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What’s Right about Social Justice?

What if libertarians and classical liberals were wrong and the free-market system actually did make the rich richer and the poor poorer? Would that change their support of those ideas? Professor Matt Zwolinski expects that it would. This implies that most proponents view how the poor fare under free-markets as more than just an attractive selling point for the free-market system. It is a crucial element in justifying market-based policies.

Who ends up with what in terms of money, jobs, or opportunities is affected by the legal and social rules under which people operate. We have rules defining and enforcing property rights, rules of contract, taxation, and so on. Prof. Zwolinski says, “Rules like these don’t determine exactly how any particular person in society will fare compared to anyone else, but they do affect the overall patterns of distribution in society.”

The famous egalitarian John Rawls said that “a just society’s rules tend to work to the maximum advantage of the least well off classes.” Prof. Zwolinski argues that while we may disagree on the means to achieve this end, free-market proponents can agree with this statement. We can embrace a theory of social justice without believing the state has to do anything to directly promote the welfare of the least well off. Prof. Zwolinski believes that when it comes to social justice, supporters of a traditional concept of social justice and free-market proponents have much to learn from one another.

Keeping the Poor Poor: The Dark Side of the Living Wage [paper]: A Cato policy paper on unintended consequences of "living wage" legislation


John Tomasi on Free Market Fairness
: In the Philosophy Bites podcast, John Tomasi argues that economic freedom and fairness are compatible


Law, Legislation, and Liberty [book excerpt]: The libertarian economist F.A. Hayek makes a Rawlsian argument regarding social justice


Does Welfare Diminish Poverty? [article] A Foundation for Economic Education piece questioning the effectiveness of welfare programs


Goverment aid keeps millions out of poverty [news article]: A news story favorable to public assistance for the poor


I want to start with a simple thought experiment for the libertarians and classical liberals out there. Suppose that the harshest critics of the free market were right and you were wrong about

the way in which free markets actually work. Suppose that free markets really do lead the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. Suppose they lead the poor and working classes to live lives of constant and increasing alienation in which they're continually subject to exploitation and domination by those with greater economic power. If all this were true, would you still support the free market?

If not, or if you’d have second thoughts, then I want to suggest that this means you think that how the poor fare under free markets is more than just an attractive selling point for free-market views. It's a crucial element in their moral justification. And if you believe that, as I think many libertarians and classical liberals do, then perhaps you're not so far off from believing in an idea the most libertarians think they reject: the idea of social justice.

As I explained in a previous video, a lot of libertarians and classical liberals oppose the idea of social justice because they think it ignores the way in which society is a spontaneous order. In a free society, who gets what in terms of opportunities and wealth isn’t determined by a central distributor. It's determined by the innumerable decisions of countless individuals. It therefore makes no sense to talk about that justice or injustice of social distributions as a whole, only about the justice or injustice of the particular actions of particular individuals. Now this is an important insight and one that many advocates of social justice should learn from, but even if we grant this point, there's still a problem for the libertarian, classical liberal view.

The problem is this: who ends up with what in terms of money, jobs or opportunities isn’t merely a product of the decentralized decisions of private individuals. It's also partly a function of the legal and social rules under which those individuals operate. Derek Jeter, for example, makes a lot of money playing baseball, but his wealth isn't just the inevitable result of his natural skill. It's the result of that skill combined with legal rules defining and enforcing property rights, rules of contract, taxation, and so on. Rules like these don't determine exactly how any particular person in society will fare compared to anyone else, but they do affect the overall patterns of distribution in society.

Think about minimum-wage policies for example. Most economists believe that these policies create unemployment and have an especially destructive impact on those workers with the fewest marketable skills. We might not know how such laws will affect any particular person, but we do know the broad effects these laws will have on classes of persons. But what this means is that there's nothing stopping us from using this information in our moral evaluation of social institutions. In other words, even libertarians can hold that part of what makes a society just or unjust is the way in which its legal and social rules predictably affect different groups of people.

And this leads us to a surprising conclusion, because what this means is that there might be much less difference between a libertarian like Friedrich Hayek and a liberal egalitarian like John Rawls then you might have previously thought. In fact, I want to claim that libertarians can agree with Rawls’s famous claim that a just society will be one whose rules tend to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes. And in his famous book The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek himself did agree with Rawls on just this very point.

Hayek agreed with Rawls about the end at which social institutions should aim: the welfare of the least advantaged. He simply disagreed about the means Rawls thought would get us there. And this is an important point. We can embrace a theory of social justice without believing that the state has to do anything to try to directly promote the welfare of the least well off, like funding welfare programs or medical care with tax revenues. A theory of social justice, as I’ve described it, tells us only what ends a set of legal rules ought to try to achieve. It doesn't tell us how to achieve those ends.

Whether government programs designed to directly aid the poor are entailed by a theory of social justice then, depends on whether those programs actually do help the poor, not just on whether we hope that they do. And a lot of evidence suggests that many programs that attempt to help the poor often hurt them in ways that are often difficult to predict. A theory of social justice is therefore dependent on the insights of economics and other social sciences that tell us how to go about achieving the ends it sets forth.

And this is something that supporters of social justice could learn from supporters of the free market. When it comes to helping the poor it's not enough to have one’s heart in the right place or even to have the right view about what the poor deserve. We also need to know which policies are going to work. Trying to help the poor with policies like the minimum wage, that actually hurt them, is more than ineffective. It's arguably a gross case of social injustice in and of itself.

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