Social Justice, Libertarianism

Classical Liberalism Defended

Let me start by thanking my fellow authors for inviting me to join them in this exciting forum. I’m honored to be in their company.

I want to address an issue already raised by Matt and others. Does classical liberalism rest purely on empirical considerations? If we agree that any political arrangement must attend to social justice, then it might seem that the only way to defend classical liberalism is to say that free markets help the poor more than other arrangements, like the welfare state. This move comes at a price: we are not really classical liberals but egalitarian liberals. It’s just that we have a different view about how the economy works. A classical liberal with a sense of social justice is really an egalitarian liberal with a heightened faith in the ability of markets to help the poor. If someone could show him that a socialist arrangement would help the poor more, then he would have to become a socialist.

The empirical case for classical liberalism is strong indeed. It includes not only obvious truths about economics but the insight of public choice about government failure and similar pathologies.  I’d like to suggest, however, that the defense of classical liberalism is not confined to these empirical reasons, powerful as they are.  Classical liberals differ from liberal egalitarians in at least two other respects.

First, classical liberals value the right of private property morally and not just empirically.  Nozick’s insight that things come to this world not as manna from heaven but attached to people is not that such attachment is taken as a given and does not call for justification. Rather, it is the fact that having become the owner of an external good in accordance with the rules in force in a reasonable civil society counts as a reason not to disposess the owner. It does not mean that society can never dispossess him. But the fact that someone lawfully owns the external good is always, for the classical liberal, a reason pro tanto not to dispossess him. Contrast this with the usual claim by egalitarian liberals that private property has only instrumental value and that no one really owns (morally) anything. For these thinkers (for example, Liam Murphy & Thomas Nagel,) there is no pro tanto reson to dispossess the private owner if doing so would promote social justice.

Second, classical liberals distrust taxation because they suspect that more often than not it is a violation of the Kantian injunction that persons should not forcibly enroll others in their projects. Taxation, to be justified, must serve a genuine public purpose (I won’t discuss here what those are). When the majority forcibly dispossesses people of their resources in order to subsidize others in their pursuit of private projects, it violates the principle that persons should be free to set the ends toward which they will use their powers (here I follow Arthur Ripstein, Force and Freedom, although he is willing to accept more redistributions as serving a public purpose.)  Contrast this with the indifference that egalitarian liberals usually show about the ends of wealth redistribution in a democracy.

These two reasons, intrinsic value of property and rejection of political domination, are moral reasons to embrace classical liberalism. When added to the empirical reasons, the case for classical liberalism is, I think, very strong. A topic for future research is the relative weight of the classical liberal's simultaneous commitment to social justice and the two principles just mentioned.

Published on:
Author: Fernando Teson
  • Could you perhaps provide definitions of “classical liberal” and “egalitarian liberal”? A lot of people use “classical liberal” to be synonymous with modern libertarian. That strikes me as odd, but if that’s how we’re defining it, that’s how we’re defining it. I wonder, though, when you say things like this:

    “The empirical case for classical liberalism is strong indeed. It includes not only obvious truths about economics but the insight of public choice about government failure and similar pathologies.”

    These “obvious truths about economics” (presumably points about market efficiency), and the insights of public choice theory don’t seem to me to distinguish or privelege libertarian liberalism over non-libertarian liberalism.

    Then you write: “Taxation, to be justified, must serve a genuine public purpose (I won’t discuss here what those are)”, but this is something that a lot of self-identified libertarians would dispute.

    So I’m having trouble pinning down exactly what you mean by these words. An “egalitarian liberal” for whom basic truths about economics and government failure would be problematic sounds more like a socialist to me. A libertarian who agrees with taxing for the public good (and not just to maintain property rights) sounds like what I normally think of as a non-libertarian classical liberal (namely, myself).

    Maybe you don’t mean “classical liberal” to be synonymous with “libertarian”, but if it’s not, then what’s the difference between your classical liberal and your egalitarian liberal?

  • M

    The second reason is an elaboration of the first. If you don’t believe that property attaches to persons in some pre-social moral realist way, using resources to which Peter has a legal title for the benefit of Paul with Peter’s agreement isn’t really forcibly enlisting Peter to Paul’s aid, but depriving Peter of the enjoyment of certain resources (rather than, by enforcing Peter’s property deed, depriving Paul of them.)

  • Very nice points, Fernando. I think you’re right to suggest that the difference between classical liberals and liberal egalitarians is not due solely to empirical differences, but to moral ones as well. And I think the two moral differences you point out are plausible candidates.

    I think, however, that there are probably many more. Part of my goal in setting up this blog is to show that classical liberals and egalitarians have more moral common ground than they have previously recognized. There are differences, but I think many of those differences have to do with the interpretation and strength we assign to our common values, rather than to classical liberals affirming some things as values that liberal egalitarians do not, or vice versa.

    For instance, I think that classical liberals probably tend to give considerations of individual liberty a greater weight than liberal egalitarians, when it comes to trade-offs with other values like equality. I also think they tend to interpret the value differently – so that, for instance, classical liberals see economic activity such as buying and selling as implicating personal liberty in a way that liberal egalitarians often do not.

  • Liberal egalitarians (and neo-republicans) share the classical liberals’ concern with domination. They differ from classical liberals in maintaining that one can’t address this concern effectively while also treating extensive private property rights as foundational.

    With respect to private property rights, one important reason why liberal egalitarians (such as Rawls, Samuel Freeman, Elizabeth Anderson, and others), and many neo-republicans (most prominently Philip Pettit), are opposed to including expansive private property rights among the ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ liberties of citizens (i.e., the kinds of rights that should be understood as constitutionally protected) is because such property rights might allow for, enable, or produce relations of domination and dependency among citizens. That is, extensive private property rights predictably give rise to great concentrations of wealth and property over time, and these inequalities, in turn, give rise to relations of domination and dependency among citizens. (In fact, Freeman argues that absolute property rights would give rise to a form of neo-feudalism.)

    One extreme form of such domination can be found in the ‘company towns’ that existed in the US in the late 19th century (e.g., Pullman and McDonald). Another form of such domination is the disproportionate amount of political influence exercised by those individuals or groups with enormous wealth. Finally, in the absence of any kind of social safety net, employees can be very dependent on (vulnerable to) the will of their employers for their wellbeing. All of these kinds of relations enable certain individuals to exercise domination (to varying degrees) over others. Such domination is a kind of unfreedom to those subject to it.

    In short, liberal egalitarians (and neo-republicans) are sceptical that a society can enjoy both extensive private property rights (minimal taxation, minimal or no redistribution, etc.) and widespread relations of non-domination over time.

  • Part of my goal in setting up this blog is to show that classical liberals and egalitarians have more moral common ground than they have previously recognized.

    This certainly is why I am enjoying reading the posts in this blog! As an egalitarian liberal who was once a classical liberal, I think that you’re right about this. But I also think that the remaining differences are very, very significant.

    I think that classical liberals probably tend to give considerations of individual liberty a greater weight than liberal egalitarians, when it comes to trade-offs with other values like equality.

    I can only speak for myself, obviously, but as a liberal egalitarian I certainly would reject this claim. Liberal egalitarianism (as I understand it) is concerned with the substantive freedom of all citizens. That is, liberal egalitarians take liberty to be of enormous value, so much so that all citizens should have the adequate capacities and resources to enjoy and exercise liberty over the course of their lives.

  • David Sobel

    Fernando,

    I think it is clear but just want to double check that when you say that “the fact that having become the owner of an external good in accordance with the rules in force in a reasonable civil society counts as a reason not to disposess the owner” you are talking not about pre-social, state of nature rights a la Lockean initial appropriation, but rather following whatever reasonable conventional rules for counting as owning something a reasonable society has set up.

    Assuming I have that right, that all strikes me as quite sensible, but I am not sure it amounts to a non-empirical case for the classical liberal. For one might think that the decent rules in such a society are justified via empirical matters such as what rules create the most happiness or avoid unwanted inequality or whatever.

    But I am very tempted to think that some consequentialists (and others) fail to notice the great usefulness of heeding property rights once legitimate expectations to them have been created in a morally good society. Property seems to me an irreplaceable institution for creating needed incentives and for allowing people to create and act on long-term plans. If the state is taking away even the stuff I was told I could rely on often, long-term planning would be thwarted and people would be wise to use up what they have rather than form long term plans around it. Everyone, it seems to me, should agree on the tremendous importance of people getting to keep what society essentially told them they could rely on. Obviously this is compatible with people’s legitimate expectations being that there will be progressive taxation on their earnings.

    All that seems importantly right to me, but I don’t yet see it as being non-empirical as the point of meeting these expectations could still be that a system that does so empirically has features we want in a system. Likely you are thinking, however, that such a story is non-empirical in the sense that we can be assured without looking into the details of the particular case that there is a significant reason to allow someone to keep that which their reasonable society has told them they could expect to keep. Perhaps one could similarly wonder about whether rule-consequentitialist vindicated rules are empirically supported or not. In one sense, one need not check in each case whether the rule maximizes in that case (so non-empirical in that sense). But in another sense what make the rule good is determined by empirical features of the rule (and so empirical in that sense).

  • Fernando R. Tesón

    Thank you all for the terrific comments. Let’s see:
    1) Daniel: many liberal egalitarians, alas, overlook government failure in their analysis of the role of government in the redistribution of wealth.
    2) M: generally agreed, good point. I have in mind Kant’s discussion in the Doctrine of Right, where pre-political entitlements are embryonary, as it were, and don’t become full rights until protected by law.
    3) Matt: agreed.
    4) Blain: I agree with your description of what liberal egalitarians and civic republicans believe about domination. The classical-liberal argument I make is an invitation to them to consider this other kind of political domination: dispossessing people at gunpoint to subsidize someone else’s ends. We should consider these kinds of domination as well, and not just those private property may generate.
    5) David: agreed generally, although I would emphasize that once we have entered the civil condition there is a moral reason not to disposess the owner, even if the ultimate rationale for property lies in the benefits it generates.

  • You need a concept of property with a sounder moral grounding. cf. the retributive theory of property .

  • Nozick’s insight that things come to this world not as manna from heaven but attached to people is not that such attachment is taken as a given and does not call for justification

    I am deeply puzzled by this.

    Most things in this world either are natural resources (which are not attached to people, except through artificial titles enforced by violence) or manufactured goods (which in almost all cases are the work of a great many people, not a single individual). My iPhone for instance — at the moment it is attached to me, but before I bought it, it was attached to the the Apple Corporation which is a social institution with hundreds of thousands of owners, employees, and other stakeholders. And if you count all the inputs that go into something like that — everyone involved in the manufacture of its parts, or scientists who contributed to the development of its technologies, there are many millions of people involved.

    So Nozick’s insight seems like an anti-insight to me, one that actively works to make the true structure of the world harder to see.

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