Best of the Blogs: Where Next?

A selection of responses to this month’s topic, gathered by the editors.

“Sticking Rawls into libertarianism is like attaching a washing machine to a soufflé.” In a wide-ranging and sharply worded essay, Todd Seavey casts doubt on the whole enterprise of libertarian social justice. A small excerpt:

I know how annoying and simpleminded the doctrinaire can sound, especially to professors who treasure nuance, but how can the liberal-tarians dismiss those libertarians who fear de-emphasizing property will quickly yield statism – when the liberal-tarians are living proof that watering down the property rights rule immediately (sometimes in the same sentence!) spawns talk of redistribution and government welfare provision? Have you not stopped to think about this “coincidence”? Am I Charlie Brown that you expect me to try kicking a non-property-centered philosophy even if you keep yanking it away at the last moment and putting some sort of small, ostensibly harmelss welfare state or carbon-trading scheme or something in its place? Do you really think markets work or not?

And this is why – as a rule-utilitarian (and not a deontologist) – I don’t want people to treat property as just one mushy value amongst other mushy values (parliamentarianism, feminism, whatever). Almost no one adheres to anarcho-capitalist rules for truly arbitrary reasons and says hell-or-high-water, after all. They know and rightly fear the alternatives – as the liberal-tarians have once again demonstrated that they should!

Update: In another post, Seavey adds:

If you treasure your status as intellectuals as much as you seem to, there comes a time to admit you’re wrong, and it would be impressive and admirable for the BHL faction to do so immediately after the release of the liberal-tarian manifesto Free Market Fairness. Indeed, they are plainly morally obligated to do so, as, all joking aside, they are attempting to dilute the one philosophy that can save this society by transmuting it into the very philosophy that is rapidly destroying society, on campus and in Washington, DC.

There is not some aspect of this that their opponents “don’t get,” “need to study more,” or are “resisting.” BHL is false and destructive, and, as usual, I have been entirely too kind in my criticisms. I will not continue to be if they persist in this self-indulgent, socially destructive, historically-ignorant con game. What they are doing is, in a word, evil. I think they must know it on some level, but they pride themselves on playing this particular philosophical game.

How Rawlsean Is It, Really? Kevin Vallier suggests that we don’t have to be very Rawlsean at all — the washing machine and the soufflé can perhaps sit comfortably across the room from each other:

I don’t think the neo-Rawlsian view (to the extent that there is one) has to draw that deeply on Rawls. In fact, from what I can tell, even John [Tomasi], who is more Rawlsian than any of us, rejects maximin. So my goal is to sketch a broadly Rawlsian theory that fits within what John calls the market democratic research program, a program that develops theories that combine a commitment to thick economic liberty with a concern for the least-advantaged….

On the libertarian view, there is no presumption in favor of an equal distribution of goods because there is no presumption in favor of any goods existing at all. Goods must first be produced before they are distributed and social institutions should be arranged so that this basket of goods is as large as it can be. Then the least advantaged only have a claim on the cooperative surplus if it is required to ensure that their lives meet a decent threshold. Otherwise goods should be distributed in accord with the Liberty Principle. For this reason, I think the neo-Rawlsian principle of social justice is sufficientarian. The sufficiency threshold is bound to be controversial. But we do not need to set the threshold to proceed.

Lumping or Splitting? At Coordination Problem, Peter Boettke writes:

[I]t seems that the all too common lumping of Mises with Rothbard and Rand is something that should be challenged.

So I want to suggest that the syllogism Mises = Austrian economics; Mises = Rothbard; Rothbard = Austro-libertarianism; demonstrate fundamental flaws in Austro-libertarianism; therefore, demonstrated that Rothbard is flawed, therefore, Mises is flawed; is in fact what is flawed and must by rejected serious thinkers in social philosophy and political economy.

Mises may have problems, but they are not the ones supposedly identified in Rothbard and Rand. Mises is a rule utilitarian, and the critical idea in his social theory is the theory of social cooperation under the division of labor.

Libertarianism Isn’t Capitalism Or so writes Jason Sorens:

I would stress that libertarianism and capitalism are two separate concepts. One may endorse libertarianism without endorsing capitalism and vice versa. Or one might hold, as I do, that the moral justification of libertarianism is largely independent of welfarist considerations, but that the moral justification of capitalism is largely dependent on welfarist considerations. Zwolinski and Tomasi never draw that distinction, but I think it is an important one…

It is certainly true that whether the Difference Principle justifies ongoing income redistribution is a matter of contingent fact. Nevertheless, it’s pretty implausible that a pure free market, even with abundant private charity and mutual aid, could satisfy the Difference Principle. Remember that Rawls’ theory holds that just institutions must maximize the position of the representative least advantaged person. That is, when analyzing institutions comparatively and normatively, we must select that order that best guarantees the welfare of the worst-off.

Compare a pure free market with abundant mutual aid and private charity to that same society with a 1% income tax on annual personal income above $5 million, combined with an earned income tax credit of, say, $500 per year (those numbers seem roughly right for balanced budgets). Which society best secures the welfare of the worst-off: the first or the second? The deadweight loss from the tax-and-transfer system of the second society would be minuscule, and it is wholly implausible that this loss would outweigh, even in the long run, the $500 benefit that the poorest would receive.

Herbert Spencer’s Revisions Mike Konczal comments on the discussion; the context is a post discussing among many other things the revisions Herbert Spencer made over the years to his landmark work Social Statics.

Konczal argues that Spencer watered down his radicalism over the years, and I agree. The Spencer of 1851 favored communal land ownership — tripped up, I would argue, by what Robert Nozick would later term Lockean Proviso. John Locke stipulated that it was only permissible to acquire land in the state of nature when enough was still left for a similar acquisition by others, thus casting a shadow (perhaps inadvertently) on all land acquisition ever since.

This was a difficulty that would not in my view be untangled until Nozick did so in Anarchy State, and Utopia, where he pointed out that the institution of land ownership itself generates wealth, even, in the long term, for those who never own any. Because they profit from exchange, they have not really been wronged. (An alternate solution, of course, comes from geolibertarian theorist Henry George.)

But anyway. Konczal writes:

I’m currently reading Free Market Fairness by John Tomasi; here they are debating the theory at Cato Unbound. In order to explain the difference between classical liberals and high liberals like Rawls, Tomasi uses the thought experiment of how each would set the rules for a game of Monopoly. He does it in the book and he does it in this blog post. Classical liberals want equal rules for everyone in Monopoly and are okay with unequal starting money; High Liberals are concerned about inequalities in wealth, even after the game begins. And so on.

How would Herbert Spencer approach Monopoly, a game entirely about private property in land? The crucial part of the game isn’t the issue of fairness between players on turn one, it’s how fair the game is to people who start on turn 30. At that point, the productive capital (all the land cards) have been purchased. The turn 30 players would run around the board hoping not to be bankrupted. Maybe they’d pass go enough times to build enough wealth to buy some land, but most likely all their income would be siphoned off in rents by the turn one players…

So if you asked the young Herbert Spencer how to fairly set up the rules of Monopoly, he’d probably say “there are no fair rules to this game,” flip the board over and walk away. Like a boss.

Class Analysis Brian Doherty offers a long, detailed summary and response at Reason. It’s hard to pick out just one passage to comment on, but this one is among my favorites:

[Roderick] Long ends with his belief that when you add class analysis and exploitation into the mix, you can get a libertarianism that is both concerned with social justice (making sure everyone gets what is rightfully theirs) and absolutist on property rights.

I’ve always enjoyed this argument from contemporary left-libertarians, and while doubtless many income inequalities in the modern world are caused or exacerbated by state-propped class crime and warfare, I don’t think it is proven that all the income inequalities that bug a Rawlsian or a modern progressive of less refined philosophical beliefs actually will disappear in a freed market. It’s a great thing to make progs think about–how much of what you hate about modern income and power inequality is actually the state’s fault??–but I don’t think the answer is, all of it!

By class analysis, we’re not talking about who owns the means of production. We’re talking about who owns the means of coercion. This is both the original form of class analysis and also one that libertarians who value private property can consistently embrace, as Murray Rothbard among many others have done.

It’s All About the Utility Mike Rappaport has a three part series on how he came to think of himself as a bleeding heart libertarian:

Somewhere along the line – I think it was in the early 1980s – I became convinced of a type of utilitarianism, namely welfare consequentialism. I had been a Nozickian libertarian but became persuaded of consequentialism. Much of the responsibility, I believe, must be assigned to Richard Epstein and Friedrich Hayek (even though Hayek claimed not to be a utilitarian). It was easy, as a libertarian, to become a welfare consequentialist. If libertarian institutions have the good effects that libertarians believe they do, then welfare consequentialism provides a strong basis for libertarianism.

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.