Social Justice, Libertarianism

Neoclassical Liberalism vs High Liberalism

John Rawls argues that the basic structure of society ought to be evaluated according to two principles. The first principle concerns liberty; the second concerns social justice.

In a simplified form, leaving off some details, they look like this:

  1. The Liberty Principle: Everyone ought to have the most extensive set of basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme for others.
  2. The Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities ought to be to the greatest benefit of the least well off.

Rawls interprets the Liberty Principle a particular way. He doesn’t think all liberties could count as basic. Instead, he gives us a list. The basic liberties include rights to vote and run for office (the political liberties), to exert influence over politics, rights of free speech, free association, freedom of conscience, freedom of occupation choice, rights to own personal property, rights to legal due process, and a few other civil liberties. He thinks rights of freedom of contract, freedom to own and use productive property, freedom to profit from capital, and a number of other economic liberties are not basic. They aren’t protected by the first principle of justice. They don’t make the list. 

How does Rawls determine which liberties make the list and which don’t? In short, he thinks that some liberties, but not others, are necessary to develop and sustain “the two moral powers”. (The two moral powers are the capacity to form and act upon a conception of the good life and a capacity to form and act upon a sense of justice.) According to Rawls, the right to own and use productive property isn’t necessary to develop these two moral powers, but the right to own personal property is.

A neoclassical liberal—especially one who has a roughly Rawlsian framework—will take issue with how Rawls makes his list. For one reason or another, the neoclassical liberal thinks that rights to own productive property, to trade goods, to make contracts, and so on, are more or less morally on par with rights of free speech, legal due process, and so on. Different neoclassical liberals could have different reasons for this belief. As this blog goes on, we’ll discuss some such reasons.

So, a neoclassical liberal differs from a high liberal in part by interpreting the Liberty Principle more broadly, or by having a more demanding version of the Liberty Principle. Plain old classical liberals and libertarians do so as well. However, neoclassical liberals—like Rawls—also endorse some sort of principle of social justice, while plain old classical liberals and libertarians do not.

I haven’t given you any reason to think neoclassical liberalism is true. I’m just explaining what it is in a very generic way.

If I were a high liberal, I’d demand an answer to the following question: If the neoclassical liberal thinks that all sorts of commercial and economic liberties should be protected by the Liberty Principle, doesn’t that completely crowd out and trivialize any principles of social justice? You’ll get an answer to that question, but not today.

One final note: I don't want to give you the impression that neoclassical liberals are all modified Rawlsians. Among the people I consider neoclassical liberals, many are, but many are not. I'm using Rawls as a foil here because his theory of justice is popular and well-known. 

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • David Sobel

    I think I see what you are saying here but let me make sure.

    Neo-classical liberals are defined by their adherence to conclusions not premises but that leaves room to wonder at what level their key conclusions are held. We know they think that property rights and freedom of contract and such are not less important than other sorts of rights but we don’t know if they hold this as an empirical upshot of a consequentialist story where there is no fundamental commitment to any such basic economic rights but only a commitment to, for example, promote well-being. On this consequentialist approach all claims about rights (except the right to have one’s well-being promoted like everyone else) is non-basic. But at least the Consequentialist does not rank economic liberties behind other substantive liberties because she ranks them both as of no fundamental moral worth. But Rawls’ counts as treating economic rights as non-basic and he privileges other substantive rights as basic. So Rawls does treat economic rights as second-class rights to other substantive rights. And this is why the consequentialist but not Rawls can count as a neo-classical liberal. The fundamental judgment is a comparative one: do you think some substantive (non-consequentialist) rights are more basic than economic rights? The consequentialist who thinks that economic rights are perhaps in a sense less basic than Rawls does nonetheless can answer this question negatively whereas Rawls must answer it positively, and so the Consequentialist but not Rawls may still count as a neo-classical liberal.

    Am I getting the picture?

  • Jason Brennan


    At least provisionally, I want to say “yes” to all of that. There are always some worries about whether thorough-going consequentialists can really be liberals at all, but assuming these worries are overcome, the distinction between the neoclassical and high liberal will be primarily about how they treat liberties. Of course, to be a bit more precise, to be a neoclassical liberal, it’s not enough that you think the economic and civil liberties are of equal importance and should be interpreted equally broadly. You also need to think the liberties are of *high* moral importance (perhaps because of a consequentialist justificatory scheme). Otherwise, someone who thought all liberties are equally valueless would end up qualifying as a neoclassical liberal.

  • Javier

    Rawls’ language about what is necessary to exercise the moral powers seems pretty vague and ambiguous to me. Here’s a pass at clarifying the neoclassical position in a way that doesn’t make reference to Rawls’ framework:

    Necessary Condition. A society is fully just only if people have protected rights to make contracts, to own and use productive property, to buy and sell goods on voluntary terms, and so on.

    My impression is that some liberal egalitarians would already deny this condition. But, on your view, neoclassical liberalism is committed to something else too:

    Basicness. Our moral reasons for protecting the economic liberties are just as weighty as our reasons for protecting other standard liberal freedoms, like freedom of speech, liberty of conscience, freedom of association, and so on.

    Is that right? While I find Necessary Condition to be pretty plausible, Basicness strikes me as harder to evaluate or defend. You might think that a neoclassical liberal could accept Necessary Condition, but remain agnostic to some extent about how important the economic liberties are compared to other liberties, like freedom of conscience.

  • Ian Lippert

    Really liking this blog so far. Just one question from a neoclassical liberal who has yet to read Rawls, you said:

    “If the neoclassical liberal thinks that all sorts of commercial and economic liberties should be protected by the Liberty Principle, doesn’t that completely crowd out and trivialize any principles of social justice?”

    Could you just explain how protecting the liberty principle trivializes the difference principle? I guess I’m a little confused on exactly which conditions would allow an increase in inequality. So for example is the factory owner allowed an unequal amount of capital if he is able to produce jobs for those without capital? Wouldn’t this suggest there are examples where it not only does adherence to the first principle not crowd out the second principle but that adherence to the first principle increases our opportunities to excercisemthe second principle.

  • David Sobel

    Good, glad I am tracking. I guess I wonder then if we should not distinguish between something like “outcome” neo-classical liberals and “principled” neo-classical liberals. The consequentialist has hopes of being an outcome neo but not of being a principled one. That is, the consequentialist might get the answer that in fact we should be treated as if we had broad economic rights as this will yield the most utility. They get what is by the neo’s lights the right outcome but they do not seem to have hopes of being a principled neo as their principles only contingently favor economic rights. I take you to have shown that there is a serious sense in which Rawls is not a principled neo, but not that he is not, given our circumstances, an outcome neo. It can feel as tho you have in mind the outcome version when you allow that consequentialists can be neos but the principled version when you say that Rawls cannot.

  • Consistent with the difference principle, Rawls could not list economic freedoms as fully on par with the so-called basic freedoms.

    With basic freedoms, there is no way to tweak at them in a way that advances the goals of justice. Rawls would reject a scheme that curtailed basic freedoms, for example by limiting some people’s participation in political life, even if society reached a better distribution of primary social goods as a result.

    Rawls would claim that with economic freedoms that this is not the case. A more just society is attained when you allow fair equality of opportunity, which is both a social constraint and an individual constraint on unlimited (unreciprocally checked?) freedom to contract.

  • The argument brings to mind Alan Greenspan’s statement that he did not see “any need for a law against fraud.” This belief to me goes to the heart of libertarianism’s lack of a social justice principle. Qualifying the “unreciprocally checked” freedom to contract with an assumption that the contract must be non-fraudulent, that both parties act with equal knowledge and with equal right to redress, would rectify innumerable social injustices, and could place economic liberty side by side with the basic liberties.

  • Bogdan Enache

    I have two questions :

    1. Do you believe the principle of liberty is fully consistent with the difference principle in Rawls?

    2. Do you have a non-Rawlsian foundational theory of social justice consistent with individualism, as understood by classical liberalism?

  • How relevant is neo-classical theory and Rawsls theory to social work?What contributions have these theories contributed to social theory?

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