Why “Social” Justice? More questions for Zwolinski and Tomasi

You offer a quote from Hayek which you say “affirms the importance of ‘social justice.’” The quote, however, refers to “justice,” not to “social justice,” and in the next sentence, which you do not quote, Hayek explicitly rejects the latter term.

You describe the “veil of ignorance” argument as being first proposed by Hayek and then, decades later, by Rawls. The passage you cite was published five years after Rawls published A Theory of Justice; your earlier date is the date at which Hayek says he started thinking about the idea, not the date at which he proposed it. It was not Hayek but Harsanyi who proposed the veil of ignorance almost two decades before Rawls. Unlike Rawls, Harsanyi followed the logic of the argument to where it led—judging a society by its average utility.

You ask “what sorts of social systems tend to help people, to make the best of people’s creative capacities, and to encourage the tide of wealth to rise high, so that even the lowest paid workers do well?” Is the “so that even” clause intended as an essential criterion for a good society or merely an observation about one of the attractive features of a society that maximizes utility?

In various places, you refer to “concern for the poor.” Do you mean “concern especially for the poor?” For the Rawlsian, the poor occupy a special position. For the utilitarian, the poor count, but only in the same sense that everyone else counts. Those are two quite different positions, and you never clearly distinguish between them. That is particularly disturbing, considering that it is the first which you appear to be advocating but the second that is historically linked to libertarianism.

What does “social justice,” as you use the term, mean—what does “social” add to “justice?”

I can see three possible arguments for including social justice within libertarianism. The first is historical—but, while you have offered evidence that classical liberals cared about things other than rights, you have offered no evidence that they were especially concerned about the one thing—the status of the poor—that defines social justice as the term is currently used. The second is philosophical—but you have agreed that Rawls’ derivation is unsatisfactory, and you have offered no alternative.

The third is to make libertarianism more persuasive to non-libertarians, especially liberal academics. To do that, you need some version of social justice that is both consistent with libertarian principles and sufficiently robust to satisfy liberals. Nozick’s version of the Lockean Proviso is about as close as you are going to come, and I do not think it will do the job. His “baseline” is how well off people would be in a world without private property in land. Would you consider your concerns with social justice satisfied by a world in which the poorest people received an income of a thousand dollars a year, almost everyone else at least a hundred thousand?

Do you think the people whom you hope to persuade by arguing that libertarians, too, are concerned with social justice would consider that such a world satisfied their concerns?

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.