Can Libertarians Learn to Love Social Justice?


Libertarian academics Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi (who are collaborating on a forthcoming history of libertarian thought for Princeton University Press) are involved in an ongoing project to reframe libertarianism as a philosophy with room for considerations of income inequality and social justice; in political philosophy terms, a "neo-Rawlsian" libertarianism in its conception of justice.  

Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement

Zwolinski is the lead at the always-interesting blog "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" and Tomasi has a new book out, which I'm still working through, called Free Market Fairness.

The pair launched an interesting conversation at Cato Unbound in the past couple of weeks, and that conversation has spread beyond its confines. Herewith, a summary with some observations.

Zwolinski and Tomasi started with an essay called "A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism." In it they posit that property rights have been defined as all there is to justice in some star modern libertarian thinkers such as Rand, Rothbard and Mises, with "moral justification of free market institutions…logically independent from any claims about the effects of those institutions on the material holdings of the poor."

Other thinkers often considered in the libertarian family, they go on to explain, aren't such private property absolutists. In the rest of the essay they try to prove that a form of libertarian thinking that allows room for considerations of justice beyond private property is in fact more traditionally libertarian, or at least properly liberal, than the Rothbard/Rand variety. And the key is the degree to which this older form of libertarian thinking deals with:

the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to defend the proposition that great 18th century liberals such as John Locke and Adam Smith had more room in their schemes of justification for how well a social system did for everyone, including the least well off. (As explained in my own book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, while distinctly modern libertarianism has some ideological roots in Locke and Smith, what makes it distinct is the areas in which it differs–that is, modern libertarians need not feel they have betrayed their roots in diverging from Locke and Smith.) They correctly note that Herbert Spencer–far more a clear father to the Rothbard traditions, certainly, than Locke or Smith–helped diverge this tradition, though I might argue modern libertarianism isn't quite the same tradition as the classical liberals, at least in most respects.

That's all just a matter of labels though. What is the correct approach to political philosophy and reality? Smith and Locke or Rand and Rothbard? Lumping in Mises with the other two is a bit misleading, as even Zwolinksi and Tomasi note. They write:

Mises thought capitalist institutions justified, at least in part, because he believed a society-wide system of voluntary exchange will be materially beneficial for all citizens. Inequalities are justified, Mises seems to have argued, at least in part because they work to the material benefit of the least well off.

His disciple Rothbard–I suspect more directly influential on the rising generation of thoughtful, book-reading Paulite libertarians than Mises himself–"was sometimes insistent on the point that concerns about the welfare of the poor played no formal role in the moral justification of a free market." And Rand in Atlas, as they point out, was sure that socialism was bad for nearly everyone, not just the great and productive, though that wasn't explicitly part of her defense of free markets.

They wrap up with a long call for a libertarianism that's less deductive, that tries to figure out a sophisticated justification for certain market interventions in favor of income equality (admitting that such "soft" libertarians such as Hayek and Friedman never did a very thorough job explaining why they occasionally departed from a "property as justice" model), while granting that "a commitment to social justice in no way commits one to advocating liberty-limiting 'corrections' of emergent distributions on an ongoing basis." Fighting for an "overall system [that] works in a way that is beneficial to the lowest paid workers" is the "gold standard of contemporary theorizing about social justice," and something they seem to believe even libertarians should embrace and pursue.

The next entry in the Cato Unbound series finds libertarian philosopher and part of the "Bleeding Heart Libertarian" team Roderick Long stepping in "In Praise of Bleeding Heart Absolutism." He does a lengthy philosopher's job teasing out some apparent confusions in exactly what Zwolinski and Tomasi are arguing, which I won't try to summarize here. He also notes they don't quite capture all the complications of the Rand/Rothbard natural rights ethic, which is based in an understanding of what humans are and what they need to flourish: 

Neither Rand nor Rothbard, then, is a strict deontologist of the Nozickian sort; both of them ground natural rights in an ethic that is understood to be beneficial to each person who practices it, whether rich or poor. 

Long also notes Rothbard was good as a historian and polemicist on the ways the well off use the state as a tool against the less well off. He also has a long and good, and un-summarized here, critique of their particular readings of Locke and Smith, as well as noting there is a pre-20th century set of classical liberal thinkers more clearly in a line of influence on the Rothbard types, including "Hodgskin, Spencer, Bastiat, Molinari, and Spooner."

But the meat of this, to most readers not professional philosophers, is: what do these ideas say about what sort of state action is or is not justified, in the service of social justice, helping the less well-off, however you want to put it? 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!

The extent to which the Zwolinski/Tomasi project has a big public relations element to it will be taken up later, when I address Todd Seavey's scathing outside contribution to this debate.

David Friedman, the great anarcho-capitalist theorist, in his "Natural Rights +?" posits that what's important is that "What the hard line propertarian version leaves out is not social justice but human welfare." He argues, somewhat in line with Long, that what Smith really was saying when he said things that seemed to privilege concern for the poor or less well-off was merely that people should get what is justly theirs, not that they deserve any special consideration for being poorer or less well off.

Friedman says the real problem with the Rand/Rothbard modern libertarian line is not its lack of grappling with social justice but rather:

its lack of any logical foundation sufficient to persuade the unbeliever of its strong claims. Another is its failure to answer many of the important questions, especially where to draw lines. And another is that, taken literally, it sometimes gives the wrong answer…

But going for Rawls and social justice doesn't deal with these problems, and Friedman roundly and I think with some justification mocks Rawlsian pretentions that its demands for social justice or rooted moral philosophy is actually rigorously proven in any sense any disagree-er need respect. (To me, this is a pretty consistent problem with most moral philosophy, even the kind I agree with, which is why I never get why smarty-pants think they've proven that Ayn Rand is an idiot because she didn't produce a rigorously proven moral philosophy that is clearly objectively true and that all people with eyes and reason must agree with. And you have, buddy?) Friedman wraps up making the case for a sort-of but not-entirely utilitarian libertarianism, or at least one

where respecting rights is seen as a good thing, a value in itself as well as a means to other values, but not as a value that trumps all others. One reason to respect natural rights is that it is a good thing to do, another is that respecting them can be expected to produce a healthier, wealthier, and happier world than violating them.

This doesn't give you a hard and fast answer to all political questions, but there you go.

The last contribution is from liberarian youth activist leader Alexander McCobin of Students for Liberty, who says "Let's Reject the Libertarian Purity Test," in which he accuses Zwolinski and Tomasi of playing a "who is more libertarian?" game that isn't useful for either philosophy or policy. But I think the larger bleeding-heart libertarian project is doing exactly what McCobin suggests they are not toward the end of his essay, once you fight through the intellectual history:

greater value would come from clarifying the principles of human liberty, then analyzing what the most philosophically apt justifications for those principles are, and the best way to apply those principles to the problems facing people in their time. 

I think that is what Zwolinski, Tomasi, and their fellow bleeding heart libertarians are indeed trying to do; while I agree that hooking such arguments to what can sound like name-calling about "this one guy wasn't savvy enough to realize what this guy did" isn't very useful, if you are a policy change guy, it's interesting intellectual history, and indeed a whole lot of this debate did reel around what exactly did Locke, Smith, Mises, Rothbard or Rand really think or mean, perhaps not super productive toward the direct solution of any particular philosophical or policy problem, but fun, maybe, for people who find that sort of thing fun. I clearly do, as author of Radicals for Capitalism.

McCobin hints at something that I know a lot of people think about the bleeding-heart libertarian project: that it's a way for intellectuals who feel a need to get along with liberals and progressives to not feel the stink of the conservative or right-wing around them as they make their libertarian arguments. McCobin spells it out in a way that is criticizing bleeding-heart libertarianism's critics, not the bleeding-heart libertarians themselves.

While it goes unstated in the article, an obvious motivation for Z&T is to defend themselves against contemporary critics who want to challenge their break from the Cold War strain of libertarian thought. Yet many attacks on BHL are not motivated by serious philosophical scholarship, but by an antiquated theory of social change that required libertarians to associate with conservatives to defeat the threat of communism. The suggestion that libertarianism can be grounded in philosophical justifications or policy prescriptions more aligned with the left than the right is frightening to those who have grown accustomed to a particular way of viewing the world for nearly half a century.  

Todd Seavey had what I think was the most interesting, if completely uncollegial, reaction to Zwolinski and Tomasi, taking on the entire project and linking it back to the far more political and less philosophical mini-rage for "liberaltarianism" back in the last Bush era. (Roughly, I'd say that was more about finding allies on the left side of the aisle in politics and policy advocacy; Zwolinski and Tomasi more about finding them in academic philosophy and political science).

Some high points from Seavey's often motive-questioning invective, much of which I have to admit is making an interesting point even if I'm not sure I agree entirely. A lot of it cuts right to the assumption that this whole project (and while he started off talking about this Cato Unbound colloquium, he veers off into more jousting against liberaltarianism as I define it above vs. the more academic-philosophical bleeding-heart libertarianism) is really about self-image in a sense:

my initial complaint about the liberal-tarian gambit (circa 2007) was not so much that we must never work with the filthy Democrats (let alone that we cannot work with people who work with the filthy Democrats) but, on the contrary, that the liberal-tarians seemed so very eager to burn all the bridges we'd been building to the Republicans for about a half-century, right before the Ron Paul movement took off (admittedly taking all us Reason/Cato types a bit by surprise) and offered real hope of making the GOP a home for many libertarians. 

They weren't just claiming that we might find some friends on the left but (to take claims made by different ones at different times) that the Catholic Church is one of the chief threats to freedom, that the Tea Party is the GOP taking a turn for the worse, that the Republicans (but not Democrats) are "the party of torture," etc.  All to some extent true, but not by any standard that leaves the Democrats looking good in comparison, I'd say….

In any case, I'll stop burning your bridges if you promise not to burn mine, which took some time to build….There's more to life than crass strategizing, but I have to wince if it starts to look as if the strategy of some of my fellow libertarians is (or recently was): (1) avoid amassing the money of the Kochs, (2) avoid gaining the broad appeal of the Tea Party, (3) don't mimic the intensity of religion, (4) don't seek the big book sales of Ayn Rand, and (5) eschew the electoral engagement of Ron Paul's followers, followed by (6) be so beloved by the left that victory ensues.  Maybe I'm wrong, but that doesn't sound like a good plan to me.

I'm guessing that Zwolinski and Tomasi would say the above isn't quite on point for the bleeding-heart libertarianism program, but then I remember Zwolinski publicly praising the Institute for Humane Studies as a clearly superior form of liberty promotion than Ron Paul's campaign, which I objected to.

Seavey does than get to the meat of the matter: social justice, property, open-minded, closed-minded, libertarian, classical liberal, what did Locke mean?, what did Rand mean?–isn't what's really important what is true and correct?

are the liberal-tarians as intellectually cautious as they pretend to be – merely on guard against anarcho-capitalist dogmatism – or are they insistent on inserting big, ungainly things into libertarianism, trying to convince us that they are a comfy fit, and at times even trying to convince us, in Orwellian fashion, that these things were part of the movement all along…

I kind of like Rawls myself, but his is a rather complex system by most people's ethical standards, and no small thing to slip into another already-existing philosophy, especially not if that other philosophy may already have ways, as Friedman suggests, of coping with the same question (more concretely: I can worry about the poor in purely utilitarian terms without having to invoke Rawls' "veils of ignorance" and what seem to me dangerously vague intuitions about fairness and inequality).  Sticking Rawls into libertarianism is like attaching a washing machine to a soufflé….

But here's the crucial thing – and the reason we shouldn't just cede the movement to the liberal-tarians.  As David Friedman said in his initial contribution to the Cato dialogue, the idea of strict property adherence, from which the liberal-tarians recoil as if from a short children's-poem version of libertarianism, is an idea that has a long history within the classical liberal tradition, and – though he doesn't come right out and say this – maybe it is the most important part. 

…would it kill the liberal-tarians to consider the possibility that the vaunted liberal tradition was good precisely because it contained an inchoate strict-property-rights philosophy within in it?  Maybe anarcho-capitalism is a refinement, not a reduction….

What could be more retrograde – more narrow-mindedly conservative, if you will – than to assume that our forebears' vague notions must be superior to any present-day reformulations?  And, by the way, doesn't the truth at some point matter more than pedigree?  What if those embarrassing, fringey anarcho-capitalists are correct?  Once you start down the road of saying popularity trumps philosophical accuracy, after all, you're well down the road of just checking the latest polls. 

Seavey then goes for the funny sorta-low-blow of motive-questioning of bleeding heart libertarianism as a philosophical project:

And do consider the possibility – since most of the liberal-tarians are academics to at least some degree – that you may be biased in favor of keeping things vague because it gives you stuff to think about…

Intellectuals, though they often oversimplify reality, still prefer theories complex enough to baffle the common man – and, coincidentally or not, keep bureaucratsacademicslawyers, and theologians occupied.  This way lies the passivity of the common (and, yes, fairly conservative) man and the resignation to rule by distant experts.  Instead, we owe the common man "simple rules for a complex world," not just to put his mind at ease but because those rules would do far more good than the squabbling and new-fangled plans of most of the experts and rulers. 

One's job as a professor might not last as long if the answer to most political problems were merely "property."  But maybe you (and the politicians) should find a new job…

I don't really have a sharp summation of all this, as this lengthy attempt to explain, quote, and navigate this debate proves. But I certainly have a tendency to believe, as Seavey complains, that "complicating" libertarianism beyond property rights starts to create justifications for all sorts of troubling state action:

 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).  

How and why modern libertarianism got to be what it is is explained at great length in my book Radicals for Captialism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.