Social Justice

Spontaneous Order, Language, and Social Justice

The major libertarian argument against social justice goes as follows:

The Spontaneous Order Argument:

  1. The distribution of goods, wealth, and opportunities on a free market is not the product of anyone’s intentions or design, but rather is something that emerges from countless individuals making free decisions. There is no more a “distribution of income” in a free market than there is a “distribution of mates” in our society.
  2. Only the products of human intention can be judged just or unjust.
  3. Therefore, the distribution of goods, wealth, and opportunities on a free market is neither just nor unjust.

In short: the concept of social justice is a category mistake.

The major response (which some libertarians accept) is to attack premise 2. As Matt illustrates in this video, the distribution of goods, wealth, and opportunities is in part the product of the basic institutions of a society, institutions which societies could change. Social justice is a standard (though not the only standard) by which we might judge a society’s institutions.

Yesterday, I thought of an analogy to illustrate this point. Consider language. If anything is a product of human action but not human design, language is. Languages are spontaneous orders. There may be an innate grammar (itself a product of spontaneous order through evolution), but most of the content and rules of any given language simply emerge spontaneously from human interactions. (There are of course, a bunch of ridiculous boards that try to regulate language.)

One might make the following argument:

  1. The rules and content of a language are not the product of anyone’s intentions or design, but rather are things that emerge from countless individuals interacting with one another.
  2. Only the products of human intention can be judged just or unjust.
  3. Therefore, the rules and content of a language cannot be judged just or unjust.

On it’s face, this argument is compelling. But what if it’s not?

Imagine the following turned out to be true: Imagine we learned that using the English language, for whatever reason, tends to cause people to think in the short-term, and so causes a large segment of the population, though no fault of their own, to be poor. Now imagine that we also learn that Dutch has the opposite effect–using, thinking, and talking in Dutch cases people to think in the long-term, and so tends to prevent poverty. If we learned that, then we might conclude that English, is for that reason, kind of a lousy language. And if we had the option of transitioning from English to Dutch, we would have, all things equal, good grounds for doing so. So, even though English is a spontaneous order, not the product of anyone’s intention or design, we might judge it to be lousy from a moral point of view, and judge other languages to be superior.

By the way, that’s not just a silly thought experiment. There’s actual empirical evidence out there that a weaker, less dramatic version of this thought experiment might be true. Here’s the paper.

UPDATE: Some commentators noted that I said that, if those facts were true, then English would be lousy from a moral point of view, but I didn’t argue that it would necessarily be unjust. That’s right. One difference here has to do with coercive vs. non-coercive institutions. We use violence to enforce, say, property rights, but not to enforce language. Another difference has to do with demandingness. We think we can reasonably demand that others comply with property rights, but we don’t think we can demand that others speak any particular language, except in special circumstances. A third difference has to do with the ease of modification, whether we can do something about the results of the institution. So, for instance, hurricanes are a “natural evil,” but they aren’t unjust or just, because for now we can’t do anything about them. But property rights are something that we can modify, so it’s easy to say that our decision not to modify them is just or unjust. My point here is merely that we can assess the consequences of spontaneous orders from a moral point of view as good or bad.

  • Are you are recommending we use force to make people speak Dutch? I assume you would answer no. Most people who (not necessarily BHL supporters) talk about social justice advocate using government force to enforce their vision of social justice. Persuasion or even better – leading by example are acceptable means for changing institutions. Institutions that are not using aggression should not be forced to change.

    • famadeo

      “Institutions that are not using aggression should not be forced to change.”

      1) An institution can be effectively tame but that doesn’t make it just. Also, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t require force to come about originally.

      2) I fail to see how the use or not of force is the only problematic instanace of power, which can circulate and take different forms in vastly unpredictable ways.

      • I didn’t say we shouldn’t try to change an unjust institution that is a non-aggressor, only that we should use peaceful means to do it.

        • What if there are no peaceful means available, and what if the harm of the non-aggressive unjust institution is greater than the harm of aggressively correcting the injustice?

          In your view, is non-aggression a sufficient condition for morality/justice or merely a necessary condition?

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Although that may be a good thought experiment I find it difficult to think of any group so odious, but does not use coercion, that you must use coercion against them. Not even Westboro Baptist.

          • Damien S.

            Most people seem to think free-riders/non-contributors in matters of group survival are such a class of odious people.

          • Right, so you’re denying the possibility or likelihood of a case in which the harm of the non-aggression would outweigh the harm of aggressively correcting it.

            I’m saying, “If P, then ought we to Q?” And you’re saying, “It’s impossible or very unlikely that P.” And that’s a fine response. But I’m interested in fleshing out what principles you hold. So just suppose that P (assuming it isn’t impossible), then what?

            And I wasn’t thinking about a non-aggressive but odious group like Westboro. I was more thinking about an economic system in which inequality is so great that masses of people are suffering, but those at the top didn’t use aggressive means to acquire what they have.

            Suppose that through aggressive (coercive) redistribution, we could ease most or a lot of the suffering, without imposing a large harm (besides the initial coercion) on those at the top (perhaps they are merely deprived of a bit of luxury). Then, is the coercive redistribution right in your view? In other words, without denying the antecedent of the conditional, what do you think about the consequent?

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            I do not think it right, because it is theft. I think it might be necessary. I am not one of those libertarians who oppose a social safety net. I think it probably necessary in any advanced society. But that does not make it justice.

          • How do you define ‘theft’? If you define it as ‘wrongful taking’, then its begging the question to conclude that taxation is wrong. Theft is wrong by definition, and no one disagrees (even those who support taxation). Consider the argument:

            (1) Taxation is theft.
            (2) Theft is wrong.
            (3) So, taxation is wrong.

            This argument is valid, but if theft is wrongful taking, then it is begging the question or a circular argument. Let us substitute the meaning of ‘theft’ into the argument:

            (1′) Taxation is wrongful taking.
            (2′) Wrongful taking is wrong.
            (3′) So, taxation is wrong.

            Here we can clearly see the circularity. Premise (1′) assumes that taxation is wrong, so we cannot conclude in (3′) that taxation is wrong without begging the question

            Consider this analogous argument made by pro-lifers:

            (1) Abortion is murder.
            (2) Murder is wrong.
            (3) So, abortion is wrong.

            Again, it’s valid but circular. ‘Murder’ means ‘wrongful killing’. So, substituting that in:

            (1′) Abortion is wrongful killing.
            (2′) Wrongful killing is wrong.
            (3′) So, abortion is wrong.

            Again, we can now clearly see the circularity and question begging. Premise (1′) assumes what conclusion (3′) purports to prove.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            You jump through a lot of hoops that are unnecessary. When people are taxed at higher rates than others for the express purpose of “soaking the rich” then that is theft. I don’t need any other definitions.

          • Damien S.

            Why is it theft?

          • Fine, then you’re using a non-standard definition of ‘theft’. You’re just speaking a different language than I am. I don’t care about agreeing on words, I care about agreeing on concepts. On your definition of ‘theft’, someone could consistently affirm theft as right. Then saying that “taxation is theft” doesn’t get you anywhere near proving that we shouldn’t tax or that taxation is wrong.

            Also, I’d say it’s a pretty big strawman to accuse people advocating progressive taxation of having the express purpose of “soaking the rich.” What they really want is to care for the poor or maintain what they see as beneficial social programs. Taxing the rich at a high level is only instrumentally valuable to most of the people who advocate it. Only the most cartoonish liberals want to take away rich people’s money as an end in itself.

            That’s like accusing libertarians of opposing welfare or universal healthcare because they think people starving and dying in the streets is valuable in itself.

          • Damien S.

            I’ll say that reducing inequality is an explicit goal for some people. Libertarians and conservatives like to cast that as nothing but envy, but if one sees wealth as power, then there’s an interest in reducing power differentials. Power of political speech, power to raise armed forces, power to bribe (driven by both the possible desperation of the poor, and the huge amounts the ultra-rich could throw around — how many people would be tempted to immorality for $10 million, more than they’ll earn in their whole lives? Deka-billionaires can throw quite a lot of $10 million chunks around.)

            Which reminds us that minarchists want a government strong enough to curb abuses by the ultra-wealthy, yet limited enough that it can’t be do anything else. A fine line…

          • “I’ll say that reducing inequality is an explicit goal for some people.”

            But all the examples you gave don’t make reducing inequality an end in itself. By reducing power differentials, the people with less power are made better off (maybe not financially but in some way, like maybe they’re exploited less). By reducing the wealth of the ultra rich so they cant bribe people to be immoral, we are making things better off for those who are harmed by such immorality.

            To say that reducing inequality is an end in itself, you have to separate all other things and hold them constant. As in, suppose we could make a rich person less rich, and by doing so, no one is helped in any way, be it financial or social or whatever. In fact, nothing at all changes other than the rich person having less money. Let’s also assume that the rich person isn’t made any better off by losing some of his wealth (by learning to appreciate what he has), and is only made worse off. Just hold everything in the universe constant other than the rich guy and his wealth, which we decrease. Then, the question is, should we do it? I say no. After all, such an action would be, according to a cost benefit analysis, all cost and no benefit.

            This is one reason I think strict egalitarianism is obviously inferior to prioritarianism (or the rawlsian difference principle).

          • Damien S.

            Well, okay, you can in abstract theory sterilize things that way, but I’d say most of the people I was talking about view such inequality as harmful, thus they want to reduce it. My point is, it’s not just about direct care for the poor or funding useful programs; the instrumental value of taxing the rich includes reducing the discrepancy of rich people.

            This is most obviously true for the estate tax, where lots of people who don’t support really high marginal income rates (like the 70% several economists think are justifiable) are all for breaking up big inherited estates.

          • Right, I can agree with that. Still, it’s not that inequality is intrinsically bad or bad in itself. It is that it’s instrumentally bad, but in a more subtle way than simply by the poor people being poor because of it. It’s because of all the indirect and unseen harm caused by rich people wielding too much power.

  • But I notice that you do not say that English (under the assumed condition) is ‘unjust,’ only that it is ‘lousy.’ It would be odd, would it not, to say that the language was unjust, or even lingually unjust?

    Hayek says there are two problems with ‘social justice.’ First, the things that are just or unjust are actions, but the things labelled ‘socially unjust’ are typically not actions. Second, no one has given a coherent exposition of what social justice is; or perhaps (less strongly), even where a coherent explanation of ‘social justice’ is given, the term is never used simply in that way but ends up being applied to whatever the speaker does not like.

    I think that both of those problems could be solved. First, language evolves by analogical extensions, so one could press an analogy between acts of injustice and social situations or institutions. Second, One could offer a clear explanation of ‘social justice’ and stick to that use of it.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Most people who go on about social justice cannot give you a single coherent definition of what it is, but they know it when they see it.

    • TracyW

      On thinking about it, I think the problem with analogising from individual justice to social justice is that social justice is inherently in conflict with individual justice. If you were in a court case and the judge announced that based on statistical analysis people in your group had so far this year been winning too many of their cases so the judge would be biased against you in the interests of social justice, then the judge would be treating you unjustly. Ordinary justice demands you be treated on your individual merits.
      An analogy extension that leads to having to reject the starting point to implement the end means the extension doesn’t work.

      • It depends. Since social justice is only metaphorically a kind of justice, the rectification of social injustice only legitimises a metaphorical use of force. Since, physically, real force overrides metaphorical force, then, morally, ordinary justice overrides social justice in any case of conflict.

        To put it less metaphorically, if the statist argues for an analogy between some social situations and some acts of injustice, and therefore describes said situations as ‘socially unjust,’ he needs another argument to show that the strength of the analogy merits the use or threat of (literal) force in safeguarding social justice and rectifying social injustice.

        I think this highlights a pretty general problem in political philosophy and in social theory generally. It is common practice amongst social theorists to use a term metaphorically and then to draw conclusions which assume that the term is being used literally. Libertarians are not immune to this either. It means that a great deal of social philosophy is addle-headed crap.

        • TracyW

          I’m not so sure. Take a civil court case, where the question is whether A has a right to some of B’s money (B might be accused of reneging on a contract with A, or accused of letting her cows graze on B’s land). In that case, all that B is threatened with is losing money, not imprisonment, the same as if social justice demands taxing B more to increase income inequality. (Of course if B won’t or can’t pay the judgement or tax then force may follow.)

          But if the judge asserted that social justice meant he would be biased against B, or biased against A, the judge would thereby be violating our understanding of ordinary justice.

  • Motivated Cognition

    Not all things that are bad are unjust. Your argument is simply the fallacy that if all squares are rectangles, then all rectangles are squares.

    Are natural disasters unjust? If people know that every few years their wealth will be wiped out by a hurricane, then they will be more short-term oriented, which through no fault of their own causes them to be poor. Therefore, hurricanes are unjust.

    It’s a silly argument. Hurricanes are bad, but it makes no sense to call them unjust unless a decision-maker is responsible for the hurricanes. So a theist or tinfoil-wearing conspiracy theorist who believes the government has weather-controlling machines could reasonably argue that hurricanes are unjust, but otherwise, the argument is fallacious.

    • SimpleMachine88

      Yeah. This is a lot like the argument that all things that are bad are just. Hurricanes are caused because God is angry, etc.

    • Damien S.

      This fails because we can’t prevent hurricanes, but we can affect the income distribution. Likewise, no one would say being hit by a hurricane is inherently unjust, but having to live in unsafe areas, or in unsafe housing, might be. Cf. Katrina: having lots of poor people living below sea level and not being evacuated well as, hey presto, considered unjust by many. Because we can affect those, while we haven’t tried diverting hurricanes.

      • Motivated Cognition

        I’m sure people would say that. But let me take the Hansonian approach and point out that you can’t gang up on a hurricane and steal its property.

        Also, yes, we can do things to affect the size and frequency of hurricanes. For example, we can pump more CO2 into the atmosphere, trapping heat and making the water warmer, causing larger hurricanes. Similarly, there are difficult, complicated, expensive things we can do to reduce the size and frequency of hurricanes. So my argument doesn’t fail. Brennan’s does.

        • Damien S.

          I see no point to your Hansonian approach.

          I’m all for government action to reduce global warming. And there might be things we could do to diverse or defuse hurricanes, but as they’re just theoretical I didn’t want to get into a distracting SF tangent. If they’re practical… that’s probably another job for government.

          • adrianratnapala

            Hanson is a depressing fellow to read, and I am ever so glad to see such a powerful, well reasoned refutation of him.

  • JH

    Here’s a question: is there a difference between duties of beneficence and duties of social justice?

    I agree that we have duties to aid the poor. I even accept that, in rare cases, duties of beneficence can justify forcing other people to help the needy. But is social justice sometime above and beyond duties of beneficence?

    It’s hard for me to get a grip on what this might be. My worry is that a “duty of social justice” does not correspond to anything in commonsense morality, unless it is just a duty of beneficence.

  • dmaddock1

    Eh. As others mentioned, lousy and unjust aren’t the same thing. Secondarily, it is rare that studies of the sort you mention impress me with their quality and ability to control for all the confounding factors. The Sapir-Worf hypothesis is still contested in linguistic circles, particularly in its strong form, and using it as an example here is apropos–such things are often heavily over-weighted as good evidence in this situations. While I’m not entirely happy with the spontaneous order argument, the alternatives don’t strike me as demonstrably better and many are demonstrably worse.

  • Jameson Graber

    If you mean by “social justice” merely that you’re going to judge institutions partially by outcomes, then how are you saying anything unique? Wouldn’t pretty much everyone justify their favored social institutions in part by their outcomes?

    On the topic of social justice in general, I don’t like how libertarians have often handled it. I love Hayek, but I’m not sure his dismissal of it as a “weasel word” is ultimately the best criticism. In my experience, the phrase seems to have real content, namely that redistribution is morally obligatory if there is too much inequality. I simply find that unjust, because to me inequality isn’t a very good justification for massive coercion.

    As for the language analogy, I confess it’s just not clicking for me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it just seems…silly.

  • IMHO, this is a really weak argument. You basically say, “Suppose language, through some obscure black magic, had the capacity to be considered just or unjust. Then, language would be a question of justice.”

    Yes, but that’s called affirming the consequent. It’s a logical fallacy. You can’t just assume a magic machine that disproves Argument X, and then say, “Assuming I could build this magic machine, Argument X would be incorrect.”

    • Jason Brennan

      I don’t get it. I just exaggerated a trend for which there is actual empirical evidence.

      • Evidence that language affects planning is not evidence for language affecting social justice. First we have to establish the latter, then we can refute the original claim. Of course, once we do that, there’s no longer any reason to refute the original claim, since it would be obvious.

      • Sean II

        Sometimes when you say “empirical”, I think you just mean “published” and/or “taken seriously by people at a TED talk”.

        So far I’ve only skimmed that paper, but it looks like the worst kind of pseudo-empirical cargo cult science to me.

        Now I’ll have to go read the damn thing to find out, one way or another. It all hinges on whether or not this guy can back up his extraordinary claim to have ruled out what he calls “the most obvious forms of common causation”.

        I’m curious, of course, since that latter point concerns a favorite topic of mine.

      • DST

        Assertions about the power of the specific features of a language to shape thought differently than other languages, sometimes called the language effect, tend to fall apart on closer examination. Most observed effects are artifacts of experimental design, especially when the experimental design is heavily language-dependent. I would be wary of taking a dubious empirical observation and then exaggerating to try and make an unrelated point.

  • David Sobel

    Doesn’t the first premise assume that the distribution of goods is, or ought to be, fully determined by the free market? If the premise uses the “is” version, then it seems a bad argument. If the premise uses the “ought” version, then it seems a bad argument because it assumes most of what it aspires to show.

    • Kevin Vallier

      David, as I understand it, the Hayek-style arguments that J references DO hold that social justice would make sense say, under a central planner. In that case, there *are* just and unjust distributions. The question is whether such evaluations can be made sensibly in an extended market order. Hayek said no, because the relevant preconditions (central distribution) don’t arise. So in one sense there is social justice under classical socialism, but not under capitalism!

      Now, if you use an anti-social justice argument to show that we should transition from socialism to capitalism, you’re in trouble. But that’s not how smarter Hayekians argue: they first state the sorts of conditions we’re in, assess claims that social justice requires some new distribution of goods/welfare in that society, and then deny the conditions for social justice obtain. So Hayek-style arguments are kinda defensive in nature, I guess – they rebut claims to state power. (Incidentally, I don’t think these arguments amount to a whole lot, or rather, they amount to something rather different than more traditional Hayekians think).

      In sum, you point to an interesting feature of these arguments.

      • Jameson Graber

        I’m not sure Hayek himself would have agreed with this. He seemed to reserve pretty firmly the word “justice” for abstract rules which guide individual behavior. So for him, a society with central planning would not, strictly speaking, be governed by justice (or at least not for everyone). I suppose it’s easy to cast doubt on Hayek’s opinion, but I’m fairly confident that’s what he believed. At least there are passages in The Fatal Conceit which pretty explicitly say so.

  • This does not reflect current Economic thinking- actually it was out of date even when I was a student in the late Seventies.
    1) There is a distribution of income/ distribution of wives etc, arising from spontaneous interaction, which is algorithmically verifiable to be efficient or known to be ‘second best’ though this is generally not effectively computable
    2) Only that which is effectively computable can be rated ‘substantively just’ or ‘substantively unjust’ because otherwise we don’t know the computably enumerable reals in the neighborhood- either that or the concept of just does not give rise to a well ordered set of states of the world.
    In other words, we can say ‘this state of Society must be unjust because of such and such preference revelation failure or concurrency problem etc. But we don’t know what state is better because that’s not effectively computable. Still, I’ll just shoot my mouth off, coz there’s a market for this sort of thing and I’m getting paid or I’m paying you to listen to me.
    3) The distribution of anything may indeed be substantively just or unjust or efficient or inefficient. Everything depends on whether the Mechanism Design problem is tractable and that’s an empirical question depending on what Maths/Computing power we have.

    The problem with the language analogy is that we don’t know the fitness landscape in advance. Having high time-preference may have survival value. It may not. There is no way to know. Essentially, evolution is about co-evolved complexity. But that means there are massive hysteresis effects which can have survival value and we meddle with them at our peril.

  • Vern Imrich

    Isn’t the first point really the one most often attacked? When I buy something in a market, I may not directly intend for some chain reaction set of emergent results, but I do know they could or even will likely result. So the market is at least indirectly, the result of our intentions. For the same reason, it makes a lot of sense to many to say there is a “distribution of mates” in society as well – check out

    The interesting difference is why the left tends to demand remedies to unjust “material distributions” but more or less accepts there is not much government can or should do about any unjust “social distributions.”

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Most of the very left leaning male Hollywood celebrities are very handsome, wealthy and famous, therefore they can attract more and better looking females than I can. I find this to be unjust and unfair. I demand that people like Matt Damon and Leonardo Di Caprio allow me to spend some evenings with their wives and girlfriends.

      • Damien S.

        Their wives and girlfriends might have more relevant opinions of their own, here. It’s not like they’re dolls for Damon to lend out to you.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          But my purpose was to mirror the same arguments of socialists. When those arguments are made in another case they are revealed to be less than compelling.

          • Damien S.

            Might help to use a better mirror. Women aren’t property.

          • As Damien said, because their wives and girlfriends are sentient and not property, the argument doesn’t really work.

            If you change it to, perhaps rich people like that should allow poor people to use some of their resources to buy basic necessities, then that works. But of course, it may not be the argument you want, because lots of us would say, yes, we should do that.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Proving that not only are socialists wrong but they lack a sense of humor.

          • Damien S.

            Yes, it must be that we’re humorless, and not that you were offensive and unfunny.

    • TracyW

      How do you know a chain reaction set of emergent results could occur? Let alone will likely occur? I work as a forecaster so I know how tough it is to get even the first two or three steps in a chain right ahead of time. Hayek’s knowledge problem tells us why it’s so hard, none of us know everything. The next person in the chain might react very differently to what I expected because of some very localised knowledge.

      • Vern Imrich

        My point is, all the “left” people I know always talk and think in terms of a “system” of economics. Even absent any state actor, the combined effects are still a “distribution” or “design” to the left. Example: “Give your duaghter a doll to play with and you’re a part of the patriarchal system” even if you didn’t think of it that way. Doesn’t make it true, but it does mean this first point is THE central debate between the social justice left and Hayekian libertarians. How much can the set of independent uncoordinated actions of a society be considered “designed” or a “distribution” anyway?

  • jacksmind

    Also luck egalitarians would say that even in the tornado case the resulting holdings is unjust relative to others in society.

  • “(1) The distribution of goods, wealth, and opportunities on a free market is not the product of anyone’s intentions or design, but rather is something that emerges from countless individuals making free decisions. There is no more a “distribution of income” in a free market than there is a “distribution of mates” in our society.”

    I would dispute premise (1). When individuals intentionally refrain from intervening in the free market process, that is an intentional act. By intentionally choosing not to intervene, one is choosing the distribution of income that results from nonintervention. This intentional act of nonintervention, as a product of human intention, is thus subject to being judged as just or unjust, from premise (2).

    In my view, nonintervention and the resulting distribution is not the default position, such that someone advocating a nonzero amount of intervention has the burden of proof. Nonintervention does not get extra points for being a form of inaction rather than action (which I take to be morally equivalent, since I deny the doing/allowing distinction has moral significance). To gain the upper hand, nonintervention must be shown to have better consequences than intervention.

    • Jameson Graber

      I think you’re missing the relevant distinction here. The question is not between intervention and non-intervention, but between judgment of individual behavior and judgment of macro results. The Hayekian argument is that there is a true dichotomy: there is no consistent way to judge individuals according to abstract rules and at the same time ensure a final result which seems equitable for the entire group.

      • No, I got that. And I happen to think you CAN evaluate macro results as just or unjust. But the objection I’m proposing could work on people who reject that, who think that only individual action can be just or unjust.

        Suppose for the sake of argument that I thought a political system was unjust because it lacked social programs that provided the least well off with an adequate social minimum. And suppose I wanted to convince some libertarian that with the existence of this system, injustice was taking place. He might deny that systems themselves or macro results can be just or unjust, saying only individual actions can.

        I could say, sure, but any individual living in this system who isn’t paying into a social program to help the least well off is committing an injustice. Obviously he could deny that their actions are unjust, but he would have to admit that it’s possible that they are (since individual actions, according to him, are capable of being just or unjust).

        • Alternatively, just drop the contentious term, ‘social justice,’ and say instead that some situations are morally better than others. Except that I doubt that that will satisfy people who talk of ‘social justice.’ The reason, I think, is that injustice cries out for forcible rectification; but moral badness just appeals for help.

          • Yeah, I have no problem using whatever words work best to solve the problem (if there is one). I guess also, owing to the fact that I’m a utilitarian and think that justice subordinate to utility, I only care about justice insofar as it promotes utility.

            I think having a just system, or a system that seems just, will maximize enjoyment and minimize suffering. If something bad happens to someone, he will probably suffer less if he thinks he somehow deserves it. Likewise if something good happens to someone, she will probably enjoy it more if she thinks she deserves it.

            People with more Rawlsian views see justice as something good in itself, and so they’ll worry more about social injustice as a kind of injustice. I only care about it instrumentally.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Just out of curiosity, how do you go about determining which version of political justice will maximize “utility?” Since you seem to be pretty well read in philosophy, you must know that due to obvious problems with this sort of calculation, most consequentialists have given up on their doctrine as a guide to decision-making, and preserve it as the best criterion for evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an action or policy. I think this delays rather than resolves the problem, but that is gist for another discussion.

            To take something that should be relatively easy for you–rather than something harder like abortion, or laissez faire capitalism vs. democratic socialism–show me how you would decide whether raising the minimum wage nationally to $12/hour would maximize utility. In exchange, I will explain how a natural rights libertarian would decide this issue.

          • I would leave the minimum wage and other related things to economists. I’m not the philosopher king or anything so I don’t need to make decisions that affect everyone like that. Without the empirical knowledge, I don’t advocate one way or the other. I only focus on making conditional statements, like “If X is true, then we ought to do Y.” If you’re wondering whether I vote democrat or republican, well since I only have one vote, it really doesn’t matter, does it?

            As far as I know, there is a near consensus on some economic matters, including the minimum wage:


            There it says that it increases unemployment among young and low skilled workers, but it doesn’t say what the benefits are, if any. Again, since I’m pretty ignorant on economic matters, take this with a grain of salt: I like the idea of having no minimum wage, getting rid of the current welfare state, and replacing it along the lines of a UBI or NIT.

            It’s weird that you say minimum wage decisions would be easy but abortion decisions hard. I find it the other way around.

            I think abortion is sometimes the right choice to combat the worse evil of bringing a being into existence without a guarantee (appropriately high probability) of a sufficient minimum level of well-being. It is much worse to bring someone into existence with a high probability of being subjected to poverty, starvation, sickness, abuse, crime, incarceration, and other forms of suffering, than to simply let the potential person slide easily and painlessly (assuming it’s early enough in the pregnancy) from non-existence to fetal existence back to non-existence. I don’t see existence as the preferred default over non-existence for potential people, and I don’t think non-existent potential people are desperate to exist the way my fellow existent people seem to think they are.

            And you’re right, we utilitarians stress the difference between our criterion of the right and our decision procedure, where the latter could contain some of the same rules of thumb that everyone abides by. But try to choose rules of thumb that promote utility so we don’t devolve into rule fetishism.

            So how do you address the minimum wage issue? I mean, I can probably already guess. Do away with the minimum wage all together because it violates our natural right to make whatever contracts we want as long as we’re not violating the rights of others.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You say: I only focus on making conditional statements, like “If X is true, then we ought to do Y.” Well, if X = “maximizes utility,” there all all sorts of problems. What is a non-controversial measure of utility: pleasure, welfare, preference satisfaction, objective v. subjective? How do we make interpesonal comparisons of utility? How do we measure something the effects of which will be unfolding for all of time? There is no point to saying “if X is true, do Y” if you can’t answer these, and other, questions. What’s the value of a useless moral theory? I prefer a theory that enables me to actually make moral judgments.

          • I am a hedonistic utilitarian, so I believe we ought to maximize enjoyment and minimize suffering, summed over all of space and time. I take enjoyment and suffering, or pleasantness and unpleasantness of mental states, to be objective and intrinsic qualities of phenomenal experience. Upon phenomenal introspection, one is directly aware that these properties are normative, and once one sheds all other false evaluative judgments, which I believe to be nothing more than primitive emotional responses left over from our evolutionary past, then one is left with this single, homogenous, normative dimension of experience as the only source of value/disvalue. I can’t say this is an uncontroversial measure of utility, but I can say that I believe it is right and those who believe it is is wrong are themselves wrong.

            “How do we make interpesonal comparisons of utility?”

            Educated guesses. My cutting off your foot will cause more suffering than giving myself a paper cut. Likewise and more seriously, because of the diminishing marginal utility of resources, progressive taxation and redistribution can increase total utility, because the rich guy won’t miss $1000 as much as the poor guy can benefit from it. This is assuming the disincentive effects don’t lower total utility too much.

            “How do we measure something the effects of which will be unfolding for all of time?”

            Educated guesses.

            “What’s the value of a useless moral theory?”

            Nothing, if totally useless. But I don’t think mine is. As long as we see enjoyment and suffering as the standard of evaluation, we won’t make stupid mistakes like refusing to redistribute wealth on principle, even if the masses are suffering and could be helped more than the rich are harmed.

            “I prefer a theory that enables me to actually make moral judgments.”

            Then you should adopt the moral theory of paperclip maximization. What you ought to do at all times is maximize the number of paperclips in the world. It makes it easy to make moral judgments.

            Or be a divine command theorist and follow exactly all seven hundred commandments as written in the old testament. It makes it really easy to make moral judgments.

            I myself prefer a true theory to one that merely lets me make quick judgments.

            “…you are admitting that your theory is parasitic on another (better) theory.”

            Not by a long shot. Rules are subordinate to utility. It’s true, though, my theory, at least for practical purposes, is parasitic on empirical data. I need to know about the causal relations between my actions and parts of the universe so I can know what the expected utility is of any given action.

            I understand why you like Natural Rights theory. It’s fairly easy to be a natural rights theorist or NAP advocate. The only difficult part is teasing through the vagueness of “aggression” and determining exactly which actions instantiate it and which don’t. But yes, I agree completely, following rules that you’re told or you just feel are intuitively right is a lot easier than constructing a beneficial set of rules evaluated against an objective but elusive standard with incomplete knowledge. In my view, deontology is easy but wrong, and consequentialism is hard but right.

            “What would utilitarians do in the absence of these other (deontological) rules?”

            Well, we never use deontological rules (since that implies that the rules are somehow right in themselves), but you mean in the absence of rules of thumb? Well, we’d use intuition, keeping in mind the standard of enjoyment and suffering.

          • I already wrote a long comment in response to your comment, but some BHL moderator must have deleted for some reason. I’ll try again, but more briefly.

            “What is a non-controversial measure of utility: pleasure, welfare, preference satisfaction, objective v. subjective?”

            Pleasure and suffering, or pleasantness and unpleasantness of mental states, which I take to be objective and intrinsic properties of phenomenal experience. Phenomenal introspection shows goodness and badness to be properties of experience itself, or normative qualia if you like. It’s not an uncontroversial measure of utility but I think it’s correct.

            “How do we make interpesonal comparisons of utility?”

            Educated guesses. The diminishing marginal utility of resources suggests $100 in the hands of the poor man causes more total utility than in the hands of the rich man.

            “How do we measure something the effects of which will be unfolding for all of time?”

            Educated guesses.

            “What’s the value of a useless moral theory?”

            Nothing, if it’s truly useless. I don’t think mine is though. With my theory in mind, we won’t make mistakes like refusing to redistribute money on principle if it can eliminate more suffering than it causes.

            “I prefer a theory that enables me to actually make moral judgments.”

            Paperclip maximization, divine command theory, and NAP enable making quick moral judgments. I prefer a true theory.

            “you are admitting that your theory is parasitic on another (better) theory.”

            Nope. Rules are subordinate to utility. My theory might be parasitic on empirical data, but not another moral theory. I understand why you like Natural Rights, since it’s fairly easy to make moral judgments, after you determine what belongs to whom and tease through the vagueness of ‘aggression’.

            “What would utilitarians do in the absence of these other (deontological) rules?”

            Well, we never follow deontological rules, because that implies the rules are moral duties in themselves. We’d use intuition or common sense with the standard of enjoyment and suffering in mind, and we’d construct rules of thumb. I get it, that following rules that you’re told or you just feel are intuitively right is much easier than constructing a beneficial set of rules according to an objective but elusive standard with incomplete information. I think deontology is easy but wrong, and consequentialism is hard but right.

            I understand that many moral theories may seem correct on the first order level of normative ethics. When you move up to the second order level of meta-ethics, this is where a lot of normative theories fall apart. Meta-ethics deals with the semantics, metaphysics, and epistemology of ethics, and these latter two are where a lot of views fail. If there were objective rightness or goodness in the world, what would it be like? What would be the difference between a world with objective value and one without? And how do we come to know the objective moral facts if there are any? Do we have a moral faculty, and if so, how did we come to get it, how do we know it’s reliable, and how come there’s so much moral disagreement if we all have this faculty? I believe my moral theory survives this interrogation. Does yours?

          • Damien S.

            I see two comments from you about educated guesses, one 12 hours ago. Maybe you missed it? Disqus’s javascript stops updating these pages reliably for me, after a while.

          • Weird. The first one’s gone for me, I can’t see it. I thought it got deleted because of its potential offensiveness to natural rights theorists.

          • Damien S.

            Weird! When I try to load that comment in another page, I get “this comment is waiting moderation”, though it also gives the option to show the comment. Doubly weird!

            I didn’t think we *had* moderation here.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Your comment is plenty long enough, thank you.

            So, putting aside measurement problems for the moment, if a sadist gets more pleasure from torturing an innocent person to death than the victim feels pain, this act is morally correct, right? Of course, there is rule-utilitarianism, but this doesn’t really solve the problem and has its own costs.

            Now, say that on a scale of 1-10 the sadist rates his pleasure as a “10” and the victim rates her pain at a “10,” you propose to resolve this with an “educated guess.” Nice, really nice, answer.

            This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a laundry list about a mile long of problems philosophers have identified with hedonistic utilitarianism. The consensus is that a least a few of these objections are fatal. This is why there are so few hedonistic utilitarians walking around today. Perhaps you know all this, but your answers show no evidence of having confronted, let alone resolved, these objections. I will leave it at that,

            People adhere to commonsense morality on non-utilitarian grounds. They think that, for example, breaking a promise is wrong because it is a breach of trust (or something like that). You want to rely on such rules, but if you can’t justify them on (hedonistic) utilitarian grounds, your theory is indeed parasitic.

            Much of what you say attacks views (i.e. Divine Command theory, etc.) that I don’t hold, so I will ignore them. As to my actual views regarding moral meta-ethics, see Michael Huemer’s excellent book Ethical Intuitiionism, which addresses these issues rather well. You show no evidence of having read it, or understanding the arguments that an ethical intuitionist would make back at you. I think you need to think about these issues much more than you have. You are welcome to the last word.

          • You’re right, I haven’t yet read Huemer’s book, but it’s on my list (which piles up faster than I can read). But from what I’ve read, he describes his view as foundationalism because he thinks some moral beliefs do not require any justification or evidence. This means, at the base level, we’re relying on emotional responses, even if they’re refined through the process of reflective equilibrium.

            In a way, I agree with him that we are directly aware of moral facts. But that’s because I think these moral facts are facts about our experience with which we’re directly connected through introspection. I don’t think we’re directly connected to actions or external states of affairs.

            To me, the inference from (1) X seems bad, to (2) X is bad, is only valid if X is a qualia or part of experience for which seeming IS being.

            After I read his book, if he convinces me that moral intuition is simply reliable awareness of moral facts, I’ll promptly renounce crude hedonism and become, maybe, a sophisticated contractualist or something. But he would have to tell a plausible evolutionary story about how moral intuition developed to be a reliable faculty at all.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            So the sadist, being a strict hedonistic utilitarian, uses just the right amount of anesthesia to lower the victim’s experience of pain to slightly below his level of pleasure. And now the act is morally right under your logic. Absolutely brilliant! Perhaps you shouldn’t give up your day job to do philosophy.

            And THAT really is my last word.

          • “And now the act is morally right under your logic. Absolutely brilliant!”

            Perhaps, if he can lower the victim’s suffering to such an extent such that the immediate pain, fear, and all other negative emotions coupled with the long-term pain, fear, emotional trauma, and all the other negative effects of being bound and tortured is at such a minute level and his immediate enjoyment overpowers it, then, yeah, maybe it’s fine.

            But what you’re doing is altering a situation that began as clearly a horrible extremely net negative situation, removing all or most of the negativity, and then saying, “See, gotcha!” You’re right, I’m guilty. When you take a state of affairs that once was describable as torture and alter it so much such that it’s indistinguishable suffering-wise from bumping into someone on the street, then yes, it becomes fine according to my theory.

            Also, if the act is still wrong, it would be wrong because of the bad consequences for the victim. Not because it wasn’t allowed by a rulebook or imaginary rights.

            What I find amusing is that your own theory, if you are really a natural rights theorist, is open to far more realistic thought experiment counterexamples involving wealth redistribution and effective government intervention. Hopefully you don’t go as far as Block and his ridiculous flagpole conclusions. He is morally required to let go of someone else’s justly owned flagpole and fall to his death, if its owner commands it. I find it sort of admirable that Block consistently applies his horseshit.

            “Who needs unreliable moral intuitions when we got this going for us.”

            Not us.

            “Perhaps you shouldn’t give up your day job to do philosophy.”

            Too late.

          • TracyW

            In my own experience, the suffering of fear, trauma, and excruciating pain is far worse than the enjoyment of pleasurable activities.

            In my experience, it’s not far worse. The first time I gave birth I had fear, trauma and excruciating pain. And yet I regard my son as worth it, and deliberately got pregnant again (I was lucky enough to have better painkillers and much less trauma for the second birth but I had no guarantees that would happen).

          • Damien S.

            I can’t see the exact comment you’re responding to, but in what I can see he talks about long term fear and pain. Birth isn’t that long, and lots of mothers say the memory fades. Plus these days going through childbirth is voluntary. Not very comparable to extended deprivation.

          • TracyW

            Huh, the moment I found out I was pregnant newborn baby clothes went from looking tiny to vast. “Something this big is going to come out there?” Not to mention that childbirth can mean suffering afterwards for a long time: I had a third degree tear and, though I was lucky enough to heal fast and fully, that can cause permanent problems.
            The voluntariness I agree is the vital difference between childbirth and the sadist torturing a victim, not the nature of the pain and suffering.

          • Right, see Damien’s comment. Obviously temporary suffering can be outweighed by long term happiness.

          • TracyW

            And temporary suffering can be outweighed by temporary happiness: mountaineers often suffer greatly both from fear and pain in reaching a summit.

          • TracyW

            And temporary suffering can be outweighed by temporary pleasure too: mountaineers often endure a lot of suffering for the pleasure of a summit.

          • Damien S.

            I think that table might be out of date, or not reflect trends. I note it’s just sourced to Mankiw, and they didn’t keep anything useful like the specific survey, or even a date. Minimum wage research is complicated; people have done studies that found little effect, despite the simple Econ 101 story that it should increase unemployment, and there’s ideas that boosting the effective demand of poor workers may increase employment: they have more money so buy more stuff which means more jobs for poor workers to fill.

            “Large federal deficits adversely affect the economy” is problematic too. If it were “sustained deficits larger than the economy’s average growth rate” then it would probably get lots of support. But deficits smaller than the growth rate are sustainable investment, while large deficits in a liquidity trap are the Keynesian recommendation.

            Unsurprisingly, given the RealClear brand, looking at the site’s main headlines I see a distinct right-wing bias.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thank you for making my point. Simple-minded hedonistic utilitarianism is useless here, there and everywhere.

          • Justice is only loosely connected with desert. If I need a plumber to fix a leaking pipe, I will get a number of quotes, say, three. When the plumbers come to inspect the pipe I’ll ask them what they think the extent of the problem is and what they plan to do to resolve it. On the basis of what they say (including the prices they quote) I will decide which plumber to contract with. Obviously I want the problem solved effectively and as cheaply as possible, Suppose I rule out plumber B because, although he sounded highly competent, his price was higher than plumber A, who sounded more than competent enough; and suppose that plumber C did not seem to know what he was talking about. I contract with plumber A who does the job well and gets paid the agreed price. I did my end of the bargain and he did his. The transaction was just. But suppose that B has many kids to feed and a sickly wife to look after and pay medical bills for, that he is a good man who helps his neighbours and that he is struggling to pay his bills despite working hard, while A is a miser who just puts his cash under his bed. Would not some of us think that B deserved to get the contract rathet than A? But I did not act unjustly in giving A the job.

            You might recognise the example as a re-worked one from David Hume.

          • Farstrider

            I guess some might. Others might (more sensibly) say that society should ensure that no matter how successful or unsuccessful B is, his kids don’t starve, that he is not bankrupted by his medical bills, etc.

        • Jameson Graber

          “I could say, sure, but any individual living in this system who isn’t paying into a social program to help the least well off is committing an injustice.”

          I think that’s basically right. I also think it’s important to distinguish that idea from the idea of judging unequal outcomes as just or unjust. I think if we take up a tax that everyone pays at the same rate and use it to redistribute to the poor, that’s consistent with Hayekian liberalism. But if, on the other hand, we tax some people else merely because they’re so much richer than everyone else, I think there’s something inherently unjust about that, no matter how little sympathy I have for ridiculously wealthy people in my day to day life.

          So I take it you don’t identify as libertarian (correct me if I’m wrong). But I do identify as a libertarian, who just happens to accept a (restrained) welfare state as part of the deal. I don’t think there’s an inherent contradiction there, and I don’t think we need the concept of “social justice” to justify a basic form of the welfare state.

          • Right. I don’t identify as a libertarian, but only because I’m a utilitarian without much knowledge of empirical facts (economics, history, etc.). So, I’ll support whatever system best maximizes utility, be it libertarian, egalitarian, totalitarian (obviously I think this one probably won’t work), or something else.

            Because I’m a utilitarian, though, I don’t have a problem with taxing rich people more than others assuming it promotes more utility than not (because of diminishing marginal utility, I think it’s plausible that it would, but I’d also understand if disincentive effects outweigh the benefit).

            I think a UBI or NIT would be good, at least from a moral perspective (I’ll leave it to economists to determine the possibility or sustainability). I think it would be fair, because everyone would have the option of not working and living at subsistence level. The rich people who are paying more only have to pay more because they are choosing to earn a higher income. They could always stop, collect their UBI, and let someone else take their place in at the top of the market. But like I said, it’s an empirical matter whether or not it would work.

          • Damien S.

            Should everyone pay the same flat rate, or should there be a deduction for basic living expenses, so you don’t tax people who are just making enough to live on?

            If you have such a deduction then you support at least somewhat progressive income tax. If you don’t then you need minimum guaranteed income or basic income (not the same thing) to allow the poorest people to live despite their taxes.

          • Jameson Graber

            I’d prefer a system with no income tax at all. We could tax consumption in various ways that are somewhat progressive, and that’s fine with me. But if we’re going to have income tax, then yeah, I do think there should be a universal base level deduction. After all, it would be absurd to take people’s money only to give it back to the same people later. Beyond that, I think the more progressive the taxation, the more arbitrary. I don’t see why marginal rates should get higher and higher just because you already make a lot of money.

          • Damien S.

            Decreasing marginal utility of money. What’s more fair:
            everyone pays the same amount of money
            everyone pays the same percentage of income

            everyone pays the same proportional burden of income

            The third justifies progressive taxation. You have a no-tax bracket for basic survival, but also low-tax brackets for people trying to pay for college or their first home, and high-tax brackets for people paying for their third yacht.

          • Jameson Graber

            “You have a no-tax bracket for basic survival, but also low-tax brackets for people trying to pay for college or their first home, and high-tax brackets for people paying for their third yacht.”

            If income worked that way as a universal rule, this would make sense, but it doesn’t work that way universally. A business owner, for example, gets his income from profits, which may one year be really high and another year be zero or in the negative. His standard of living (be it high or low) need not actually change much from year to year during these ups and downs. Why should he be charged at different rates each year?

            Your categorization of tax brackets seems to be in terms of what people consume: basic survival, a first home, a third yacht, etc. In that case why not just tax consumption, certain forms more than others? That seems more just.

          • Damien S.

            Second paragraph: yes, that can be a real problem. I don’t have an easy answer, though I imagine there are complicated parts of the real tax code trying to address just that.

            Consumption: you could, and many societies tax both income and consumptions. It’s always seemed like a weird thing to justify on its own, though: why should *consumption* be taxed? If I envision a group of people forming a society from scratch, I can imagine them imposing common duties to contribute: “Everyone has to spend 20% of their time working on roads and patrolling and such… okay, yes you can donate 20% of your food/income instead and hire someone else to do it for you, if you’re better at things other than roadbuilding.” Labor tax, turning into an income tax via markets. Also land and resource taxes. But consumption/sales tax seems lot weirder. Though a VAT tax could be thought of as a labor tax on the other side, contributing X% of your production.

            And, going back to my example, I don’t want to tax the yachter because he’s buying yachts, I want to tax him more because he has far more money than he needs. The yachts are just the evidence, not a sin in themselves.

          • Farstrider

            “Second paragraph: yes, that can be a real problem. I don’t have an easy answer, though I imagine there are complicated parts of the real tax code trying to address just that”

            Yes, there are loss carrybacks and loss carry forwards designed to do exactly that, for corporate taxes. A similar system could be included on individual income. Or you could be required each year to pay taxes on your last five or ten year’s average income. But these are minor implementation problems, not serious problems with the justice of taxation.

          • good_in_theory

            ” But if, on the other hand, we tax some people else merely because they’re so much richer than everyone else”

            That seems to be a ridiculous position. A flat tax already taxes people who are much richer more than others. The only way you get people not getting taxed more because they are richer is if you make the tax a flat fee – e.g. everyone pays 1k dollars, regardless of income.

            The ‘equality’ of a flat tax (an equal proportion of income) is as arbitrary as the equality of a fixed sum. Their being equal from a particular perspective doesn’t say much. There are plenty of other ways of being equal (e.g. everyone pays the log of their income). The justice of a tax system doesn’t rest upon some arbitrary purely mathematical notion of equality.

          • Jameson Graber

            “The ‘equality’ of a flat tax (an equal proportion of income) is as arbitrary as the equality of a fixed sum.”
            That’s absurd. The equality of a flat tax is in terms of marginal tax rates, which is for many good reasons the most relevant tax rate.

          • good_in_theory

            Yes. The reasons recommending a flat tax *rate* over a flat tax *amount* are supported by practical reasons. They aren’t supported by an objection to people paying more because they’re rich or by the mere fact of being equal for a particular definition of equal.

            And in fact a flat tax doesn’t equalize marginal tax rates assuming the declining marginal utility of a dollar. It equalizes the rate at which dollars are taxed but not utility.

            In any case whether a particular sort of equality is good or not is also not reducible to the fact that it is “equal” from a particular view point. It depends upon the reasons such a form of equality are good.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Your personal views aside, when encountering something natural (or a naturally occurring spontaneous order). taking action always requires the burden of proof, as it comes with it a certain liability for action. Did you do the right thing? Did you do enough? too much? what were the unintended consequences?

      • “Your personal views aside, when encountering something natural (or a naturally occurring spontaneous order). taking action always requires the burden of proof, as it comes with it a certain liability for action.”

        That is precisely what I deny. To affirm it is to have a status quo bias. You’re assuming that taking intervening action is somehow morally different from not taking such action. As I explained in my previous post, they are not different, since inaction (maintaining the status quo) is a kind of action and can be equally or even more harmful than intervention.

        The only way that I will accept the status quo as the default position such that any intervening action (as opposed to inaction or noninterference) has the burden of proof, is if it is shown that the transition from the status quo to something else will itself be harmful. This is plausible. For example, an anarchist might admit that transitioning to his desired system will cause some immediate pain for those who are currently dependent upon the state, so he has the burden of proof to show that this immediate pain will be outweighed by the long term benefit.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          I suppose that I just disagree. Your argument is not compelling. When there is a stable system, introducing change will always lead to some instability and therefore unforeseen consequences. In the status quo we at least know all the consequences and can prepare for them.

          • From this comment you made, I DON’T think you disagree with me. After all, you just made an argument about why the status quo is the default position and why an argument to change it has the burden of proof. You said that the status quo has stability and change has instability and unforeseen (negative) consequences. If that is true, then advocating a change DOES require the burden of proof.

            All I was arguing is that the status quo is not the default position simply by being the status quo, and advocating a change does not require a burden of proof simply because it is a change. Support must be given as to why, other things being equal, the status quo is preferable, and why, other things being equal, a change is not preferable. You did give such support, so if what you argued is correct, then I agree.

      • good_in_theory

        No such burden exists. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything natural. Everything I’ve encountered (including national parks and other spots of wilderness) is clearly shaped by the artificial projects of men.

      • Farstrider

        There is nothing “natural” in a free market. It is a man-made system like any other, that should be advocated because (and only to the extent) it is better than other man-made systems.

    • adrianratnapala

      In my view, nonintervention and the resulting distribution is not the default position, such that someone advocating a nonzero amount of
      intervention has the burden of proof.

      A nation that imposes no burden of proof on new laws is likely to have a complicated mess silly laws satisfying special interests.

      And unless you assume people tend to work against their own interests – it’s hard to see why similar burden does not apply to any attempt to compel them to do what they would otherwise not do.

      • It seems that everyone who reads this post misunderstands it. I’m saying that intervention doesn’t have a burden of prove SIMPLY by having the property of being intervention. One needs a further argument to show than intervention, other things being equal, is worse than nonintervention.

        “A nation that imposes no burden of proof on new laws is likely to have a complicated mess silly laws satisfying special interests.”

        Here is your argument. So if you are right and intervention leads to complicated, silly, harmful laws with a higher probability than nonintervention and maintaining the status quo, then, yes, intervention becomes a worse choice than nonintervention. But you see, intervention does not have the burden of proof.

        If someone asserts that God exists, and the other person asserts nothing, the first guy who is making a claim has the burden of proof. Now consider these propositions:

        (1) We ought to have an intervention.
        (2) We ought to maintain the status quo.

        Both (1) and (2) are assertions, and so they both require some sort of justification. Absent any further argument, (1) does not require more proof than (2). Rather, you must give an argument (like you did above) about why actions like (1) tend to be more harmful than actions like (2).

  • db

    Thanks! Your post got me thinking. I think you might be short changing the epistemological aspect of the spontaneous order argument. What if I modified it to:

    1. Unchanged from OP.
    2. Only the products of human intention can be judged just or unjust precisely because the judge(s) are individual humans.
    3. Therefore, the justice of the distribution of goods, wealth, and opportunities on a free market is fundamentally unknowable to individuals.

    In short: The part doesn’t have the knowledge to apply a sense of justice to the whole precisely because the whole emerges.

    “My point here is merely that we can assess the consequences of spontaneous orders from a moral point of view as good or bad.”

    I would agree that we can judge the consequences to individuals as individuals from a moral point of view. Grinding poverty is morally repugnant. Because persons experience it and we recognize it so as persons. But that may be only one of (nearly) infinite consequences of the spontaneous order. And you or I cannot as individuals comprehend how that consequence came to be (or it wouldn’t be a spontaneous order!). So trying for a societal institutional fix is impossible not to mention how it would affect other consequences that might be morally good. Which is not to say the we shouldn’t, as individuals, strive to help our fellow man. But we should do it within the order, organically; not by attempting to modify society itself.

    In the language analogy you give yourself the out of “all things equal”. But when dealing with spontaneous orders, it is hard to imagine that all other things are ever equal. If it were the case that Dutch were in every aspect better or the same as English, than I expect English wouldn’t exist. That’s the point of naturally evolving systems. What if English led to more relatively more poverty but its wide diversity of influences led to relatively more artistic and fulfilled speakers? Or more original thinkers who can develop ground-breaking technology to eradicate poverty altogether? (Note to my Dutch friends – I don’t think this is the case – just for fun argumentation sake). Who gets to make the call on which result is more moral? I certainly don’t want that burden.

  • SimpleMachine88

    I would disagree with the third point

    Justice is a product of human intention. Freedom maximizes humanity’s intention. Therefore freedom maximizes justice.

    And the distribution of goods can be thought of just or unjust. But we aren’t talking about just relative income, but absolute income. Free markets give people more opportunity to practice justice such as by providing for their families, inventing medicines or new technologies, giving to charity, or acting with reciprocity through trade.

    And we should talk about what makes a just society, but the means we get to that is by taking care of our own little corner of the world. We are a part of society, if we individually act more justly, that’s what we can do.

    • Motivated Cognition

      Murder is a product of human intention. Freedom maximizes humanity’s intention. Therefore freedom maximizes murder.

      • martinbrock

        Both justice and injustice could increase with increasing freedom, particularly if one man’s justice is another man’s injustice.

      • SimpleMachine88

        And? I’m not saying it doesn’t increase injustice as well.

        If there was a Ludoviko Technique, that made people incapable of committing murder, and people were reduced to a Clockwork Orange, that would reduce justice. Making someone incapable of committing murder makes them incapable of refraining from murder.

  • Motivated Cognition

    Intellectually mature adults should be able to recognize without any difficulty or hesitation that a spontaneous order might be bad without being unjust yet be full of injustice, and that none of this implies or even suggests a role for government, which is a totally irrelevant question to that specific point.

    • Farstrider

      This makes no sense. A system that consistently and reliably makes injustice is by definition an “unjust” system. Just as a recipe that consistently and reliably makes bread is a “bread” recipe.

      • John

        Sure it makes sense. It is not “just” that one of 100 antelope gets eaten that day, but the “system” didn’t create that. An antelope gets eaten, and will get eaten and it’s just the way the world works. You could spend money and energy trying to stop this injustice, but it wasn’t created by an unjust system, but by bad luck. Or by lack of proper planning by the antelope.

  • martinbrock

    Standards of propriety themselves are artifacts emerging from social interaction, so if this emergence rules out justice then justice rules itself out.

  • My apologies for jumping in late. I don’t have anything useful to say on the subject of whether the word “justice” makes sense in the context of evaluating things like overall income and wealth distributions. However the idea that a market-based society is (or could be) a (pure) spontaneous order in which outcomes are “a product of human action but not human design” has always rubbed me the wrong way. Even if we restrict the attribution of design intent to the forms of institutions, society doesn’t just neutrally evolve from (designed) initial conditions (like in John Tomasi’s sugar crystal example in “Free Market Fairness”); people expend a great deal of energy on trying to change institutional frameworks to increase their own advantage and better conform to their own preferences. This doesn’t have to involve government either–see for example the history of people trying to promote different social norms and associated non-governmental institutions, or (in a business context) corporations fighting to influence “voluntary” standards that affect their potential market positions.

    This carries over to the language analogy too: Language evolution isn’t purely neutral either (for example, confined to things like vowel shifts): People have their own self-interest in what we call things and how we describe actions. For example, why don’t we use the word “usury” anymore? Presumably at least in part because it embodied a particular moral stance toward lending at interest, and today’s lenders would prefer we think of lending as a purely-voluntary value-neutral transaction driven by impersonal pricing mechanisms. Other examples are ubiquitous: “rebranding” inheritance and estate taxes as “death taxes”, preferring the term “progressives” to “liberals”, using euphemisms like “differently abled” and “enhanced interrogation”, and so on. If “language can … corrupt thought” (to quote Orwell) then that corruption is often intended.

    I’m certainly not claiming that free market societies are qualitatively no different from centrally planned societies. However based on my (admittedly limited) experience, a lot of libertarians seem to think that the difference between our present market-based societies and an ideal spontaneous order consists simply of an error term that in principle we should be able to eliminate, with government being the principal source of the error. I don’t think this is the case. I think any complex dynamical system of conscious agents is going to inevitably fall short of an ideal spontaneous order in various ways, and ignoring what those ways are and how they work is like trying to do evolutionary biology while ignoring the role of parasites and the concept of niche construction.

    (Apologies again for the rant; this is a topic I’ve been thinking about recently.)

    • I think that what you say is more or less right, Frank. But I think Hayek would agree. Of course, he recognises that people intentionally interfere with the spontaneous order; but he also say explicitly that such intentional interferences are sometimes good.

      He does say, forcefully, that the intentional interferences can take place only against the background of an inherited spontaneous order. This is a very important point that few philosophers seem properly to have appreciated. I recommend Hayek’s short paper ‘The Errors of Constructivism’ and also the more difficult (but rewarding) ‘Rules, Perception and Intelligibility;’ also Popper’s essay, ‘Toward a Rational Theory of Tradition’ and his little book ‘Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem.’

      Hayek also distinguishes different ways in which one can intentionally interfere with the spontaneous order. To put it in terms that he does not use (so far as I know): some ways of interfering go with the grain of the ‘natural’ order and others do not. He particularly emphasises that changes should involve universal rules rather than ad hoc privileges.

      • Thanks for the reply, and for the Hayek and Popper references; I’ll check them out. I agree that is possible to “intentionally interfere with the spontaneous order” in ways that are more likely than others to produce good results. I think the key to doing so is having a deeper understanding of how and why spontaneous orders work, and that’s one reason why I was a bit hard on John Tomasi (in particular) for using what I thought was an overly simplistic and not really useful analogy.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      I do not understand why those things you mention in your first paragraph are not all examples of the spontaneous order being created?

      • Damien S.

        Years ago, someone on the Extropians list (which had Spontaneous Order as a big principle) pointed out that one of the spontaneous orders formed very reliably by people is government. Sometimes despotic, sometimes democratic, but pretty much always there.

      • You’re presumably referring to my comments about non-governmental attempts to create new social institutions and change existing ones. I think that these things represent intentional design of institutional frameworks underlying a spontaneous order, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what you meant by “examples of the spontaneous order being created”.

        In any case, my main argument was against a simplistic concept of how spontaneous orders work, in which any human design occurs up front and thereafter things roll along in a laissez-faire way. Tomasi’s discussion of spontaneous orders in “Free Market Fairness” is much more nuanced than that (as is Hayek’s, per Danny), but I think his choice of example served him poorly in that regard.

  • Brandon Byrd

    I’m not sure how much this impacts your ultimate conclusion, but this argument appears to trade on an equivocation between moral badness (or injustice) and badness in general. Morality does not have a monopoly on evaluative discourse, and not all things that are bad are morally bad. It does not make much sense (to me) to say that English itself would be morally bad in the scenario you described, just that it is bad. The behavior of individual English speakers, however, might be morally bad (or even unjust) if they knew about the harm their language use was causing. So we could accept that English is a “lousy kind of language” (i.e. that it is bad because its use produces harms) without also thinking that it is a moral louse. It’s hard to imagine that a language itself could be morally evaluated. It’s even harder to imagine that hurricanes might be unjust if we somehow managed to control them (which you seem to suggest). Maybe the example should be reframed so that the target of evaluation is not English itself (or hurricanes themselves) but the behavior of language users and would-be weather manipulators.

  • Counsellor

    Maybe someone else has mentioned it in the 99 comments:
    In “fairness,” since you define (or describe) “The Spontaneous Order Argument” (leaving out the necessitous means of exchanges required by the division of labor) –
    should you not also describe or define “the concept of social justice” and its categorization.
    Articulation to others is not the same as internalization.
    Only “people” are moral, and then only inter-homines.
    Consequences are not moral (pace Anderson).

  • TracyW

    A couple of points, firstly this debate does tend to turn on the definition of “just/justice” and when we strip the word “social” from “social justice” I’m having a hard time thinking of when “just” is used to refer to the resulting overall distribution of goods, instead I think of phrases like “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” Or on a more mundane level, A, who is very rich, divorces B (who has little money comparatively), offering B only a small share of A’s fortune, but enough to secure B a standard of living well above the average. B could well pursue A through the courts and a just ruling in this case would I think always be one interpreted according to the specific facts, eg duration of the marriage, care of minor children, etc, not one tied to the overall statistical distribution of wealth in society.

    The other point is that Hayek, who originated this argument, clearly also thought some social arrangements were more desirable than others, based on their outcomes for people’s lives. Either Hayek was contradicting himself (entirely possible for any human) or he did mean something different by the word “justice” than saying the overall outcome was lousy or good.

    • TracyW

      Continuing this line of thought, social justice, as a particular set of statistical outcomes, strikes me as fundamentally in conflict with justice in individual cases. For example, justice in the criminal courts is about the individual case in hand at the moment. If social justice means convicting people of crimes at the same statistical rate regardless of gender/race/socioeconomic -level how is that to be applied by the individual judge? It’s quite possible that any individual judge could have a run of cases that by pure chance differ sharply from the overall average so the judge can’t look at their overall statistics and conclude that they had been unjust on an individual level (nor can they conclude that they’d been just either). An attempt to achieve social justice in terms of outcomes thus naturally conflicts with the demand for justice in each criminal court.

      This sort of problem is why many egalitarians talk about “equality of opportunity, not outcomes” but that comes up against the problem of how to measure opportunities, not outcomes.

  • Damien S.

    Social injustice: when Walmart not only advises its employees on how to get the food stamps they qualify for, but runs a food drive asking the public to help feed its low paid employees. Meanwhile Sam Walton’s kids inherited like $20 billion each for being his kids.

    • CT

      So, now let’s add some consequentialism to this. Do your proposed solutions to this injustice make things better, or worse.

  • James Padilioni Jr

    Here’s why the language example is good for illustrating spontaneous order but bad for trying to define a transcendent morality.

    The definition of whatever one finds moral or immoral will only be found *within* any one language, so in English or in Dutch, and therefore will be contingent upon the way English or Dutch as a language and syntax system assign causality. One can only be judged a moral agent if they understand their causal relationships upon others, and so the way a language can limit planning, it can also obscure or elide causality.

    There is no 3rd level, metalanguage of morality that can be used as a definition against which to judge English or Dutch. Anyone who honestly thinks they can transcend language into the noumenal or platonic world is believing a cognitively-induced lie.

    • James Padilioni Jr

      For example, Spanish speakers will know that if you knock a book off the table and someone asks you what happened, you can use the reflexive verb to shift to third person explanation of “the book fell itself” basically. The reflexive in Spanish allows for the subject to function as the object as well. So the book can predicate its own fall in Spanish. Where English speakers might think this is a shifty dodge of responsibility, in Spanish it’s more a phenomenological description of what literally happened to the book itself: it fell.

      The precision of Spanish in this regard to the sequencing of events allows for the chain of causality to be broken in different places in the timeline than English allows for. Thus there is no directly translatable definition of say, someone’s moral responsibility to tell the truth about what happened regarding the book on the table.

      This example is small, but it’s these small examples that are the small breakpoints that make the utility of universalized moral principles limited to mere guide points.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    You would need to really see the argument in light of what is central to Hayekian thought: the idea that information, or lack of it, makes planning not only a folly, but dangerous. Now, you advocate we change institutions, which would realistically require some form of central planning. I think you really underestimate the difficulty of a) changing institutions, and b) the unforeseen consequences of doing that. You posit that it would be easy to change and to achieve a desired ends. Mises and Hayek are turning over in their graves. But, to be fair, you are not unique among social justice proponents who see easy solutions to extremely complex problems and see society as play-dough to be shaped to your wishes.

  • John

    What if? Who cares? What if English speakers have other characteristics? At the same time, English is the most powerful language in the world and will eventually eclipse all others because it is the most flexible, the most integrating, the most dynamic language in the world. It is a free market language where words are created on demand and flourish through lightning fast communication. Dutch will be nothing but a footnote in history. There are more new words created in English every year, as I recall, than all other languages combined. Most other languages have simply adopted English words and put an accent on them. Meanwhile, everyone must learn English to have a great chance in world where English is the language of business. Even the business of dropping prepositions as the end of sentences is because of a less rigid structure that allows for use of “bad language” in order to create more nuance and even more rapid ability to communicate that nuance rather than searching for the single approved word that fits.