We’ve talked a great deal about John Tomasi’s book, Free Market Fairness, here on this blog. But on re-reading one of the chapters this afternoon, I noticed a nice point that I don’t think we’ve yet discussed here.
The point is broadly about the value of economic liberty. More specifically, it’s about the kind of value economic activity can have in giving meaning to one’s life. Political philosophers have, since Mill, tended to downplay this value. But most ordinary people, Tomasi notes, haven’t followed philosophers in this trend. He cites polling data that seem to show that people have come to value economic liberty more over time.
Should political philosophers be troubled by this discrepancy between their views and the views of ordinary folk? Well, if political philosophy was like probability theory, the answer would be no. The fact that most ordinary people get the Birthday Problem wrong is no reason for mathematicians to revise their solution to the puzzle.
But political philosophy, Tomasi argues, isn’t like probability theory. An important part of political philosophy involves deciding questions of value – the value of certain goods, of certain freedoms, and certain experiences. But whatever expertise political philosophers have, there is no reason to suppose that they are necessarily better than older people at making these kinds of value judgments. After all, sometimes one cannot really understand the value of an experience – of being a parent, of being a spouse, or of being an entrepreneur – without having experienced it.
The point is not that people who do political philosophy, in order to do philosophy well, must actually have had experiences of each kind just mentioned— becoming a parent, joining a campaign, or owning a business. The point, rather, is that if one has not had experiences such as these (or if one has personally eschewed the sort of life that might include them), there exists a danger that one might be insufficiently sensitive to the moral role such experiences play in the lives of other people. If many people in one’s professional cohort have followed a similar pattern of eschewal, the danger of such distortions may be enhanced (p. 67).
In a way, we can read Tomasi here as answering the question Robert Nozick raised in his influential essay, “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” – an essay that has sparked a great number of interesting replies, most recently Julian Sanchez’s neat essay, “Why Do Intellectuals Favor Government Solutions?” Tomasi’s answer is that intellectuals as a group tend not to have the experience necessary to appreciate the value of economic liberty. And so, when it comes to draw up their list of basic liberties – of the freedoms they think necessary to protect what’s most important in people’s lives – economic liberties get short shrift.
I think Tomasi is on to an important point about moral epistemology here. And I suspect it is one that libertarians and conservatives will generally applaud. But notice that the point generalizes. What’s true of economic liberty is also true of blackness, or womanhood, or being gay. Just like philosophers who’ve never worked as an entrepreneur will struggle to understand the significance that entrepreneurial activity can have in one’s project of self-authorship, so too will philosophers who’ve never been black, or a woman, or gay, struggle to understand the distinct moral experiences of many members of those groups. And so, when it comes time to think about, say, what kinds of threats to freedom are most significant, those political philosophers might tend to give short shrift to the kinds of non-state, social oppression and marginalization that members of these groups experience as highly salient.
So, I ask you, has Tomasi given us a libertarian case for affirmative action? Or, less provocatively but more accurately, at least a libertarian case for putting a high value on diversity within academic philosophy?