Principles Without Justification

This month’s Cato-Unbound debate has shown that those who perceive libertarianism to be self-marginalizing, dogmatic, and self-reinforcing are wrong.  The debate on what libertarianism is and on what intellectual ideas it stands on is alive and well.

Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi (“A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism“) open discussion arguing that libertarians ought to be open to the notion of social justice — in the spirit of John Rawls — and not entrench themselves in the belief that the ultimate justice is in property rights and the idea that all else derives thereof or comes second.  Along the way, they make a strong claim with regards to the differences in perceptions of justice between classical liberals and post-war libertarians, namely Mises, Rothbard, and Rand.  It is suggested that the former were more concerned with social injustices than was the post-war trinity.

Roderick Long (“In Praise of Bleeding Heart Absolutism“) beautifully and comprehensively rejects Zwolinski’s and Tomasi’s distinction, arguing that classical liberals were more absolutist than the latter two authors give them credit for, and that the post-war trinity was more favorable to social justice than their absolutism suggests.  Long’s most important contribution to the debate is in the idea that justice cannot be shaped around what one conceives as societal benefit, but rather the two must be determined mutually and congruently.  Nevertheless, there is both an implicit and explicit agreement between Long, Zwolinski, and Tomasi, and that is that the idea of social justice is relevant to the concept of justice as a whole.  David Friedman (“Natural Rights + ?“) corrects Zwolinski’s account of Adam Smith and argues in favor of a general Benthamite utilitarianism, giving a very economistic explanation of justification (whether the benefits outweigh the costs).

While the above-mentioned essays are the ones which focus on the differences between different approaches to justice, the most controversial is Alexander McCobin’s response (“Let’s Reject the Purity Test“).  The piece’s thesis draws on the distinction between the three components of political philosophy: justification, principle, and policy.  In essence, McCobin advices libertarians to stop arguing on the justification, and instead embrace what all libertarians have in common: principle, or “the importance of individual liberty.”  Exploiting agreement on principle, libertarians can adjust their method or justification to best persuade non-libertarians towards agreement with this principle.

I am not sure that I can accept McCobin’s advice as is.  I will pose a some questions.  Is the principle of individual liberty unique to libertarians?  Almost out of necessity, the idea that only libertarians care about individual liberty suggests that non-libertarians do not.  Alternatively, it suggests that the major difference between libertarians and non-libertarians (who believe in individual liberty) is in justification, but this implies that in the end libertarians, libertarians, and conservatives all stand, more-or-less, on the same philosophical grounds.  I am sure that McCobin, and if not him then most libertarians, will reject such a broad philosophical category!  Finally, one could interpret McCobin to be something of an absolutist.  Take for instance, Friedman’s example of a justified theft: taking five cents from the individual to prevent an asteroid strike.  Ought individual liberty trump collective needs?  What is “individual liberty?”

Allow me to briefly describe differences in how one might define “individual liberty.”  A natural rightist might argue that liberty is achieved by respecting certain negative rights bestowed upon individuals by some higher authority or through coordinated social evolution.  Alternatively, a Rawlsian may suggest that liberty is actually a broad category of different rights and enjoyments, and that some of these individual manifestations of liberty may be mutually incompatible.  As such, the distribution of unique liberties between individual members of society must be weighed by considering the utility of the liberty to the individual.  It is almost a call for Kaldor-Hicks optimality in the distribution of liberty amongst society.  Thus, denying one individual a particular liberty may be justified if it is distributed to someone who more highly values it.

The principle — or the unifying ideal — must be defined, or constrained, and this is achieved, broadly speaking, through justification.  In our case, what is individual liberty and why.  The why is important, because without the why you cannot marginalize those who claim to believe in individual liberty, yet whose definition is incompatible with your own.  For instance, one might disagree with the above characterization of a possible Rawlsian position on the grounds that redistribution does not achieve the desired ends.  Yet, this disagreement is grounded in some sort of justification; in our case, the justification is a form of consequentialism.

At this juncture, one might point out that I am not disagreeing with McCobin at all, because what we are arguing over is the principle of libertarianism.  My argument, though, is that we cannot divorce justification from principle, because it is the former which shapes the latter.  What makes libertarianism what it is are the various justifications for individual liberty.  This is implicit in the fact that all these theories of justice are justifying the same thing by providing the structure for a specific concept of what individual liberty is.  Inversely, what differentiates a version of the left-liberal notion of liberty is the justification.

All of this is not meant to suggest that there is no merit in ignoring differences in specific justifications and focus instead on broad agreements for the purpose of appealing to non-libertarians.  There may be ground to gain by temporarily focusing on external opposition by showing the errors in their views by arguing on terms non-libertarians can relate to, which oftentimes consists on arguing on their own terms.  Note, though, that this is an exercise in debating the merits of a justification, not a disagreement with the principle which the justification advances towards.

Let me emphasize, also, the importance of intellectual mediation of internal controversy.  Libertarians ought not to ignore the different justifications for the principle.  It is this back-and-forth discussion which characterizes the strength of a particular political philosophy — the willingness for academics to argue over the nuances.

There are two important reasons I cannot completely accept McCobin’s advice.  I do not think comprehensively ignoring internal differences is constructive.  More fundamentally, it is the justification which gives form to the principle, and thus focusing only on the principle of “individual liberty” risks ignoring the deep rift between different concepts of what liberty is and how liberty is achieved.  These differences can only be explained through the respective justifications.  All of this said, it is sound to believe that temporarily pushing the question of “purity” aside is a constructive way to approach the purpose of broadly persuading non-libertarians of libertarianism — reserving the more rigorous nuances of our political philosophy for a better time.

  • David Friedman

    “David Friedman (“Natural Rights + ?“) corrects Zwolinski’s account of Adam Smith and argues in favor of a general Benthamite utilitarianism, giving a very economistic explanation of justification (whether the benefits outweigh the costs).”

    Actually I thought I was fairly careful to do neither the second nor the third of those.

    • Jonathan Finegold Catalán

      With regards to the second, maybe I am confused when you write, “Utilitarianism does not, in my view, fully capture the range of those other values, but it comes considerably closer than social justice.” So, you do mention that you yourself do not really follow in particular derivation of morality, but suggest that Benthamite utilitarianism is better than what everyone else in the debate is proposing (you say this explicitly wrt to Rawlsian social justice and implicitly by not mentioning any other alternatively).

      I suggest your explanation of justice is economistic largely because of the concluding paragraph, where you mention that rights violations might be justified if the benefits oughtweigh the costs. This type of marginal analysis comes off, at least to me, as pretty economistic.

      Maybe I didn’t adequately weigh what you said where I reference you with what you said elsewhere — poor reading (or poor memory) on my part.