The Wise Pluralism of David Friedman
By Bryan Caplan
This month’s Cato Unbound discusses Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi’s “Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism.” David Friedman’s response is good enough to make me see utilitarianism in a more favorable light. Friedman agrees with Zwolinski and Tomasi that pre-20th-century libertarians worried more about the poor. But the main reason was that back then most people were poor:
Our lead authors’ repeated references to “the poor,” in an essay written
by and for moderns, badly misrepresents the 18th century world and
Smith’s view of it. When Smith was writing, the working class, the
people Smith is referring to in that quote, represented not the lower
end of the income distribution but the bulk of the population.
Friedman admits that libertarianian absolutism (and utilitaranism) lead to bizarre conclusions, but Rawlish social justice theories are similarly flawed:
[S]ubstituting “an ideal of social or distributive justice” is hardly
an improvement, judged by either foundations or implications. Rawls’
derivation for his idea of social justice, the version that Tomasi and
Zwolinski apparently wish to incorporate in libertarian thought, starts
with the claim that someone facing a set of alternatives whose
probability distribution is unknown–the imaginary social chooser behind a
veil of ignorance–will act on the assumption that he is certain to end
up with the least attractive possible outcome. That, plus a lot of hand
waving, is all the justification for his “philosophically most
sophisticated” version of social justice that I have been able to find.
And one implication of that version, taken as literally as I have
been taking the natural rights alternative, is that it is better to have
a world where everyone is at a utility level of a hundred than a world
with one person at ninety-nine and everyone else at a thousand. I have
never yet been able to figure out why anyone takes either the derivation
or the conclusion seriously.
Friedman then ends with a wise and thoughtful moral vision:
The version of libertarianism that seems most plausible to me is one
where respecting rights is seen as a good thing, a value in itself as
well as a means to other values, but not as a value that trumps all
others. One reason to respect natural rights is that it is a good thing
to do, another is that respecting them can be expected to produce a
healthier, wealthier, and happier world than violating them.
Utilitarianism does not, in my view, fully capture the range of those
other values, but it comes considerably closer than social justice. I
do not have an adequate derivation for my ethical views and–unlike Rand
and Rawls–I know that I do not, so can only report on my moral
intuitions while trying, so far as possible, to think through their
implications and interrelations.
Many people picture David Friedman as a reductio ad absurdum of Chicago economics. But that’s only because they don’t read him carefully. While Friedman ends up with many extreme conclusions, he never stacks the deck with neoclassical or Benthamite dogma to get there.