September 2022

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30  
Blog powered by Typepad

« The Two Social Philosophies of the Bloomington School | Main | Mercatus MA Fellowships --- Deadline March 15th »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


I've not had a chance to read their piece, yet. But, surely it all comes down to what is meant as "social justice."

If it is of the "mirage" type that Hayek so well criticized, then, it is not going to get us very far.

If it refers to widening opportunities in the social and market arenas that are presently hindered or restricted by various forms of government regulation, control, and special interest redistribution, then it is compatible with classical liberalism. And is, in fact, the hallmark of the traditional classical liberal agenda of the 19th century, and after.

Then, there is the awkward ethical question: Does the advocate of "social justice" believe in using the tax system to redistribute wealth and manipulate the direction of social and market life?
This leads to the next part of this awkward ethical question: If someone who has peacefully and honestly earned whatever income or wealth he has, does not want to have his income redistributed; and were he to resist having his peacefully and honestly acquired property taken from him for such redistributive purposes; does the advocate of "social justice" believe that, in the extreme, the political authority has the right to imprison or even kill him to pay for someone else's food stamps and visit to the doctor?

All the talk about "participatory democracy" and "social conscience" and "social responsibility" all comes down to that ultimate issue. Do you, or do you not, believe that the state (in the extreme) has the right to kill or imprison one man to give his material wealth to another who is considered by that political authority as more deserving?

In other words, do you consider the relationship: "Your money or your life?" a legitimate form of social order?

If it is said that that is too extreme a statement because we rarely see it taken to that point, that is only because most people acquiesce in such plunder when the taxman calls because few of us wish to face that imprisonment or death which is the "nasty little secret" that no one talks about, but which is the fundamental basis of political control in society.

I know that it is as impolite to express it this way as it is to "pass wind" in a crowded elevator, but it is no less the truth.

Richard Ebeling

And if I may add one more thing. If one does want to advance social justice, then we should take seriously a suggestion that John Stuart Mill made in his "Reflections on Representative Government" (1859):

It is also important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish, and none to economize.

"As far as money matters are concerned, any power of voting possessed by them is a violation of the fundamental principle of free government; a severance of the power of control, from the interest in its beneficial exercise. It amounts to allowing them to put their hands into other people’s pockets, for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one; which in some of the great towns of the United States is known to have produced a scale of local taxation onerous beyond example, and wholly borne by the wealthier classes. . .

"However this may be, I regard it as required by first principles, that the receipt of parish relief should be a peremptory disqualification for the franchise. He who cannot by his labour suffice for his own support, has no claim to the privilege of helping himself to the money of others.

"By becoming dependent on the remaining members of the community for actual subsistence, he abdicates his claim to equal rights with them in other respects. Those to whom he is indebted for the continuance of his very existence, may justly claim the exclusive management of those common concerns, to which he now brings nothing, or less than he takes away. As a condition of the franchise, a term should be fixed, say five years previous to the registry, during which the applicant’s name has not been on the parish books as a recipient of relief." (Chapter VIII).

Here would be REAL social justice, that those who live off the wealth and income of the peaceful and productive members of society may not have the privilege of voting for those who can provide their politically- provided redistributed plunder.

Richard Ebeling

I read the linked brief statement. It is a conceptual mess. I hope the book is better. It almost has to be.

Well, I have, now, read this "brief," and I completely agree with Mario that it is "conceptual mess."

And it merely reinforces my earlier comment, above, that it is subject to Hayek's criticism of "social justice," in that it clearly assumes some (objective) standard of determining "deservedness" of having some portion of another person's wealth transferred to another.

And, as in all such arguments in defense of wealth redistribution through the State, it never even considers the need for an answer to my question: "Do you believe in imprisoning or killing individual 'x' to coercively redistribute his wealth to individual 'y'?"

The presumption is that we are some "family" and we are all sharing in some common household income; we are just sitting around the table and deciding how much Johnny will get of the joint family income compared to brother Bobby. And, yes, Johnny did mow more lawns this past week, and contributed a larger share to the family income than Bobby, who came down with a bad cold; but Bobby "is" family and he needs a certain amount of spending money, too.

And if Johnny objects to a part of what he has contributed to that family income shared with Bobby, mom and dad remind Johnny that, where would he be without his family? After all it was dad who taught him how to mow a lawn; and, don't forget, Bobby "is" your brother. Aren't you your bother's keeper?

This is the false conception of society and the associations among people that the advocates of social justice operate from.

Richard Ebeling

Very interesting piece! As a common-law, left-leaning libertarian, however, who is committed to issues related to social justice, I must say that I was somewhat underwhelmed by their "evaluating society based on outcomes" argument.

Beware of socialist talk about property. They separate ownership from control. They are perfectly happy to let you have the paper title to property while the guv takes all of the control. That's what passes for property rights with the left.


Couldn't agree with you more, and Gaus and Schmidtz have been tremendous influences on my thinking (and Jason's as well; we were both Arizona graduates).

Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, as I'm thinking of it, is about ends, not means. It's about the moral standard that we ought to use to evaluate social and economic institutions. But moral standards won't get you anywhere without the kind of empirical knowledge about how political and economic systems work that Mises, Hayek, Buchanan and others have provided. And that empirical knowledge can provide a very strong check on our ability to realize our first-best ends.

As for the awkward questions that Richard raises, I don't think they're awkward at all. They're crucially important. But here is where things get messy for the libertarian. Redistribution does, indeed, involve coercion in a very obvious way. But - and I think this is something that any political philosopher, libertarian or otherwise, would now admit - any system of property rights will involve coercion. That's how property rights are enforced. So while it's true that we have to offer some justification for using force to take something from someone and giving it to someone else (justification which, by the way, I think can sometimes but not always be found), we also have to justify using force to maintain a system of property rights that allows the Have's to exclude the Have-Not's no matter how great may be the need, desert, merit, or whatever of those Have-Not's. I think a justification can be given to meet that latter challenge too - though again, sometimes but not always. But the kinds of empirical considerations that we learn from economics are going to be important in knowing when those justificatory challenges can or cannot be met.

For what it's worth, I find Kevin Carson's left-libertarianism a much more convincing application of "liberalism" from a libertarian perspective.

Matt, you say "we also have to justify using force to maintain a system of property rights" -suggesting an equivalence between the use of force to redistribute and the use of force to protect. I don't think that works. It minimizes the distinction between initiation of aggression and defense against aggression. Analogy: say someone is trying to kill me, so I punch him in the face pretty hard. My use of violence is morally very different from his, and the fact that I can give a good justification for it doesn't mean that he can also (therefore?) come up with a justification for his. I have a right to live; he doesn't have a right to kill me. Thus: I have a right to use force to defend my life; he doesn't have a right to use force to kill me. If this is a valid distinction w.r.t. my life, why isn't it a valid distinction w.r.t. my property?

Hey Aeon,
I do believe there's a valid distinction between defensive and aggressive force. But that distinction can only be applied to the issue of property rights once we have already established the moral legitimacy of those property rights - that is, the moral legitimacy of (coercively) excluding other persons from using the stuff we claim as ours. In other words, my taking your stuff only counts as "aggression," and your defense of your stuff as "self-defense" if we've already given a moral story about why it's OK for you to claim the stuff as your property. Telling that story requires telling a story about why you're justified in using coercion to keep other people from using what you claim. So justifying property rights requires justifying coercion just as much as justifying redistribution does.

Like most philosophers, I think Hayek's argument against the concept of social justice is pretty lame. Stayed tuned and I'll post on that at some point, or, better, we'll get John Tomasi to do it.


Matt-I guess it depends on how we define coercion. You seem to be using it almost synonymously with use of force. I'm not sure I want to use that definition. If I can't use force to defend my right to life, do I even have a right to life? I don't think I need to tell a story about why I can defend my life and liberty; the burden of proof IMO is on the one who thinks he's justified in taking my life or liberty.

Matt--Congratulations on this blog (and to your fellow bloggers). Bravo!

Please clarify for me why you say that the blog is about ends, not means.

I read the various posts there as saying--like your fellow blogger Danny Shapiro's excellent book from CUP, "Is the Welfare State Justified?"--that nothing about, say, the Rawlsian theory of justice entails the conclusion that the welfare state or any other institutional arrangement is, in reality, the most effective means for improving the position of the least advantaged--which is Rawls's goal (the "end").

For all that philosophers qua philosophers (including Rawls) know, the best means to that end could be laissez-faire capitalism, no? So that is precisely why we need to know economics, political science, history, etc.--empirical social science--if we are to determine what the best means are to the end of improving the position of the least advantaged.

Perhaps it wasn't you, but someone on your excellent blog pointed out something I've become infamous for pointing out, which is (in my terms) that virtually nobody would be a libertarian if they had not first been exposed to some (usually Austrian) version of free-market economics that made them conclude that indeed, laissez-faire capitalism is the best means to that end. *Yet* non-bleeding-heart libertarian philosophy (Nozick, Rand, Lomasky, et al.) somehow ignores this consequentialism (about means, i.e., about the effects of capitalism on the position of the least advantaged), proclaiming instead that any other institutional means to that end is intrinsically wrong--regardless of its consequences--because it "violates property rights."

I don't have it handy and it doesn't really matter what Mises said, but I'm sure someone here knows where he says that he, at least, supports laissez faire because it is in the best interests of the poor--as a matter of its empirical consequences (not because of the a priori definition of "property" or "rights" or "liberty").

May I offer finally that the non-bleeding-heart libertarian commenters on the topic of "coercion" are begging the question by assuming what is at issue in standard theories of justice, such as Rawls's: namely, whose life and property is it?

It's not "coercion" in any useful sense for the state to violate "my liberty" if in fact it isn't my liberty because it isn't my property to begin with. And it isn't my property to begin with, according to (say) Rawls, because to assume that would be to violate the canons of justice. The canons of justice, after all--whatever they are-- determine who owns what.

Non-bleeding-heart libertarians, instead of proceeding to complain about how ludicrous it is for anyone to think that it isn't "your" liberty because it isn't "your" property, and therefore how ridiculous the canons of justice according to Rawls must therefore be, just read pp. 11-21, 60-65, 72-75, and 100-108 of his "A Theory of Justice." Carefully. With an open mind. If only so you can understand why, among political theorists, Rawls is considered the most important philosopher ever.

I've absorbed (but clearly I have not fully learned) the lesson that discussing about such subjects here is pointless, so I will not waste any more of your time.



Who gave "the earth" to "mankind"?

So either I can appropriate it for my purposes (in that general "Lockian" sense), or I am the slave to the tribe in which I have been born. And they can dispose of my life as they choose.

If the latter is the circumstance, then I'd rather take with me as many of "them" as I can before they do me in.

It is amazing to me the extent to which even classical liberal/libertarians have accepted the underlying premises of a collectivist ethics.

And, yes, it is not only or always a right-based argument. The consequentialist case for freedom (as the economist usually presents it) can be a most persuasive and insightful defense of the benefits to all that arise from individuals have the liberty to use their own (Hayekian) knowledge and private property-based incentives to act in ways that help improve the conditions of far more people than the individual actor, himself.

But, when all that has been said and done, if the others still claim the "need" or "right" to enslave you, you better have a better argument than that freedom "delivers the goods" (materially and culturally).

And, to be frank, Jeff, I am still waiting for an answer: Do you believe that the government has the right to imprison or kill me to coercively redistribute my income and wealth to pay for someone's else's food stamps or visit to the doctor?

Richard Ebeling

Humans have property rights because they are evolved from territorial apes, which have territory (which is property) that they defend and recognize to exist in other apes troops. Those apes evolved from territorial monkeys, which evolved from territorial insectivorous mammals, which evolved from territorial protomammals, which evolved from territorial reptiles, which evolved from territorial amphibians, which evolved from territorial lobe-finned fishes. That's what we have property rights.

Thus there are severe consequences to violating property rights. Since this is a drive/instinct at the deepest levels, the result of violating property rights is much more psychologically and socially devastating than perhaps many other instincts at the mammalian or human level.

One does not go against nature without negative consequences.


Your comment, above, reminds of an old commercial from the 1960s, in which there was a line -- "Don't Fool With Mother Nature."

Richard Ebeling

To summarize Pete's point in more pithy fashion:

Social justice needs social science.

You Libertarians are pathetic.

Ancient civilizations took property away from one another all the time. It is widely believed that the Cro-Magnons slaughtered the Neanderthals out of existence, for example. How is that respecting their property rights?

And on that point, regulation is natural as well. Analysis of skeletal remains from Neanderthals shows that they often suffered serious injuries (broken ribs, etc.) from close combat with their prey while Cro-Magnons were able to avoid this problem. Better tools such as spears were developed to take down prey you are in combat with or wanting to eat. A property owner with-holding the development of said spear due to property rights (market failure) was unheard of to ancient civilization.

Ownership of a tool may have been natural. But it was just as natural to take away said tool. Should stealing be legal, because it was natural? Furthermore it's been proven it is natural to share as well, at least as natural as the claim to territory. Should sharing be mandated, as is property? Why mandate one without the other? (As proven by history, people think it unfair to have an elite class controlling most of the resources, as they feel entitled to their fair share.)

Finally, pre-civilized man had no concept of modern private property. Ownership of a tool was relieved once you dropped it or no longer considered it yours. But if someone today went to live on some deserted land as a result of some failed developmental project that ran out of money, they would be arrested. Even many economics textbooks (at least ones not written by crackpot Austrian "philosophers") make this clear. I fail to see how this is an "extension" of territory because one is mandated by law while the other form of property was not.

This is just another example of Libertarian "quick responses" failing to withstand even grade-school level scrutiny.

As for the new blog it's just another stupid attempt to claim that property will lead to the greatest good for all. We see that in Somalia where Boettke's ideology has killed a million people. And of course, we saw it with the disastrous experiments of free-banking throughout history. That's another thing about history: people move away from dumb ideas, such as free-banking.

I can't believe tax payers actually waste money with this crap. Even "ethnic studies" probably yields more of a return to society than Austrian economics.

And if this post is deleted, remember who gets the last laugh when Austrian methodology is as worthless and as irrelevant to society in a decade from now as it is today.

Successfulbuild sure is rude. I am pretty sure that a market order is the best for all people.

But, come on. We evolved from territorial apes? So, small groups should steal natural resources from one another. Might makes right?

How this, the leadership of all business firms should be by fist fight? And then, everyone from each firm should spend some time yelling at their competitors, when they aren't throwing sticks. Seems natural to me.

I will grant that having all of mankind in a giant organzation is just as unnatural as everyone dealing with one another based upon private property and contract.

I think the neoclassical liberals are looking in the right direction.

Perhaps it is about Christian values, but I think concern for the well being of the least well-off is very important in evaluating institutions. Is Rand/Rothbard libertarianism right? Is it better than some kind of Buchanistic constitutionally limited government? I think a standard where only the well being of the poor counts would be a mistake, but I think that should be a very weighty concern.

The notion that this means one should aim at constructing an redistribution system that provides everyone with a just share of aggregate output is a bit of a red herring.

And of course, central planning of the economy is a nonstarter, and even unconstrained democracy is doubtful. I don't see a rent-seeking society as especially beneficial to the least well off.

Surely, we all recognize that this is about Rothbard vs. Hayek. Or, for Skoble, Rand vs.... the neoclassical liberals. Is Hayek or Milton Friedman squishy sell-outs? Or are they right?

To Bill Woolsey's point, almost every advocate of free markets with whom I am familar makes the case that economic liberty is the best hope for the worst off (a phrasing I borrowed from Mike Moore, the former head of the WTO).

We may all have a duty to help the less fortunate, but acknowledging that isn't even an element in an argument justifying some in society compelling others to help the poor ("redistribution"). A duty of one group does not create a right for the group to whom the duy is owed, much less for third parties to intervene.

So Libertarians believe servants should protect their masters. And this is true because of some highly selective axioms (chosen from an infinite range of possible axioms) and from works that are known for their logical fallacies and philosophical errors. Got it!

>>>But, come on. We evolved from territorial apes? So, small groups should steal natural resources from one another. Might makes right?<<<

This was the conclusion reached by Benjamin Tucker.

"In times was my habit to talk glibly of the right of man to land. It was a bad habit, and I long ago sloughed it off. Man's only right to land is his might over it. If his neighbor is mightier than he and takes the land from him, then the land is his neighbor's, until the latter is dispossessed by one mightier still." -Benjamin Tucker, market anarchist and Austrian economist

A conservative could just as easily claim that it is "natural" to go to war. This shows that the Austrian methodology is incredibly dangerous and should avoided.

In mathematics, such statements are only true because the hypothesis is vacuous, i.e., a false assumption will imply anything. All of Austrian economics would be ended if one of them would simply waddle over to the mathematics department and ask them what means.

>>>I think the neoclassical liberals are looking in the right direction. <<<

I think not. Their definition of Libertarianism in philosophy as meaning the political definition of Libertarian, which they accurately describe at least, isn't necessarily true. Go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and read the entry for "Libertarianism." You will see a different story.

Many in philosophy simply define Libertarianism as being civil libertarianism or even an approach to philosophy, where one takes what one needs from the subject.


I will grant that most advocates of free markets that you know consider them the best hope for the poor. You might want to get around a bit more and you would discover that there are more than a few that are perhaps less well aquainted with economics and focus on how lazy poor people deserve little.

I believe people do have a duty to help the less fortunate, but I think you are jumping to conclusions when you see the issue as being tax financed aid to the poor. In my view, the criterion for whether or not one set of institutions is better than another is first, how does it impact the well being of all people. But second, there should be a special concern for how it impacts the well being of those least well off under that order.

Of course, that standard does apply when comparing a scheme of absolutely no transfers and a scheme that allows transfers to poor people. If, for the sake of argument, one assumes that tranfers are strickly limited to help for the needy, what consequences would that have? And, of course, concerns about the likelihood that any system that allows for those sort of transfers would end up with other kinds of transfers too is a concern.

It is a way of thinking about evaluating alternative insitutions.

I never understand why some people heap so much scorn on libertarianism and hold it in such contempt. It is afterall a philosophy of NON-aggression, and one that stresses mutual cooperation as the guiding light toward prosperity. We can certainly have a debate about what different degrees of liberty can accomplish and that's okay, but when one starts bashing it, I for one can't take you seriously anymore.

Successfulbuild, I'm sorry but you really have no clue what Austrian economics really is. For you to call it dangerous of all things (when not all those going by the name Austrian even accept Mises's aprioism) shows you're in some serious need of reading. That and you label Ben Tucker as an Austrian and a market-anarchist. I wish I could be polite but this is nonsense. Whether one ends up agreeing with many of the "Austrians" on politics is beside the point. Austrian economics is very relevant because it includes (in my opinion better than anyone else) all those things the rest of the economic establishment emphasizes the least, namely, the importance of time, the nature of knowledge as dispersed, tacit, and situated, the heterogeneity of capital, subjective preferences, disequilibrium and the dynamic nature of the market, entrepreneurship, and the fact that institutions and cultural context matter. Is factoring these things into economic analysis dangerous?

To conflate Austrian economics with merely an ideological position only shows that you don't really know what you're talking about.

Who defines social justice? Who administers it? Has God defined the term? Do we take a vote?

Justice occurs when each of us receives exactly what we have earned. When we receive that which we did not deserve or earn, we have received something other than justice.

But who decides what we deserve or have earned? In the case of a laborer or professional employee, this is often agreed upon ahead of time by consenting parties or a collective bargaining proxy. A person yields a set amount of work for an agreed upon amount of pay. Or the free, uncoerced trade of private property at mutually agreed upon prices may yield a fair result. But beyond that, things get more tricky.

Does a person deserve a certain measure of property or health? How much? More or less than me or you? Does he deserve to go hungry or suffer? Why not? Does she deserve to live in opulence? Again, who defines this standard of justice?

When we choose to help a man who is down and out despite the fact his stupid decisions led to his debacle, this is not justice that we have rendered. Under what conceivable institution could it be so? Such aid is better defined as grace (unmerited favor). When a church or neighborhood renders help to young children whose father has lost his job due to heavy drinking and cannot afford new shoes for the children, this is a just act of mercy. Our faith calls us to engage in such benevolent action. Our conscience is satisfied that we have done good.

However when a state confiscates a portion of my private property or yours, and distributes it to the drunk who proceeds to buy more booze instead of shoes, that is a disaster. This is not social justice under any conceivable interpretation. It is injustice.

A state policy of forced social grace may seem from space to uphold the egalitarian ideal of the equality of man, but as we have seen from close-up empirical observation, it often seems to lead to disaster. A state who has the goal of ushering in an egalitarian utopia is too often a statist tyranny.

In the end, about as close as we may expect to get in bringing about a just civil society is to uphold the rule of law without respect to persons, and go about helping our neighbor as best we can as individuals and small voluntary groups (families, places of worship). EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW. In a collective sense, that may be the only coherent and practical meaning that can be derived (in a democratic society) from the term "social justice". In a statist society or one ruled by the mob, social justice is whatever the strong man says it is.

Finally, I fully accept that there are Jobs out there. Hard working righteous people, who through no fault of their own meet with calamity. Maybe a natural disaster sweeps away a village or large city. Of course governments may need to come in for a short time in those type of situations and restore the rule of law and provide for basic sanitation and emergency medical care and supplies. But these are generally not the situations in view when social justice is discussed.

To Bill Woolsey:

Social justice is not necessarily a Hayek vs Rothbard debate. I am certainly no Rothbardian, and also no fan of Rand (particularly her philosophy), but with all due respect, your Hayek vs Rothbard suggestion is a much too simplistic explanation of what's going on in this debate.

I am certain you know much better than me what Hayek thought of social justice, and especially Buchannan's thinking, but just in case you need some refreshing, this is a great watch.

I wish we had recorded 1000 hours of conversation between these two.


When I teach introductory philosophy classes, on maybe the third or fourth day, I explain to students how important it is when they read or criticize others not to impute positions to others that those people do not hold, and not to construct and attack straw men. Most of my introductory students are able to follow this advice. So, to be frank, since you are a professional intellectual, I expect you to do at least as well as my students do, and I'm thus disappointed by your posts here.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Our Books