Some Questions for the Panel

My first questions are for Zwolinski and Tomasi and have to do with their view of social justice:

1. You refer to Rawls’ position as one of the “philosophically most sophisticated” formulations of the ideal of social or distributive justice. Do you find his derivation convincing? If so, and if you believe that a libertarian society best satisfies its requirements, would you be in favor of basing your defense of libertarianism on that claim rather than on utilitarian or natural rights arguments?

2. Why do you find the claims of the “laboring poor” more morally compelling than those of anyone else—including those who are unable to work due to physical handicaps, lack of employment opportunities in their particular environment, or the like? What about the claims of someone who has a large income but even larger medical costs, due to factors not his own fault? What is special about the laboring poor that distinguishes them from other people who are badly off for reasons not their own fault?

3. There are a large number of laboring poor outside the United States who are a great deal poorer than the laboring poor in the United States. Does it not follow that the effect of policies on the latter group is irrelevant by any non-nationalist version of a “welfare of the worst off” criterion, and that the defense of libertarianism, or any alternative, ought to be based on its effects on people in China and India and Africa, not Watts and Harlem?

And one small question for Alexander McCobin. You write:

While libertarians agree on things like the need for minimal government

Did you really intend, while rejecting any libertarian purity test, to read me, Rothbard, Spooner, and all other libertarian anarchists out of the libertarian movement?

Alexander McCobin responds:

I did not mean to exclude anarchists from libertarianism. Note that I said “the need for minimal government” rather than “a minimal government,” as in it is a libertarian value in general to have less government than more government. The purpose was to encompass both minarchism and anarchism.

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.