smoke. If he isn’t, no injustice occurs.

          If people generally are bothered by so much smoke under the circumstances, then then a community standard could emerge requiring smokers in the park to change their behavior or compensate David, but a Rothbardian doesn’t require David to be bothered by the smoke, and Rothbardian property rights imply no threshold of the cost imposed on David requiring compensation.

        • I really don’t see how it’s “emergent”. I mean there are lots of way in which standard libertarian theory could look at this. One is that each individual smoker is commiting a small injustice and it adds up to a big injustice. Another is that the property owner voluntarily accepts the risks when he purchases the property, thus there is no injustice. A third would be that there could be an injustice if the park was opened after he moved in without his consent and there was some prior agreement by the city not to do so, but in that case it would be the city commiting an injustice. None of these things really count as “emergent”. Maybe you’re just using the word wrong.

  • j r

    I like the idea of social injustice as an emergent phenomenon, but I think that you’re being unnecessarily imprecise. Injustice is neither just something that exists in the ether nor is it just a lack of positive action. Injustice is always administered by an individual, even if a particular manifestation of social injustice is the result of an individual injustice done long ago and/or far away.

    Racism is the perfect example. Contrary to what many believe the injustice of racism isn’t that we haven’t done enough to help minorities. The injustice of racism is grounded in very real historical and ongoing practices. Redlining was a real thing that kept many blacks from acquiring housing and is one of the main contributors to the white-black wealth gap that presently exists. Stop and frisk is a real thing happening right now.

    I think it makes more sense to talk about social injustice as a situation in which individuals are in some way incentivized to act in an unjust manner. A liberal society professes to a model of criminal justice in which individuals are not hassled by police unless they’ve actually done something wrong or there is a good reason to believe that they have. Stop and frisk puts individual police officers in the position of violating those norms and targeting people for largely demographic reasons. That is how social injustice works.

  • Holy crap, thank you for this post. The idea of social justice (or injustice) as an emergent concept shows to me the importance of libertarian or classical liberal thought within the social sciences. While most modern liberals in social science departments decry the undue influence of positivism or neoliberalism, they rely on top-down theories of social justice that require central planning and neglect spontaneous order as well as subjective (or situated) knowledge. The libertarian contribution lies in constructing an alternative construction of social justice and creating from that definition a social change orientation. Tomasi’s work is a great first step in describing a bottom-up, process-oriented approach to social justice within a broadly Rawlsian framework.

  • Very glad to see this post, and the mention of Johnson’s “Invisible Fist” paper. I absolutely agree that a serious appreciation for the Austrian/ Scottish ideas about emergent and spontaneous phenomena break the easy libertarian link from individual-level morality to social-level morality. (This is part of why I don’t call myself a methodological individualist.)

    • I’d love to hear more about how institutions impact methodological individualism. Are there any papers, books, blog posts I should read up on?

      • Yes, the one Jacob Levy has been promising to write at BHL for about a year and a half. I’ve heard it’s excellent.

  • Bruno Mynthi Showers

    Hayek is not a Rothbardian, particularly when he’s “vaporing” on things like spontaneous order and social evolution. See: The Present State of Austrian Economics by Rothbard. The role of the Rothbardian entrepreneur is not passive alertness of market signals and apprehending data, it is of purposeful planning that is merely informed by price and profit-and-loss signals (among other things).

    There is certainly nothing conceptually that implies spontaneous orders are benign, but this is because the concept is empty. The three uses of the term are contextual and not conceptual.That the optimal social order emerges from the free market through collaborative design by many uncoerced actors is deduced from praxeological insights. Spontaneous order as such is not even meaningful, much less important, in a Rothbardian-Misesian analysis.

    I like your idea about what constitutes social injustice, but I think it misses the mark. In your example, all of the smokers have aggressed against you; if there is a social injustice, it is just an aggregation of individual injustices. Moreover, this is an example of an unsystematic violation; the patriarchy is supposed to be systematic and composed of more than just individual injustices.

    You’ve got to make a better analogy to convince this Rothbardian.

    • martinbrock

      What is the purpose of purposeful planning? Must I read Rothbard to know?

      • Bruno Mynthi Showers

        Salerno, actually.

        “[the Misesian] view of social evolution, therefore, is not one of placid and automatic improvement insured by “unintended” consequences, “undesigned” institutions, “tacit” knowledge and “natural selection” of rules of conduct. Instead, human history is the outcome of a conflict between ideologies, which are consciously formulated and adopted by reasoning human beings”

        of course, determining which ideologies are in play and how they influence the various human actors is conjectural, but my personal opinion is that systematized violence in all forms has mainly been promulgated by the State. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that pre-agricultural societies were more egalitarian between sexes than most of supposedly civilized society.

        • martinbrock

          I’m not sure about “egalitarian”, but I also doubt that pre-state societies much involved males dominating females. In nature, males and females play very different roles and so are not equal, but “inequality” does imply a relationship between superior and subordinate. Males do not naturally dominate females.

          Natural “male dominance” involves contests between males, in which males battle to dominate other males, not males dominating females. Males dominate other males to win the favor of females. Males contest one another, and females select the victors. Males suffer this conflict far more than females.

          And post-state society differs less from this natural pattern than feminists often pretend.

  • One objection I suspect people will raise: If the morality of a social system is an emergent phenomenon, then there is no one to blame for the immorality, and so no one has done anything wrong when social injustice occurs.

    Rawls’s answer, I think, is that we do something wrong by not trying to correct the problem.

    • martinbrock

      Moral standards involve interactions between individuals, and the standards emerge from the interactions. The person behaving immorally is to blame for the immorality. This person does not choose the moral standard he violates, and other individuals do not choose it unilaterally either.

    • Cory Haberkern

      Emergent orders happen because of individual choices. If we did not choose to trade with each other, markets wouldn’t emerge. So if we don’t choose to be racist, systematic racism won’t exist.

      Systematic racism implies that there are individual racists. This idea that systematic oppression doesn’t mean individuals are racist makes no sense.

      • martinbrock

        A free community of racists, in which every member freely accepts the racist standards, is not socially unjust. A free community could forbid interracial marriage, and this prohibition is racist, but if every member of the community freely accepts the standard, the standard is not “unfair” in Kevin’s sense.

        • Cory Haberkern

          I do not think that it is unjust to have free communities of racists. I only make the assertion that racist individuals who discriminate against others is bad.

          I’m a thick libertarian. I agree that people have the right to be racist, I just think being racist stifles individuality. “Racism is the lowest and most primitive form of collectivism” after all.

          In the marketplace, people are racist towards others which means that there aren’t as many opportunities for those who are being oppressed. Maybe some of this is zero-sum – only one person can get the job, so it either goes to a white person or a black person. Even if we say that there isn’t racism going on, people can be angry at the color composition of your company.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t know that racist individuals discriminating based on race are bad in any universal sense. I can’t know this, because I’m not omniscient.

            I’m a product of a very race conscious cultural movement. This movement is very race conscious in the sense that it’s extremely intolerant of racial discrimination.

            As a product of this culture, I’m extremely intolerant of racial discrimination myself, so I would not choose membership in a community tolerating racial discrimination or imposing racist standards, like a prohibition on interracial marriage.

            But my experience informing my values is only my experience informing my values. My values are not universal in any sense.

            I agree that racial discrimination is counterproductive, and I want the productivity sacrificed to racial discrimination myself, but other people may believe the price worth paying.

      • “Systematic racism implies that there are individual racists.”

        Not necessarily true. It implies that there are persons who think that other people are racists. We’ve known this at least since people modelled white flight from neighborhoods.

        It’s also important that emergent phenomena can vastly amplify small microphenomena. Even if it’s improbable that we get systematic racism with *absolutely no* individual level racism, it’s perfectly plausible that we can get systematic racism out of not-many-people being not-very-racist.

        • Cory Haberkern

          I understand what you mean about people thinking others are racist. But this stems from the possibility of people being racist – and that others have been racist in the past. If no one was racist, there wouldn’t be racism.

          And yes, there needs to be a sufficient number (I don’t know what that number is) to create systematic racism. It’s sort of like network economies – when /enough/ people use something (say Steam on the PC) it becomes a solid institution.

          So saying not-so-many may be a low number, but it’s still sufficient to have racism. So I guess I should say sufficiently large, not absolutely large.

        • Agreed, but I think the way to correctly address systemic racism is to unwind those emergent phenomenon and discover HOW it “emerges”, where is the underlying individual-level racism, and how to break the connection that causes it to trigger the emergent system-level racism.
          Instead, what BHLs seems to be arguing is that somehow these “emergent” injustices justify coercion of unrelated individuals. Instead of figuring out how the emergence happens, you just impose a federal level coercive “correction” to the injustice.

          The problem of course is that unless you identify exactly how this emergence-apparent-injustice is coming about, you may have a hard time deciding if it actually IS an injustice at all. And then you have people just calling any outcome they don’t like an injustice, and how do you differentiate the “real” “social injustices” from the interest groups who just want some free stuff?

      • I disagree that systematic racism necessarily implies there are individual racists.

        Say blacks have less wealth because of historical racism. Say the structure of the current political-economy prevents people with less wealth from improving their condition in various (non race-based) ways. Say there aren’t any racists left alive.

        The economic structure would hold poor people down and thus poor black people by virtue of their poorness. Would this not be an example of systematic racism without individual racists?

        If anything I think the focus needs to be more on the systematic stuff as opposed to individuals’ choices/actions/attitudes for significant change in the status-quo to be made.

      • j_m_h

        Really? I suspect one can find evidence that at least some markets existed to force people to trade in a controlled setting where some King or enlightened bandit could capture some rents.

        Markets are not just people exchanging in a vacuum. That merely people trading.

    • Cole Gentles

      “Rawls’s answer, I think, is that we do something wrong by not trying to correct the problem.”

      But not all problems are correctable or solvable. Isn’t it up to each individual to decide whether they 1) believe it to be solvable, and, if so 2) find the benefits of solving it… or even attempting to solve it… to outweigh the costs?

      Since ‘2’ (and even ‘1’, actually) rely on each individuals own perception of reality and their own values, bias, etc…. how can anyone label their decision ‘wrong’ for not ‘trying to correct the problem’ outside of simply imposing their own personal biases onto the equation?

    • Kevin Vallier

      Yes and I think that others who buy into the idea of social justice should offer Rawls’s kind of reply. Once you’re aware of the injustice, that you’re a part of it and you don’t try to change it, you’re complicit. It’s kind of like your Dirty Hands principle.

    • j_m_h

      That’s an interesting insight. I wonder if we shouldn’t inquire about the longevity of emergent social structures within this idea of social justices.

    • Hume22

      Jason, Iris Young’s account of “structural injustice” is very similar to Kevin’s post here, and some of her stuff on focusing on moral responsibility as opposed to “blame” may be an alternative approach.

  • Cory Haberkern

    The idea that institutional oppression (racism, queerphobia, sexism, etc) /doesn’t/ necessarily originate at the individual level can’t be justified by Rothbardians. Now, I’m no Rothbardian – neither in Economics nor moral philosophy – but I know enough to say that you can’t make this argument from a Rothbardian economic standpoint. Austrian economics – specifically praxeology – would show that all institutional racism is derived from the individual level.

    In neoclassical economics terms, there’s no microfoundations to this idea.

    Individuals, en mass, create these oppressive institutions. How? A sufficient amount of people are racist that it creates an institution. This means that we are not a color-blind society and racism still very much racist.

    So, on the micro-level, individual actors choose to be racist. Therefore, since enough people are racist, there are macro effects of said racism. Call it whatever you want, I prefer the terms “institutional oppression” or “systematic oppression”.

    The implications of these microfoundations of systematic oppression does indeed show that it isn’t unjust to be racist. However, it is morally outrageous. This is where so-called “thick libertarianism” comes into play. We need to be anti-racist.

    The other implications of this idea of individual actors forming institutional oppression is that these institutions are emergent orders but also that there aren’t things like “reverse racism” or “the War on Christianity.” There simply aren’t enough white people being discriminated against (in the same way as non-whites are) because of their skin color.

    Think of it like this: if a few people sell all their stocks and sit on cash, nothing really happens to the stock market. If enough people sell, perhaps the market is down a few points. If everyone sells, the market crashes. A few people selling = “reverse racism”. Enough people and everyone selling = institutional or systematic racism.

    • Cory Haberkern

      I can’t quite tell if I’m just restating what Kevin did. To clarify (as I think I word vomited here), systematic oppression has microfoundations – it starts at the individual level based on individual choices. This implies that people are still racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. From this, we can see that systematic oppression isn’t unjust, but immoral (in my opinion, but creating bad outcomes).

      So we see, through this systematic oppression, that on the aggregate there is racism in the court system, hate crimes committed (a decrease in queerphobia might have meant that the gay man murdered in New York over the weekend would still be alive), women don’t get as many promotions as men, etc.

      • good_in_theory

        “it starts at the individual level based on individual choices. This implies that people are still racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.”

        No it doesn’t, unless one redefines ‘racist, sexist, &etc’ as ‘productive of racist, sexist, &etc’ outcomes.

        It is perfectly possible to make choices that are not racist/sexist/etc, which have racist/sexist/etc consequences. One doesn’t need to choose to be racist in order to choose to perpetuate things that are racist.

        As an analogy, in the prisoner’s dilemma, each person’s choice has the property of being utility maximizing, but the outcome is not utility maximizing. The quality of the outcome doesn’t tell us anything, necessarily, about the quality of the inputs.

        • martin

          It is perfectly possible to make choices that are not racist/sexist/etc, which have racist/sexist/etc consequences. One doesn’t need to choose to be racist in order to choose to perpetuate things that are racist.

          OK, how?

          • good_in_theory

            The simplest example would be to take something that is confounded or correlated with race, and then choose along that criteria. So say one is making choices discriminating on things like IQ, college attainment, wealth, home-ownership, kinship/social network membership, &etc. From the perspective of the actor ‘racism’ never enters the picture. And yet selecting along those criteria in a race blind fashion will have the effect of favoring some “races” over others.

          • martin

            But Kevin defined institutional racism as:

            Thus, even if no one in the institution is racist, they participate in practices that result, say, in blacks having fewer opportunities than whites simply because they are black.

            In your example blacks that having fewer opportunities is due to “IQ, college attainment, wealth, home-ownership, kinship/social network membership, &etc” not to being black. Blacks who are better of concerning those things will not have fewer opportunities.

          • good_in_theory

            I took the question to be, “how can acts not intended to be racist have racist effects.” I wasn’t attempting to form my example to Kevin’s definition.

            But if one wants to add the ‘simply because they are black’ into the picture, then make the chief causal source of the disparity along which people are selecting (IQ &etc) racial.

            So, racists A, B, and C actively discriminate against black people L,M, and N in the selling of housing, then non racists X, Y, and Z extend tax deductions or whatever to all people with houses, leaving L, M, and N out of the loop.

            You can’t exactly morally blame A, B, and C for the choices of L, M, and N, and you can’t exactly blame L, M, and N for their failure to address the actions of A, B, and C. At least, not in the relevant, libertarian sense of the word, “blame.”

            Again, this isn’t *the* mechanism by which unintentionally racist consequences can propagate, but it is a mechanism.

  • Sam

    This concept of social justice notably not mentioning the poor *at all*, despite that supposedly being central to the idea.

    I think the difference between BHL and cartoon libertarians is that the latter are at least aware there’s no clear account of what social justice is.

    • Cory Haberkern

      Well, being poor, in my mind, isn’t systematic because being poor is (largely) dynamic. That is, the poor don’t necessarily stay poor.

      Blacks and queer people, on the other hand, is static. People stay black and queer for their whole lives.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Why oh WHY are you lumping us all together? Because we’re easier to dismiss that way? Diversity is not confusion.

      As for a focus on the least well-off, my sense is that the right principles of justice are sufficiently consequence-sensitive to the good of the least well-off that institutions that fail to reliably provide them with a decent minimum will generate social injustice. So I think most valid conceptions of social injustice will include some sort of sufficientarian principle, just as they will contain principles barring racism.

  • Pingback: Specificity and Overspecificity about “Social Justice” | Bleeding Heart Libertarians()

  • Michael J. Green

    blacks and whites have different opportunities due to their racial differences but no individual acted in a racist fashion to bring about the inequality

    Such a situation is many things. Degrading, unfortunate, wrong, inequitable, illiberal, unfair, inhuman. But not unjust. Why should we contort ourselves to make it unjust, other than to benefit from the considerable cachet attached to the word justice? You said blacks in this institution don’t receive “their due,” but according to what? Were they actually promised something, or is it that from our perspective they aren’t receiving all they ought to? The former is unjust, the latter strikes me as illiberal. Both scream out for rectification, but in different ways.

    To borrow from Anthony de Jasay, justice is not fairness and fairness is not justice. It’s great when something is both just and fair, terrible when it is unjust and unfair, but some things are just and unfair, and some others are fair and unjust. You can make any number of brilliant arguments why the situation you’ve described ought to be subsumed under justice, but if our goal is truth-seeking and clear thinking, I don’t see the benefit in doing so. Even if terms/concepts aren’t going to be ‘strongly’ definite, it’s best not to purposely overload them. If we can separate concepts, so as to make each simpler and more definite, then let’s do so.

    I can definitely understand calling this situation an injustice in a colloquial sense. We’re allowed to be sloppy in casual conversation. But if we’re going to pretend we’re acting scientifically, we need to be much more careful. It’s why I smile when BHLers in this discussion try to play nice with Hayek. “Social justice has advanced a lot since Hayek’s day.” But, judging from this blog anyway, I don’t think it’s disproven his assertion that the word ‘social’ destroys the meaning of the word it qualifies. (though, being in Fatal Conceit, maybe Hayek didn’t actually write that)

    My own answer to such a scenario: It’s an illiberal society that needs its attitudes or rules changed. Work needs to be done to rectify the situation, but no one is guilty of an injustice and so no one is liable for any purported damages. I want to improve the situation, but I don’t see how I’m justified in coercing anybody (and by extension, how anyone else has that authority). In effect, there may be no difference between how I’ve described it and what you call social justice. But I think it’s clear this is not just empty semantic quibbling. By invoking justice, you clear the way for the broad use of coercion against innocent people.

    The Smoker’s Park scenario doesn’t counter this, because some one or some body must be responsible for the park and liable for damages. You can call an unintended, multi-person-initiated injustice a “social injustice” if you want, as you can call arson a “property injustice” or contract violation a “promissory injustice.” But whatever you call them, they’re still clearly within the realm of boring, follow-the-rules justice.

    • Michael J. Green

      If TL;DR (can’t blame ya!): I don’t think this answers Friedman’s basic objection that, where it’s coherent/useful, social justice doesn’t accomplish anything that justice-justice can’t do just as well.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Perhaps the benefit of using the idea of social justice is that basically everyone but libertarians finds the idea of social justice perfectly intuitive and, in many cases, an inspiring ideal. I’m not trying to stretch the idea of injustice, just trying to sort out the meaning that basically all non-libertarians assign to the term. One point of this blog is to get people who think about political concepts (especially libertarians) to be less conceptually insular. I’m afraid your comment that I’m trying to stretch the idea of justice when the vast majority of people who think about justice have no trouble at all using the term in this sense illustrates the need.

    • j r

      You said blacks in this institution don’t receive “their due,” but according to what? Were they actually promised something,

      This is exactly the sort of reply that I was envisaging when I wrote my comment above. And this is the problem with attributing injustice to the ether instead of doing the historical work necessary to find it at its root.

      Yes. Black people were promised something. They were promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness along with every other American citizen. All American citizens are promised the opportunity to freely associate and conduct commerce, to offer thier labor in a free and competitive environment, to receive equal treatment under the law and generally equal access to public services. That’s what citizenship is supposed to entail. However, for most of this country’s existence, blacks, and women and other minority groups and poor people in general were systematically denied some or all of these things.

      As a liberal, I don’t advocate coercion as the primary means of correcting what history has left us, but let’s not make any mistake that the present order is founded, in part, on very real injustice.

      • Michael J. Green

        Well I don’t disagree with the general tenor of that, but I also don’t think it’s relevant to what I wrote. Those past injustices were real injustices; social justice is not needed to explain them. The effects of those injustices obviously shape real lives today, and that’s not right. Perhaps we have a shared moral duty to reverse those effects as best we can. What this moral duty practically warrants, I don’t know, but I’m not comfortable with punishing those who are not guilty of the actual unjust acts.

        That you don’t want to use coercion to correct them seems, to me, as an admission that their present effects are not themselves injustices, in the limited sense of justice that I mean. An unjust act warrants the use of coercion to correct it.

  • Your analysis relates to the distinction Nozick makes between entitlement and desert. An outcome is unfair if people don’t get what they deserve, but that may happen even if nobody has acted unjustly, hence no entitlements have been violated.

    Your approach appears to identify an unfair outcome with social injustice. To see one problem with this, imagine that the reason one group gets worse outcomes is some innate characteristic. To take the most obvious example, men have a lower life expectancy than women in, I think, all modern societies. That could be due to things such as men being drafted for wars, but I don’t think it is. In any case, suppose the reason is entirely biological–the male organism, for some reason, is designed to last somewhat less long than the female.

    Men have done nothing to deserve to die younger, and dieing younger seems like the sort of thing that fits your distribution of goods. If the society does nothing about it, the result appears to be social injustice in your terms, unless there happen to be some balancing advantages to men. So it looks as though getting social justice, starting with your definition, requires someone, presumably the state, to actively intervene to balance things, to make sure that each identifiable group gets what it deserves.

    That has some pretty obvious problems. I have put the argument in terms of groups and public discussion of these issues is often framed in that context, but there is no obvious reason why it should be. Whether or not men have innate disadvantages (or advantages), obviously individuals do. My family has a history of heart problems. I had the good fortune to be brought up by extraordinary parents. Each individual has a long list of advantages and disadvantages which he does not, in any obvious sense, deserve. By your definition, all outcomes due to such advantages and disadvantages are examples of social injustice. It’s hard to see where you are going to stop the argument short of requiring either that a socially just society guarantees equality of outcome to everybody or that a socially just society makes sure everyone gets the outcome he deserves, which requires some common definition of who deserves what.

    I doubt either of those is where you want to go.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Hi David, thanks for chiming in. I’m not concerned with “outcomes” in any but the most general sense (as in “states of affairs”). Note that I argued the concept of social injustice allows for Rothbardian social injustice, where a state of affairs counts as socially unjust when through an emergent process the non-aggression principle is violated. We could insert Nozick’s entitlement theory just as well. So if “violation of historical entitlements” counts as an “outcome,” then, yes, I’m worried about outcomes.

      If so, then why am I committed to your case? I have merely offered an analysis of the concept of social justice. Your case supposes I’ve already bought into a particular principle of distributive justice. Why, for instance, should men dying younger count as an injustice unless I already bought into a distributive principle that counted the distribution as unfair?

      From what I can tell, you’re imputing a Rawlsian/luck egalitarian principle into my definition (something like that there should be no distributive differences due to factors “arbitrary from a moral point of view”). But that’s not my view. In fact, I haven’t given my view of the content of social justice. That was never the point.

      • I realize that you haven’t commited yourself to a specific version of social justice, but you did write:

        “I take it that an institution is racist insofar as it reliably outputs
        states of affairs where a racial group fails to receive its due based
        solely on the racial properties of its members.”

        I took it that you regarded that as an example of social injustice–perhaps I was wrong, but if not I don’t see the point of it. If you did, that suggests that people failing to receive their “due” is a central part of what social injustice means to you, with the “social” part possibly having to do with its being emergent. And I assumed the point of “solely on the racial properties” was that those properties did not determine what people were due.

        Which gets me to my reading of your position, which is that it requires people to get their due, which looks a lot like Nozick’s desert and which raises the problems I described.

        • Kevin Vallier

          I could have been clearer that I did not mean to commit myself to a particular explanation of why institutional racism would be a case of social injustice, so I can see why you might have assumed I was appealing to a deeper principle, like, say, a luck egalitarian principle of distributive justice. I was just appealing to an illustration that many people by into as a core case of social injustice, without going into the explanation.

          That said, yes, I think differences *caused solely* by racial properties should not determine what people are due. But there will be cases, as in your illustration, where people’s due is *partly* determined by racial properties (say that racial properties cause people to die at different average ages). And those cases need not generate a social injustice.

          Second, I take it that “getting your due” is broader than “getting your just deserts.” “Getting your due” is much more formal, and depending on context, could mean “getting your basic needs met,” “being treated equally,” “getting what you deserve,” or “getting paid back for a favor.”

    • j_m_h

      Do we have to bring entitlement into this concept? I’m not so sure.

  • ben

    Thus, even if no one in the institution is racist, they participate in practices that result, say, in blacks having fewer opportunities than whites simply because they are black.

    The italics part is the crux of the matter.

    If you don’t look at individual actions but instead only at the overall distributive outcome of a system, how can you be sure that a particular outcome emerged “because” of racial discrimination (or some other “unfairness”)?

    • j r

      I believe the term you’re looking for is called history.

      • ben

        Not really.

        Presumed after-effects of historical injustices can present *one* plausible hypothesis as to what “caused” a particular “emerged” distributive outcome.

        But for the problem of how to actually test this hypothesis (or any other competing explanation), “history” offers us nothing – so no, that’s not what I’m looking for.

        • j r

          Yes. Really.

          For example, consider the following three facts:

          1. There is a persistent white-black wealth gap of about $200K.
          2. Most Americans main source of wealth is their home.
          3. There is a history of discriminatory housing policy in this country (redlining, blockbusting, racial zoning laws) that kept blacks out of most real estate markets and inflated the prices in the ones that they were allowed in.

          In your world view, these three things aren’t related? They don’t tell us anything meaningful about the world that exists today?

          • j_m_h

            jr, regarding Fact 1, is that averages? What happens when we look at racial proportions — I’m wondering what affect sports and entertainment might have on those results. Certainly in sports I think a larger percentage of blacks is represented than of whites.

            I’m not arguing against your point about considering historical impact on current outcome — that does matter in some discussions.

  • Ross Levatter

    If I understand Kevin’s explanation, the following would seem a reasonable application of the notion of social justice:

    Marriage is racist. Even though all marriage partners are making voluntary and uncoerced marriage decisions, and even if no individual is choosing his or her partner on racist grounds, the societal end result is fewer inter-racial marriages than expected on statistical grounds. Granted, this social injustice is less severe than two generations ago, but it is still the case that for any individual black or white person, it may be harder, through no fault of their own and solely because of the color of their skin, to marry someone of the other race, solely due to individual preferences that are unfair in the eyes of social justice because they lead to “an institutional arrangement generates a distribution of goods [broadly construed] that is unfair [broadly construed], independently of the deliberate design of individuals comprising the institutions.”

    Have I misapplied the concept somehow? If not, is this a social injustice that coercive institutions should remedy (forced heteroracial marriages? quotas on the number of same-race marriages that can occur? easier divorce rules for people in homoracial marriages) in the name of social justice?

    • Kevin Vallier

      Yes, you have misapplied it, because you’ve built a distributive principle into the content of “unfair” that is implausible. Remember that on my definition, there can be such a thing as *Rothbardian* social injustice. I’m just trying to show that the concept is coherent.

      • Ross Levatter

        OK, Kevin. Let’s see if I understand the implications of your response.

        It is commonplace to note that the court interpretations of the Civil Rights Act, interfering in the voluntary contractual relationships among people in business, accept statistical variations as evidence of discrimination and justify legal coercion to force these businesses to correct matters, even if it is clearly true, and understood to be true, that there was no discriminatory intent by the individuals running the business, doing the hiring, etc.

        And it is also clear that most people on the Left, who are quite comfortable using the term “social justice,” see nothing wrong with this…indeed, they applaud it.

        I merely modified this common example to marriage contracts rather than business contracts–to accepting marriage proposals rather than providing job offers–to see if that matched your understanding of what social justice demands. I find it does not, because I’ve”built a distributive principle into the content of ‘unfair’ that is implausible.”

        OK. But it seems that leaves you in the following dilemma. You can say the marriage example is an implausible example of what social justice demands but that the voluntary hiring example is not (i.e., that the business example is perfectly plausible), or you can say they are both implausible on your understanding of social justice. (They do, after all, seem to have the same logical form.)

        If you make the former claim, (it seems to me that) you divorce yourself even further from libertarian fundamentals. If you make the latter claim, it seems you divorce yourself dramatically from the vast majority of academics who gravitate toward the concept of social justice.

        How do you deal with this dilemma?

      • martinbrock

        How about and Does social justice rule out these businesses? How about, a site that only permits interracial contacts?

  • hamilt0n

    Social injustices are the result of spontaneous order? They aren’t the result of human design?

    Slavery? Apartheid? The Holocaust? Anti-miscegenation laws? All the result of human design. I’d say most people who use the term social justice without irony would say that these are examples of social injustice.

    • Ross Levatter

      My guess, and it only a guess, is that KV wants to use the term “social injustice” as a term of art and would refer to the kind of things you mention as “societal injustices”.

      • hamilt0n

        Me too, which is why I think this post is unsuccessful.

      • Theresa Klein

        The whole point of this argument, ultimately, is to argue that coercion is permissible to rectify inequality. Even if you can’t point at any unjust actions of individuals that caused the inequality, he want’s to say that it’s still unjust and therefore demands a coercive response. I.e. If in a free market and through legitimate trade inequalities arise, it’s ok to use force to recitfy those inequalities because they are “emergent” injustices.
        It’s basically an argument that forced wealth redistribution by government can be morally permissible, even if the inequialities arise from a perfectly just free market.

        • martinbrock

          I think you mischaracterize Kevin’s argument here, but he may be reaching for the conclusion you suggest.

          Coercion is permissible to rectify harmful effects of coercion, and inequality is often a harm effect of coercion. All inequality is not a harmful effect of coercion, but much economic inequality is, because exclusive rights to productive means are coercive. The free market exchange is not the problem. The forcible proprieties exchanged are the problem. Focusing on the freedom to exchange simply ignores the coercion.

          I’m happier with arguments for coercive redistribution when the assertion of coercive inequality is more explicit. The problem with the Smoker’s Park for example is that smokers’ right to use the park, which they presumably own, permits the harm to David’s well being. That smokers obtain their right to use the park through free market exchange is irrelevant.

    • Fallon

      Mises > Hayek.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Deliberate individual action, as I explicitly say, can be a sufficient condition for social injustice. What makes social injustice distinctive is that deliberate moral violations are not a *necessary* condition for injustice.

      • ben

        But you don’t really explain why you think that this addition is necessary, i.e. why you believe that the concept of “normal” justice does not suffice.

        Maybe if you were to actually state your preferred rule of determining “fairness” (rather than leaving it a place-holder), and then give a real-life, “obvious” example of a social injustice within that framework that could not be traced back to “deliberate moral violations”, it might become clearer.

      • hamilt0n

        Alright, then why doesn’t social justice limit itself to emergent injustices?

    • j_m_h

      I don’t think slavery was by design. Apartheid and the Holocaust, yes. Here we have a distinction between what is probably an emergent social feature, slavery, and politically planned social policies of Apartheid and the Holocaust.

      • Sean II

        The counter to that will be: Apartheid and the Holocaust were late developments, in which an otherwise emergent feature – racial segregation in Southern Africa, anti-Semitism in Europe – was, so to speak, bronzed by human design, having been born without it.

        You must admit history fits that rather well. Both the founders of Apartheid and the Nazi hierarchs were afraid their own people could no longer be trusted to preserve the old order. This made them eager to take the spontaneity out of that order, and fill in the gap with state coercion.

        • j_m_h

          I don’t see how that’s countering what I said. Are you saying your story shows or implies slavery was planned?

          I read you as saying that both Apartheid and the Holocaust derived from the emergent phenomena of slavery — suggesting that neither as planned or designed as might seem at first.

          I would disagree for two reasons. 1) slavery emerged (assumption, the historical fact is long lost I think) within some fairly homogenous racial/ethnic settings. I’m not sure if the practice started with the losers in a war becoming enslaved or stronger groups simply marauding around to capture slaves. Perhaps is was an urban-rural thing for acquiring labor. 2) These historical situations of slavery do not necessarily consider the slaves an inferior race/group. As I understand it, though perhaps not common, slaves in the Greek and Roman histories were sometimes even adopted by their owners and made sons and daughters.

          • Sean II

            I didn’t say anything about slavery.

            My point is that Apartheid and the Holocaust only look like pure products of design if you ignore the long traditions of which they were a part.

            One can take Apartheid as “the designed attempt to preserve a previously spontaneous order of segregation”. One can take the Holocaust as “the designed attempt to follow through on a 1,000 year project of spontaneous European anti-Semitism.”

          • Bruno Mynthi Showers

            What does it even mean to be a “pure product” of design? The nature of causality necessitates that past states determine future ones. Since no one is eternally existent, taking this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion shows that nothing can possibly be “purely” designed.

          • Sean, I don’t know if I’m agreeing with you or j_m_h here 🙂 but anyway…

            I don’t see a clear dividing line between “social institutions as a result of spontaneous order” on the one hand and “social institutions as a product of pure human design” on the other. Certainly the individuals who first started us on the paths to modern states, slavery, organized religion, capitalist economies, etc., were acting on relatively local incentives and without any coherent long-term goals and designs on what subsequent institutions would look like in detail and what effects they would have.

            But at the same time, as history evolved in certain directions, all along the way people who happened to benefit were actively and consciously involved in “helping the process along”. They did this by designing institutions to codify existing practices and extend them in various ways (e.g., the Code of Hammurabi, to cite an early example), by creating arguments to justify the form of those institutions to others (e.g., Aristotle’s defense of slavery), and by coercively enforcing compliance with the overall institutional arrangements.

            Not everybody participated (or participates) in these activities to the same degree, of course. Many were/are still responding primarily to local incentives in a relatively unconscious way. But people do consciously act on a micro-level: They take individual actions to enforce existing institutional arrangements, they justify those actions based on arguments handed down from others (and teach those arguments to others in turn), and so on.

            Between the actions of the first group of people and those of the second group I don’t think we can just attribute everything to spontaneous order and conclude that “sh-t happened”, that no one can be called to account for the way things are and how certain people did or didn’t benefit from that state of affairs.

            I like the idea of thinking of “social justice” as “institutional justice”: “institutional” because we’re talking about the frameworks within which people take actions (not just about the actions themselves divorced from any consideration of those frameworks), and “justice” because those frameworks are at least partially (though not wholly) the product of conscious human actions.

            How best to address any such injustices is another matter, of course, …

          • j_m_h

            I think Robert Tollison has a paper that might be relevant to the claim of “spontaneous European anti-Semitism”. There were strong interests of the Catholic Church to condem interest and the Jews were who could charge interest on loans. I’ve not read that paper so have no idea if this aspect is discussed or even if it were a problem the Catholic Church was attempting to control. I would think that good Christians who also thought loans were risky and getting a bit more back was prudent might, in such a setting, approach a Jew to loan out their money and split the interest.

          • Sean II

            Sure, it’s not easy finding the line between something that’s actually spontaneous and something that merely outlasted its leader-directed or institutional origins long enough that it started to seem spontaneous.

            I happen to suspect that European anti-Semitism is more spontaneous than not. In the words of Lucille Bluth “Yeah…who doesn’t love the Jews”.

            But who knows for sure? It’s not the kind of question we can settle, one way or another.

      • hamilt0n

        You’re still missing a rather obvious distinction: slavery required individually unjust actions every single day. That’s not what’s being discussed in this article.

        • j_m_h

          The fact that private or individual acts of are also occurring along with some breach of social justice doesn’t mean the latter doesn’t exist.

          I will agree that slavery might not be a good example of a violation of social justice, depending on one’s conception of that term.

  • Fallon

    “The common libertarian reply to these cases is that only individuals can
    act unjustly. There’s no such thing as a group or collective agent that
    could commit an injustice. Thus, if, say, blacks and whites have
    different opportunities due to their racial differences but no
    individual acted in a racist fashion to bring about the inequality, then
    there can be no injustice by definition.” (K.Vallier)

    Neo-classicals = post-animists? In this age of hyper-inference and empiricism, the neo-classicals have morphed animism into investing conscious capabilities into collective entities. It’s science, you know.

    Nonsense. This is the same device that makes neo-classical econ flawed. Why is it hard to accept that only individuals act? Will it bring down the whole edifice of BHL social justice? Surely unintentional institutional injustices can have meaning while still attributing 100% responsibility to individuals. Institutions in themselves only have existence and meaning in an individual’s mind. That’s it. Any other way of looking at it veers into metaphysics. Of course, metaphysical statements do not disqualify their scientific usefulness. But in the case of collectivist consciousness beyond a convenient metaphor usage– has to be put in the scientifically weak category along with religious statements.

    And this from a critic of the NAP?

    • Hume22

      An institution cannot exist “in an individual’s mind.”

      • Fallon

        Not the best writing. Paragraph break in the wrong spot, unclear in spots. If I sign in disqus maybe I can edit and step it up a little bit. Maybe.
        I recognize that “mind” and “individual” have metaphysical claims, causality for one, bundled in there. But yeah, institutions, collective entities, are ideas. They do not think, act, make decisions. etc. Ever see an institution donate blood? Real blood? If a pizza restaurant goes out of business and the next week the very same building, fixtures, foundation, materials now house a tanning salon- and even employ the same people that ran the pizza joint, what has really changed? Something beyond bringing the special lights etc.
        What if the sign out front reads Tanning Salon but no tanning goes on there– unless you count losing thousands of dollars on illegal blackjack tables a tanning.
        If institutions do not exist in people’s minds, then where? What makes a collective entity “real”?

        • Hume22

          “If institutions do not exist in people’s minds”

          This is a different claim than the one noted above re: in *an individual’s* mind.
          I absolutely agree regarding metaphysical bases of institutions, but it’s not as simple as “it’s just in your head.” Shared expectations, collective intentionality, patterns of behavior, social structures, etc., giving rise to these things known as “institutions.” Classical liberals, libertarians, left-liberals, communitarians, etc, are all acutely aware of the causal efficacy of institutions (very few people are literally forced to do such-and-such by the law), or they ought to be.

          • Fallon

            Only individual’s share and experience sharing. Collective intentionality is metaphorical and useful but there is no transcendence of an organicist nature….

          • Hume22

            “but there is no transcendence of an organicist nature….”
            I agree, but there is much more to be said, particularly with regards to the metaphorical claim (which I think I have to disagree with). But these are seriously complex and fascinating issues in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind (including but not limited to philosophy of language)(Wittgenstein’s public language argument, semantic internalism vs. externalism, intentionality, etc.), and metaethics. Reinforces my rejection of Rawls’ claim that political philosophy can be done without the meta.

          • Fallon

            Thanks for your replies. Okay, I am not ready to comment on Wittgenstein. Yet, I am open to Prof Long’s version for the masses, ha.

            Did Rawls really make that claim about the meta and in what way? I am aware that the early logical positivists wrestled with the meta. In eliminating God and Freudianism from scientific propositions they risked denying access to theoretical inference and deductions that have immense (possible) explanatory power– even if they are temporary tie-ins. Newton’s, Kepler’s and Einstein’s frameworks are loaded with meta, many things not easily accessible to the senses. I believe that many post-logical positivists and empiricists have abandoned the attempt to cleanse science of metaphysics and, instead, tend to qualify unobservables along a relative axis, e.g., God on the extreme “weak” end; gravity, and its posterity, towards the other, “strong” direction. (Even this axis is oversimplified.)

            Then there is the teleology, the conscious aiming at ends, of human action, from which the basis of economics is deduced in aprioristic fashion. This counters the post-positivists, naturalism for one, while also engaging in a mix of meta and empirical claims of individualism that also places faith on the weak end of scientific validity and usefulness…

            Long story short; I do not see how any science can work without the meta. But I also cannot see how Rawls would miss this when even the Vienna Circle was fully aware of the problem. So what does Rawls really mean?

          • Hume22

            Fallon, My articulation of Rawls was (eh hem) rather cartoony in saying that he rejects the meta. I have in mind Rawls’ particular claim that political values/principles are “free standing” and his theory of justice is “political, not metaphysical.” Take a look at his 1985 article “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical.” Here is a link:


            He further develops these views in Political Liberalism.

          • Fallon

            Oh no, not that ‘cartoony’ thing again. Alright, I missed it. I will check out the link when I get a chance.

      • Fallon

        To add, ideas and action are conjoined. So institutions are also the actions informed by the specific ideas that give meaning to particular institution. The IRS taxes because IRS is invested with enough meaning to inform its action “taxation”. If an individual decides that taxation is not legitimate then the IRS as at least that individual knows it– has lost legitimacy. This changes the overall picture of IRS even if ever so slightly. If enough people understand the IRS as evil….

  • martin

    Let’s illustrate with the familiar example of institutional racism. I take it that an institution is racist insofar as it reliably outputs states of affairs where a racial group fails to receive its due based solely on the racial properties of its members. Thus, even if no one in the institution is racist, they participate in practices that result, say, in blacks having fewer opportunities than whites simply because they are black. In other words, the institutional rules operate such that unequal outcomes are caused primarily by racial differences, even if no one person is acting in a racist fashion.

    If no-one is racist, how did the institutional rules become such that blacks are disadvantaged?

    • Eli

      Well, actually, martin, it’s easy to understand that, through the concept of disparate impact. Imagine, for example, the government decides to subsidize the treatment of sunburn. It takes all citizens equally. There was no racist INTENT in this legislation. “No-one is racist.” The Congress was simply concerned about the dangers to the public of untreated sunburn. Yet blacks, who sunburn less, are disadvantaged by the law, paying as much as whites yet benefiting less.

      • ben

        “Yet [X], who [Y] less, are disadvantaged by the law, paying as much as [Z] yet benefiting less.”

        This statement is true for every redistributive measure the government takes.

        It’s not much of a moral dilemma for libertarians through, because in an ideal libertarian society there would be no such redistributive measures.

      • martin

        Somehow I don’t think Kevin’s concern with social (in)justice is about the possibility of government subsidizing the treatment of sunburn.

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  • I confess I just don’t like the term “social justice” because, as Thomas Sowell said in his book on the subject, “All justice is inherently social.” I find that often enough, “social” becomes a weasel word, as Hayek put it, sucking all the content out of the word “justice” so that all that’s left is a shell. And if it’s not a weasel word, well then it’s usually just an extra word that really doesn’t add anything to the word “justice.”

    Pointing out that certain injustices are the result of human action but not of human design seems like a good way to appeal to libertarians because of Hayek et. al. However, it seems to work precisely counter to the point I think Hayek was trying to make. Socialists (and, honestly, probably most of us intuitively) expect things to go wrong when things are unplanned. It takes a lot of work to argue that most of what is *good* in society is a result of unplanned order.

    As other commenters have already been quick to point out, the example of racism kind of falls flat. Racist institutions in the real world obviously involve real, personal racism. You don’t have Jim Crow laws without racists.

    Of course, how to deal with historical injustices is a question libertarians don’t address enough. In my mind, if there is any merit to this term “social justice” at all, it has specifically to do with that vexing problems of race and culture we face now (I’m coming from a specifically American perspective, but I’m sure similar problems exist all over the world). That is to say, today’s inequalities along racial lines are extraordinarily complex, but they certainly have a lot to do with *past* injustices. These injustices can often be blamed on very specific people who no longer exist. It is difficult to demand recompense from those who no longer exist, yet to pretend the whole thing never happen also seems out of the question.

    A lot of libertarians seem as if they want to hit the reset button and start fresh with a full-blown individualist society and see what orders emerge. That seems like a rather utopian vision. Instead, race relations and questions of historic inequalities are and will continue to be real, because people do identify with groups and histories whether or not we wish they would just be individualists. What would be really cool is to see political theorists of a libertarian persuasion acknowledge the persistent effects of past injustice (and/or the memory thereof), and then suggests ways our society might achieve some sort of reconciliation.

    • martinbrock

      Libertarians generally do not want want an individualist society. Libertarians want people free of rules imposed outside of free associations. A radically collectivist association, like a monastery or an egalitarian community like Twin Oaks, is completely consistent with my libertarian ideal. Rugged individualism and Rothbardian property rights are also consistent with this ideal, within a free association, but the earliest libertarians (people identifying with the “libertarian” label) were not particularly interested in rugged individualism. When I think of “left libertarians” or “bleeding heart libertarians”, I think of these historical movements, not modern libertarians accepting the inevitability of a powerful state and wondering how it might limit the rights of its own powerful cronies.

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  • Ross Levatter

    It seems to me much of the commentary so far, including mine, has yet to focus (and I admit to not having read in detail all 150 comments at this point, so my apologies if I’ve missed the subthread) a fairly basic point:

    Let’s say for the sake of argument that Kevin is right and that social INjustice is a reasonable concept and can be viewed as emergent.

    Why does it follow that social justice exists, or that it, too, is an emergent concept, or that it is something that should be remedied by agents of the State? Money is an emergent concept in society. It doesn’t follow that anti-money exists, makes sense, or is also emergent. Language is an emergent concept in society. And people suffer as a result of confusion, ambiguity, and other problems in language that was no fault of their own. It doesn’t follow the State is obligated to correct all such problems.

    Why isn’t the proper response to Kevin’s point about the existence and emergent nature of social injustice: “Well, it seems then that social injustice will always be with us,” or “and therefore we should try as hard as we can through voluntary mechanisms to alleviate social injustice,” as opposed to “well, I guess that’s justification for what would otherwise be a violation of the individual rights of specific individuals to transfer their property to other specific individuals”? How does that even begin to follow?

    • good_in_theory

      I don’t believe they’re saying that it does necessarily follow. In fact, perhaps part of the project is to show that ‘voluntary mechanisms to alleviate social injustice’ are what follow (because they end up, empirically, to be the best possible improvement over the status quo).

      Social injustice marks a particular set of problems. “Social justice” is their resolution. It exists as an unspecified solution. But like any as yet undiscovered/achieved solution, its existence is prospective. And even if it doesn’t exist, there will be better and worse ways of failing to get there (e.g. even if the Bruins will never beat the Penguins in the semis, there are better and worse ways of losing to the Penguins).

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