Reply to Deirdre McCloskey: Normative Free Market Fairness

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a symposium on John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. For an introduction to the symposium, click here. For a list of all posts in the symposium, click here.]

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.

  • I have never considered that which is not utilitarian or pragmatic to be superior morally. What I mean by that is that we know what works, we are not operating in the same ignorance of the anarchists, fascists, and socialists of a century ago.

    We know, that free markets, moderate taxes, and individual economic freedom work very well to increase the material well being of the largest number of people. Therefore any argument that they are not moral, or less moral than something else, must first demonstrate that the something else works better, or else the burden of proof is upon those who would substitute a utilitarian free market for something else.

    This is an especially difficult hurdle given the utter and contemptible failures in various big government schemes in the last century, including the most recent failure, the European union.

    • mchugh_alex

      The difficulty of a utilitarian approach is that it always begs the question. The argument goes: More people are fed, they have more things. this is morally right because people are “better off.”

      By calling it better off you assume that it is more moral to have a system in which humans are comfortable than one which considers other aspects of the human experience – this is the timeless question of what is the good life.

      If you cop-out and say “comfort, things, higher GDP” makes for better human experience you fall into the same thinking as the government antagonist in Brave New World. Everyone is “happy,” so why think about it anymore? Its not enough from a moral philosophical perspective to go the pragmatic route.

      Now I would agree that big government schemes seem to fall flat on their face and I would also agree that this reveals a good deal about the moral worth of the system at hand. (People being treated immorally tend to not be as productive). that said, simply being productive does not mean a system is moral. Indeed, the fascists were all utilitarians who similar to you, thought they had it figured out what the causes of prosperity were.

      I’m also a bid offended that you would lump anarchists with the fascists and the socialists. Sure, there were some supposedly anarcho-communist endeavors that were spectacular failures, but most “anarchists” who ever gained any power were nothing of the sort. I have a feeling that as a supporter of free markets you’d agree with a good many modern anarchists, including some of the writers at BHL.

      • I only lumped them together in the sense that these ideologies at the turn of the last century were to some extent living in ignorance. We have lots of real world experience since then.

        I don’t think I am falling into a trap with a utilitarian argument because it is also a moral one. The morality is freedom. Individual liberty is a good thing in and of itself. It only makes it double plus good that it also works so well in putting the food on the table so to speak.

        • mchugh_alex

          Well in that case I agree wholeheartedly. 🙂

        • Graham Peterson

          Mr Nearhood,

          I don’t think you’re falling into a utilitarian trap either (one wonders who actually wants to live in a starkly utilitarian world). I do however, think it’s not clear that food on the table is a function of economic freedom. Incentives matter — case closed.

          The more important case I think we need to ponder as people fascinated with private coordination, is that innovation cannot derive strictly from the proper alignment of incentives.

          We have other tools in our liberal toolbox to ensure a technology-producing world: respect for critical thought, tolerance therein, and the guaranteed freedom to do so. I’m very (though never completely about anything) convinced that our ability to communicate and persuade one another in the Street is as much if not more *economically* radical is it is politically. Happily, ethics seem to come along for this ride in both spheres when people are talking maturely.

    • Deirdre McCloskey

      Dear Mr. Nearhood,
      Oh, I don’t think “Europe has failed” is a very plausible line of argument. Ask the Europeans. I’ve lived a lot in northern Europe and visited southern Europe frequently, and every time I go it seems better and better for ordinary folk. More cars. More university students. Income per head per year in the EU is about $30,000. Not bad when one considers that its income in, say, 1800 in the same prices was about $1000 a head, and perhaps $3000 a head in 1900.
      I of course agree with you and John that free markets are best. But it doesn’t do our case any good to misapprehend social democracy. Sweden, for example, is in many respects a fiercely free market society—at any rate by comparison with Sweden in 1800 or China in 1970. It is pretty easy there to set up a business, and it is highly innovative economy (look at IKEA—tho note that its founder now lives in Switzerland for tax reasons!)

      • I did not mean that “Europe” has failed in the broad sense, only that the economic situation ie. the currency crisis with the Euro. is unraveling as we speak.

        • Graham Peterson

          I agree completely. It’s a managerial nightmare. Had these people stuck to a limited edict, to provide transactors with a relatively stable currency, rather than pursued a counter-cyclical agenda, the natural monopoly tendencies of a unit of account and store of value could proliferate.

          Now the currency has just become a partial-custody child countries are liable to get their feelings very hurt about. And worse, the debate fuels a lot of silly dialogue about how southern European are a lot of lazy vacationers.

          Professor McCloskey’s point is I think important because we too quickly juxtapose America with Europe, but I sympathize wholeheartedly with you concern on the currency.

        • Deirdre McCloskey

          Well, that’s certainly true. The Europeans decided to have a joint bank account before they were married!

      • Graham Peterson

        The real danger of the EU is its affect on the many in Europe, whom rely on one another for innovation — not on its corrupting influence and encouragement of macroeconomic engineering by its leaders.

        When the many are persuaded that they ought to rely on masters and macroeconomic engineering for growth, they are distracted from the potential energy bound up in their “collective brain” (cf Ridley).

        Libertarians ought to appreciate that innovation is more resilient to allocative meddling than has been presumed, and divert the conversation to one about how to maintain creative progress in the Street. But it’s not clear EU-ism cannot and will not have a potentially egregious affect on innovation, on some margin potentially not yet met.

        It may in fact have been the conservative inertia spawned by communism and totalitarianism that killed growth (inertia as a product of fear of being hauled off to die, say), even more than the price controls.

  • Deirdre McCloskey

    Dear John,
    You know that I deeply agree with your point, namely, that (almost regardless of the facts of the matter) it is unethical to ignore the self-fashioning provided by market participation, in consuming, in starting a business, in working for the corporation, in sales. As Willy Loman’s wife put it in the last act of Death of a Salesman, “Respect must be paid.” The contrary assumption that markets are sites of evil-doing, that consumption is corrupting, that advertising is “manipulation,” does underlie High Liberal thinking, or rather feeling. With no disrespect intended, it is a deeply medieval point of view, and in fact a subset even of medieval thought, that of the rural monasteries before the Cistercians commercialized their agriculture—the urban monk St, Thomas Aquinas, for example, worked out an ethical place for business. I wrote a long book, The Bourgeois Virtues (2006), arguing factually and theologically against the medieval view.
    As an economic historian I see the medievalism in recent thought—that entrepreneurs like Carnegie and Rockefeller were Robber Barons; that consumption must be strictly regulated; that guilds of workers are a good idea; and more generally, in keeping with the theme of your brilliant book, that the economy should always be subordinated to politics. One sees it in 19th-century figures on the left and right, from Carlyle to Kropotkin, and accepted now as gospel.
    We bring a different gospel (the good news), to complete and supplement the medieval/High Liberal one.
    Regards,
    Deirdre

    • Graham Peterson

      The normative and factual positions here become the same position when we consider material history, and history of thought: the ideological viciousness of markets was a product of and encourager to aristocratic capture since at least (markedly bourgeois, if struggling to deny it) ancient Greece.

      High liberals must be reminded that their position started, materially, institutionally, and spiritually in the interest of priests and kings — and rather predictably now supports social democratic priests of the ethics of the liberal civil religion, borne in social democracy.

      • good_in_theory

        “High liberals must be reminded that their position started, materially, institutionally, and spiritually in the interest of priests and kings.”

        Is that a joke? In either case it’s ridiculous. One can whine as one wishes about how “high liberalism” amounts to something no better than monarchical statism, but the intellectual lineage is firmly grounded in bourgeois, liberal traditions.

        • Graham Peterson

          That’s rather undignified and I’d prefer not to engage. Thanks.

        • Graham Peterson

          Mr. Theory,

          I’m twenty-nine years old, and have been chatting online since I was fourteen. Someone on an ICQ board gave me advice back then that you might benefit from: “don’t say anything to someone online you wouldn’t say to them on the street.”

          In my experience, most people say things online that would get them punched in the mouth most other places. Attractive as a forum like this may be for a place to vent your political frustrations, do recognize that a majority of people here are trying to educate one another in a mature discourse.

          • good_in_theory

            I’m not going to take lessons in decorum from someone who thinks referring to social democrats as priests in overwrought prose is an example of mature, educative discourse. It’s a sort of snide name calling.

            With or without the polemic, your claim (high liberalism is born of Church and Court) is contentious. It’s contentious not because it is, say, controversial, but rather because it is baseless.
            Here are a few ways in which it simply doesn’t make sense:

            As Freeman’s defined lineage: Mills, Dewey, Rawls
            As used to refer to Gladstonian Liberalism of 19th century England.
            As used to refer to the side of Liberalism chiefly concerned with civil and political liberties as opposed to economic liberties.
            As a name for the political development of left liberalism in the 20th century.

            Now if you have some story about High Liberalism that actually does somehow connect “materially, institutionally, and spiritually” to God and King, educate us. But where I discourse, prima facie absurd claims presented as fact without elaboration are not met decorously, as a matter of decorum. (Which is to say, sometimes inappropriate responses are appropriate.)

          • Graham Peterson

            Thank you for your reply.

          • Deirdre McCloskey

            The similarity with medieval and ancient times is in the High-Liberal suspicion of markets, innovation, the middle class, business, etc. The liberal lineage you cite is of course correct. Yet it is shared with all sorts of the liberals that John distinguishes and so cannot explain why you (an heir of Locke and Mill) believe (as Graham put it) in the “viciousness of markets,” while I (also an heir of Locke and Mill) believe that markets have made us free. Liberalism split in the late 19th century. The conservative nostalgia for the Middle Ages apparent in people like Carlyle and Ruskin was by no means irrelevant to the appeal of socialism, then or now. John is trying to pull the tradition back together.

          • good_in_theory

            I can agree to most of that, but none of it places high liberalism’s “material, institutional, or spiritual origins” in conservative defenses of church and court. Intellectual similarity is not intellectual affinity, let alone intellectual consanguinity.

          • Graham Peterson

            The income of even low gentry in 17th and 18th century Britain outpaced that of even the highest merchants by huge orders. The British aristocracy was no more, and probably much less efficacious in collecting their rents, as any of the traditional aristocracies antedating. So we should expect those income differentials to extrapolate backwards through history.

            There has been demonstrable social mobility among merchants and other nouveau-riche into the aristocracy, and of course people getting kicked right out. The intuition of aristocracy as only blood-lineage money is wrong. So there was a sort-of labor market for slots among landlords. People paid money prices for these positions, but more often had to demonstrate their loyalty to crown and church through non-pecuniary signaling (silly things like garden building, party throwing, and dueling).

            In reverse we see the aristocracy demoting the dignity of merchants (and probably more importantly, inventors and social innovators) throughout history. These people threatened directly the rents landed interests were able to collect. A world who does not believe to some degree in the legitimacy of church and crown will not volunteer to the Leviathan in a (more vaguely than he put it himself) Hobbessian sense. A world in which technological innovation and the productive arbitrage thereupon spawn from a wellspring of beliefs in human progress does not amend to the goals of conservative inertia and rent seeking. If that sounds like anachronistic neoliberalism — revisit the empirical setup regarding income differentials. It would be a little silly to claim that people *didn’t* want into the aristocracy, and that there wasn’t thus direct competition between taxing people and doing productive deals, and thus competition between the social institutions which agglomerated from the two getting-rich techniques.

            Most people who had the time to sit around and ponder markets and politics, and the ethical philosophy attending (before markets themselves ushered common-ish people like Adam Smith into the dialogue), were patrons of church and king. These men had every methodologically materialist, and broadly institutional incentive to promote market-suspicious ideology.

            Being that society has had for thousands of years a division of labor whereby a small group of story-tellers gives to the populace their macro-views (but probably not their *every* view), the group Professor McCloskey labels the “Clerisy” — precisely those patrons of king and church I just mentioned — have had a profound influence over people’s views on markets and their potential for exploitation, a view we now see codified in the intuition of high liberals.

            Most people in the Western world period (high liberals thence being a subset) have not ever heard of Locke and Dewey much less read their work. Nor are Lockean or Dewian ideas usually proffered in colloquial form as defenses of modern liberalism. No, no the defense in the street and on MSNBC is a loose intuition that the guys in suits are sociopaths and are out to get you, and that is an intuition that has taken thousands of years of reiterating to codify: that they are sniveling, traveling (as in not de Asisi, landed to an estate, or working on one) untrustworthy merchants.

            The intellectual tradition started at the intersection of direct, demonstrable material, institutional, and spiritual competition between groups of innovators and traders and landed, tenured interests since, like I said the original post, at least the Greeks.

            And I have no clue what consanguinity means, but I’m certainly not, nor are Professor McCloskey, Joel Mokyr, Albert Hirschmann, David Allen, or any number of economic historians and historians of thought just conflating a loose reading of NYT blogs with a high-school history book reading of world history in order to “whine” about anything. I do, however hope my clarification was less pretentiously overwrought than you felt the concision of my first post communicated.

          • Graham Peterson

            And I might add that States were remarkably *more* laissaze-faire pre the industrial revolution and liberal thought that came with it. So high liberalism is a defense of an institution that, materially and empirically speaking, is dramatically more economically illiberal than what you called “monarchical statism.” I merely pointed out that suspicion of markets and innovation is ancient, and gave some very plausible reasons that ideology emerged. It didn’t hit a growth spirt until the 19th century when, predictably, the State was growing at a record pace.

          • good_in_theory

            States were remarkably less efficacious ‘pre the industrial revolution.’ THat does not mean they were more, or less, principally laissez faire. The scope of their interventions has scaled with their power to intervene.

            ” I merely pointed out that suspicion of markets and innovation is ancient, and gave some very plausible reasons that ideology emerged. It didn’t hit a growth spirt until the 19th century when, predictably, the State was growing at a record pace.”

            No, you claimed that high liberalism was “materially, spiritually, and institutionally’ a product of court and church. As to your fixation on a single alleged correlation, it tells us absolutely nothing about the ‘material, spiritual, and institutional’ bases of high liberal thought, however figured.

          • Damien S.

            What madness is this? More laissez faire? With arbitrary revenue monopolies, sumptuary laws, legally fixed prices, mercantilism, import bans, frequent adulteration of currency, serfdom, and more?

          • Graham Peterson

            Hi Damien,

            All modern states suffer from arbitrary revenue monopolies, sumptuary laws, legally fixed prices, mercantilism, import bans, and frequent (actually constant) adulteration of currency. The point is that these abuses have increased, not decreased. That said, modern states have brought of course invaluable guarantees like speech and suffrage. Please don’t mistake my point, which is empirically supported, as me recommending monarchy.

            See: Michael Mann. The Autonomous Power of the State: It’s Origins, Mechanisms, and Results. Originally published in Archives Europeennes de sociologie, vol 25, 1984: pp 185-213. Originally forwarded to me by a Marxian political theorist.

            Also see John Nye’s recent and wonderful book on the British wine trade c18th century: he finds that British government revenues increases five fold.

            Cheers.

          • good_in_theory

            I don’t see what your point is.

            ‘Those who extract have been the rich one’s for a long time.’ Ok.

            ‘Some have always said markets are vicious.’ Fine.

            ‘There is a perennial conflict between those who produce and those who extract, so it’s the extractors saying markets are vicious.’ Ok.

            ‘Intellectuals were lackeys to the rich, the rich were extractors, the extractors said markets were vicious, so intellectuals said extractors were vicious.’ Crude, but whatever.

            ‘The clerisy (intellectuals) have led the masses to find markets vicious.’ Mmm hmmm.

            ‘Everyday ordinary “high liberals” are just dupes of the clerisy’s polemic against producers.’

            ‘Because those in the streets who support “high liberalism” operate on ancient animus, an intellectual tradition which is sympathetic to their view must be connected to the intellectual tradition which gave rise to the animus, “materially, spiritually, and insititutionally”.’ (Hello, non sequitor).

            And that’s really it. Whether or not there is an enduring cultural history of competitive animus between rentiers and producers, or however one wants to figure the opposition, tells us little about the ‘spiritual, material, and institutional’ grounds for the particular intellectual tradition of high liberalism.

          • Graham Peterson

            “I’m not going to take lessons in decorum from someone who thinks referring to social democrats as priests in overwrought prose is an example of mature, educative discourse. It’s a sort of snide name calling”

            Google the term “civil religion” — it’s scholarly and ubiquitous in the social sciences, dating at least since Weber’s tracking of the morphology from religious to secular society, and the transferal of ideological structures that happened as a result. The undergraduate example of a civil religion would be American Football, which is little more than a ritualistic pageant functioning to codify and reify norms of competition embedded in a framework of agreed-upon rules, which leverages a Western history of aristocratic war to do it. Lining up on a battlefield, capturing territory, not *actually* stepping on your opponent’s throat in order to maintain civility. I was invoking a long-accepted and certainly mature sense of civil religions to make my point about the intellectual ancestry of social democratic ideas on economy. But I can certainly see how you felt justified in being an ass when you thought I was name calling.

            “With or without the polemic”

            My post was neither long nor angry. “High liberals must be reminded” was slightly pretentious of me to say, but nobody would read that as a polemic without being severely charged against my claim enough to read it prima facie also as “pretentious name calling.”

            “your claim (high liberalism is born of Church and Court) is contentious. It’s contentious not because it is, say, controversial, but rather because it is baseless.”

            Just a style note, considering you accused me of writing overwrought prose, and then proceeded to try and one-up me in overwroughtness: you could have said “your claim that high liberalism is born of Church and Court is wrong,” and gotten on with it.

            “But where I discourse, prima facie absurd claims presented as fact without elaboration are not met decorously, as a matter of decorum. (Which is to say, sometimes inappropriate responses are appropriate.)”

            When defending being an ass in person using language like this, do you prance around a little at the same time?

          • good_in_theory

            I would have thought civil religion dates from Rousseau’s coining of the term in Du Contrat Social, and echoes, in concern, earlier writings which address issues of religions toleration and divided sovereignty (e.g. Hobbes, Marsillus of Padua, Dante, &etc, though my background in medieval thought is not so great), but in the context of the Reformation.

            That use is quite different from what it means when your garden variety conservative talks about how liberals and socialists are religious, where ‘civil religion’ is run together with ‘secular religion,’ ‘state religion,’ ‘political religion,’ and simply ‘religion’ and used to deride all manner of liberal policy as quasi-spiritual and faith based, from global-warming to evolution to redistributive politics, equating left policy with religious belief.

            I have little idea of what you actually meant with the phrase, “[the high liberal tradition] predictably now supports social democratic priests of the ethics of the liberal civil religion, borne in social democracy” as it reads as word salad.

            The claim seems to amount to this: in social democratic countries, social democrats have policy positions which reflect their ethical commitments, and high liberals support the ethical commitments of social democrats.

            If such a statement has a point, I don’t see what it is. Making policy on the basis of ethical commitments has nothing to do with ‘civil religion,’ unless all policy is to be reduced to civil religion.

            “Just a style note, considering you accused me of writing overwrought prose, and then proceeded to try and one-up me in overwroughtness: you could have said “your claim that high liberalism is born of Church and Court is wrong,” and gotten on with it.”

            Except the statements would not be equivalent. My claim, which I concisely put in my first pose, was that your claim that high liberalism is born of Church and State is ridiculous. And being ridiculous is not just being wrong; it’s being wrong to the point of absurdity.

            So noting that you were wrong not simply because you said something with which I disagree, but because you said something which I think has no legs to stand upon (that what you said was ‘not just controversial, but baseless’), is an important distinction.

          • Graham Peterson

            I didn’t call anyone “religious,” but you did just call me a “garden variety conservative.” You don’t have a thesis here: in fact all you’ve done since your first post is allege that I’ve made ad hominem attacks on high liberals, using an empirically baseless and logically fallacious argument. To boot, you’ve been an incredible dick. So I think I’m done stating my position. It’s not clear at all what your position is on the matters above, and these law-school maneuvers are tiring. Take care.

          • good_in_theory

            My thesis is very clear. It was very clear in my first post. Your subsequent posts have done nothing to address my point or to clarify your own position. Rather, they’ve failed to address my argument and only made your own more confusing. It would help if you wrote more clearly.

            This is the thesis, it has two parts:

            The intellectual tradition of “high liberalism” does not start out in the interest of priests and kings.

            High liberalism, as an intellectual tradition, emerged out of liberal discourse.

            If you want to defend your thesis, then please give me an example of a founding thinker in the high liberal tradition who crafted their arguments as a defense of church and state.

          • Graham Peterson

            Aristotle. And Plato.

          • good_in_theory

            Neither Aristotle nor Plato are high liberals.

          • Graham Peterson

            Aye dios mio. I’m not going to get the quote out for you so you’ve got another flame to piss on. Their sense was that it was dignified to own land, farm (=own slaves), philosophize, or collect rent, but not to trade and innovate. Both men benefitted materially from the social structure that ideology upheld. Extrapolate forward in history, inductively from the base case.

            Yes they and their descendants, until the liberal thinkers you cited, made varying cases for taxation and regulation. And then yes, the liberal thinkers you cited made a radically different positive argument for freedom-through State during the early modern. And it’s gone on and on. Yes, I’m being broad: I’m making the case that there is an intellectual thread borne on material interests that dates for thousands of years. If you’d like more detail for the argument, you can read my dissertation or books in future, as I develop the thesis — you do have my name.

            There are myriad holes in my argument, probably the largest being the theoretical contention that an entire group can share a material interest and furthermore vie for it through collective action. That’s a 60 year project so far. Ooop — better brace myself before you peel some more pedantry off your high-school syllabus, that conveniently picks a knit in my (transparently, and unashamedly broad from the start) argument.

            And hey, you’re right big guy. Not one philosopher in history ever came out and said: “the State is great because it keeps productive arbitrage and innovation at bay and conserves the material and spiritual rent I enjoy.” So you got me there.

            I’m a ridiculous, pretentious, poorly educated, name-calling libertarian. Would you like a photocopy of my Tea Party membership due receipt and a photo of my effigy to Charles Koch?

            Would you like me to stop using the words “spiritual” and “religious” and “priest?” You seem to assume that I want to reign accusations of sheep-herding and stupidity on anyone or group I associate those terms. That’s a stupid way to interpret theological words at their intersection with social analyses.

            Your boy Rousseau himself said that “the pretext of the public good is the most dangerous scourge of government.” Just thought I’d throw that in there for points, even though it’s tangential, since we’re chiefly concerned with tangents and scoring debate/ethos points here.

            I’d rephrase your entire argument in a series of single-apostrophe straw man quotations and then knock them down with high-school rhetoric accusations of logical fallacies, but I’m tired.

          • good_in_theory

            Should I have specified? Neither Aristotle nor Plato are ‘founding thinkers’ in the high liberal tradition, apart from their role as ‘founding thinkers’ of political theory, generally, and hence founding thinkers of the ‘classical liberal,’ ‘libertarian,’ ‘anarchist,’ ‘marxist,’ ‘fascist,’ &etc tradition.

          • Graham Peterson

            Who’s over-broad and lacking elaboration now? You argue like a child, that is to say (*dance* *turn* *curtsey*) without integrity, which is to say (*skip* *prance*) committing exactly the same errors you’re accusing your opponent of.

            You’re right: my argument has no base. I’ve merely restated that high liberalism is born in political theory, which is totally facile, ticked off some common-knowledge economic history, and satisfied my Fox News Libertarian priors, all in terrible prose that was mostly aimed at you personally. Now GTFO.

          • good_in_theory

            When I wrote my reply all you had written was Aye Dios Mio. Pardon me for not addressing arguments that weren’t there.

          • Damien S.

            “don’t say anything to someone online you wouldn’t say to them on the street.”

          • Graham Peterson

            Hi Damien,

            For better or (sometimes admittedly) worse, I am as confrontational and transparent in person as I have been here. I apologize for my profanity and taunting if it offends you; I tried to keep it to a minimum.

            Cheers.

          • good_in_theory

            1. Yes, Plato and Aristotle were aristocrats. That doesn’t make them high liberals. Occupying the same class position as someone (Veblen’s leisure class, it seems) does not put one in the same intellectual tradition as them.

            2. So, to put it loosely, you’re slapping together Veblen’s theory of the leisure class with a vulgar Marxist theory of ideology and then getting very distraught when I react skeptically.

            3. So your argument has large holes and yet you’re mad that my first reaction to seeing it glossed in two sentences was that it had large holes.

            4. I’m looking for continuities in the intellectual tradition, not equivalencies in material interest. High liberals are responding to, working with, and developing liberal ideas. Maybe they warp them to serve illiberal interests, whatever. They still do it within the intellectual context of liberal, not medieval or Greek discourse.

            5. It’s great that you feel persecuted and aggrieved. I’ve been rather clear and limited in my rudeness. I disagree with your claim; I think it’s poorly conveyed; I think its lack of clarity and tone evoked polemical rhetoric; and I don’t think your subsequent arguments have done anything to defend it. Perhaps I’m just too used to reading grandiose statements about leftists and liberals and statists from people who don’t know anything about political theory. Like my statement about ‘garden variety conservatives’ that’s not a statement about you but a statement about the context of interpretation for your first post.

            6. I don’t think the “civil religion” concept does anything for your point; I think civil religion, used as a term of art, is fraught; and I think that, rhetorically, when used high-handedly and without elaboration, use of such terms fits a rather standard form of political polemic used often on the internet and in the media in America. So yes, I guess I’d recommend not using that sort of language.

            7. Rousseau isn’t my boy. I’m not a Rousseauvian (as you suggest) or a Lockean/Millian (as Deirdre suggested.) I’m not a high liberal, either.

            8. Understanding is built on repetition. When you don’t write clearly, the only way I have to communicate where I stand in the conversation is by repeating your claims as I understand them. If I get them wrong, maybe it’s because I’m importing something, or maybe it’s because you aren’t being clear. As to glossing my argument, go ahead, if you need to, though I’m not really making much of an argument. Mostly I just don’t buy yours, which should be fine since you’ve admitted it isn’t developed and it’s full of holes.

            Before you develop it and fill in the holes maybe you should take criticism in stride when making bold pronouncements about both what interests others are serving and what they ought to remind themselves as they go about allegedly serving those interests (in function, if not in intent, of course).

            For the purposes of the conversation, my argument amounts to the boring, stodgy claim that the high liberal intellectual tradition is chiefly a philosophical development (or regress, whatever) of liberal ideas, and that its proponents are no more materially or institutionally yolked to their leisure than classical liberal philosophers were or are to theirs. As far as spiritual influences go, they are diverse, and not limited to (if even inclusive of) populist conservative sentiment (e.g. Ruskin and Carlyle, as Deirdre mentioned.) Insofar as “high liberals” are influenced by non-liberal or illiberal intellectual traditions, it probably makes more sense to look to lower class movements than upper class ones, even if their development of those traditions, or those traditions themselves, are in the service of the interests of the leisure class.

          • Graham Peterson

            “So, to put it loosely, you’re slapping together Veblen’s theory of the
            leisure class with a vulgar Marxist theory of ideology”

            More straw-man misapprehension.

            “So your argument has large holes and yet you’re mad that my first
            reaction to seeing it glossed in two sentences was that it had large
            holes”

            No i was mad that your first reaction to it was to speak to accuse me of name-calling, and then speak to me like a prancing dick back in turn.

            “I’m looking for continuities in the intellectual tradition, not equivalencies in material interest”

            Exactly. There are continuities in the intellectual traditions and material interests I’m invoking. Thank you for taking the time, after being goaded to it like a child, to try and understand my point.

            “Perhaps I’m just too used to reading grandiose statements about leftists
            and liberals and statists from people who don’t know anything about
            political theory. Like my statement about ‘garden variety conservatives’ that’s not a
            statement about you but a statement about the context of interpretation
            for your first post.”

            Look. I was a Rainbow Gathering attending hippie throughout most of my twenties, and a large majority of my friends are social workers, union organizers, social justice activists, etc. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about concerning my personal “context” or the impersonal “context” of my ideas. I also just received a 400 word letter from a very good political theorist regarding our discussion of Marx. You’re essentially here admitting that you misapprehended me and made ad hominem attacks about the origins of my ideas, without actually owning that you made a mistake. Be a man, or a woman, and admit it.

            “I’m not really making much of an argument. Mostly I just don’t buy
            yours, which should be fine since you’ve admitted it isn’t developed and
            it’s full of holes.”

            Yep. I pointed out that you have no argument here about four posts ago, to which you got back up on your pedestal and continued your aria. My argument is not full of holes — there is a robust scholarly debate on whether purposive agents in rational actors models can be said to aggregate their preferences and valuations to the degree that widespread ideologies might form, (as Gramsci more than Marx alleged) which support their collective interests. I have working models of how purposive agents do indeed form these social norms-turn-ideologies, but we’re not going on another tangent where I take an honest intellectual risk and present my thesis while you snivel and try to pick at it by moving it to the grounds of the course you taught on Rousseau last semester. The caveat about ideology and material interest is one hole — one you failed to recognize or address — you just told me I was whining, and have since alleged that I’m under-read, and brainwashed by my mentor. A round of applause.

            “bold pronouncements about both what
            interests others are serving and what they ought to remind themselves”

            Aaataboy! You finally admitted what pissed you off in the first place, that I condescended to high liberals. I apologize for my original flourish. But it seems you, good man, are the one who took my comment personally, felt I was calling *you* names, and whining at *you.* You said you’re not a high liberal. Maybe, but you’re rather impassioned about defending them. Curious.

            ” Insofar as “high liberals” are influenced by non-liberal or illiberal
            intellectual traditions, it probably makes more sense to look to lower
            class movements than upper class ones, even if their development of
            those traditions, or those traditions themselves, are in the service of
            the interests of the leisure class.”

            This is the first creative, original criticism of my point you’ve made in two days. I don’t know what “lower class movements” you have in mind, so I don’t see your point. But I might, if you can be a big boy, drop your own polemical tone, and actually say something here rather than try to pick an emotionally charged fight because you felt condescended to by my OP.

            Enjoy the weather, Mr. Theory.

          • Graham Peterson

            And I really do wonder whether you felt condescended to and name-called by Mr. Tomasi’s work in the first place, and came to this comment board looking for the most and first incendiary person whom would engage you in a pissing contest.

            You’ve got some incredible beef here, bringing in all kinds of tangents about conservative media, uninformed political theory, the term high-liberal, and the alleged intellectual origins of them.

            I made a quick point about a thesis I’m working on that relates somewhat to Mr. Tomasi’s book. I stood up and said something. Make your own point, you ninny. Realize that you are essentially grasping at the caboose of the train that an undergraduate started in motion, in a debate whose terms an undergraduate has successfully framed, all because you’re too whipped up about libertarian political theory to say anything constructive of your own on a comment blog.

            Oh, and I should clarify because this is public — the thesis I’ve presented here is almost wholly mine, especially and including its mistakes. The inspiration came from Professor McCloskey’s pointing to the Clerisy as a debate-changer about markets, but she is extremely skeptical of my points about material interests spawning the ideology. Further, my claim that an organic-form competition among institutions in 18th century Britain can be extrapolated back through history is completely novel, including the claim period that institutions are durable goods in market competition for people’s attention and investment. Further, that that competition creates an emergent ideology, is almost directly opposed to the top-down, “everyone’s just listening to the rich philosophers” thesis on aristocratic capture that’s usually posited in this vein. Professor McCloskey intends to attack these matters head-on in the fourth volume of her series, and has allocated time on matters outside developing the model I’m chomping on here. I am not nearly ashamed that Professor McCloskey’s genius inspires my work, but the claim that my ideas parrot hers is just ridiculous.

          • good_in_theory

            And yes, as you’ve noted, I do have your name. Looking into it, it’s not very surprising that I’m talking to a former undergraduate disciple of one… Deirdre McCloskey. Looks like you heard the good news at age 18 and haven’t looked back.

            That certainly colors the spiritual influence of your first comment, and perhaps the material interests at work as well. All grounded, of course, in the institutional context of that bastion of the clerisy, the public university.

          • Graham Peterson

            Nope. Still an undergraduate, still a research assistant to Professor McCloskey, and still ramping the motivation for my research program off of her theses. I tell Professor McCloskey she’s wrong constantly. On her point (and mine and Matt Ridley’s and many others’) that the disdain for markets is an aristocratic tradition cum high-liberalism, she is right. This dribbling argument you have about Dewey et. al. not taking ideological cue or inspiration from the tradition of scholarship before them is ridiculous. Exploring those ideologies as functions of material and institutional variables is a rather widespread and legitimate exercise. Presuming, and then averring that I just don’t know anything about history of thought because I’m a garden-variety conservative, brainwashed disciple of a libertarian author is weak.

          • Graham Peterson

            And I quote, from the “civil religion” wiki: Origin of term
            Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the term in chapter 8, book 4 of The Social Contract (1762)

            Congratulations. You know how to use the internet to troll.

          • good_in_theory

            No, I know how to read Rousseau, which I taught 6 months ago. I think it’s pretty clear who the troll is. But feel free to condescend to me again with lectures on the history of animus against markets, Weber, scholarly social science, civil religion, and the use of google. Just realize that such condescension does nothing to establish whether or not the high liberal intellectual tradition grew out of medieval thought (to use a rough descriptor of what you are gesturing towards).

            Please note that high liberals and medieval thinkers sharing certain emotions (or affective dispositions, or whatever) is not the same as sharing similar ideas. One can be hostile to markets for very different reasons, and to very different ends.

          • Graham Peterson

            Deleted.

          • good_in_theory

            Rendered irrelevant.

  • Graham Peterson

    Mr. Tomasi,

    I doubt anyone will convince high liberals of anything, by using the term “free markets.”

    To high liberals, “free market” = “free the guys in suits to run around screwing everyone and corrupting the government.” And I doubt the term will ever mean anything else to those afraid of guys in suits. Libertarian concessions that “we hate the plutocrats too!” mean little once someone’s ethical switch has been flipped already, and flip goes the switch any time a high liberal hears the term “free market” or “laissez faire.”

    We need to argue on grounds of innovation, solving Hayekian informational problems, the anarchic democracy of the internet and the “information economy” (it’s *always* been an information economy — information is where innovation comes from). These are fresh and relatively value-neutral grounds that libertarians actually have a shot at framing the ethics of.

    “Free markets” and all of the old allocative saws merely sound to high liberals like elaborate justifications for letting everyone run around and murder and exploit one another in a Hobbesian tragedy.

    There are good and sound and useful ethical arguments for political liberalism. Let us wield that sword on screaming margins that actually matter, and are issues of *nothing other* than individual liberty — abortion and gay sex and praying, say. And let’s move the debate with high liberals over markets to new ground, leaving the liberalism of the matter to the choir for whom the preaching actually works.

    • Graham Peterson

      And I should have thanked you for your enormous contribution, as you’ve opened a poignant conversation.

      • John Tomasi

        thank you, graham.

    • What choir would that be?

      • Graham Peterson

        Hi Ms. Lee,

        That which believes already, or at least mostly, in the importance of economic liberty — either on individual freedom grounds, or allocative efficiency grounds.

        It’s stunningly difficult to convince people of the welfare implications of markets with supply and demand models, as any undergraduate economics instructor will tell you. I believe that has to do with the ubiquity of the idea that markets thrive on vicious competition.

        The recommendation thus that we leave the market alone sounds to a majority of people like we should leave people alone to run around screwing one another in a zero sum contest. Patient explanation by liberal theorists and economists that productive trades don’t result in zero, or negative-sum transactions has failed to convince a broad majority of the positive ethics of markets.

        So I say we need new arguments. Pointing out that markets themselves are ethics-and-cooperation promoting, as against some alleged communitarian “alternative” like bowling leagues and intentional communes, seems like a good start to reframing the debate.

  • Counsellor

    Am I alone in sensing an implication in some of these
    views that basic deterrent to progress toward the best society is the
    inadequacy of the members who make up that society?

    Do I mistakenly read a conclusion that care ( perhaps
    Love?) of humans for one another and the performance of obligations, can best
    be expressed and achieved (in some “normative” – standardized form) through a collective
    device that might result (in part) from (regulated? structured?) economic
    conduct?

    Is there a conclusion that the best society will be that
    in which the members strive for a “just society,” as something separate and
    apart from a society of “just” humans?

    Has a theory been derived to replace: “A just society of
    just men?”
    R Richard Schweitzer
    s24rrs@aol.com

  • The arguments for social justice in these pieces seems like a one-way street that relies on obtuse phrases. Society “shares” in the success of individuals in the name of the “greater good.” I see a one-way street because the social justice only comes in after success of individual enterprise. How does society share in the individual risk run to build a productive enterprise? How does a philosophy that shares only in the success of business ventures, but eschews the risk side of starting businesses produce a vibrant economy?

    • Surely nothing covers the downside like the limited liability corporation. Organized society is a much better sport about taking risk on the chin.

      • I don’t think you realize that the limited liability corporation is a misnomer. No corporation ever escapes any liability. General Motors was going to see its assets sold off in pieces for its liabilities.

      • TracyW

        Limited liability means that the risk falls on people who extended credit towards the corporation, not on society (at least, not any more than any other action, no man is an island, etc, etc).
        Limited liability increases society’s welfare by meaning that more capital can be aggregated (as people aren’t liable to lose all their fortunes), allowing investment in more expensive capital goods.

  • Tibor Machan

    Interesting how my work on fairness and equality has been overlooked–boycotted?–here. See

    Equality, So Badly Misunderstood (Addelton Academic Publishers, 2011) despite how my name keeps popping up since I am co-editor with Rod Long of a book that’s often mentioned here.

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