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.
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.
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.”