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.