Some Final Thoughts

by Matt Zwolinski

We should probably start by thanking Cato Unbound, and thanking Roderick, David, and Alexander for the roles they have played in facilitating this conversation. It has been exciting, exhausting, inspiring, and bewildering. And it has given John and me a tremendous amount of food for thought as we continue to work on our book.

It is worth re-emphasizing, perhaps, that the book John and I are writing is a historical one. In it, we are not trying to defend a particular conception of social justice as the most philosophically defensible standard, or the most “truly libertarian” one. We are simply trying to trace the ideas as they have developed through the libertarian intellectual tradition. We have our own views, of course, on the substantive philosophical questions. But our goal in our book, and in our essays here, was neither to articulate nor to defend those views.

Still, like Jason Brennan, we are somewhat puzzled by David’s puzzlement regarding what we mean by the term “social justice.” At the very least, the broad meaning of the concept ought to be clear by now: social justice is a moral standard by which the institutions of a society can be evaluated on the basis of how well they serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. This broad concept can be fleshed out in a number of different ways by different particular conceptions of social justice. And a full conception would say, among other things, what counts as “advantage” (Wealth? Primary goods? Utility?), what the scope of social justice is (The nation? Humankind? All sentient beings?), how this standard of moral evaluation fits alongside others (nobody – not even Rawls – believes that the fate of the poor is the only important criterion for judging the morality of a society’s institutions), and so on. Again, we have not attempted to articulate or defend such a conception here. But it is not as though bleeding heart libertarians have been silent on this issue. For several serious scholarly treatments, see John’s book here, or this essay by Jason Brennan and John Tomasi. And see also the numerous blog posts from Jason (here, here, and here), Kevin Vallier (here and here) and me (here, here, here and here).

Our historical thesis is not that earlier classical liberals endorsed any particular conception of social justice. Indeed, we do not even claim that they were explicitly and self-consciously committed to even the broad concept of social justice. But they did, over and over again, suggest that they saw the fate of the working poor as an important element in assessing the justice of liberal institutions. We think that this is an important element of libertarian thought that, at the very least, receded into the background in the twentieth century with figures like Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. And we think that it is beginning to move to the fore again with the neoclassical liberal movement.

Libertarianism as an Overlapping Consensus

So when I wrote in my last essay that there is considerable overlap between utilitarians, Rawlsians, and natural rights theorists regarding concern for the poor, I wasn’t trying to dodge David’s questions, as he has suggested elsewhere (here and here). Rather, to borrow some terminology from Alexander, I was trying to make the point that there was a good deal of consensus among the classical liberals regarding the principle that special concern for the poor was warranted, even if there was a great deal of disagreement regarding the proper justification of that principle. A utilitarian might think that we should be especially concerned for the poor because of considerations of diminishing marginal utility, or because the poor are the ones who tend to suffer the most from legal restrictions on the market like . For a Rawlsian, or for a certain type of natural rights theorist, the justification for special concern for the poor will be less contingent some ways. Even a Nozickian or a Rothbardian will feel some attraction to this principle when considering certain cases of historical injustice. Their justifications will differ. But at least for a very broad range of cases, these varying justifications will converge on the same guiding principle: that in assessing the justice of public policy, the needs of the poor and least advantaged have a special priority.

In carefully constructed hypothetical scenarios of the sort David has been pressing us on, these different justifications will lead their adherents to come to different conclusions regarding the justice of certain institutional structures. And it is a philosophically worthwhile enterprise to trace these differences out, and to try to come to some conclusion regarding which principle, ultimately, we regard as most defensible.

But libertarians who focus too narrowly on this philosophical project risk losing sight of a tremendously important fact: in the real world, there is a tremendous degree of overlap among the various justificatory approaches, such that libertarians can agree on principles for diagnosing injustice and for making significant progress toward remedying it without settling disagreements about the deep justification of those principles. We agree with Alexander that part of the reason for classical liberalism’s success as a political philosophy is that its principles ring true from a number of different philosophical perspectives. We believe the same is true of social justice, as we have broadly defined it here. Just as individuals with different moral, religious, and metaphysical views can and do converge on principles that support individual liberty, private property, and free markets, so too can and do they converge on a principle that gives special priority to the claims of the poor and disadvantaged in assessing the justice of social institutions. This ability to serve as a point of convergence, we believe, is a sign of and a source of the strength of libertarian theory, and so too of the principle of social justice.

Absolutism Again

In an earlier essay, we claimed that 20th century libertarians like Rand, Rothbard, and Mises embraced property rights in an absolutist and monistic way, and that this is part of what distinguishes them from their predecessors in the classical liberal tradition, and also part of what accounts for their rejection of social justice. Roderick has, in his several essays, given us some reason to believe that the difference between our “Unholy Trinity” and the earlier classical liberals is not quite as sharp and clear as we may have made it out to be. And for this we can only thank him. Undoubtedly we did state our case too strongly in our original essay. And refinements of the sort that Roderick’s thoughtful comments have provided us with were exactly what we were hoping to get out of this conversation. We continue to believe that there is an important difference between the postwar libertarians and the earlier classical liberals, and that the characterization we provided goes a good way toward explaining this difference, but simple and clean generalizations are no doubt too much to hope for in doing intellectual history.

But Roderick also questions the very cogency of the concept of absolutism we employ. Is the concept meant to be a comparative one? How does calling a right absolute differ from specifying the objects to which the right applies? And aren’t all rights absolute anyways, since that is what it means to call something a right?

Roderick’s first two questions raise important points. Absoluteness does, as we suggested earlier, seem to be something that comes in degrees. To call a right absolute is to say that it trumps other moral considerations. But almost nobody thinks that rights trump all other considerations. My right to free speech means that I get to publish what I want on the internet even if it annoys or offends you. But if for some reason the fate of some thousands of innocent people hinged on censoring me, presumably most of us would think we were morally justified in doing so. So, for most of us, rights are absolute only over a certain range of circumstances or competing situations. And rights can be more or less absolute depending on how expansively that range is specified.

Now, classical liberals have long (and correctly) noted that there is a point to having property rights that are relatively absolute. Maybe, in theory, bread should belong to whoever is hungriest. As David Hume wrote,

’Twere better, no doubt, that every one were possess’d of what is most suitable to him, and proper for his use: But besides, that this relation of fitness may be common to several at once, ’tis liable to so many controversies, and men are so partial and passionate in judging of these controversies, that such a loose and uncertain rule wou’d be absolutely incompatible with the peace of human society. The convention concerning the stability of possession is enter’d into, in order to cut off all occasions of discord and contention; and this end wou’d never be attain’d, were we allow’d to apply this rule differently in every particular case, according to every particular utility, which might be discover’d in such an application.

David Schmidtz makes essentially the same point in more contemporary language:

property rights are like traffic lights. Traffic lights move traffic not so much by turning green as by turning red. Without traffic lights, we all in effect have a green light, and the result is gridlock. By contrast, a system where we in turn face red and green lights is a system that keeps us moving. It forces us to stop from time to time, but we all gain in terms of our ability to get where we want to go, because we develop mutual expectations that enable us to get where we want to go, uneventfully. Red lights can frustrate, but the game they create for us is positive-sum. We all get where we are going more quickly, more safely, and more predictably, in virtue of knowing what to expect from each other.

Traffic lights don’t serve their purpose if people believe that they are entitled to drive through them whenever they’ve got somewhere important to go. But we can all easily think of cases where someone really would be justified in driving through a red light. A certain degree of absoluteness in property rights can thus serve morally important goals. But there is no deep moral or conceptual fact impelling us to be property rights absolutists in the most thoroughgoing sort of way. Rights entail duties, and duties specify very strong reasons for action. But we need not understand them as specifying all-things-considered reasons for action. Sometimes rights will conflict, and we will have to decide which to respect and which to infringe. And sometimes even non-rights-based moral considerations will be weighty enough to warrant violating a right. It would be comforting if we could specify a formula that told us under exactly what circumstances we were justified in doing so. But neither we nor, I suspect, our interlocutors in this dialogue have any such formula that is not prone to counterexample.

Simple Rules for a Complex World

Libertarians sometimes worry that by allowing concern for the poor to play an important role in their theory of justice they are opening the floodgate that will inevitably let loose the tide of socialism. And this worry is not without reason. A commitment to social justice does not logically entail a commitment to expansive government action, but public sentiment and public policy are rarely guided by strict rules of logical entailment. A well-meaning and philosophically rigorous conception of social justice can and likely will be transformed into something unrecognizable and indefensible by the politicians, bureaucrats, and lawyers charged with interpreting and enforcing it.

But this is not a good reason for libertarians to reject the idea of social justice. We do not, after all, believe that socialism really would serve the interests of the poor and disadvantaged better than capitalism. Why, then, should we cede to the socialists the title of the poor’s defenders?

If our best philosophical, economic, and political reasoning suggests that concern for the poor is best served by placing stringent checks on the power of government to consciously attempt to advance the interests of the poor, then that is the policy required by a commitment to social justice. A moral value that cannot be directly pursued by public policy is nevertheless a moral value. And we do no credit to libertarianism as a philosophical doctrine by denying that it is. There may be good reasons to have our public policies guided by simple rules, but there is no good reason to expect the morality that underlies those rules to be equally simple.

The greatest minds of the classical liberal tradition— the Smiths, the Humes, the Hayeks—advocated simple rules for the governance of society, but did so while demonstrating remarkable sensitivity to the complexity of our moral and empirical world. In so doing, of course, they faced an enormously difficult challenge. It is no small feat to demonstrate how a severely limited government could possibly be adequately responsive to the unlimited complexities of our moral and economic lives. But there is no shortcut to this challenge. If morality is complex, then libertarian moralists must embrace that complexity and show why their system best accommodates it. And if, as so many thinkers from so many diverse perspectives have concluded, part of our complex set of moral duties includes an obligation to arrange social institutions in a way that serves the interests of the poor and disadvantaged, then libertarians should (and have!) embrace(d) that too. It is a challenge. But it is also an opportunity. And, if we are being philosophically responsible, it is our only option.

    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.