Liberty and Equality

“Between liberty and equality, there can be but little fraternity.” (Montesquieu, correspondence with Voltaire)*

I’d like to follow up on our previous discussion of Libertarianism, as a way of getting clearer on the position I was tentatively putting forward there. Well, it’s still somewhat tentative, but I’ll go for it.

Let’s start with some common ground: the failure of standard attempts to ground liberty on some pre-social free individual. I don’t buy into this way of using social contracts, for all the reasons Josh has pointed out in previous posts. Basically, it’s turtles and sociality all the way down.

That said, I wonder how much this sort of account really captures why people become Libertarians in the first place. As a kind of sociological hypothesis, I suspect that most of them only turn to these arguments after the fact. Originally, they’re more likely to be responding to more immediate problems concerning excessive state interference in our lives. (It’s no coincidence that the Volokh family of Libertarian bloggers were born in the oppressive Soviet Union and escaped to America as children.) Once people are established as Libertarians, perhaps they feel pressured to provide a theoretical foundation for their views, which leads them to these problematic state-of-nature myths.

In previous posts, I’ve suggested that there’s a different and better way of grounding a version of Libertarianism. I linked this to Aristotle’s idea of human flourishing (eudaimonia / happiness) as the goal of political life. To this I add the distinctly modern idea that what counts as flourishing will vary from one person to another–what makes me happy might not make you happy at all. Given this variability, it’s best to let people freely pursue the lives they wish to live—at least as far as possible. Well-educated individuals with reasonable access to society’s institutions are in the best position to select and pursue their life goals. And they’ll be happier if these goals are achieved in significant part through their own efforts (or through the collective efforts of a group they freely identify with). This connects up with the Kantian idea that freedom captures something essential and profound about our human nature. (Here I’m just plagiarizing what I said before.) Excessive state interference in our lives threatens this freedom, and thus threatens human flourishing. Out of this emerges a libertarian principle: we should limit government as much as possible to encourage free human flourishing.

Admittedly, what I’m describing doesn’t look like the standard version of Libertarianism. In fact, one might even suspect that it’s not so different from standard equity-based accounts of justice (as in Rawls). To a certain extent, this has to be right. Bauer’s Libertarianism (should we call it Blibertarianism?) makes freedom the capstone of political life, not its foundation. Like many forms of Liberalism, it demands robust social institutions to secure equality of opportunity, and thus provides some support for the modern welfare state.

(As an aside, this is one reason to think that continued rhetorical focus on the concept of liberty could have political payoffs. If traditional Libertarians can be convinced that liberty is a robust social accomplishment, rather than a natural given, then they might be convinced that greater redistribution to fund the necessary institutions is warranted. We won’t want to mention Hegel to them, but we’ll know…)

Anyway, Josh seems to be defending a version of the above equivalency claim when he writes:

“Nates – I think we may be saying similar things in different languages. When you say that defending libertarianism your way severs the necessary connection between social injustice and basic liberties, that’s what I was trying to say. Whether we get there by “human flourishing” or via “primary social goods” and the rest of the justice-as-fairness apparatus, the point is, liberty is a derived, not a primary entity, which means it’s going to end up being something derived from the same place as the pursuit of economic equality.

This is where I’d like to push back a little. While they may come from the same place, I’m convinced there’s still a vital difference between the two positions—and thus that there’s a distinct, quasi-Libertarian view worth considering. So, I claim that Blibertarianism is not just equality by another name, and it would have significantly different political implications.

Here I need to make a kind of confession. Although I like Rawls and I’m glad he’s the inspiration for the name of our blog, I have to admit that there’s a lot of Theory of Justice that I don’t care for at all. For me, it’s all about the veil of ignorance and the initial work Rawls does with this thought experiment. But we part ways soon after that. I certainly never would’ve agreed to call our blog “Maximins.” And I have serous reservations about the Difference Principle.

Here’s what bothers me about it. Once we recognize the value of striving to accomplish our own ends, the Difference Principle starts to look problematic. Why? Because it’s largely _indifferent_ to how the “proper” allocation of resources is achieved. And when I try to picture how this would be implemented, it seems that it would inevitably involved some sort of top-down, centralized, state-managed system of distribution. (I can’t see how unequal distributions that were not to the benefit of those worst off could otherwise be avoided.) This would surely thwart the free individual’s selection and pursuit of life goals.

Given these concerns, I believe that equality has been WAY overrated on the left. It’s not a primary value. (You first have to be shown deserving of equality—after all, animals and plants don’t get it!) Demanding equality is presumptuous—in that you end up deciding what’s good for me. And enforcing equality is often harmful, especially when we factor in the tendency for overreach. Here I’ll make a sweeping historical claim. Our contemporary, over-regulated, paternalistic, dumbed-down society is largely a product of 20th Century technocratic/liberal thinking, focused on maximizing equality. I hate that so many of our choices are needlessly constrained. Through a thousand tiny cuts, we’re made stupider and less capable of thriving as people.

Here’s one final way of putting the problem. When your goal is equality, all the emphasis will be on active, government-enforced redistribution. There’s no countervailing force. By contrast, when you focus on liberty as a social achievement, you still get the key benefit of equality: support for robust institutions securing fair opportunity for all. But there’s now a force of resistance in place. Government intervention is justified only to the extent that it’s required to secure the conditions for creating free, flourishing individuals. It should be limited to this role.

* Strictly speaking, Montesquieu never actually said this, as far as I know.

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22 Responses to Liberty and Equality

  1. Josh says:

    Nates –

    I think what you’re describing as the difference principle isn’t really what it is. Nozick makes a very similar argument to the one you have made, under the heading “how liberty upsets patterns” or something like that, with the Wilt Chamberlain example (wilt chamberlain ends up with a lot of money even though a “patterned conception of justice” initially prevented him from earning this income.

    I think what you say you don’t care for in Rawls isn’t exactly there in that way. “Equality” isn’t the notion in Rawls that it might be for a more unreconstructed egalitarian like, say, GA Cohen. In short – I think Rawls is a much more moderate defender of equal opportunity to access primary social goods, and less an “equality of results” style socialist. For Rawls, We agree on fair terms of social cooperation – the way in which INequalities are distributed. Rawls ends up defending the sorts of inequalities you are saying the difference principle vitiates. Inequalities are okay so long as their existence helps the least well off more than any other arrangement. That’s why Cohen doesn’t like him – he thinks it’s okay for doctors to be paid more, and more generally bc salary incentives help us all. At moments, Rawls gets towards almost defending a sort of trickle-down conservatism.

    The point of his arguments about equality is mostly to show that arguments defending inequalities need to show that those inequalities help the least well off, not by redistributing that wealth TOWARDS the least well off, but that creates an overall system that helps their cause more than a less unequal arrangement might have. CID unequal salaries mean there are more doctors, and doctors help the least advantages more than if there were no inequalities (and therefore no doctors) than he’s okay with that.

    Sorry – I feel like I’m repeating myself… Look over chapter 3 of A theory of justice, the relevant sections of Anarchy State and Utopia, and then the later Rawls article social unity and primary social goods. Rawls is no socialist, and really only a very idiosyncratic sort of egalitarian. I think David had a post a while back on which we discussed this issue (chad commented on it).

    Re your observation that a lot of libertarianism grows out of an intuitive skepticism about political authority – and perhaps often grows out of historical acquaintance with Soviet-style socialism … You’re doubtlessly right, but then I wonder whether response to trauma is the best way to develop political intuitions.

  2. Nates says:

    Josh, I’m sensing a disconnect between your comment and my original post, for a few reasons.

    First, I don’t understand how Nozick’s Chamberlain argument is similar to mine, other than in the generic sense that it’s also a critique of Rawls. Nozick’s critique is based on the intuition that any voluntary transaction is a fair one (and that Rawls’s system can’t account for this). By contrast, I claim that all sorts of involuntary transactions are required to create the conditions for genuinely free individuals.

    Second, I don’t get the correction to my understanding of the DP, given that I explicitly characterize it as prohibiting “unequal distributions that were not to the benefit of those worst off”. I never claim that Rawls is a strict egalitarian, and my argument doesn’t depend on reading him this way. What my argument does challenge is the idea that justice should be based on measuring the final distribution of goods using equality as the baseline and permitting departures from equality only when they benefit the worst off. Whether you buy the argument or not, I’m pretty sure I’ve set up Rawls accurately as my target. The DP is clearly a results-based measure of justice, and that’s what I’m challenging. On my view, distribution results matter only to the extent that they provide fair opportunity to achieve autonomy. After that, its not really about the distribution at all, and there could be just distributions that run far afoul of the DP. Or so I claim.

  3. Josh says:

    The WC example is relevant. What Nozick concludes via the WC example is exactly what you conclude – “that all sorts of involuntary transactions are required to create the conditions for genuinely free individuals.” Nozick’s argument runs like this: whatever equal system you have in place, voluntary exchanges (in his example, passing the hat around at a basketball game for people impressed by WC’s play) through that system off. Then he argues that repeated correction would be necessary to counteract those voluntary transfers. He says those would require constant interventions of rights violations, which he suggests would be wrong and contradict the rest of the liberal project. That may use different vocabulary than your argument, but it’s very similar.

    Where Nozick’s argument breaks down is in that he fails to see that the DP is not what you are calling “a results-based measure of justice,” the sort of thing where you generate a system of inequalities, let it run for a bit and then say “okay, did this maximize the benefits of the least advantaged? If not, we need to change things.” It’s much more what Rawls calls a system of “pure procedural justice.” You agree to rules in advance, based on the view from being the V of I, and accept as fair whatever comes out of those rules. If the system of inequalities gets “too unequal” Rawls wouldn’t say “get back in there and redistribute.” He’d look at the initial conditions and rules and see whether they were fair or not.

    The idea is – reasoners in the OP look at several alternative systems, considering the general knowledge they have about the society for which they’re selecting principles of justice, the awareness that they themselves might be the least advantaged, and also what Rawls calls the “general conclusions of social science.” Then they select the arrangement that leaves the least-well-off better than they would have been under other arrangements. From there, institutions are generated, etc. There is no “measuring the final distribution of goods using equality as the baseline.” The final distribution of goods is, for Rawls, irrelevant. What is important is that the system that generated them had a coherent rationale.

    Another less combative way to put what I was trying to say – what you’re calling “blibertarianism” isn’t all that different from what Rawls calls justice as fairness. Your characterization of the DP as results-oriented notwithstanding, the DP isn’t the whole of the Rawlsian principles of justice – it’s the second part of the second one (and they’re supposed to be lexically ordered – the first ones must be satisfied and can’t be set aside for the later ones). The earlier principles of justice – equality of opportunity and the liberty principle – make room for liberty in the way you’ve asked for a theory to make room for them – as things that emanate out of our shared life together, not as magical birthrites.

    One reason I thought you’d misunderstood Rawls was your invocation of “maximin.” He doesn’t use it in quite the way you seem to resist. It’s just a way of selecting between different arrangements within the OP. It’s also a way that, he more or less says, might not require such a focus on the “least well off” if the whole chain-connection argument works. We’d be maximizing the chances that everyone was the most well off.

    If there’s a problem with Rawls’ system, it’s not that it would require constant meddling by the central government. It’s more that its conclusion are stated at such a high level of abstraction that it’s sometimes hard to see how any given arrangement *couldn’t* be justified by just the right “conclusions of the social sciences” or “general facts about society.” For example – if the supply-siders turned out to be right (as in, the social scientists confirmed that it worked), Rawls’s principles would have to endorse such a scheme of taxation. The point, for Rawls, is how we justify it initially, not what end it produces.

  4. Nates says:

    Josh writes: “the DP is not what you are calling ‘a results-based measure of justice,’ the sort of thing where you generate a system of inequalities, let it run for a bit and then say ‘okay, did this maximize the benefits of the least advantaged? If not, we need to change things.'”
    And, at the end: “The point, for Rawls, is how we justify it initially, not what end it produces.”

    This is true in a very limited sense, if by “what end it produces” we mean only the actual results after a particular system is implemented. (I.e., “let it run for a bit.”) I get that Rawls isn’t interested in doing that. And I should have been clearer on this point.

    Nonetheless, this is not the only way to think about distribution results–or the most obvious one in the context of Rawls’s project. Instead, you can also consider the reasonably expected outcomes for a proposed system (as applied to a particular society). And this way of thinking about the resulting distribution is absolutely essential to employing the difference principle. After all, how could you possibly affirm that your proposed system is to the advantage of the worst off without making some claim about the expected distribution results!

    In fact, Rawls regularly talks this way. When he provides an example of pure procedural justice working out successfully, he describes what sounds like a typical mixed economy system, and concludes: “Then it would appear that the resulting distribution of income and the pattern of expectations will tend to satisfy the difference principle.” (1971, p. 87) This is clearly an example of appealing to the results (even if only hypothetically and provisionally!) in assessing whether the proposed system would be just.

    The problem I have is as follows. Having your proposed systems satisfy this DP-based test of expected outcomes leaves you open to accepting very top-down, technocratic, micro-managed systems of political economy. And it’s this feature that I want to say violates my conception of justice. Rawls is not committed to micro-managed economies, but he’s OK with them. (For example, he specifically says that socialist systems might well meet his conditions of justice). By contrast, I claim that any system that met the DP condition in this micro-managed way would be unjust because it would violate as essential condition of human flourishing.

    This is what I was gesturing toward at the end of my post when I said that Rawls supplies no “countervailing force” to the tendency toward top-down regulation of our lives. (Why? Because a system can be just on his standards even when highly regulated.) Does this help clarify how the position I’m mapping out is different from that of Rawls?

  5. Josh says:

    It does help. I think this is probably a matter of how comfortable you are with central planning in an empirical sense. I’m totally comfortable with libertarianism if what it is is a general skepticism about possibly implementing programs with unintended consequences. What I’m having a little trouble with is understanding exactly how his works in the context of your disavowal of pre-institutional senses of desert.

    If that skepticism is just a watchword, one that means when undertaking redistributive efforts we be mindful of how they might not work, and that might sometimes be a reason not to do them, that seems fine. But if that becomes some part of affirmative reason not to undertake redistributive efforts in general, then I think you need a pre-institutional notion of ownership, rights, etc, which as you say are probably impossible to derive.

    I think the “countervailing force” for Rawls is the other principles, and their lexical priority vis-a-vis the DP. That’s why I mentioned “social unity and primary social goods.” The social goods listed there are in general in support of a limited sort of redistribution that occurs within the confines of other more liberty-centered goods and institutions.

    In general the Rawlsian system makes room for individuality in the form of liberties and for cooperation in the form of redistribution. Are you against the latter, or just suspicious of its possible failures? Again, if it’s just skepticism that you need, our differences are a matter of degree, and have a lot to do with the nature of the specific program or institution in question.

  6. Nates says:

    What I’m trying to avoid is the thought that one has to be either for or against redistribution. My view is: extensive redistribution (in some areas, much more so than what we now have)–but only where it’s needed to give everyone the opportunity to become a genuinely free individual who is in a position to pursue a flourishing life. And, beyond the issue of redistribution, state power to interfere in individual lives (in general) should also be limited to this condition.

    Yes, the first principle provides some countervailing force, but I don’t think it’s enough. (Evidence for this is Rawls’s openness to the idea that very centrally-planned systems could still be just.) What I want is a limiting condition built into the difference principle itself, which links it to the goal of producing freely flourishing individuals.

    It’s because redistribution is now linked to this goal that I think it makes sense to think of this as a form of Libertarianism, albeit one in which liberty is the capstone, not the foundation.

  7. Josh says:

    You write that redistribution should happen “only where it’s needed to give everyone the opportunity to become a genuinely free individual who is in a position to pursue a flourishing life.” I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, and I suppose it doesn’t ultimately matter whether you agree with John Rawls or not (or whether you think you do), but this is just so, so so close to the way things are described in “Social Unity and Primary Social Goods” and several other essays. Again, the lexical priority of the liberty principle over the DP is meant to highlight that freedom and human flourishing are the primary aims, and the DP is only to be invoked in situations where an unequal distribution might help that freedom and human flourishing.

    As for Rawls’s support of centrally planned systems – it seems at least a conceptual possibility (and also likely an empirical reality) that such systems actually CAN provide for freedom and human flourishing in a quite meaningful way: I assume that’s why the Scandinavian countries generally rank towards the top of the quality-of-life lists. Now obviously Soviet Russia wasn’t highly ranked on those lists, but then again, when it comes to free-market systems, there are also good (Switzerland) and bad examples (the US).

    Badly centrally planned systems are bad – both from the standpoint of freedom and from that of equality. But good ones might be good – both for the sake of freedom and for the sake of equality. And if there’s not “presumption of liberty” type argument, there’s also no clear reason why central planning is in and of itself bad. There’s no a priori reason to resist it. Since at least Rousseau there is a tradition of arguing that redistribution is necessary if and only if it promotes the legitimate exercise of freedom – and I honestly think that’s most of the left’s primary reason for arguing for it, Rawls included.

  8. Nates says:

    OK, I think we’re making progress here in understanding one another. The “a priori reason” for resisting central planning reason is that it’s not sufficient to satisfy (a) the conditions for producing free individuals. Justice demands that you also satisfy (b) the conditions for their flourishing once free. My claim is that condition (b) puts more significant constraints on state power than condition (a). My related claim is that, while liberal theorists have acknowledged (a), they have not adequately acknowledged (b).

    So, why do I think that condition (b) provides additional constraints on state authority, above and beyond those provided by condition (a)? Here I refer you back to the Aristotelian section of my original post: “they’ll be happier if these goals are achieved in significant part through their own efforts (or through the collective efforts of a group they freely identify with)”. The thought is that free individuals can truly flourish only when their accomplishments are the product of their own decisions and efforts (at least to a significant degree). So, I suppose it’s a claim about human (or rational) nature. Dogs and cats can flourish in a tightly regulated system. People can’t.

    At this point I’m not even trying to convince you that condition (b) must be satisfied to achieve justice. I’ll settle for convincing you that this goes beyond what is required in typical liberal accounts of justice. In my opinion, it’s a useful insight that we can glean from Libertarians, even if we disagree with much of the rest of what they hold true.

  9. Josh says:

    So your idea is that things that are achieved as a result of one’s own efforts tend to promote a sort of flourishing that a technocratic-spoon-fed institutionalization wouldn’t? That sounds fine.

    I’m confused though – most institutions with which (an in which) I’ve worked, even the ones that were the most straightforwardly stated-funded and regulated (like the public high school at which I am a teacher) provide space for individual initiatives – at least, it does so to the same extent as a private school funded by individuals would have. These institutions work to allow for meaningful human flourishing regardless of economic position. Insofar as individual creativity and autonomy are threatened by institutions, that seems to be a problem with INSTITUTIONS, not their publicly owned nature. Hence “Office Space”-type comedies… the corporate world does just as much (if not more) mind-numbing as government programs do.

    The reason I brought up the Scandinavian example is that I don’t think you’d argue that those are systems that are “tightly regulated system[s]” of the sort in which you think only “dogs and cats” can flourish but “people can’t.” Those systems may place significant barriers on economic self-expression and autonomy, but not on all the other kinds of self-expression and autonomy that also create free flourishing. Arguably, they do a better job with all those other types precisely by limiting the economic sphere. My sense is that these societies create free-thinking, autonomous individuals, just individuals that aren’t quite as interested in material gain as the ones America creates (and the non-economic aspects of autonomy don’t do nearly so well in America as they seem to in Sweden).

    Maybe to get a sense for the notion of flourishing you’re going for, you could answer a more concrete institutional question. Suppose we lived in a society described by the following major institutions:

    a) A broadly progressive income tax structure (with a steeper curve than the current US system)

    b) A Canadian-style single-paper health care system.

    c) A public education system better-funded and more equitably funded than the current US standard.

    d) A robust system of individual rights and liberties surround free speech, a free press, religious freedom, the right to assemble, etc.

    e) A basically democratic system of government – perhaps with some republican checks-and-balances, more or less like the US’s now (perhaps with fewer gerrymandered districts and other unreasonably anti-democratic barriers).

    f) An adequately funded military, police, fire department, and a reasonable scheme of consumer and health protections.

    My question is two-fold –

    (1) which, if any, of (a)-(f), do you think would mitigate against the “conditions for producing free individuals”, to the extent that there would be an “a priori” reason to reject the existence of the institution from the standpoint of justice?

    (2) What would be the preferable form of that that institution/area of life would take according to “blibertarian” principles?

    Obviously the intuition I’m working with is that for the most part, (a)-(f) would be fine under your worldview, which is why I’m having trouble understanding the difference between liberal and blibertarian principles. Nut if you think they wouldn’t be the same, I’m just trying to get a clearer, more concrete picture.

    Your original post said that “our contemporary, over-regulated, paternalistic, dumbed-down society is largely a product of 20th Century technocratic/liberal thinking, focused on maximizing equality. I hate that so many of our choices are needlessly constrained. Through a thousand tiny cuts, we’re made stupider and less capable of thriving as people.”

    I know you announced this as a self-avowedly “sweeping historical claim” – one of my troubles with it is that I don’t understand which institutions you’re talking about.

    Another trouble (which is harder to discuss) is that it feels like at least since 1964 (arguably the heyday of what you’re calling “maximizing equality”) things have gone away from equality, not towards it, and that that time coincides with the dumbing-down that you’re describing, which would suggest that it’s the conservative counter-revolution that’s really done what you say the earlier liberal movement did.

    This second trouble might be allayed by your speaking to the first.

  10. Nates says:

    Josh writes:
    “So your idea is that things that are achieved as a result of one’s own efforts tend to promote a sort of flourishing that a technocratic-spoon-fed institutionalization wouldn’t? That sounds fine.”

    OK, good. Let me try to address some of your concerns. (Needless to say, most of this I don’t really have worked out, so there may well be problems. And I realize that the theory as a whole is suspiciously non-specific.)

    The Scandinavian comparison is tricky, but it might help clarify my position. Yes, they do a vastly better job of securing the basic conditions of autonomy than the United States does, so, if I had to pick one system or the other, that’s what I’d go with. Nonetheless, despite these clear advantages, I do think there’s a problematic tendency to over-legislate individual lives in these countries. (I know Germany a lttle better, but it’s sufficiently similar to serve as an example. There, I find that everything is unhealthily orderly and rule-governed. A trivial example: pedestrians don’t cross against the light even if there’s no traffic for miles.) Of course, here in the US it’s even worse: we don’t secure the basic conditions, and then we over-legislate in other areas!

    Overall, I like your institutions (a) to (f). What I would want to add is some sort of overarching principle (g): don’t impose institutions and regulations unless they are essential for securing the conditions of genuine autonomy (and autonomous flourishing). (I like (a) through (f) precisely because I do seem them as essential in this role.)

    So, I think there should be a built-in bias against legislating our lives. Principle (g) would serve two roles. In terms of ideal theory, it would enlarge the space for individual flourishing within society. And, for non-ideal theory, it would act as a useful guard against the tendency of legislators to impose their values on others unnecessarily.

    How would this play out in actual political practice? Honestly, I’m not sure exactly. But I’m picturing there being a kind of burden on politicians to show that proposed legislation was linked to meeting these conditions. Maybe citizens would have a venue for suing on these grounds to block legislation.

    Also, I agree that private institutions are just as much a threat to human flourishing as public ones. So, it would be justified to regulate them in various ways to prevent excessive private intrusions into individual life choices.

    My basic thought is that liberal theorists have been so concerned with defending state power to establish the basic conditions of autonomy that they haven’t thought enough about the danger of overreach–and the threat to human flourishing from this overreach. By contrast, Libertarians are very aware of the dangers of overreach, but aren’t sufficiently concerned with securing the conditions for autonomy. I want a system of justice that draws on what each side does best.

  11. Josh says:

    It sounds like your main concerns, then, aren’t really about distributive (or redistributive ) issues, but more distribution-neutral sorts of regulations, like health-and-safety type stuff. Don’t you think it’s fair to say that this is a problem that Rawls, Nozick etc. aren’t really arguing about? The Difference Principle seems agnostic towards, to use your example, jaywalking laws. Or are you suggesting there is some sort of causal relationship between redistribution/equality and other types of regulation? That higher taxes and a larger welfare state tend to give rise to jaywalking laws and their ilk?

    It is true, as you suggest, that the United States seems to somehow have found the worst of both worlds here – bad distribution and an overly active nanny state. But that would seem to suggest that it’s not a focus on equality that has brought that state of affairs about, but something else.

    I suspect this has more to do with the ever-encroaching rhetoric of “safety” and “security,” something that, interestingly enough, both liberals and libertarians seems suspicious about. But I think the reason they’re both suspicious of it is just its relatively irrational basis much of the time. As in – person dies in highly unusual accident –> insane push to legislate for this highly unusual situation –> new accident –> new insane push, etc. Both liberals and libertarians dislike the Patriot Act, and tried their best to form coalitions to stop it or limit it.

    Liberals tend to explain their dislike for things like this in terms of “distracting us from the real issues” or “scapegoating” or “ignoring the demands of structural injustice.” Libertarians tend to explain THEIR dislike by saying that it “violates our basic freedoms,” and that sort of thing. As I’ve explained in previous posts, I tend to think that insofar as the latter sorts of explanations are in tension with the former sorts, and the former stand on better normative ground than the former, we should try to avoid the basic-freedoms-type explanations.

    I know your point about Aristotle fits in here somewhere – your idea seems to be that via something Aristotelian, we can appeal to “basic freedoms,” but in a less problematic way that doesn’t rely on asocial state-of-nature explanations, but I’m having trouble grasping how this Aristotelian idea interacts with the questions of distribution.

    All of which is to say I hope we’re not back where we started… It seems like what you’re saying is that within a reasonable distributive scheme, there is still a value to freedom, one that can sometimes place limits on other (nondistributive) aspects of that system. I’m tempted to say I can agree, but freedom-from-jaywalking-laws may have a tendency to morph into freedom-from-taxes, and if I had to pick, the taxation seems more important to leave in place than the jaywalking laws are to eliminate (that was the point I was trying to make in my post about drug laws).

    Maybe what you’re saying is we don’t have to pick?

  12. Nates says:

    Well, my claim is about the general justification for state power. But my proposed condition (g) (“don’t impose institutions and regulations unless they are essential for securing the conditions of genuine autonomy / flourishing”) would surely have distribution implications too. For example, it might restrict distribution beyond what is required to achieve genuine autonomy. And for the distribution needed to achieve autonomy, it might affect the form this takes: e.g., maybe favoring a guaranteed minimum wage over paternalistic, highly regulated forms of welfare.

    Because U.S. redistribution is currently below the level required for genuine autonomy, the differences between my proposal and standard liberal models (in terms of distribution) don’t yet reveal themselves. (This is why it’s easy to come up with non-distributive examples of excessive state power.) But if you imagine a radically egalitarian state, where an almost even distribution is enforced, the distinction would become more apparent. On my model, such a distribution would clearly be unjust.

  13. Josh says:

    Could you clarify what you mean by “paternalistic, highly regulated forms of welfare” as opposed to a “guaranteed minimum wage”? I know this is a common libertarian distinction, one that’s supposed to correct for what I’ve heard called “the failed social engineering attempts by both the right and the left.” My suspicion is that giving people a bunch of money they get to choose what to do with, say, as opposed to a health care benefit, is that you’ll just encourage them to select some goods (i.e., the ones markets advertise) over others. It’s not “paternalism” in the sense that the state doesn’t do it, but vouchers systems aren’t paragons of free choice either… they just wash the state’s hands of those choices. Markets can be anti-autonomy too.

    A related thought – this all assumes that market mechanisms are appropriate for all kinds of goods. I think it’s fairly obvious they don’t work that well where things like health care are concerned. I know the normal reply is to say “we’ve never seen a free market for health care,” and to attribute status quo problems to government intervention and things like tort/malpractice laws, but – the whole “rational actor” thing doesn’t seem to work so well when people are making decisions about their health.

    Essentially my question is – I get that autonomous selection of life goals may better than state-directed choosing, but isn’t health care a different sort of thing – a necessary condition upon a decent life, rather than just one choice among many?

  14. Nates says:

    Yes, I share the concern you’re expressing here. I’m finding it difficult to articulate my position without exaggerating it, and so I may need to walk back some of what I just said. Maybe a better way of thinking about it is like this: justice (as I understand it) requires that we value autonomy in life decisions–and that we always factor this into our political calculations (both distributive and otherwise). But it’s one of many values, and so it’s not always decisive in itself. In the case of healthcare, we might reasonably decide that our collective unwillingness to let people die without care trumps the value of letting people freely decline insurance.

    That’s fine. What matters is that the value is always respected, not that it’s always acted on. (Just like most other rights, I suppose.)

    Also, just to clarify, I don’t think my position implies favoring private markets over public institutions in all cases. I recognize that both can endanger personal autonomy. The key is to always be concerned to create a space for autonomous decision-making. In some situations, that space might be maximized through market solutions, in others through public solutions. (I suspect that in many cases a carefully publicly regulated market will be a good solution, but this will have to be a case-by-case thing.)

  15. Josh says:

    Hmm… this dialogue has inspired me to write a post exploring the role that autonomy does or does not play within Rawls’ essays and books. Not sure if I’ll get to it right away but perhaps some day. One book that undoubtedly would bear on this discussion is Joseph Raz’s _The Morality of Freedom_, which I own but have not read.

  16. Nates says:

    Looking forward to that. I’d be happy to hear that Rawls anticipates more of my concerns than I think he does! Perhaps I’ll try to read Raz sometime this summer. You know, between all the sci-fi and historical fiction…

  17. David says:

    I’m coming to this interesting discussion late, but I’m hoping there’s still some interest. Rather than read the entire thread, I’m going to read one post at a time and comment as I see fit.

    Nates writes,

    Given these concerns, I believe that equality has been WAY overrated on the left. It’s not a primary value. (You first have to be shown deserving of equality—after all, animals and plants don’t get it!) Demanding equality is presumptuous—in that you end up deciding what’s good for me.

    I think we need to be careful when talking about ‘equality’ in this context. For example, it’s important to distinguish between the following two uses of ‘equality’ in moral contexts, and particularly in the context of Rawls’s theory of justice:

    1. Moral equality of persons.
    2. Equality of resources–allowing for exceptions per the Difference Principle.

    As I read Rawls, his fundamental point–really, I think it is the linchpin of his entire theory of justice–is that there is a compelling argument from (1) to (2). As moral equals, who cooperatively produce the ‘primary social goods,’ persons have a prima facie claim to an equal share of those goods. Rawls thought the claim to equal shares is only prima facie because he thought–correctly, I think–that rational persons should not fetishize ‘equality of resources’. Accordingly, they claim a right to equal shares unless and insofar as permitting unequal shares would increase their ‘holdings.’

    With this in mind, I guess I balk a bit, Nates, at your claim that ‘equality has been way overrated on the Left.’ Evidently, you don’t mean equality in the sense of (1): I doubt you would claim, good Kantian I know you to be, that the ‘moral equality of persons’ has been overrated. But then I think if you want to insist that equality in the sense of (2) has been ‘way overrated,’ you basically have to reject Rawls’s entire theory of justice. For–again–the entire theory is about the deep connection between these two senses of equality.

  18. David says:


    I like your distinction between two forms of ‘Libertarianism’:

    Old-fashioned Libertarianism, or

    L1: The just society, above all else, respects the ‘natural liberty’ of the individual person.

    New Jersey Style Libertarianism, or

    L2: The just society promotes the realization/development of ‘liberty/freedom’ among its citizens.

    I take you to be arguing that L2 construes ‘freedom/liberty’ as the telos or overarching aim/goal of the just society–the value promotion of which governs the organization of society–rather than as an external value that constrains the organization of society from the start. And your main point, as I understand you, is that one important way a society promotes the value of liberty/freedom is by allowing people to make their own decisions, lead their own lives, etc.

    What strikes me as really clever about your distinction, and the argument it suggests, is that ‘minimal government’ is being advocated on the grounds that it is necessary to promote the development of freedom, and not simply on the grounds that government must respect individual freedom.

    I want to suggest a name for this view you are developing: Teleological Libertarianism (a view you might profitably contrast with Deontological Libertarianism).

    I do however have some questions about your view that I’d like to encourage you to address (it will help you develop the view, I think, which again I find interesting). You write:

    “Government intervention is justified only to the extent that it’s required to secure the conditions for creating free, flourishing individuals.”

    Can you say something more about the ‘conditions for creating free, flourishing individuals,” and/or a recognizable and familiar form of government intervention in 21st century America that could not by ‘justified’ by appealing to the need to secure such conditions?

    My background worry here is that old-fashioned Libertarians might complain, with some justification, that your view is ‘Libertarian’ in name only, since deep and pervasive encroachment by government on ‘natural liberty’ and the ‘private sphere’ could be ‘justified’ as an attempt to ‘secure conditions for creating free, flourishing individuals’ (I’m thinking of drug laws in particular but of course there are lots of examples).

  19. Nates says:

    Glad you finally made it here, David! (Sadly, I’ll be traveling this week, so I’ll have irregular internet access, but I’ll check in on the thread when I can.)

    First, teleological libertarianism nicely captures what I’m getting at. I like it.

    The distinction between notions of equality is also helpful. I guess I want to complicate the relationship between (a) moral equality and (b) equality of resources. Rawls thinks that (a) straightforwardly implies (b) (qualified by the difference principle). I’m saying that this inference is more complicated than that. We do need equality for certain kinds of resources (in order to secure the freedom that supports moral equality). But equality of other kinds of resources can actually undermine (moral) free human flourishing. As far as I can tell, Rawls isn’t attuned to the latter worry. (Josh suspects I’m wrong about this, so I’m looking forward to future posts on Rawlsian autonomy!)

    But if I am right, this leads to the questions you ask in the next comment: namely, which kinds of government intervention go beyond the equality of resources required for securing moral freedom? Well, ignoring the advice of Socrates, we could start with a list: restaurant liquor licenses; sunday shopping restrictions; tax laws that shelter certain kinds of income; tax support of aggressive military power (beyond self-defense needs); etc.

    But it might be easier to flip things around. I’m picturing a state in which the mammoth bureaucratic entanglement in our lives is largely stripped away, replaced by simple, universal support for the basic institutions for securing moral freedom and human flourishing. Stuff like: education and other needs of childhood development; health care; a basic safety net, including support in old age; an accessible system of legal justice and protection from crime; a democratic electoral system; etc. I don’t claim this is a complete list, but I hope it captures what I’m getting at. Moreover, each of these institutions should be enacted in a manner that shows concern for individual autonomy. For example: welfare provided in the form of a basic minimum wage rather than humiliating food stamps. As much as possible, state intervention should be aimed at promoting conditions in which individuals can make good choices, rather than the state making choices for them.

    Of course, I still don’t have a clear principle distinguishing these cases, and I do worry about that. Also, there are certain kinds of state intervention that I’m not sure what to do about. For example, it’s likely the case that certain kinds of shared utilities (e.g., roads, electricity, broadband internet) function much better when state regulated. Is this a limitation on my freedom, given that I can’t just start building power lines wherever I want? Or is it adding to my autonomy by making possible certain choices that I couldn’t make otherwise? I’m inclined to say the latter, but then I’m back to the last worry you raise: can’t pretty much any form of state intervention be spun in this way? Well, surely not anything. But perhaps more than I would like. I haven’t figured this out, but what I find myself thinking (in a not-very-thought-out kind of way) is that we can assess the goodness of state interventions based on their intentions. If they are meant to promote autonomous flourishing (and can reasonably be seen as leading to this result), then they’re OK. If not, not. But I realize this is all hopelessly vague.

  20. Josh says:

    I think I may already have said this, but I can’t remember. Nates writes:

    “The distinction between notions of equality is also helpful. I guess I want to complicate the relationship between (a) moral equality and (b) equality of resources. Rawls thinks that (a) straightforwardly implies (b) (qualified by the difference principle). I’m saying that this inference is more complicated than that.”

    Rawls doesn’t make an argument for equality of resources, much less one that is straightforwardly implied by moral equality. He makes an argument about institutions being shaped in a way that priveleges equality of “primary social goods” (which are very significantly different from “resources”) unless inequality benefits the least-advantaged. And again, that doesn’t mean “unless resources can be allocated more towards the least advantaged,” it means unless inequalities like differential salaries, which take a share of equality of resources AWAY from the least-advantaged, and put them in the hands of the more-advantaged, make the least advantaged better than they might have been. When Nates writes “qualified by the difference principle” it makes it sound like a minor point – that is precisely the ground on which Rawls CRITICIZES equality of resources. Perhaps his argument starts there but his unique contribution to the debate is in a move away from it.

    I’m a little fuzzy on the details of the literature, but if memory serves, Rawls has been criticized by several authors precisely on the grounds that he doesn’t advocate equality of resources, and makes too large a space for private property and inequality of resources.

    In other words – and I’ll say this again just for kicks: Rawls’ view is the sort of view Nates is pushing for, just in more deontological language. Nates’ argument still feels more aimed at a different kind of egalitarian, a G.A. Cohen type. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad argument, it just means I disagree about the proper names being used.

  21. David says:

    Rawls doesn’t make an argument for equality of resources, much less one that is straightforwardly implied by moral equality. He makes an argument about institutions being shaped in a way that priveleges equality of “primary social goods” (which are very significantly different from “resources”) unless inequality benefits the least-advantaged.

    Well, it’s true, of course, that Rawls claims to be giving a theory of justice as it pertains to the distribution of ‘primary social goods,’ but since these include ‘income and wealth,’ it seems to me that Rawls’s theory is very much about, at least in part, justice in the distribution of what we would ordinarily call ‘resources.’ I don’t see the point in saying, “Rawls isn’t interested in the distribution of resources, but rather the distribution of primary social goods.” His interest in the latter is in part an interest in the former.

    Also, although I take your point about Rawls not being the unequivocal friend of egalitarians that he is sometimes assumed to be (given Rawls’s allowance of potentially significant inequalities of wealth in the just/fair society), we can still say, I think, that Rawls provided an argument for presumptive material equality, one in which material equality is ‘straightforwardly implied’ by ‘moral equality.’ I see that argument going roughly like this:

    1. As moral equals, persons share equally in the ‘burdens of justice.’
    2. Sharing equally in the burdens of justice, persons have a prima facie claim to share equally in the benefits of justice (the primary social goods, available in and through social cooperation).

    Since it would be irrational (Rawls assumes) to prefer equal shares of shit to unequal shares of gold, persons might agree to permit exceptions to their prima facie claims to equal shares (viz., when permitting inequalities might turn shares of shit into shares of gold). But note that something like the Difference Principle only needs defending in the first place because we are assuming that material equality is the presumptively just/fair distribution, departures from which require moral justification.

    Anyway, I know that exegetical disagreements aren’t really our concern here, but this bears on your claim, Josh, that Nates is much closer to Rawls than Nates realizes. I’m not so sure. I take Nates to be questioning the idea that there is any direct argument from moral equality to material equality–even presumptive material equality, a la Rawls. That would mark (it seems to me) a significant disagreement with Rawls.

  22. Josh says:

    I guess I’m more interested in the exegetical point, though I recognize I’ve still not taken the time to do the sort of close reading that would be needed to prove what I’m saying here.

    The point I was emphasizing is that while you’ve correctly diagnosed Rawls’ presumption toward equality, that presumption turns out to come in for substantial modification, and that modification may have a lot to do with the difference between “resources” and “primary social goods.” “Income and wealth” is named among the primary social goods, but it’s also named as being a relatively less important primary social good. I think this is one place where Rawls’ terminology is unhelpful. The primary social goods, as I understand them, are about the ends which humans find valuable, and they’re certain “all-purpose goods” that help us get to those ends, but I think Rawls is speaking at a higher level of abstraction when he uses the term than the word “goods” might imply. “Goods” sounds like a tangible sort of resource, but that’s not all he uses the word to connote.

    The list of social goods also includes things like “the social bases of self-respect” and “religious liberty.” In “Social Unity and Primary Social Goods,” Rawls suggests that his whole institutional edifice can be explained as falling directly out of his account of what the primary social goods are. Only some of those goods are subject to inequalities that might benefit the least advantaged – namely, the ones that behave more like resources. But many of them do not, and that’s where I see Rawls as offering a teleological sort of argument in favor of liberty.

    Also relevant here is the idea that the list of he provides in that essay are somehow ordinally ranked, and “income and wealth” are actually relatively low on the list.

    Rawls begins with a presumptive connection between two terms – moral equality and material equality – a connection Rawls goes on to critique. Nates, as you say, is doing something similar.

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