Many political philosophers are social democrats in a broad sense of the political label. They support the use of government to improve people’s well-being through a wide variety of measures that require extensive taxation, reduce economic inequality and may well reduce the income of the best-off. While especially concerned to help the poor, they are also concerned to help people who are not poor and to help with lacks that are not dire, for example, through access to higher education. They appeal to their fellow-citizens, including those who are rich, to support their program as a matter of political duty.

Whether those measures would in fact achieve their goals is a vital question for social democrats, but not the professional concern of the political philosophers among them. Rather, they describe and defend moral foundations for political choice that make these uses of state coercion morally legitimate and make support a moral duty among those persuaded of their effectiveness. Over the last half century, they have based these foundations on a duty of fairness. They have tried to justify an egalitarian pattern of distribution of benefits or opportunities as the crucial moral standard for judging economic justice. While nearly all regard capitalism as essential to the economic goods they seek and the political liberties they support, they do not celebrate the non-instrumental importance of property rights, independent of these outcomes. Similarly, while well aware of the material benefits of commerce, they do not portray it as the site of intrinsically valuable relations.

In contrast, social democracy is prohibited by the moral foundations for political choice that are commonly labelled “libertarian.” In this perspective, it is wrong to forcibly take from some in order to help others. State power should be used to protect against individuals’ coercion and deceit and to enforce contracts and may be used in other endeavors (highway construction, for example) facilitating free enterprise that have expected net lifetime costs for none. But the further intrusions of social democracy are forms of oppression.

Libertarians and their sympathizers have been an abundant sources of challenges to the quests for moral foundations of social democracy. The power of their criticisms does not depend on prior allegiance to their perspective.

John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness is the formative effort to create moral foundations for social democracy. In elaborate detail, he derived consequences of adopting a device for political choice, roughly: uphold the standard for judging institutions that you would favor if you sought to advance the interests of someone in your society but did not know who this was. But why should one embrace this device as authoritative? Rawls’ scattered attempts at an answer, appealing to fairness, do not withstand criticisms from those who are sympathetic to libertarianism. For example, he sometimes suggests that fairness requires that those who benefit from undeserved advantages, such as birth in a favorable situation, ignore these benefits when they consider whether laws conforming to proposed distributive standards would treat them unjustly. But it does not seem that people do something wrong in making good use of undeserved advantages so long as those advantages are not wrongly obtained. Why, then, should they ignore those benefits in considering whether laws treat them justly? These and other Rawlsian rationales seem vulnerable to Robert Nozick’s quip that a fair way to divide manna fallen from heaven is not a just way of dividing gains from free enterprise.

Post-Rawlsians sometimes insist, instead, on the unfairness of differences in brute luck –advantages and disadvantages for which one is not responsible — and on the moral importance of improving lives burdened by lesser brute luck through transfers from those with more. But a demand to transfer cheering resources from cheerful people to cheer up the grumpier has little moral force. When we have a duty to help the needy, their suffering, not the inferiority of their brute luck, seems the right moral motive, a motive that can be compelling when they are victims of their own choices. When all necessary qualifications are introduced, rectification of inequalities of brute luck has little or no remaining force. The pattern of distribution that Rawls derived from the original position has not fared better. He gives priority to roughly equal prospects of achievement due to similar effort and natural endowment. The resources needed to approach this goal while properly respecting family life would be a huge drain, creating skills far in excess of employment opportunities. Next-ranked is a demand to make the most disadvantaged as well-off as possible. This demand could impose unacceptable losses on a better-off vast majority. As libertarians insist, economic justice has no pattern.

Focus on who has what also distracts from the inherent value of property rights and of commercial exchange. Even when a different set of holdings is morally desirable, this does not, in general, justify taking, as libertarians cogently note. It might be better if Friday had more yams and fish than Crusoe because he has a dependent child; this is not enough to justify his taking them from Crusoe. The exchange of help for help is an inherently valuable form of interaction, and this typically occurs through commerce.

These are powerful reasons for changing the course of current quests for moral foundations for social democracy – but not for abandoning the project. Social democracy should be regarded as a means of promoting the general welfare, construed as requiring impartial concern for fellow-citizens’ well-being, pursued using Rawls’ device. Everyone insists that just law-making is impartial. But how can there be a duty to support that wide-ranging political endeavor? Rather than appealing to duties of fairness, social democrats can appeal to a duty of concern: one’s underlying concern for others should be sufficiently great that greater concern would impose a significant risk of worsening one’s life if one met one’s other responsibilities. Few if any would impose this risk on themselves, in supporting social democracy to express impartial political concern. The costs for rich people would rarely, if ever, make their lives worse. This process must include guarantees of property rights, out of concern for fellow-citizens’ wellbeing. Attainment through one’s energy and initiative, including the pursuit of long-term goals, and direction of one’s energy and attention by one’s own choices are important aspects of wellbeing, requiring protection of property rights. Social democrats need not uphold any distributive pattern. They can ask directly what system of laws would display impartial political concern. Their political program is strengthened by the valuing of commercial exchange in which help is reciprocated, since this cooperation is imperiled by inequality of bargaining power.

These lessons from libertarianism are a basis for abandoning libertarianism. A committed libertarian must condemn as wrong forcibly taking a life-preserver ornamenting another’s flagpole to save someone from drowning and must support the enforcement of contracts to enter into slavery and clauses in home sales forbidding subsequent sales to African-Americans. What a relief to abandon such commitments, while relying on moral foundations for political choice enriched by lessons learned from libertarianism.


Richard W. Miller is Hutchinson Professor in Ethics and Public Life in the Cornell Philosophy Department. His writings include Globalizing Justice and Analyzing Marx. He is currently writing a book on the ethics of social democracy.