Liberty, Academic Philosophy

Half Joking, Half Serious: Which Liberties Matter?

On one reading of Plato, he advocates rule by philosopher kings.* He might be right, but you’ve got to be suspicious, given that he's a philosopher.

On one reading of Aristotle, he thinks the best form of life is philosophical, and even God is a kind of philosopher (eternally thinking of perfection). Aristotle might be right, but you’ve got to be suspicious, given that he's a philosopher.

 Certain (but not all) deliberative democrats and some other political theorists think society would be much better if most people began acting like political theorists at a colloquium. They might be right, you’ve got to be suspicious, given this is coming from political theorists.

Now, when Rawls and various other high liberals try to determine which liberties matter the most—which are really important for people to develop their moral personalities—they just so happen to come up with the liberties that make the most difference in the life of a typical philosopher. So, freedom of speech is in (good thing for us book writers!), freedom of personal property is in (we like our Subarus, Macs, bicycles, and nice houses), but freedom to own productive property is out. (Who has time to run a pizza shop on the side, anyways?)

This is a touch snarky, but there’s a more serious point here. It may well be that political philosophy is parochial—that it reflects the concerns, values, and (rather limited) life experiences of philosophers at the expense of understanding the concerns, values, and life experiences of non-philosophers. For Rawls, the liberties that are supposed to be respected (by his first principle of justice) are those that are vital for citizens to develop their sense of justice and conceptions of the good life. (I'm not sure this is a good way to determine what liberties people are owed…) Yet he happens to come up with just those liberties your typical philosophy professor would care most about, and his arguments for why it should be those liberties and not others are quite thin and unsustained. 

I’m hoping John Tomasi will join us in blogging here, and in particular explain his argument for why Rawls is mistaken to lower the moral status of the economic liberties. If not, I’ll expand upon this point later.

*See Julia Annas’s criticism of the common reading of Plato’s Republic.


Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • Paul Gowder

    Hmm… To what extent is Rawls’s answer to this just that the economic liberties are covered by the idea of forming (and then pursuing) a conception of the good? Within that idea, Rawls can recognize that economic liberties are part of a larger set of liberties necessary for freedom, traditionally conceived, i.e., to live life as one sees best. Economic liberties would seem to naturally be on a par with things like religious liberty.

    I can’t think of anything Rawls has said inconsistent with that reading. Of course, it turns out that justice as fairness might lead to something like a “democratic socialism,” but only at the end of an argument that recognizes that economic life is one way that people may form and pursue a conception of the good.

  • Jason Brennan

    I don’t have my Rawls with me, so I can’t cite chapter and verse. But for Rawls, the rights to own personal property and to choose one’s occupation are considered basic, and are covered by his first principle of justice. Most other possible economic rights–freedom of contract, freedom to trade, freedom to own productive property–are not considered basic. If it turns out that creating such rights (as legal rights, rather than moral rights) helps realize the second principle, then a society might do so. Or if it turns out that creating such rights (against, as legal rights) is optional (neither necessary to realize the second principle nor an impediment to it), then a society might feel free to do so. But at the level of ideal theory, it’s not a matter of justice, for Rawls, that citizens have the right to own productive property.

    This is one place where neoclassical liberalism and high liberalism must diverge. At the level of ideal theory, liberal socialism (as defined in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement) is one of the many regime types that can realize justice. In contrast, a neoclassical liberal working a the level of ideal would say that liberal socialism cannot be just because it violates citizen’s rights. Citizens have a basic right to own private productive property (rather than having all such property owned by workers’ cooperatives), and liberal socialism violates that right.

  • Paul Gowder

    Excuse me, “liberal socialism” I believe was his phrase.

    more… It’s true that Rawls didn’t include in the liberty principle a general liberty to engage in all economic activity, but that’s not inconsistent with viewing economic activity as important for one’s conception of the good. (I think that he says that at one point that free choice of occupation is part of the basic liberty associated with “freedom and integrity of the person” — which would be a recognition of that fact.)

  • Paul Gowder

    Oh, my second comment crossed wires with your reply to the first. Your memory of what Rawls actually said jibes with mine.

    I just think it matters that the dismissal of a broader scope of economic liberties comes, as it were, at the end of an argument starting with a strong commitment to liberal neutrality and thus to lots of deference to individual conceptions of the good rather than at the beginning of it. It suggests that Rawls was, or could have been, more solicitous of economic liberty than he often gets credit for.

  • I don’t think that Rawls does not include a “freedom to own productive property” among the basic liberties simply because, as a philosopher, he cannot conceive of such a freedom as essential to a person’s capacity to exercise her two moral powers over a complete life. I realize that you’re “half joking” in suggesting this, but I think that Rawls has some serious, non-parochial reasons for not wanting to include such a freedom among the set of basic liberties. I’ll try to sketch one such reason here.

    It is important to recall that Rawls distinguishes between the basic liberties and their ‘value’ or ‘worth.’ The more resources that a person possesses (as well as other primary goods, e.g., self-respect), the more value or worth that the basic liberties have for that person, that is, the more effectively she can exercise them. A wealthy person obviously can exercise her freedom of speech far more successfully and effectively than a penniless person can.

    Ensuring that all persons in a just society can exercise effectively their two moral powers over the course of their lives means that they must have both the (equal) basic liberties and opportunities to do so, and the adequate resources to make effective use of those basic liberties and opportunities. The purpose of the difference principle is to ensure that all citizens have as much of the primary goods as possible in order to enable them to exercise, as effectively as possible, their two moral powers over the course of their lives (subject to the condition, of course, that the basic liberties and the principle of fair equality of opportunity have lexical priority over the difference principle).

    One problem with including a ‘full-blown’ (or ‘quasi-libertarian’ or ‘classical liberal’) “freedom to own productive property” among the basic liberties is that doing so would potentially undermine the value or worth of the other basic liberties of many citizens, thereby preventing them from exercising effectively their two moral powers over the course of their lives. Instead, such property rights (except for the right to personal property, of course) must be understood as non-basic and revisable in order to ensure (in accordance with the difference principle) the worth and value of the other basic liberties.

    It may be the case, as an empirical matter, that a society that respected a “freedom to own productive property” as though it were comparable to the other basic liberties would most successfully enable all citizens, including the least advantaged, to exercise effectively their two moral powers over the course of their lives. But if this turned out not empirically to be the case, the other basic liberties – including their value – must have priority (or at least a Rawlsian would argue).

    (I suppose that much will depend, though, on what precisely is covered by a “freedom to own productive property.” The freedom to own and run the neighbourhood kabob house is one thing. The freedom to own and run Standard Oil is quite another.)

    There is more to be said about this, but I fear that this comment is already too long!

  • Bogdan Enache

    All liberties and all moral values matter. The problem is what is the best hierarchy, what is the best “liberty or moral function”, so to speak, or whether there is one? This is also what Aristotle and Plato tried to answer in moral and political philosophy, but modern philosophers no longer agreed with them.

  • M

    Socialists, generally speaking, like workers’ cooperatives because they give everyone some executive control over productive property, and more specifically because they lessen the sort of differential control over productive property that gives some people a great deal of control over others in the workplace, without sacrificing (all of) the efficiency gains from internalizing transactions within firms, as one would if everyone became a yoeman farmer or equivalent.

    It would be interesting to see if the set of moral intuitions leading socialists and libertarians to care about the ownership of productive property (more fundamentally so, it seems, than liberals or conservatives) are relatively similar. I could see each starting from the vague intuition that having autonomy over one’s work life is very valuable, just as academics find free speech very valuable, and then filtering it through a general “equality of outcomes” / “equality of legal opportunity” filter that gets applied by default to economic questions.

  • Jason, I think this is generally right about the tradition of political philosophy and more-locally right about Rawlsianism. But, as I think I’ve said to John, paying attention to the link between the moral powers and creative/ productive activity isn’t going to let one derive any recognizable modern market society from first principles. The individual creator-entrepreneur– very much including the pizza shop proprietor– isn’t the whole of the modern market economy. And I worry about moralizing, e.g., the conflict between Wal-Mart and the mom & pop stores in an inappropriate way: mom & pop are natural persons exercising their moral powers and their first-principle liberty (and their positive liberty capacity!), so surely their moral interest in remaining open is far more important than consumers’ interest in competition or lower prices.

  • Jason Brennan

    Jacob: I more or less agree. I’m not sure Rawls’s test for determining what liberties people are owed is the right test. However, I am pretty sure he doesn’t apply his test properly.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    “explain his argument for why Rawls is mistaken to lower the moral status of the economic liberties”

    I’d love to see Tomasi’s argument on this point, also, but Nozick pretty much dealt with this – the point of the Wilt Chamberlain bit is precisely that so-called “economic liberty” is inseperable from so-called “civil liberty.” The former is the physical manifestation in society of the latter.

  • b_a

    As James Buchanan would say, those liberties “matter” which the citizens can agree on.

    And as Buchanan has criticized, Rawls is trying to speculate on what the specific outcomes of a social contract would be, while these outcomes are really unknowable.

    Conceptually, the only test which can decisively establish the “value” or “worth” of specific rules (or liberties) beyond any further discussion is the unanimous agreement of the concerned individuals themselves. The role of economists, political philosophers and other social scientists can in this context only be to inform the citizens who wish to reform the existing social order about the factual working properties of alternatives rules and institutions. In doing so, these social scientists do nothing more than bring forward hypotheses that certain institutions (and the specific “freedoms” which are promoted by those) are unanimously valued by the people more than alternative rules of the game.

    Ultimately however, the only way reach an ensure agreement on the question of which liberties “matter” more than other liberties is to test this hypothesis by subjecting it to the test of agreement of the concerned (and hopefully well informed) citizens.

  • Eli Koz

    Nozick’s “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” offers a somewhat whimsical take on this question too. Basically, intellectuals are better at academia than business, so they denigrate the latter.

  • M

    But intellectuals don’t, by and large, oppose capitalism; rather, those who oppose capitalism (in the first world) are, by and large, intellectuals. As are those who support capitalism with the least reservation. There’s a simpler explanation: for the great majority of ideas that are both secular and locally weird – which non-support and unconditional support for capitalism both are – the majority of adherents will tend to be intellectuals.

  • I am pretty sure he [Rawls] doesn’t apply his test properly.

    Presumably the original position device is designed to overcome such mistakes (even if Rawls’s own use of it failed to do so). Thus if there is an argument in favour of including the “freedom to own productive property” among the basic liberties of the first principle of justice, it is one that the parties in the original position should find convincing, given their overriding concern with maximizing the share of primary goods for the persons whom they represent (given the higher-order interest of those persons in exercising their two moral powers over a complete life).

    Let me briefly add something to my earlier point as to why Rawlsians probably would not want to include a “freedom to own productive property” among the basic liberties. Recall that these liberties are those that should be understood as ‘constitutionally protected’ in an adequately just society (there exists a ‘presumption of liberty’ with respect to the other liberties, but they do not have the ‘lexical priority’ enjoyed by the basic liberties).

    Rawls emphasizes, in “The Basic Liberties and Their Priority,” the importance of ensuring that the basic liberties can comprise a coherent system of constitutional rights that can be secured equally for all citizens. The worry with adding in additional basic liberties to those already covered by the first principle is that these additional liberties (such as an extensive right to private property) might weaken or require the restriction of the other basic liberties. (See PL, p. 296f.)

    Consequently, any argument within the original position in favour of including a “freedom to own productive property” among the set of basic liberties would need to address this concern. Add to this concern my earlier point – viz., including a “freedom to own productive property” among the set of basic liberties would potentially undermine the ‘value’ or ‘worth’ of those other basic liberties to many citizens (and thus the capacity of those citizens to exercise effectively their two moral powers over the course of their lives) – and I think we have a plausible justification for the Rawlsian position concerning the content of the basic liberties.

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