In which I overstay my welcome

One of the regular Pileus bloggers asked me to elaborate on a claim I made briefly in my earlier discussion of BHL. I had said “there is an intra-libertarian debate [that it is useful to have about philosophical justification: is a system of individual rights ultimately justified because it accrues the best results for the poor, or is it justified for some other reason(s), and has the beneficial characteristic of accruing the best results for the poor?” and suggested I thought it was the latter. The idea that the social order can only be justified if it brings about the best results for the worst off, which is a prominent feature of Rawlsian welfare-state liberalism, has been employed as a rationale for classical-liberal non-redistributionist policies. I certanily like the irony that the chief heuristic of redistributionist theory undermines redistributionist institutions. And, as I said in the orginal post, I appreciate the positive outreach effects of noting that free market policies help everyone prosper, especially the poor. But I am hesitant to agree that the Rawslian principle is why we should have free markets. For one thing, I think we should have free markets for the same reason I think we should be free generally. I do not differentiate “civil liberty” and “economic liberty.” The latter is simply the manifestation-in-transactions of the former. Without the freedom to transact, my “freedom to choose” is pretty superficial. Rawls himself argues that we must have a system of equal freedom to choose and believe and think and speak – rights that cannot be trumped by social utility. It is only trading and acquiring rights that he says can be interfered with. But as Nozick demonstrated, you cannot interfere with transactional freedom without simultaneously interfering with freedom of choice. There are not two kinds of liberty, civil and economic, there’s just liberty (although there are of course different contexts in which we talk about liberty). And I think liberty is a necessary component of human flourishing. Humans cannot achieve virtue and happiness by coercion. “Rights” should be understood as a way to secure the possibility of self-directed activity in the social setting. The social order is thus justified if it is one which protects individual rights, and unjustified otherwise. That is the why of classical liberalism. The fact that classical liberalism and free markets help the poor better than redistributive statism is a great thing, both intrinsically and in terms of explaining its virtues to others. But the justification must be something else, something universal. Put it another way: if everyone were wealthy, would individual rights no longer be important? Of course not.

One thought on “In which I overstay my welcome

  1. I always ask, “who you calling poor?” I grew up in El Paso where there are tens of thousands who some would consider poor. I have never met a single human being who called themselves “poor” even though they may characterize others as “rich”.

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