UPDATE: I didn’t realize that this blog was going to be read by so many non-philosophers. It’s pretty clear from reactions on some other blogs that many readers aren’t familiar with the terms or issues below and thus don’t quite understand what I’m talking about. So, thanks for reading, and I’ll make sure to re-write an entry on this topic in the future for non-specialists.
In academic philosophy, people tend to use the term ‘libertarian’ in a restrictive way, to refer to people who 1) hold that property rights and other rights are absolute or nearly absolute, 2) who ground their theories of rights and justice on the concept of self-ownership, 3) who reject social justice, and 4) who reject the idea that positive liberty really is liberty, and is a valuable form of liberty which society should project and promote. Libertarians hold that justice requires that we respect property rights, period, even if that means a large percentage of people will starve, lead poor and desperate lives, or have no stake in their society. If that’s libertarianism, count me out.
In a forthcoming paper on current trends in classical liberalism, John Tomasi and I claim that the classical liberalism is being reinvigorated by the emergence of what we call neoclassical liberalism. In this post, I just want to introduce and explain what neoclassical liberalism is. (I won’t defend it, nor will I try to explain just how all the pieces fit together.)
Neoclassical liberals combine a classical liberal commitment to economic liberty with a modern or high liberal commitment to social justice. A political philosophy doesn’t win points by being the most demanding. Still, it’s important to understand that neoclassical liberals are not simply classical liberals who (somewhat begrudgingly) accept some welfarist principles, thus making their theory of justice a little more humane than libertarians’, if not quite as humane as high liberals’. Instead, neoclassical liberals go “all in” in accepting strong principles of social justice, but at the same time has a broader, more expansive conception of personal liberty than high liberals do. From the neoclassical liberal point of view, neoclassical liberalism ups the moral ante when compared to high liberalism. High liberalism was supposed to be the culmination of the liberal movement—thus the ‘high’ in ‘high liberalism’–but Tomasi and I claim that neoclassical liberalism is a higher form of liberalism.
One way to distinguish among kinds of liberalism is by their differing conceptions of economic liberty. Classical liberals and libertarians affirm what we might call a thick conception of economic liberty; high liberals, a thin conception.
Most liberals agree that some rights and liberties are more basic than others. All liberals include some economic liberties on their list of basic liberties. The purpose of these liberties is (at least in part) to protect citizens’ ability to act as independent decision-makers over a wide range of choices they face in their lives, to facilitate them facing each other as autonomous and equal citizens, and to allow them to develop their moral powers.
However, liberals disagree about the scope, nature, and weight of the liberties they consider basic. High liberals have a thin conception of economic liberty. They think that freedom of occupation and freedom to own personal property are among the basic liberties. In contrast, classical liberals, libertarians, and neoclassical liberals think that the basic liberties also include strong rights to freedom of contract, freedom to own and use productive property, freedom to buy and sell on voluntary terms, and so on. They regard these rights as on par with civil liberties, while high liberals regard them as lesser rights, or in some cases, not rights at all. High liberals tend to interpret the civil liberties broadly. They assume that the civil liberties have a wide scope and are quite weighty. Neoclassical liberals hold that economic liberties have the same weight and wide scope as the civil liberties. (High liberals will want to ask: Why?)
Tomasi claims, in his forthcoming book Free Market Fairness (Princeton University Press, 2012), that high liberals have adopted a platform of “economic exceptionalism”. What he means by this is that high liberals believe that citizens should, by right, have a wide range of freedom of choice in nearly all aspects of their lives, except decisions having to do with property, commerce, labor, money, and trade. High liberals think that citizens be afforded wide latitude in making decisions about property, commerce, labor, money, and trade only if doing so helps to serve social justice or only if such decision-making power is authorized by a democratic assembly. Perhaps in order to make room for social justice, high liberals relegated the economic liberties to a lower status than the political and civil liberties.
Neoclassical liberals reject this platform of economic exceptionalism. They think the economic liberties share the same high status as the other liberties. However, neoclassical liberals also believe that this need not come at the expense of social justice. (High liberals should ask: Why not?)
Another way to distinguish between different kinds of liberalism is by their commitment to social justice. At root, to be committed to social justice is to believe that in order for institutions, practices, and social norms to be just, they must be sufficiently to the benefit of all, including and perhaps even especially the least advantaged. To believe in *social* justice is to hold that the distribution of benefits and burdens in society matters as a matter of justice. To affirm social justice is to affirm that it is not enough that citizens have their formal liberties respected. Instead, in a just society, unless there is exceptional bad luck, citizens will have enjoy substantive liberty. Libertarians (including most left libertarians) and many classical liberals reject social justice; some even think the concept is ineradicably confused. Unlike libertarians and classical liberals, however, neoclassical liberals and high liberals affirm social justice as a substantive criterion by which to judge the basic structure of society and market outcomes. On the neoclassical liberal view, part of the justification for a society’s basic structure is that it produces conditions where citizens have substantive liberty, and can confront each other as free and equal. The basic structure of society is evaluable on the kinds of outcomes produced for citizens. (Orthodox libertarians: Why?)
This is just a brief overview of the neoclassical liberal position. It should raise plenty of questions. I’ll be posting on some of these questions in this blog.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I’m fully aware that many people who call themselves libertarians would not fit the characterization of libertarians I gave in the first paragraph. I’m not here much concerned with coming up with the best definition of ‘libertarianism’. I’m just pointing out that philosophers tend to use the word ‘libertarian’ the way I described above, and on that account, I’m not a libertarian.