Natural Rights + ?

In their lead essay, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi combine two different claims, one historical, one philosophical. The historical claim is that the earlier thinkers in the classical liberal/libertarian tradition were less sympathetic to a hard line propertarian version of their position, more sympathetic to one in part based on concepts of social justice, than postwar libertarian thinkers such as Rand and Rothbard. The philosophical claim is that the earlier thinkers were correct—that a version of libertarianism incorporating elements of social justice, in particular a special concern for the deserving poor, is what modern libertarians ought to aim at.

I agree that the version of libertarianism they criticize does not fully reflect the views of earlier thinkers in the classical liberal/libertarian tradition. I also agree that, considered on its own merits as a moral theory, it is in several respects unsatisfactory. But I disagree with the authors’ view of what is missing, both as a historical account and as a moral theory. What the hard line propertarian version leaves out is not social justice but human welfare. A more nearly correct version of libertarianism would owe more to Bentham than to Rawls.

Of the early writers, Smith is the one with whom I am most familiar. When he writes that “It is but equity, besides, that those who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged,” he is appealing not to egalitarian sentiments but to producers getting a fair share of what they produce. Insofar as any concept of justice is implicit in that quote it is closer to Rand than to Rawls.

What is there in his view beyond a concern with people getting what they are entitled to? Our lead authors’ repeated references to “the poor,” in an essay written by and for moderns, badly misrepresents the 18th century world and Smith’s view of it. When Smith was writing, the working class, the people Smith is referring to in that quote, represented not the lower end of the income distribution but the bulk of the population.

Thus, earlier in the same paragraph, he writes: “Servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” That looks more like an argument based on something like (pre-Benthamite) utilitarianism than one based on social justice.

One can get a clearer idea of Smith’s view of issues of equality from his long discussion of alternative forms of taxation. He begins with a set of maxims, of which the first is:

I. The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.

While he rejected taxes directly on income (except, possibly, the income of government employees), he thought that the overall incidence of taxation ought to be in proportion to income. He was, in modern terms, a flat taxer. Thus he argues for taxing the luxuries of the poor rather than their necessities in order to be sure that the poor pay their fair share of the expenses of government, since he believed that a tax on necessities will result in a rise in wages, hence be ultimately paid by the not-poor. He is not offering a Randian or Rothbardian argument from the innate justice of property rights, but neither is he offering anything close to a modern view of “social justice.”

Should he be? That brings us to the second half of the argument, disavowed at the beginning of the essay but returning at the end, the claim that the authors’ variant of libertarianism is superior to the alternative they reject. They write:

Likewise, free marketeers should not be afraid to express a principled concern for the poor, or even to commit themselves to an ideal of social or distributive justice.

One problem with the version of libertarianism exemplified by Rand, Rothbard, and their followers is its lack of any logical foundation sufficient to persuade the unbeliever of its strong claims. Another is its failure to answer many of the important questions, especially where to draw lines. And another is that, taken literally, it sometimes gives the wrong answer: I cannot turn on the lights in my house without prior permission from every landowner whose ability to see them demonstrates that my photons are trespassing on his property, and if I fall out my apartment window and end up clinging to a projecting flagpole a floor lower, I must let go and fall to my death when ordered to do so by its owner.

But substituting “an ideal of social or distributive justice” is hardly an improvement, judged by either foundations or implications. Rawls’ derivation for his idea of social justice, the version that Tomasi and Zwolinski apparently wish to incorporate in libertarian thought, starts with the claim that someone facing a set of alternatives whose probability distribution is unknown—the imaginary social chooser behind a veil of ignorance—will act on the assumption that he is certain to end up with the least attractive possible outcome. That, plus a lot of hand waving, is all the justification for his “philosophically most sophisticated” version of social justice that I have been able to find.

And one implication of that version, taken as literally as I have been taking the natural rights alternative, is that it is better to have a world where everyone is at a utility level of a hundred than a world with one person at ninety-nine and everyone else at a thousand. I have never yet been able to figure out why anyone takes either the derivation or the conclusion seriously.

Tomasi and Zwolinski have written an essay of more than three thousand words on the history of classical liberal/libertarian thought without ever mentioning a central fact of that history, the close historical link between classical liberalism and utilitarianism. They have gone on to defend a version of libertarianism derived not from that history but from current fashions in academic philosophy, fashions that strike me as rather less persuasive than the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, despite that philosophy’s well-known problems.

The version of libertarianism that seems most plausible to me is one where respecting rights is seen as a good thing, a value in itself as well as a means to other values, but not as a value that trumps all others. One reason to respect natural rights is that it is a good thing to do, another is that respecting them can be expected to produce a healthier, wealthier, and happier world than violating them.

Utilitarianism does not, in my view, fully capture the range of those other values, but it comes considerably closer than social justice. I do not have an adequate derivation for my ethical views and—unlike Rand and Rawls—I know that I do not, so can only report on my moral intuitions while trying, so far as possible, to think through their implications and interrelations.

One conclusion is that I can imagine circumstances where the consequentialist benefits of some act are sufficiently large relative to the cost in rights violation that I would approve of it—stealing a nickel from its rightful owner to prevent an asteroid strike that would destroy the world was my old example. Another is that I can imagine circumstances where the rights violation costs are sufficiently large relative to the utility gains so that I would disapprove of it—for an example, check the index of the second edition of The Machinery of Freedom (available as a free pdf from my web page) for the entry “utilitarian, why I am not.” The implications of my moral intuitions are not as tidy as the theories of Rand or Rawls or, for that matter, Bentham. But then, I know of no a priori reason to expect the truth, in moral philosophy or anything else, to always be simple.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi propose to refocus the libertarian movement. Although they agree that individual property rights are important, they propose to return libertarianism to its nineteenth-century intellectual roots. They argue that the classical liberals valued property rights for different reasons, perhaps, than we in the movement value them now: Property rights were intended to protect the least well-off workers in society. A “neoclassical liberal” would not advocate a welfare state, but would certainly value social justice; his means of attaining it would be through the institutions of property and contract.

Response Essays

  • Roderick T. Long criticizes the sharp distinctions drawn by Zwolinski and Tomasi between nineteenth-century classical liberals and the “Unholy Trinity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. He suggests many areas in which the earlier thinkers were not as Zwolinski and Tomasi characterize them, as well as several where Mises, Rand, and Rothbard don’t conform either. Long stresses the importance of class analysis in the thought of nineteenth-century classical liberals and points to its resurrection as a key aspect of Rothbard’s thought in particular. This, he suggests, points the way toward a “bleeding-heart absolutism” – an ideology critical of every form of state power, yet also prioritizing the moral claims of the poorest in society.

  • David Friedman argues that the pre-twentieth century classical liberals were motivated not by a concern for the poor per se, but by utilitarian reasoning. The “working poor” were a large majority of society in their time, and authors like Adam Smith must be read in their historical context. Doing so reveals Smith to be a progenitor of Jeremy Bentham, not John Rawls. Utilitarianism brings problems of its own, of course, but it should not be confused with social justice.

  • Alexander McCobin argues that libertarians often engage in unproductive debates about who or what is “more” libertarian. One thing lost in these debates is that, across the wide sweep of intellectual history, significant libertarian figures have usually felt free to draw from a wide array of justifications and policy approaches. Each was a product of a particular historical era, and there is no reason to find fault with any of them simply on that account. To advance liberty, we should think and write about libertarian principles in terms that unbiased observers will find persuasive today.