Skip to main content


  • Gerald Gaus (a1)

Justificatory liberalism is liberal in an abstract and foundational sense: it respects each as free and equal, and so insists that coercive laws must be justified to all members of the public. In this essay I consider how this fundamental liberal principle relates to disputes within the liberal tradition on “the extent of the state.” It is widely thought today that this core liberal principle of respect requires that the state regulates the distribution of resources or well-being to conform to principles of fairness, that all citizens be assured of employment and health care, that no one be burdened by mere brute bad luck, and that citizens' economic activities must be regulated to insure that they do not endanger the “fair value” of rights to determine political outcomes. I argue in this essay: (1) a large family of liberal views are consistent with the justificatory liberals project, from classical to egalitarian formulations (but not socialist ones); (2) overall, the justificatory project tilts in the direction of classical formulations.

Hide All

1 Christopher J. Eberle applies this term to a family of liberal views I describe in the text, which stress that the basic requirement of a just and legitimate state is that it can be justified to all reasonable citizens. See Eberle , Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1113.

2 See Hume David, “Of the Original Contract,” in his Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 452–73.

3 See Kant Immanuel, The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, 2d ed., trans. Ladd John (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), secs. 42–43 (pp. 114–17), sec. 50 (p. 146).

4 Rawls John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 16 (p. 17 of the original edition).

6 Locke John, Second Treatise of Government, in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett Peter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), sec. 21.

7 Kant Immanuel, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. and trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 52 [Akademie ed., 433–34].

8 Rawls John, “Justice as Fairness,” in Freeman Samuel, ed., John Rawls: Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 55.

9 Eberle, Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics, 54 (emphasis in the original).

10 I explore these dimensions in more detail in my essay “The Idea and Ideal of Capitalism,” in Beauchamp Tom and Brenkert George, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

11 The classic work on the economic policy of classical liberal political economy is Robbins Lionel, The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy (London: Macmillan, 1961). Perhaps the most sophisticated classical analysis of the functions of government is Book V of Mill John Stuart, The Principles of Political Economy (1848), in Robson J. M., ed., The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), vol. 3. See also my essay “Public and Private Interests in Liberal Political Economy, Old and New,” in Benn S. I. and Gaus G. F., eds., Public and Private in Social Life (New York: St. Martin's, 1983), 192–93.

12 It is thus unfortunate that so many have viewed Robert Nozick's somewhat doctrinaire defense of the “night-watchman state” as definitive of the classical liberal tradition. See his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 2527. On the relation between libertarianism and classical liberalism, see Mack Eric and Gaus Gerald, “Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism: The Liberty Tradition,” in Gaus Gerald F. and Kukathas Chandran, eds., Handbook of Political Theory (London: Sage Publications, 2004), 115–30.

13 See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., 197ff.

14 Ibid., 242–51. Rawls also believes that a just society would seek reasonable ways to limit wasteful forms of advertising: “the funds now devoted to advertising can be released for investment or for other useful social ends.” Rawls John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 365.

15 Rawls John, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 48; Freeman Samuel, “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 30 (2001): 105–51.

16 Rawls , Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, ed. Kelly Erin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 135ff.

17 Ibid., 138.

18 Gaus Gerald F., “On Justifying the Moral Rights of the Moderns: A Case of Old Wine in New Bottles,” Social Philosophy and Policy 24, no. 1 (2007): 84119.

19 Rawls was greatly influenced here by Meade J. E., Efficiency, Equality, and the Ownership of Property (London: Allen and Unwin, 1964), chap. 5; and Krouse Richard and McPherson Michael, “Capitalism, ‘Property-Owning Democracy,’ and the Welfare State,” in Gutmann Amy, ed., Democracy and the Welfare State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988). For a discussion of possible policies of such a system, see Dagger Richard, “Neo-Republicanism and the Civic Economy,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 5 (2006): 151–73.

20 Feinberg Joel, Harm to Others (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 9.

21 Benn Stanley, A Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 87.

22 Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 44.

23 This is not to say that the presumption in favor of liberty does not itself have to be argued for. See my Value and Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 379ff.

24 Benn, A Theory of Freedom, 87.

25 I consider such a presumption in some detail in Value and Justification, 381–86.

26 Loren E. Lomasky and I argue this point in more detail in Are Property Rights Problematic?The Monist 73 (October, 1990): 483503.

27 Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 112.

28 Frost Rainer, “Political Liberty: Integrating Five Conceptions of Autonomy,” in Christman John and Anderson Joel, eds., Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 240 n. 24.

29 The way in which morality involves claims to authority over others is a central theme of Darwall Stephen, The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

30 Kant, The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, 115–16 [Akademie ed., 311–13]. See also the “Translator's Introduction,” xxxv–xxxix.

31 For an excellent survey, see Anderson Scott's entry on “Coercion” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 edition), ed. Zalta Edward N.,

32 This is not to say that coercion against noncitizens does not require justification; it simply falls outside the scope of the Political Liberty Principle, which specifies a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for justified coercion.

33 See Wertheimer Alan, Coercion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 277ff.

34 I defend this interpretation of Hobbes in Value and Justification, 275ff.

35 Kant's view is complex; though we have private rights in the state of nature, because there is no impartial judge about their contours, the state of nature also is characterized by an absence of public claims of justice; the idea of the social contract is to establish public justice and rights. Kant, Metaphysical Elements of Justice, 115–16 [Akademie ed., 312].

36 Ibid., 45 [Akademie ed., 249].

37 To be sure, there may be an intelligible sense in which I still might be said to coerce you: “If you don't do what I want, I will pick up your possession the next time you put it down!” Again, though, a general account of coercion (if one is to be had) is not my aim.

38 The Public Justification Principle supposes that a justified law must be genuinely authoritative: it is endorsed by all members of the public as binding—as generating obligations to obey. A bona fide law is not simply an act of state coercion, but an act of state authority, and so binds citizens. This is the legal expression of Kant's notion of the realm of ends, in which recognizing the law's authority over us is consistent with each person's acting on her own reasons. Contemporary political philosophy is deeply skeptical that the law generally has justified authority to direct citizens' acts. To many, the most the law could hope to achieve is a certain legitimacy, in the sense that the laws of the state are morally permissible acts of coercion, but do not in general bind citizens to obey. Thus, in place of the Public Justification Principle, we might adopt a Weak Public Justification Principle: “L is a justified coercive law only if each and every member of the public P has conclusive reason(s) R to accept that coercive acts enforcing L are morally permissible.” The Weak Public Justification Principle does not suppose that laws are acts of self-legislation which all citizens have reason to obey, but simply that force and coercion by the state are permissible—though resisting them may be permissible too. For many, that is enough—indeed, the most that can be hoped for. I am dubious. The concept of law implied by this view renders laws too much like coercive demands in Hobbes's state of nature: they are not wrong, but neither is it in principle wrong to ignore them, or even fight back. However, I leave this matter unresolved in this essay. If one is convinced that the most we can hope for is such “legitimacy,” one can substitute the weak version of the Public Justification Principle in what follows: the essence of the analysis is not affected.

39 See Klosko George, “Reasonable Rejection and Neutrality of Justification,” in Wall Steven and Klosko George, eds., Perfectionism and Neutrality: Essays in Liberal Theory (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 178.

40 Rawls adds: “within the framework of free institutions of a constitutional regime” (Political Liberalism, xviii).

41 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., 16.

42 “Their procedure … is to let each person propose principles …” (Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” 53).

43 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 224ff.

44 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., 121.

45 The deliberative problem supposes that we can identify laws that regulate an “area” of social life, or as Rawls termed it, a “practice” (“Justice as Fairness,” 47). I set aside for now how to identify these areas in any precise way.

46 For the informal, social procedure, see Gaus, “On Justifying the Moral Rights of the Moderns”; for the formal, political procedure, see Gaus Gerald, Justificatory Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), part III.

47 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 338; Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., 242.

48 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., 239.

49 Adapted from Gwartney James D. and Lawson Robert, Norton with Seth, Economic Freedom of the World: 2008 Annual Report (Economic Freedom Network, 2008), p. 21. Digital copy available from; Used with permission of the Fraser Institute. For information on Freedom House, see

50 Sources: Freedom House, “Freedom in the World, 2008: Subscores (Civil Rights),”; Gwartney , Lawson , and Norton , Economic Freedom of the World: 2008 Annual Report; Heritage Foundation, “Index of Economic Freedom,” 2008 data, Used with permission of Freedom House, the Fraser Institute, and the Heritage Foundation. Note that the scores in columns (2) and (4) are on a scale from 100 (highest protection of property rights/most overall economic freedom) to 0 (lowest protection/least economic freedom).

51 Figure 2 is adapted from Gwartney , Lawson , and Norton , Economic Freedom of the World: 2008 Annual Report, p. 21. Digital copy available from; Used with permission of the Fraser Institute. The data in table 3 are from Freedom House, “Freedom in the World, 2008: Subscores (Civil Rights),”; and Heritage Foundation, “Index of Economic Freedom,” 2008 data. Used with permission of Freedom House and the Heritage Foundation.

52 Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 139.

53 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 329.

54 Sources: Burniaux Jean-Marc, Padrini Flavio, and Brandt Nicola, Labour Market Performance, Income Inequality, and Poverty in OECD Countries, OECD Economics Department Working Paper No. 500 (ECO/WKP, 2006), 44; Freedom House, “Freedom in the World, 2008: Subscores (Political Rights),”

55 Sonedda Daniela, “Wealth Inequality, Income Redistribution, and Growth in Fifteen OECD Countries,” Royal Economic Society Annual Conference (2003), Royal Economic Society, 21;

56 Sources: Jäntti Markus and Sierminska Eva, Survey Estimates of Wealth Holdings in OECD Countries: Evidence on the Level and Distribution (United Nations University, World Institute for Development Economics Research, 2007); Freedom House, “Freedom in the World, 2008: Subscores (Political Rights),”

57 Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 137–38.

58 Even less compelling is the claim that inequalities in the value of political rights are simply allowed under capitalism: the question is what economic systems are conducive to a free society. Cf. Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 139.

59 For the relation of economic freedom and income per capita growth, see Gwartney James D. and Lawson Robert, Norton with Seth, Economic Freedom of the World: 2008 Annual Report, p. 18. Economic Freedom Network. Digital copy available from,

60 Murphy Liam and Nagel Thomas, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3233; emphasis added.

61 Kant, Metaphysical Elements of Justice, 46ff [Akademie ed., 250ff].

62 Ibid., 33, 41 [Akademie ed., 233, 238]. See also Steiner Hillel, “Kant, Property, and the General Will,” in Geras Norman and Walker Robert, eds., The Enlightenment and Modernity (New York: St. Martin's, 2000), 71ff.

63 This is certainly Mill's view in his discussion of private property in Book II of Principles of Political Economy.

64 Audi Robert further explicates this idea of degrees of coercion in his Religious Commitment and Secular Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 8788.

65 Feinberg Joel, “The Interest of Liberty in the Scales,” in his Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 36.

66 Hayek F. A., The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, 1960), 133.

67 Hayek actually seems to go so far as to say that you are not coerced at all in this case. Ibid., 141.

68 Benn, A Theory of Freedom, 144.

69 Narveson Jan, The Libertarian Idea (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1988), 66.

71 See, for example, Lomasky Loren E., Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 132.

72 As I have tried to show in Property, Rights, and Freedom,” Social Philosophy and Policy 11, no. 2 (1994): 209–40.

73 Eric Mack, “The Natural Right of Property,” elsewhere in this volume.

74 Will Wilkinson, The Fly Bottle, (accessed July 28, 2008). Wilkinson is suggesting a topic for discussion, and the claim is based on theories of freedom commonly held by classical liberals.

75 Ted F. Brown (Assistant for the Criminal Division of the IRS, 1998), quoted in Walker Liezl, “The Deterrent Value of Imposing Prison Sentences for Tax Crimes,” New England Journal of Criminal and Civil Confinement 26 (Winter 2000): 1n. 4.

76 Understanding the Tax Gap” (FS-2005-14, March 2005), Internal Revenue Service,,,id=137246,00.html (accessed July 28, 2008).

77 Walker, “The Deterrent Value of Imposing Prison Sentences for Tax Crimes,” 6.

78 Ibid., 7.

79 Feinberg, “The Interest of Liberty in the Scales,” 36.

80 It might be objected that this must be wrong: whereas the criminal law seeks to render options less eligible in order to deter, an effective tax law (putting aside sin taxes) must hope that citizens continue with the activity in order for revenue to be generated. The will of the state is not for citizens to refrain, but to persist, so they are not being coerced in Hayek's sense. Coercion thus may seem to require an intention to deter people from the act, but that is exactly what the state does not seek to do with taxation—and that is why the state does not close off options, but only makes them more difficult to pursue. One who threatens, however, need not wish to deter, for often enough those making the threat hope that the target will not give in to the threat. In 1918, for example, Germany issued an ultimatum to the neutral Dutch, demanding the right to ship materials across their territory, and threatening the Netherlands and Dutch ships in its colonies if the demand was not met. At the time, this threat was seen by many observers as a pretext; they believed that Germany hoped the Netherlands would not give in to the threat but would instead enter the war. What Germany's intentions were did not nullify the coercive threat. See The New York Times, April 23 and 28, 1918.

81 By comparing only flat-tax states, I have greatly simplified the analysis. With variable-rate taxation, what constitutes a high-tax country depends on the combined score on several dimensions. Consider a study of fifteen OECD countries from the period of 1974 to 1997 (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States). We might define a high-tax country as one that has highly progressive rates and high marginal tax rates. On that definition, the high-tax states are Sweden, the United States, Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Belgium; the low-tax states are Spain, Australia, Norway, Germany, Japan, and Italy. If we define a high-tax state as one that has a high average personal tax rate and a high degree of progressivity, the high-tax states are Belgium, Canada, and France; Germany, Norway, and Denmark are low on both dimensions. Sonedda, “Wealth Inequality, Income Redistribution, and Growth in Fifteen OECD Countries,” 19–20.

82 See also my On Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2007), chap. 2.

83 This is merely for purposes of exposition; a cardinal analysis is not required.

84 All this was implicit in our original ordinalist idea of an eligible set. A law is only in the eligible set if each member of the public believes its benefits outweigh its costs compared to a condition of liberty. If a member of the public holds that a law has negative net costs, he has no reason to accept it. And one of the costs to be considered is the cost of coercion: if the law is really in the eligible set, the costs of coercion have been conclusively justified to all.

85 I am grateful to Paul Gomberg for this point.

86 See Lister Andrew, “Public Justification and the Limits of State Action,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, forthcoming. I respond to Lister's arguments in the same issue of the journal.

87 Mill , The Principles of Political Economy, 7th ed., 938 (Book X, chap. xi, sec. 2).

88 See for example Mill's discussion of the proper bounds of moral sanctions in Auguste Comte and Positivism, in Mill, Collected Works, vol. 5, 337ff.

89 Mill, The Principles of Political Economy, 937 (Book X, chap. xi, sec. 2).

90 We must keep in mind that the members of the public deliberate about whether to accept the law as the basis for justified claims on each other. To say that there is “no law” is not to say that there is no social practice that allows us to coordinate our actions, but that there is no law that grounds justified claims on each other. Consequently, to say that there is “no law” is not to say that there will be chaos.

91 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 253.

92 I try to show just how broad this range is in my essay “Controversial Values and State Neutrality in On Liberty,” in Ten C. L., ed., Mill's “On Liberty”: A Critical Guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

93 Rawls suggests that one way to avoid the resulting indeterminacy is “to choose some social position by reference to which the pattern of expectations as a whole is to be judged.” From this point on, the focus becomes the representative person of the least advantaged social position. Rawls, “Distributive Justice,” in Freeman, ed., John Rawls: Collected Papers, 137.

94 “The restrictions on particular information in the original position are, then, of fundamental importance. Without them we would not be able to work out any definite theory of justice at all.” Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., 121.

96 See, for example, Quong Jonathan, “Three Disputes about Public Reason,” See also Lister, “Public Justification and the Limits of State Action,” and my response to Lister's essay.

97 Kant Immanuel, Critique of Judgment, trans. Pluhar Werner S. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987), 160 (sec. 40). See also Kant , “What Is Enlightenment?” in Reiss Hans, ed., Kant's Political Writings, trans. Nisbett H. B. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 5460.

The ideas explored in this essay derive from discussions at a workshop on public reason, held in Tucson in November 2007, and were further developed at a talk to the Manchester Centre for Political Theory. I would like to thank all the participants, and especially Andrew Lister. His criticisms of my previous work led me to think about a number of matters in a new way. My thanks also to Fred D'Agostino, Tom Christiano, Steve Macedo, Jonathan Quong, Dave Schmidtz, Peter Vallentyne, and Kevin Vallier for their very helpful comments.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 7
Total number of PDF views: 141 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 435 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.