Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Liberty with a side of sauerkraut - Part 2 - Social Justice

The Flag that flew over LSS #12......
I've separated this post of my experience at the Liberty Summer Seminar 2012 (LSS) from the previous post because this one may prove to be a bit more contentious.

In the previous post I implied that libertarians come in various flavours. Our final speaker on Saturday, the keynote speaker, John Tomasi is a case in point, a different flavour. John was there with his new book Free Market Fairness. John is also an occasional contributor to the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL).

Sometimes I try to read BHL and generally I find it difficult to understand. It's typically written for academics by academics, with lots of philosophical jargon and references sprinkled everywhere. But, I have a sliver of sympathy for some of the concepts espoused.

This paragraph was copied from the "About" section of BHL, and gives you an idea of the blog's purpose:

"Bleeding Heart Libertarians is a blog about free markets and social justice. All of us who blog at this site are, broadly speaking, libertarians. In particular, we are libertarians who believe that addressing the needs of the economically vulnerable by remedying injustice, engaging in benevolence, fostering mutual aid, and encouraging the flourishing of free markets is both practically and morally important."

You can see from the first line of the "BHL About" their mention of the term "social justice," not a common phrase among libertarians. In his keynote presentation at LSS, John Tomasi outlined the various forms of Liberalism that applied to his argument. There are Classical Liberals and Libertarians, both seeking Economic Liberty, the former for utilitarian reasons, and the latter because of the concept of self-ownership. Then there are High Liberals that seek social justice through what Tomasi called the Democratic Citizen. What Tomasi wants to do is to somehow meld Economic Liberty with the Democratic Citizen idea to create the Neo-Classical Liberal, a hybrid of libertarianism and high liberalism who favour social justice.

Really, this all boils down to: what is social justice? That was not entirely clear to me except that it somehow allows a strictly limited government to redistribute the wealth of its well off citizens, such that, the not so well off are better off. Tomasi never got down to the mechanics of how this was to be done, he is a political philosopher after all. I kept thinking that there needs to be an element of coercion here, this is not a voluntary situation, so how is it different from what we have now except by degree? Most governments in the Western democracies already do a considerable amount of redistribution, and then some. So is it the same? Tomasi says no, he believes in Economic Liberty. But is that true?     

Early on in his presentation Prof. Tomasi, confided to us that he was uncomfortable with the Libertarian idea of "self-ownership," a comment I thought was rather strange coming from a libertarian. Self-ownership is foundational to the right to property, your most fundamental property is your self. From self-ownership it follows that you have the right to those things produced by your self, through your labour, be it money or whatever. Its all your property, to dispose of as you wish, that is true Economic Liberty. So fudging on "self-ownership" is like fudging on property rights, and if that is free market fairness, then I'm really missing something.

I'll have more to say in Part 3. 


  1. Tomasi defined a "democratic Citizen" as a person who considers his life to be very important, and recognizes that other people consider their lives important as well. So based on the "democratic" part, a majority vote may require you to do things which make your life less important? Or prevent you from doing things which are important to you?

  2. I'll say more about democracy in Part 3.


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