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Bleeding Heart Libertarianism III: Friedman versus Zwolinksi and Tomasi

Over at Cato Unbound, David Friedman commented on Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi’s essay arguing that concerns of social justice informed the classical liberals.  Friedman, who is sympathetic to utilitarianism, argues that Zwolinksi and Tomasi do no sufficient emphasize the importance to classical liberals of human welfare.

Friedman writes:

In their lead essay, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi . . . argue that “earlier thinkers in the classical liberal/libertarian tradition were less sympathetic to a hard line propertarian version of their position, more sympathetic to one in part based on concepts of social justice, than postwar libertarian thinkers such as Rand and Rothbard. . . .  I agree that the version of libertarianism they criticize does not fully reflect the views of earlier thinkers in the classical liberal/libertarian tradition. . . . But I disagree with the authors’ view of what is missing, both as a historical account and as a moral theory. What the hard line propertarian version leaves out is not social justice but human welfare. A more nearly correct version of libertarianism would owe more to Bentham than to Rawls.

Zwolinski replies:

Utilitarianism has indeed played a significant role in the development of classical liberalism, though it has typically been a utilitarianism of a distinctively non-Benthamite sort. Not that Bentham did not have his impressively libertarian moments. But it is with good reason that utilitarians like Mill and Spencer believed that human happiness could not be advanced, nor human liberty preserved, without rather strict adherence to rules which themselves made little reference to matters of utility.

Both of their arguments appeal to me, especially if I reinterpret their historical claims about classical liberals to philosophical claims about the best normative theory.  While I agree with Friedman that human welfare is the ultimate value, I agree with Zwolinksi that the best way to promote human welfare is through “rather strict adherence to rules which themselves ma[k]e little reference to matters of utility.”

Reader Discussion

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on April 22, 2012 at 14:11:23 pm

You overlook the commentary, such as from Todd Seavey:

“ . . . all joking aside, they are attempting to dilute the one philosophy that can save this society by transmuting it into the very philosophy that is rapidly destroying society, on campus and in Washington, DC.”

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Richard Schweitzer
on September 03, 2013 at 00:30:51 am

Richard, Mr. Seavey surely does have a point there, doesn't he. As you know, I quite agree. But then, I don't think anyone who admires and longs for "social justice" is really interested in saving this society, which still holds human political freedom--liberty--in some esteem, even if a great many have lost track of just what that means.

A government can protect each citizen's liberty, or it can bind everyone tightly in a net of rules to ensure some "social" goal--for instance, that of "social justice." But the condition of liberty is the antithesis of such binding, so the dreams of the well-meaning but not-really-libertarians such as Dr. Zwolinski will fail. Because you cannot have both.

Dr. Zwolinski may think he's a libertarian, but only if he stretches the definition to include people who do not think the primary object of libertarianism is liberty.

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Julie near Chicago

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