The latest issue of Cato’s Regulation magazine contains a brief but worthwhile review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. The review, written by John Hasnas of Georgetown University, is generally sympathetic, but is quite critical on a few points in ways that I suspect will resonate with those of you who are skeptical of the BHL project.
Like many of you (and some of us!), Hasnas has his doubts about the utility of the term “social justice.” Tomasi uses this term in a highly specific way – to refer to the requirement that the basic structure of society be designed so as to maximize the holdings of the least well-off citizens. Understood in this way, social justice does not necessarily require redistributive government programs. At the very least, such programs will only be justified if they actually work to improve the condition of the poor. What’s more, such programs will only be justifiable if they do not violate citizens basic liberties, and given that Tomasi defends a “thick conception of economic liberty,” this is a relatively high hurdle to clear. Nevertheless, writes Hasnas, the use of the phrase “social justice” to describe this idea is a “major impediment to effective communication” – “guaranteed to be misinterpreted by libertarians (and others) as referring to the type of redistributive social policies that were excoriated by Hayek.”
Hasnas’ most telling points, however, have to do with Tomasi’s claim that a just society will guarantee a certain level of material holdings on the part of the poor. Hasnas’ intuition, and it is one that strikes me as important, is that
“the way the poor obtain their holdings is just as important—if not more important—than how great their holdings are.” Hasnas’ recalls stories that his uncle told him about his life as an impoverished immigrant – stories that emphasized the virtues of self-help and community and the shamefulness of seeking alms from outsiders. “”The stories demonstrated that what made life meaningful for the poor—what made them capable of being “responsible self-authors”—was not merely how much material wealth they had, but how they got it.”
The printed version of the review is based on Hasnas’ longer (and, I think, more critical and persuasive) comments at a Cato Book Forum earlier this year. You can watch Hasnas deliver those comments here. More on Tomasi a the BHL Symposium on his book here.