On “Concern for the Poor”

by Matt Zwolinski

In David Friedman’s first essay, he expressed concern that our original 3000+ word essay omitted a discussion of the connection between classical liberalism and utilitarianism. In his most recent essay, he again defends his utilitarianism against our social justice, as both more historically in line with the classical liberal tradition and as more philosophically defensible on its merits.

It is, of course, relatively easy to leave things out of a 3,000 word essay on a topic as capacious as the history of classical liberal thought. It is even easy to leave things out of an 80,000 word book on the topic, and we fully expect to do so.

But our omission was not meant as a slight. Utilitarianism has indeed played a significant role in the development of classical liberalism, though it has typically been a utilitarianism of a distinctively non-Benthamite sort. Not that Bentham did not have his impressively libertarian moments. But it is with good reason that utilitarians like Mill and Spencer believed that human happiness could not be advanced, nor human liberty preserved, without rather strict adherence to rules which themselves made little reference to matters of utility.

As David notes, utilitarians care about the poor in the same way they care about everyone else: their interests are to be taken into consideration equally along with the interests of everyone else. Advocates of social justice, in contrast, seem to care about the poor in a deeper sort of way: in Rawls’ version, the interests of the least well-off have a very strong moral priority over the interests of everyone else.

This is a fine and important distinction for philosophers to make. But it’s worth noting that for most of the real world problems that the classical liberals were concerned about, it is a distinction without a difference. Are we concerned with the poor because their interests qua poor have a special non-derivative moral significance? Or are we concerned with the poor because we believe that governments have an obligation to serve the interests of all their citizens, and the poor are the ones who are most likely to suffer when governments fail in this obligation? In both cases, a special sort of concern for the poor is warranted. Philosophers can come up with thought experiments in which these two sources of concern come apart. But in cases ranging from Smith’s discussion of the mercantile system, to Spencer’s discussion of poor laws, to Tucker’s discussion of the money monopoly, they converge. The government policies against which classical liberals inveighed most loudly were ones that were bad on utilitarian grounds, bad on natural rights grounds, but especially bad for the poor.

Again, we do not wish to claim that the early classical liberals had a fully fleshed out conception of social justice. What we are claiming is that they had a concern for the poor, whether derivative or non-derivative, that played an important justificatory role in their theory, and that would not be incompatible with a fully fleshed out conception of social justice that might be developed today. [1]

While we’re at it, we should note that our talk of “concern for the poor” has been a bit sloppy as a way of characterizing social justice, both as a philosophically defensible idea and as one with roots in the classical liberal tradition. Those who are concerned with social justice will, it is true, often be concerned about poverty. But on the most plausible conceptions of social justice, and on the conceptions that resonate most strongly with the classical liberal tradition, poverty as such will be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having a valid claim of social justice. Some people will be poor but have no such claim—lazy surfers who are poor simply because they choose not to work, for example. Others will not be poor but will have a legitimate claim of social justice—those, perhaps, whose opportunity to live according to their religious beliefs is unfairly restricted by political institutions. There’s more to social justice than ensuring that people have enough money, and this, in our opinion, is an area in which the classical liberal tradition simultaneously shines and nevertheless still has some important work to do.


[1] Such as that developed at length by my co-author, John Tomasi, in Free Market Fairness (Princeton University Press, 2012).

    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.