Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cartoon Libertarians, Social Justice, and Bleeding Hearts

"Social justice = the idea that coercive institutions can be legitimate (i.e., permissible) only if, under favorable circumstances, they can reasonably be expected to help ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives."

(From Jason Brennan’s Facebook page)

"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."

(Definition offered by Zwolinski and Tomasi in the course of a Cato Unbound exchange)

In a recent piece on the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog, Jason Brennan took some of his fellow libertarians to task for “cartoony opinions on complex matters.” His list of examples started:
You might be a cartoon libertarian if:
1. You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today.
(followed by points 2-17)

While I agreed with many of his examples, that was not one of them. If “social justice” has a definite meaning in philosophy, philosophers should be able to offer clear definitions and the definitions should be consistent with each other. As the quotes above, from philosophers from the same faction of the same political movement, demonstrate, they are not. The first specifies that it is about coercive institutions, the second about institutions in general. The second makes the evaluation of a society depend on how well it serves the interests of the poor and least advantaged, the first makes it depend on maintaining a minimal standard for “conscientious people.” The poor and disadvantaged are not all conscientious, conscientious people are not all poor and disadvantaged. Both definitions look more like political rhetoric than political philosophy.

Not only are the definitions not consistent with each other, neither has a clear meaning. Consider, for instance, “minimally decent lives.” A modern making a list of the requirements would almost certainly include access to decent medical care, by which definition no human being prior to 1900 lived a minimally decent life, since what we consider reasonable medical care did not then exist. One obvious response is that what is a minimally decent life changes over time. But that is to concede that the definition uses dishonest rhetoric, pretends that a relative concept is an absolute one. To say that the same life would be minimally decent if lived in 1700 but not if lived in 2000 makes nonsense of the words “minimally decent.”

An egalitarian might say that what matters is not the absolute level but how equal the society is. A utilitarian could point out that what distribution of income maximizes utility depends, among other things, on how much income there is to be distributed. The BHL folks are unwilling to identify with either of those approaches and unwilling or unable to offer a substitute that actually means what it says.

To continue …  . “Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.” Depends entirely? Two societies are equally justified if they equally serve the interests of (say) the bottom 10% of the income distribution, even if, in one of them, the rulers live a life of luxury supported by the taxes of everyone else above the bottom, or if, in one, almost everyone above the bottom 10% is a (well taken care of) slave? Does Brennan think there is any human being who thinks none of that matters, that the moral justification of the institutions depends only on how well they serve the bottom of the distribution? I am pretty confident he does not—he is, of course, welcome to correct me in the comment thread to this post.

One possible response is that advocates of social justice believe that the justification of the society depends in part on the implications for poor people. But so does very nearly everyone else. Utilitarians believe that the justification of the society depends on how well it serves everyone’s interests, the poor and disadvantaged included. Similarly for alternative candidates. The concept that, according to Brennan, has a definite meaning in philosophy either has a meaning that nobody could take seriously or a meaning that distinguishes it from practically none of the alternative concepts—the only exception I can think of is a pure deontological position that pays no attention at all to consequences. I agree with Jason that consequences matter, but that agreement does not define social justice.

To return to the first definition …  . If “coercion” means the literal use of force, then fighting off a murderer or rapist counts as coercion, making a society that permits it a “coercive institution.” Does Brennan believe, does he think anyone believes, that permitting such self-defense is only morally permissible if it helps “ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives?" What if self-defense is relevant to only a few, and most will get to live minimally decent lives without it? What if it is important only to people who would manage minimally decent lives even if they are not able to use force to defend themselves, but much better lives if they are?

Brennan might reply—he is again invited to do so here—that using force in self-defense does not count as coercion. But that would bring him straight into one of the problems with libertarian theory that he is, I suspect, already aware of. Libertarians say they are against the initiation of coercion, but their definition of initiation of coercion depends on their definition of what rights people have. If Brennan uses the same definition of rights for his definition of social justice, then practically all libertarians believe in it. If not, then what distinguishes Brennan et. al. from the rest of us is not their commitment to social justice but their view of what rights people have.

One of the things that bothered me in a later online exchange with Matt Zwolinski (on was a tendency to slide over from the right to use force to protect property in land, which raises serious moral issues since most land was not produced by humans, to the right to use force to protect property in general. Without a theory of what property claims are legitimate, one cannot distinguish the use of force to protect legitimate property from other and coercive uses, which gets us back to the idea that one is only permitted to fight off a murderer or rapist if doing so helps the poor—or at least helps whoever is at risk of not living a minimally decent life, whatever that means.

I should probably stop now, at least for long enough to give Jason Brennan an opportunity to respond. Before doing so, it is worth pointing out just how heavy a burden of justification he has imposed on himself. In his point 1 he was not merely claiming that his view of the status of the meaning of social justice was defensible. He was claiming that it was so obviously true that to deny it was a cartoonish position.


My challenges to Zwolinski and Tomasi on social justice from the Cato Unbound discussion.

Discussion started by Bryan Caplan, with comments by me and others, on the problem of defining social justice.


You might be a cartoon bleeding heart libertarian if:

1:  You describe Rawls as offering the “philosophically most sophisticated” theory of social justice—and then decline to defend it when "David Friedman trenchantly critiques the maximin decision rule that lies at the heart of John Rawls’s theory of social justice."

2. When asked to define "social justice" you insist that the idea is well defined and prove it by offering two or more inconsistent definitions.

3. When asked in exactly what sense your philosophy implies a special concern for the poor, you change the subject.

4. Your explanations of why the views of other libertarians are wrong are clearer, better written, more convincing and much shorter than your explanations of what you believe and why it is right.

5. You describe your associate professor's salary as a "minimum basic income." (Suggested, perhaps a little unfairly, by Sean II commenting on Brennan's post)

P.S. I continued the argument in a later post, and Matt Zwolinski offered some responses in comments to that post.

P.P.S. Jason has now responded on his blog.


At 2:13 PM, May 15, 2013, Blogger DR said...

It's funny how so many libertarian thinkers realize the "inherent contradictions" in "dogmatic libertarianism" at the exact same time that their careers stand to benefit from a shift towards the mainline intellectual center.

A note for any rising libertarian thinkers. If you're going to attempt to "change the system from the inside" it's a lot more likely that the system will change you. The Orange Line Mafia is quite a corrupting influence.

At 2:34 PM, May 15, 2013, Blogger John David Galt said...

Those definitions of "social justice" (which are as good as any I've seen of that vague concept) seem to me to raise a whole array of questions and issues for libertarians. I would like to see the proponents try to come up with answers close to libertarian.

(1) Does it matter why a given person is poor or disadvantaged? Suppose he began wealthy but squandered it? Suppose he was given a chance for a good education but wasted it? Suppose he behaves in ways so antisocial no employer will accept him? Where do you draw the line between someone not being conscientious and someone with a handicap that the rest of us should have to accommodate? Do any of these answers depend on the person's race or other group membership?

(2) What do you define as "coercive" on the part of an institution? Does it refer to the mostly-discredited (among libertarians) concept of economic coercion? Would more competition with that institution make it no longer coercive, or would you have government compel specific policy changes?

(3) Exactly what is a minimally decent life, and to what extent can the individual's preferences change that answer? Would you force any individual to accept services he doesn't want (for instance, to treat drug addiction)? How about compelling someone to pay for services he may want but which aren't worth their cost to him (for instance medical insurance)?

It seems to me that consumer sovereignty gives the one true libertarian answer to every one of these questions, and that those who have trouble accepting it are not really libertarians. YMMV.

At 4:23 PM, May 15, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

Is there a version of the BHL thesis which isn't obvious nonsense?
Suppose they said something like 'Define Social Justice as the set of computed correlated eqbria in a repeated game at time t which have the following properties
1) they canonically yield all possible growth paths for the Economy at time t
2) they satisfy a Social Welfare Function highly ranked by the bottom 10%'
Is there some obvious theoretical (as opposed to practical) reason why this is nonsense or why it would immediately take a degenerate form- i.e. yield perverse results?
a)The first line of attack that suggests itself is to ask who is doing the Aumann correlating?- following David Lewis on Conventions we might say start with existing Schelling Points and then refine them with Muth rational expectations to get a trajectory of reflexive eqbia. Okay there might be a socio-biological reason why this would yield a degenerate form- but is there any argument from within Econ/Phil? My own feeling is that you are going to get Aumann agreement to Shutzian ideal type analysis- i.e. a Caste system and that's fucking horrible (at least, for a Libertarian). But has someone formalized this with like maybe Bayesian decision theory as the Iyer (we don't like being called niggers) in the woodpile?

b)the second line of attack might focus on the notion of a repeated game- true this gets rid of exigent circumstance conundrums and ex poste/ex ante type problems- but does it throw out the Iyer (we don't like being called babies) along with the bathwater? Isn't the right to quit the game any time we like part of the Libertarian ethos? Of course, that's not a proper reason still, self-evidently, the stipulation of 'repeated game' does strange thing to Utility functions so I'm guessing someone has written about this somewhere- preferably not behind a pay-wall and no banner ads for penis enlargement.
Okay- no banner ads for FAKE penis enlargement.
Is this too much to ask? I mean seriously Internet God get your shit together. What is the point of Social Media if we don't got Social Justice which means above average dicks for Everybody not just the dicks who currently have them and probably hang out somewhere way cooler than this.

At 4:38 PM, May 15, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>no banner ads for FAKE penis enlargement.

Windwheel- how do you know the ads are fake?

At 4:50 PM, May 15, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

@Anonymous- Mom is that you? I've warned you before about trolling on Friedman's site. Any to answer your question- I would have proof positive them pills were fake if you didn't keep calling in the mohel all the time. Getting circumcised everyday won't turn me Jewish or help me pass my Accountancy exam. We've been over this umpteen times. For God's sake get a life!

At 6:40 PM, May 15, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

I don't regard utilitarianism as consistent with libertarianism; and it seems to me that bleeding heart libertarianism, so far as it has any intellectual substance, is largely an outgrowth of the desire to reconcile the two.

Why aren't they consistent? A basic utilitarian proposition is that if a resource gives one person utility X, but gives another person utility X+x, the resource should be transferred to the second person; the second person's gain will more than compensate for the first person's loss. The typical common sense application is that a dollar in the pocket of a wealthy person has less utility than a dollar in the pocket of a desperately poor person, and so wealth should be transferred from the wealthy to the poor. But since the first person cannot be counted on to agree to this—since, in particular, the wealthy cannot be counted on to agree to give up any of their wealth that exceeds some average value—this entails that wealth must be taken from them by coercive means: that is, by offering them the alternative of having their utility reduced to an extent greater than would result from losing their wealth. This includes what libertarians would call "the initiation of force," and so utilitarianism cannot be reconciled with noninitiation of force.

In utility terms, I think, the noninitiation of force, or the ban on coercive redistribution of assets, can best be described as the statement that transactions must make both participants better off. Or, more precisely, that the proper response to an offer to make you better off is to make the other person better off (possible because of gains from trade); but the proper response to an offer to make you worse off is a counteroffer to make the other person worse off unless they withdraw. Over time, this policy works to diminish the initiation of force (by making it unrewarding) and thus the total level of force (by making retaliatory use of force unnecessary). But the basic ethical intuition is that one should not diminish B's utility as a means to increasing C's utility. That's a different model of permissible and desirable transactions than the utilitarian one.

At this point I expect to see the word "deontology." But I don't think that this is properly a deontological position. Deontology is not about the rules or principles one adopts; it's about the methods one uses to justify them—the meta-ethics rather than the content of ethics. It's entirely possible to arrive at noninitiation of force from a eudaemonistic ethics, one that centers on how to live a humanly good life and not on how to follow some set of rules fiat iustitia, pereat mundus.

As for "bleeding heart libertarians," I think we've seen that conceptual evolution before. It's how we got from classical liberalism to modern-day liberalism: Through the efforts of an earlier generation of bleeding-heart liberals.

At 7:21 PM, May 15, 2013, Blogger Will Luther said...

>I don't regard utilitarianism as consistent with libertarianism; and it seems to me that bleeding heart libertarianism, so far as it has any intellectual substance, is largely an outgrowth of the desire to reconcile the two.

You are describing act (or extreme) utilitarianism; but rule (or restricted) utilitarianism is potentially consistent with libertarianism.

In The Constitution of Liberty, for example, Hayek (1960, p. 159) writes:
"It is true enough that the justification of any particular rule of law must be its usefulness—even though this usefulness may not be demonstrable by rational argument but known only because the rule has in practice proved itself more convenient than any other. But, generally speaking, only the rule as a whole must be so justified, not its every application. The idea that each conflict, in law or in morals, should be so decided as would seem most expedient to somebody who could comprehend all the consequences of that decision involves the denial of the necessity of any rules. “Only a society of omniscient individuals could give each person complete liberty to weigh every particular action on general utilitarian grounds.” Such an “extreme” utilitarianism leads to absurdity; and only what has been called “restricted” utilitarianism has therefore any relevance to our problem."

Notice that Hayek explicitly states that the rule of law is ultimately justified by its “usefulness,” or utility. Hayek was a rule utilitarian.

At 9:24 PM, May 15, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

I think that's an unhelpful way to split the options up. It's kind of like the old legal rule that "one drop of black blood" made a person black.

When Hayek proposes that a moral philosophy or an approach to public policy might give each person complete liberty to weigh every particular action on general utilitarian grounds, he's proposing to apply this method in 100% of cases; and he's saying that any general rule that is not subject to being overthrown, or can be overthrown only within limited cases or on specific grounds, counts as "restricted utilitarianism." And technically that's perfectly true. But it's also perfectly true that the number of photons in the universe is finite (that is, restricted) and negligibly small next to infinity; nonetheless, for ordinary purposes it's pretty damned huge.

And a restriction might very well meet Hayek's definition and yet have wide gaps. Consider, for example, the idea that we must not set aside the rules of property merely because of elaborate calculations that pretend to omniscience that we lack. That's all very well, but what about the appeal to obvious necessity—for example, a man dying of hunger in the wilderness who can get food by breaking into another man's cabin? A utilitarianism might not embrace Hayek's absolutes, but still say that in that case the rules should be set aside. But that kind of appeal can also be made in cases such as widespread hunger in one population, and widespread prosperity in another—and you're on the road to bleeding heart libertarianism. It's very easy for people who wish to do so to see obvious necessity in enough cases to leave any idea of property rights a tattered ruin.

And I think that "restricted utilitarianism" is a lot broader than rule utilitarianism. If act utilitarianism is always weighing the correctness of each act, and never applying general maxims, then rule utilitarianism ought to be always weighing the correct of maxims, and never making an exception for any act. Of course there is a big space between those two, filled with hybrids, partly act and partly rule, and that is what makes up nearly all of Hayek's "restricted utilitarianism." But even the barest pretense of rule of law, constantly set aside on trivial grounds, would still be "restricted."

It seems to me that a more useful approach is to include more than the extreme point in either category; to view rules with a few exceptions as similar to rules without exceptions, and acts with a few general maxims as similar to acts with none, more than either is to the other. We might either seek a midpoint to divide the two, or recognize the hybrid as a third sort.

Beyond that, I would point out that there is a great deal of difference between "usefulness" and "utility." One is a general quality of things and actions in the real world; the other is a mathematical abstraction used in economic theory and related fields. It's like the difference between the medieval concept of "probability," as meaning something that a court of law might take under consideration and ask for evidence on, and the mathematical concept of probability that gets into textbooks—or into the dialogue of Mr. Spock, who is close enough to omniscient to calculate it in many cases where mere humans could not. To say that law must be justified by its usefulness is not at all the same as to say that utilitarianism is a valid philosophy of law.

At 9:46 PM, May 15, 2013, Blogger lelnet said...

"Does Brennan think there is any human being who thinks none of that matters, that the moral justification of the institutions depends only on how well they serve the bottom of the distribution?"

I cannot and will not speak for Brennan, but by your phrasing you appear to think that belief in the existence of such people is patently absurd.

I would assert that it is nothing of the kind. Indeed such people not only exist, they exist in quantities so vast that blame for virtually all of the large-scale evils of the last hundred-odd years can be reasonably laid at their feet.

What is absurd is not a belief that such people exist, so much as a belief that their philosophy is compatible with anything that can sensibly be called "libertarianism".

At 10:57 PM, May 15, 2013, Blogger Hume said...

David, If I had a single pet peeve that gives rise to a claim of cartoony it would be a lack of appreciation for, sensitivity to, or even awareness of the complicated web of issues involved in the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theorizing, particularly among those who recognize a plurality of fundamental values and principles. This is not a criticism of you or your theory, for I vaguely recall your brief of the "Red Button" in Machinery of Freedom.

At 12:18 AM, May 16, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

Is rule Utilitarianism compatible with Libertarianism?
Glanville Williams was probably the most influential Utilitarian legal scholar of recent times- at least in England.
'In R v Shivpuri [1987], where the defendant imported harmless vegetable material akin to snuff believing he was importing drugs. The House of Lords held: “it was immaterial that the appellant was unsure of the exact nature of the substance in his possession in that in any event he believed that he was dealing with either heroin or cannabis the importation of which was prohibited.” Lord Bridge of Harwich stated: “I cannot conclude this opinion without disclosing that I have had the advantage, since the conclusion of the argument in this appeal, of reading an article by Professor Glanville Williams entitled “The Lords and Impossible Attempts, or Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?” [1986] Cambridge L.J. 33. The language in which he criticizes the decision in Anderton v. Ryan is not conspicuous for its moderation, but it would be foolish, on that account, not to recognize the force of the criticism and churlish not to acknowledge the assistance I have derived from it. …I would answer the certified question in the affirmative and dismiss the appeal.”
So there you have it- Utilitarianism, that too bleeding-heart, contraceptives for everybody and abortion on demand, Utilitarianism tells us that a guy should be locked up even if he hasn't done anything wrong provided he is so stupid as not to dummy up when arrested and says something which might be construed as proof he harbored the intention to do something illegal.
The problem here is that intentionality can be strategic. Say I believe the Police are determined to frame me for a murder and there's nothing I can do about it. I'm safer in prison if my fellow convicts or under-trials believe I'm a hard core killer rather than a sad sack Schlemiel. So I say things which reveal a bogus intentionality. Then the Utilitarians turn up and, hearts bleeding copiously all over the place, proceed to fry me on the chair.
One way round this is to consider what sort of repeated game I think I'm playing- am I a habitual criminal or an innocent guy caught up in something way over my head? In the Shivpuri case, the defendant wasn't a habitual drug smuggler but a journalist (he co-authored a book with the American liberal theologian Jim Garisson who was soft on Gorbachov) and was hoping to expose a nexus between corrupt elements in H.M Customs & Excise and Asian gangs operating in Southall, England. Come to think of it, that wasn't very libertarian of him, so I guess he had it coming.
W.r.t. 'social justice'- the work of Hayek, Hoppe & c, as well as Harsanyi type 'impersonality'- in so far as they militate for Social Insurance- still second guess Intentionality in a manner that empties out the Libertarian project from within.
Binmore's treatment of repeated games- which permits a side-stepping of the red herring of coercion- illustrates the manner in which this line of reasoning ends up appealing to some God in the Evolutionary Machine who turns out to be an old fashioned English Whig who believes in fair-play and decency (itself defined as everybody being above average)and Glanville Williams sending us all to jail coz what we actually did is immaterial, all that matters is what we think we did and that's bound to have to do with getting high during lectures.
Aumann himself is not implicated in any of this but guess what? the bleeding hearts want to strip him of his Nobel.

At 7:00 AM, May 16, 2013, Blogger Ryan Long said...

I am in agreement with all points here, and would add only one:

Anyone can be forgiven for not having a perfect ideological theory, and I commend the BHLers for attempting to define how it is they differ from the "other" libertarians, whoever they are. But to deride those "others" when it is not at all clear how the BHLers substantially differ is certainly begging for criticism.

At 8:13 AM, May 16, 2013, Blogger Noah Siegel said...

I sometimes wonder if BHL is a sort of intellectual equivalent of historical reenactment, in which they are reenacting the errors that led to classical liberalism morphing into modern liberalism.

At 9:41 AM, May 16, 2013, Blogger EH said...

If I had to define social justice for the BHL, I think they are trying to get at something like this:

'Fundamental aspects of the way society is structured, such as the existence of property rights, ought to aim to be pareto improvements over concievable alternatives. insofar as they don't, these institutions are unfair transfers from some to others'

That is, say we have some people living of the fat of the land of an island. Everybody gets by. In order to promote investment and lift their economy to a higher level they impose a system of property in land. It works spectacularly in an aggregate sense; except for those people for whom it doesn't.

To recognize that various forms of property are human created institutions, with different and possibily negative benefits for some, is to the BHL's credit. Pragmatic thinking as to how to keep everyone happy under such systems, also makes sense.

Of course, pareto improvements are a tough standard, which is hard to evaluate. But notions like a minimum income make sense in such a context, as a generous way of ensuring that everybody gains from the system; the onus to prove its pareto qualities is on its main benefactors, one might say.

BHLs may indeed be a little confused in what they are trying to say. But to be fair, try getting a consistent definition of legitimate property from libertarians; or communism from communists. Overall I find their consequentialism a breath of fresh air, in the midst of 'because i said so' natural rights handwaiving.

At 9:51 AM, May 16, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


The problem with your definition is that the sort of society you and I (and presumably the BHL folks) want isn't a pareto improvement over a similar society with substantial transfers to the rich, since shifting from that to it would make the recipients of those transfers worse off.

"Overall I find their consequentialism a breath of fresh air, in the midst of 'because i said so' natural rights handwaiving."

I spent a chapter pointing out the difficulties with the hard line natural rights position in the second edition of The Machinery of Freedom, published in 1989. My complaint isn't what they are against, it's their unwillingness or inability to provide a clear statement of what they are for.

At 12:07 PM, May 16, 2013, Anonymous martin said...


Overall I find their consequentialism a breath of fresh air, in the midst of 'because i said so' natural rights handwaiving.

The whole point of libertarian natural rights is that when you violate them, your forcing someone to do something he doesn't want to or subjecting someone to something he hasn't agreed to, because *you* said so.

At 12:41 PM, May 16, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I begin to suspect Jason's real stimulative definition of "cartoonish" libertarian is a libertarian without a PhD in philosophy criticizing the efforts of a libertarian with a PhD in philosophy.

At 12:47 PM, May 16, 2013, Blogger EH said...


You are right; that weakness also occurred to me after I posted it. Indeed, that definition is far from complete as well.

Lets give it another shot; the most 'righteous' system (presumably) is one that from the set of conceivable non-discriminating* systems, most closely approximates pareto optimality.

Non-discriminating needs some elaboration of course. Obviously, no system is pareto optimal to me, relative to a permutation that includes a provision that I get an additional dollar. By non-discriminating, I mean that such a consititution or ruleset should only refer to the people being governed in the abstract, rather than specific individuals, or groups of individuals.

Also, I very muchlike the style of argumentation, both here and in your books; with natural rights handwaiving I was referring to the libertarian community more broadly.

At 12:53 PM, May 16, 2013, Blogger EH said...


When you are using force to claim the right of exclusion over a piece of property, did you ask for my consent first before doing so?

At 2:25 PM, May 16, 2013, Anonymous martin said...

Suppose I didn't.

If it's my property, I'm just defending myself against you subjecting me to something I didn't agree to: an uninvited guest.

If it's your property, I'm subjecting you to something you didn't agree to: an eviction from your property. I couldn't claim self defense and I would be violating your rights.

(Let's not get into the possibility of it being someone else's property.)

At 3:04 PM, May 16, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous on philosophy PhD's:

I don't think that's fair. Quite a lot of the items in his list really do describe some libertarians and really are pretty indefensible.

What's more nearly true is that Jason is more sensitive to bad arguments made in the style of someone without a PhD in philosophy than to bad arguments made in the style of someone with a PhD in philosophy. I think he would have a hard time defending the argument in Rawls' famous book, but I would be very surprised to see him describe Rawls as a cartoon liberal.

At 3:08 PM, May 16, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

EH and Martin:

You are illustrating a point I made in the past--what counts as coercion, or use of force, or similar terms used in a negative context, depends on what rights you believe someone has. If I have the right to exclude you from my property, then using force to do so doesn't require your consent. But the problem with that example is that we have no adequate account of how I got that right, given that the property was not created by me or anyone else.

Hence the ambiguity over "coercion" that I discussed in the post.

At 3:25 PM, May 16, 2013, Blogger Old Odd Jobs said...

Oh look, we're still waiting for a definition of "social justice".

David, don't you get it yet?

There will never be a definition and that is the whole point.

At 3:42 PM, May 16, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Actually, I have two definitions that I think work pretty well for describing how the term is actually used:

1. Social justice means ideas of justice that especially appeal to people on the left.

2. Social justice is that approach that results in asking, in response to any proposal on any subject, how it affects the poor.

At 5:28 PM, May 16, 2013, Blogger Ryan Long said...

Prof. Friedman, regarding your point on coercion and property rights...

I can't cite a specific page, but I recall that Mises once wrote that all property rights were originally either homesteaded or otherwise taken by "force." His point was that, whatever the original source of property rights, in today's world we can either settle the question peacefully, through trade, or forcefully, through violence. The obvious implication is that trade is better than violence.

In my mind, this essentially settles the whole question. We might as well concede that many property rights have been established forcefully. But even if so, the only way to go from here is to accept commerce as the only peaceful solution.

All of this seemed clear to me when I read Mises, but I seldom read any other libertarian thinkers who are (1) willing to concede that many existing property rights were established through violent, illegitimate means, AND (2) concede that even if so, trade is the only way to move forward peacefully. For some reason, it seems as though admitting that many property rights were acquired by illegitimate force is uncomfortable for some libertarians, although I am not sure why.

I raised this point on once and was digitally tarred-and-feathered.

I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on this. Do you think the original source of property rights are important, or does it suffice to acknowledge that from here on out, people should accept trade as the only workable, peaceful way to resolve future conflicts?

I would also like to hear from anyone else.

At 5:30 PM, May 16, 2013, Blogger EH said...

@marten: if it is indeed your property, which is to assume the answer to the matter under dispute.

At 1:35 AM, May 17, 2013, Anonymous martin said...


I don't know if it's my property, because it's your hypothetical and you didn't specify. That's why I offered two possible answers, one for the case it is my property, and one for the case it is not.


But the problem with that example is that we have no adequate account of how I got that right, given that the property was not created by me or anyone else.

That depends. If it's a house with a garden, it seems pretty clear to me that someone *did* create that. If it's a piece of the Mojave Desert in it's original state, then it would indeed be difficult to defend an exclusive claim to it.

At 2:28 AM, May 17, 2013, Blogger Xerographica said...

I think a far more productive way to skin this cat would be to have Steve Horwitz explain why he's a BHL.

Here are two ways that you can arrive at coercion...through "social justice" or through the preference revelation problem. The social justice route is for people who don't believe that the preference revelation problem is a real problem.

How much money would society be willing to pay the IRS to coerce individuals to pay their taxes? I don't know! I'm not omniscient. But why wouldn't we want to find out?

At 4:57 AM, May 17, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Martin: But then doesn't only the product part of the garden clearly belong to you? I know you cannot separate it from the land, but if you are willing to argue that raw land simply doesn't belong to anyone, why does that change when someone "mixes their labour with it"?

If I mix my labour with your car (by cleaning it for example), do share the ownership with you now? Probably not. Especially not, if I did it without your consent.

Now, if all "raw" land belongs to everyone (or noone, which is almost a tautology, but everyone seems to me to be more illustrative in this case), then you planting a garden on a piece of it and claiming ownership based on that (without asking "everyone" else first) is similar to me coming to your car at night, cleaning it and claiming I own a part of your car now. There are differences (your car was produced and can be traced back to a creator), but in this particular matter, it seems the same to me.

So, morally defending property of land seems very difficult to me (even if we accept the austrian natural rights ethics, which I do only partially, and I have yet to see a convincing ought from is "proof"). But if we shift from moral to consequential arguments (which can in a way also be seen as a kind of morality), then it is much easier to say it is a good thing.

Maybe it is not just in some sense, but the consequences of it are better than consequences of a "common pasture".

At 6:44 AM, May 17, 2013, Anonymous martin said...


Now, if all "raw" land belongs to everyone (or noone, which is almost a tautology, but everyone seems to me to be more illustrative in this case), then you planting a garden on a piece of it and claiming ownership based on that (without asking "everyone" else first) is similar to me coming to your car at night, cleaning it and claiming I own a part of your car now.

If unused land (let's say it's not even stepped on) belongs to everyone, then the two cases are indeed similar.

But if the concept of individuals owning individual pieces of land which they have put to use is already problematic, the concept of all individuals collectively owning all land without touching it or acquiring it some other way should be even more problematic.

So I'd say unused land is unowned, and then the two cases are very different.

The one case is taking something unowned, putting it to use, and by that process becoming the owner, the other case is taking something from someone else.

By the way if the car was abandoned (whatever that may mean, I admit it's difficult to define) you could put it to use (homestead it), and it would be yours.

At 7:24 AM, May 17, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

There are several different things that land belonging to everyone might mean. One of them is that land is a commons--everyone has a right to use it, nobody has a right to exclude anyone.

For two possible ways of getting from there to something like private property, see my old article at:

At 7:45 AM, May 17, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

I guess you're right on that. I considered the cases to be almost tautological, but there is a difference between "everybody owns it" and "nobody does".

However, whether we take one or the other initial position seems rather arbitrary to me, so if someone chooses the first, then it will make it hard for you to convince him with natural-rights style argument that private ownership of land makes sense.

In a way, you could even extend it to other ownership, I guess. Everything physical is made from some basic resources. You mine iron ore, eventually shape it into an iron tool, and while the work is yours, the resources technically were initially part of that common land...which suggests that to see "raw" land as common is impractical and to see it as unowned is, but that is a consequential argument, not an ethical one. Or maybe I made a mistake in the argument.

Anyway, how would you justify the "unowned land" version (or perhaps the other one?) to be ethically better from the standpoint of natural rights? I can't think of anything.

I'll look at that, thanks.

At 8:14 AM, May 17, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well it's been several days and Jason hasn't responded to David's challenge. There's little doubt it's been brought to his attention. I think this speaks poorly of him, intellectually. You'd think a simple request to define his basic terms could be quickly answered. But then, David is not a PhD philosopher...I think this strengthens my thesis, as does his dismissive treatment of Smith, that this issue of cartoonish ness is not intellectual but related to professional culture.

At 8:16 AM, May 17, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

@Friedman- the defect in your original formulation arises in its voluntarism within an essentially involuntarist theory of justiciability.
A way to square the circle is for your voluntarism to allow bids by 'middle-men'in which case you get something like non-Straussian property rights.
Incidentally, you are writing a lot better now you've given up on Landsburg type shock-jockism.
You write well. There is a moral center to you.
Incidentally, I hope you will stand up for Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann- whom some idiots in British Academia and elsewhere are seeking to strip of his Prize.
Your name carries a lot of weight with the present administration here in England.
I hope you will use your good offices to save this 'demi-paradise' from the horrors of an (actually Anti Semitic) boycott of Israel.

Your own work- published before Aumann or concurrently with Shapley, Schelling et al- deserves better exposure. A popular version- perhaps idiot proofed by recourse to the theory of repeated games?- might repay publication.
Meanwhile- fucking come to the aid of this embattled Island so the current Battle of Britain don't end up cutting us off from Israel.
I mean it. Don't be a shit.

At 8:51 AM, May 17, 2013, Blogger windwheel said...

@ martin/Tibor- your interaction has yielded stuff like this- 'to see "raw" land as common is impractical and to see it as unowned is, but that is a consequential argument, not an ethical one. Or maybe I made a mistake in the argument.'

This is stupid- not structurally less stupid than any similar debate between people who aren't young, ignorant or stupid- but definitely more stupid in terms of creating no demarcating dilemma which might motivate a new Scientific Research Program.

So what? Stupidity is a good thing-from the pov of Social Cognition under concurrency deadlock.
Essentially, by just carrying on doing what you're doing, you reduce race hazard type problems and increase buffering and other inertial properties of the System.

If you wanna be properly Economystic about 'Land' you have to include intermediaries who have a Comparative Advantage- which might translate into an Acquired Advantage, i.e. scope or scale economies- in acting as an Agent in that field.
But, so long as Evolution militates for even minimal polymorphism w.r.t this, it is easy to see that the nature of 'Land' is a second order- i.e. Agent driven- discourse.
Did I mention I went to the LSE at the age of 16 & Prof. Binmore taught me Maths? What? I did do that- that too months ago? And yet you cunts don't read Binmore who is like freely downloadable, totally readable and not obviously shite at all.
To be American, Henry James said, is an excellent preparation for Culture. Even Intellectual Culture. But, as Henry Adams acknowledged, this means learning the sort of Engineering Math of Rumford & Pareto which, in Price (an American lunatic who killed himself in Camden) and Hamilton and John MaynARD Smith and actually my old Prof at the LSE, the whig Ken Binmore- so as not to be a fucking full time asshole.
Actually, you don't need Math.
Ronald Coase, who did Commerce, not Econ, at the LSE 90 years ago did more for our subject than his pal Abba Lerner who tried to convince Trotsky that Socialism meant marginal pricing.
Anyway, fuck you stupid rich Americans- just fucking stand up for truly great people like Aumann and use your clout with British Academia to stop this fucking crypto Racist Israel boycott in its tracks.

At 11:38 AM, May 17, 2013, Anonymous Jake said...

Ryan Long said:

"I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on this. Do you think the original source of property rights are important, or does it suffice to acknowledge that from here on out, people should accept trade as the only workable, peaceful way to resolve future conflicts?

I would also like to hear from anyone else."

I agree with this reasoning. My moral imperative stems from an assumption that one has a natural right to life, liberty, and private property that one acquires through voluntary exchange. As long as one respects the rights of others, one's rights remain intact.

I can freely admit that throughout history, property has often exchanged hands through immmoral means (i.e. robbery and theft) and liberty has also been violated (through slavery). Do the victims of these immoral acts deserve restitution? Do the perpetrators deserve punishment? Certainly, but the issue is, how can this be practically done?

If I acquire a piece of land through voluntary exchange, does the fact that it was stolen 200 years ago mean my claim to it is null and void? If so, to whom does the rightful claim belong? We can't restore the property to the original owner, because that person is dead. It's unlikely that we can even discover with any certainty who the original owner was.

It seems to me that we have to approach the issue from a statute of limitations perspective. If private property rights require that property ownership be validated all the way back to its inception, then we are left in some sort of limbo where no one has any rights at all.

At 12:00 PM, May 17, 2013, Blogger EH said...


I don't know if it's my property, because it's your hypothetical and you didn't specify. That's why I offered two possible answers, one for the case it is my property, and one for the case it is not.

Yes, but that is a false dichotomy; the question arises when there is no such consent as to the question of whos' property it is.

At 8:45 AM, May 18, 2013, Anonymous martin said...


One of them is that land is a commons--everyone has a right to use it, nobody has a right to exclude anyone.

But using entails excluding. Like you say in your article, if I'm standing somewhere you can't stand there. In that case I'd say I'm excluding you. (Or doesn't that count as excluding for some reason?)

And the prohibition on using in an (more) exclusive way (like building a house) seems to me itself a form of exclusion.

But I think you can follow a similar line of reasoning as in the article starting from an unowned world.

At 9:05 AM, May 18, 2013, Anonymous martin said...


Collective ownership seems to imply that everyone has a say about how it's used. Which means nobody could do anything without consent from everybody.

See also my reply to David above.

At 9:28 AM, May 18, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...


Right, but that is a consequentialist argument. It does not say wether such a situation is more "just" than the other.


Interesting article. Do you ever plan to expand it a bit with some thoughs covering the issues you mentioned?

At 9:29 AM, May 18, 2013, Anonymous martin said...

the question arises when there is no such consent as to the question of whos' property it is.

So to kick out an uninvited guest, or prevent a burglar from robbing me blind, do I need their consent?

At 10:29 AM, May 18, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


I plan to include a version of the article on initial appropriation in the 3d edition of Machinery, but I don't think I have much to add to what is there.

At 2:24 PM, May 18, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would argue that the term social justice is even slipperier than anyone has suggested up to this point. Aristotle offers two sorts of justice, one the equivalent of what we call commutative justice (i.e., the justice of contract), the other distributive justice. But his distributive justice (which, it seems to me, is the basis for modern ideas of “social justice”) depends on each person getting what he deserves. This is the impossible criterion to encode in a general principle, and this is why the term becomes impossible to define with any rigor. In ancient Greek societies or in hierarchical, pre-democratic European class-based societies, distributive justice resulted in unequal divisions of social goods because the members of the society were themselves unequal. On this principle, even such a thing as South African apartheid represented a form of “social justice”: South African society, the argument would go, was built by the white settlers, and so they had a right to the produce of their society. The native blacks were not equal contributors and so not equal sharers.

Hobbes (who accepts a great deal of the Aristotelian structure) takes us the next step. He too has commutative and distributive justice, but his distributive justice is explicitly founded in political power. In Bk 1, chpt 15, he tells us that commutative justice has its basis in contract, but distributive justice is “the justice of an Arbitrator” (Penguin 1968, p. 208), and the arbitrator gains his authority from the sovereign. In such cases, social justice consists of whatever the dominant political power determines it to be. And in modern American society, it is in fact a politically contested matter. The right emphasizes the idea that a man deserves what he earns or produces (note the emphasis on merit); “progressives,” though, contend that the social system under capitalism is inherently unfair and must be rectified through redistribution. Thus the left denies the claim that the distribution of wealth effected by the market is fair. And the current political battles over taxes, etc., are in fact battles over who is to be the Hobbesian arbitrator.

Finally, as Dr. Friedman has already pointed out, the term “social justice” has been claimed by the left, so for all practical purposes, the term now means “the concept of justice that appeals to those on the left.” But a more philosophical definition would be that it is the attitude towards the distribution of wealth embedded in the dominant political ideology.

At 9:21 PM, May 18, 2013, Blogger Don said...

Brennan's use of the word "cartoony" really says all you need to know about the intellectual paucity of BHL. His smug assertion that HIS form of coercion is different from other forms of coercion only attests to the intellectual dishonesty that is the bedrock of BHL.

I much prefer the left wing anarchist who harkens back to Proudhon or Emma Goldman; at least they are putting their cards on the table.

A reasonable person will turn their back on Brennan and his comrades long before he gets to the point of describing how property confiscation and redistribution of wealth are libertarian ideas, provided they are done by the "community" as a means to aiding the state in withering away.

At 6:41 AM, May 19, 2013, Anonymous martin said...

Right, but that is a consequentialist argument. It does not say wether such a situation is more "just" than the other.

I tend to think the function of justice is to protect us from bad things. So there will always be some form of consequentialism in there.

Another way of looking at it is that collective ownership means everybody gets everything, and as a result of that nobody gets anything. So it's self defeating.

At 6:44 AM, May 19, 2013, Anonymous martin said...

The previous comment is a reply to Tibor.

At 9:49 AM, May 21, 2013, Anonymous Ross Levatter said...

Jason Brennan responds to DF here:


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