In her fascinating and pyrotechnic contribution to this symposium, “Factual Free Market Fairness,” Deirdre McCloskey identifies a set of factual assumptions that she says lie behind (orthodox) thinking in the high liberal tradition.
In McCloskey’s words: “Modern life is complicated, so we need government to regulate. Government can do so well, and will not regularly be corrupted. Since markets fail very frequently the government should step in to fix them. Without a big government we cannot do certain noble things…” and so on. McCloskey sees two contributors to this symposium, Elizabeth Anderson and Samuel Freeman, as basing their critiques of Free Market Fairness on this set of factual assumptions.
However, McCloskey says this master narrative is factually mistaken: “Externalities do not imply that government can do better. Publicity does better than inspectors in restraining the alleged desire of business people to poison their customers.” And so forth. McCloskey offers a quick sketch of Western economic history intended to suggest that the main lines of the narrative on which high liberals rely are false. She encourages Anderson and Freeman, and indeed anyone drawn to (orthodox) high liberalism, to rethink the factual assumptions that undergird their political outlook.
I am told that many thousands of people have visited the Bleeding Heart Libertarians site since the posting of McCloskey’s essay (I mean, many thousands more than the many thousands already regularly visiting). Even a glance through the comments section shows the intense interest people have in the factual questions upon which McCloskey has taken a bold and forthright stand. Those factual questions are indeed politically loaded, and thus the importance of those factual questions to our understanding of political life is beyond any doubt.
In Free Market Fairness, of course, I am concerned with a different kind of question. But this question is just as politically loaded as the factual one McCloskey addresses, indeed it is even more politically loaded. And yet this question is less familiar and so in some ways is harder to get one’s hands on. That question is this: disputes about the factual histories and realities of all existing societies aside, what is the best form of political organization? Or slightly more precisely, I ask: what sorts of political and economic structures might make it possible for people to live together in a way that would most fully respect them all as free and equal authors of their own lives?
This is a normative question, rather than a purely factual one. Philosophers see this question as being addressed within the domain of “ideal theory”, a domain within which one abstracts away from facts about what people actually do in particular societies in order to ask about what people ought to do. Different philosophers see political normativity as requiring different mixes of is-ness and ought-ness. Readers interested to learn about my own preferred mix can find it laid out in FMF (esp. “Realistic Utopianism” 203-214, and “Aims and Guarantees” 215-225).
But who cares? How could that strange question I asked be political loaded? And how could anyone possibly think that this question could be more politically loaded than the obviously loaded factual question that McCloskey so trenchantly and provocatively set before us in her post?
The normative question invites us to take a stand about what form of social and economic order is morally best. For many decades, people on the political left have been very comfortable when political conversations turned to this question. Maybe in this messy world, or at this stage of economic development, economic liberties and bourgeois virtues have some value. But that value is purely instrumental (see my critique of Keynes on this point, 43-4, 182-4). When we want to know how people should live together, or what institutions might best show the respect they have (or might have) for one another, then every (non-egoist) knows that we should look in the direction of the European social democracies or, perhaps higher still, to the ideal of socialism.
Many people, and especially those who work within the democratic tradition, go to sleep at night comforted by the belief that there is cluster of normative stars, high in the sky, twinkling somewhere above the social democracies of northern Europe. Anyone concerned to make their own society more socially just, such people sleepily suppose, should take their bearings from that cluster of stars. They should work to elect politicians and support political parties committed to making their society more like the societies nestled beneath that social democratic ideal. Anyone who stands in their way, for example by arguing for greater respect for thick private economic liberty, or for principles of constitutionally limited government, must be called out and sternly corrected. After all, the advocates of private economic liberty are the enemies of social justice.
It is that set of assumptions, the moral assumptions undergirding high liberalism, that I set out to challenge in Free Market Fairness. I do this by pointing to a different and higher moral constellation. This is a constellation that, to the surprise of some, hangs in the sky above the United States of America (or at least, above a dream that was once vivid to many ordinary working people who travelled hard miles to reach that place). It is an ideal of a truly commercial society, a place where citizens are committed to respecting the economic liberties of their fellow citizens, not as moral absolutes, but as protectors of one of the most important domains of personal self-authorship. It is an ideal committed to distributive justice, not so much by the agencies of that state, but by a form of spontaneous order. This order allows every working citizen to look upon the special talents of his fellow citizens, not as weapons to be feared, but as in some sense a common bounty. This is the constellation of views that I call market democratic. Within that constellation, I point to a particular star that I believe is the highest and brightest of them all: free market fairness.
So I welcome the vigorous discussion about political facts that Deirdre has stimulated with her epic post. But when the dust from that dispute settles, the normative star of free market fairness will still be up there, hanging high in the sky. And as long as free market fairness holds its position in the sky, it will continue to urge democratic citizens to re-think their assumptions about what direction they should steer, if they truly long to make their societies more just.