Social Justice, Libertarianism

An excerpt from my review of Free Market Fairness

The review is part of a symposium I’ve edited for The Journal of Politics; it includes reviews by Sheri Berman, Eric MacGilvray, Robert S. Taylor, and myself, and a reply from John Tomasi.

Tomasi characterizes “market democracy as a research program,” (103) and hopes that it is sufficiently capacious to include those who object to his specific conception of market democracy, free market fairness, for example because of its “high degree of idealization” and “an approach that allows concerns about practical feasibility to become relevant only at late argumentative stages” (106). I suppose that, in those terms, I might be a market democrat but (on those grounds) a critic of free market fairness. In that case, however, market democracy seems less like a research program than like a normative orientation, since the research methodology (in this case, a particular kind of ideal normative theory) comes after the shared political mood. In fact I think that Tomasi builds his ideal-theoretic orientation in at a much earlier stage of the concept of market democracy, in which case I stand outside its research program altogether—notwithstanding my shared normative orientation. His offer to the Rawlsian so-called “high liberals”—that if they “prefer to classify market democracy as an interpretation of high liberalism, I have no objection”—is ultimately more meaningful than his invitation to other classical liberals that they think of their ideas as a subset of his research agenda.

Free Market Fairness aims to eschew, and surpass, what Tomasi thinks is a standard classical liberal style of argument: criticisms of egalitarian and statist liberalism on grounds of feasibility, criticisms that borrow from parts of the social sciences (specifically economics and public choice) in order to deny that egalitarian and statist liberalism can get all of the things that it wants. (I do not follow Tomasi in calling these other kinds of liberalism “social democratic.” I think that is a serious misunderstanding on his part, and that social democracy is in important respects a rival to egalitarian liberalism, not a conception of it.) Instead, he wants to meet the “high liberals” on their own ground, which he takes to be ideal theory, built on the Rawlsian understanding of persons and their moral powers, and of social justice as an ideal, as well as on a deliberative democratic understanding of political life (103). These ideas appear at the stage of the concept of market democracy, not the specific conception of free market fairness, and they affect the shape of the whole argument. Market democracy (not only free market fairness) is Kantian rather than consequentialist, and “[j]udged by the character of its justifactory foundations[…] might reasonably be considered an interpretation of high liberalism” (96). In my view this is not only substantively mistaken, in its embrace of ideal theory, its deliberative conception of democracy, and its attempt to build a political economy on the wrong kind of foundations. It also leaves us with some of the less normatively attractive and plausible features of both theories.

Some of the greatest difficulties arise from a thought that is also one of the book’s central virtues: that the moral power of self-authorship requires, for its full exercise, considerable scope for economic liberty, entrepreneurial creativity, and marketplace decisionmaking. Free Market Fairness should persuade Rawlsian high liberals of this point, and if it does then that would be a major contribution. But Tomasi never discusses the limits on the kind of economic liberty that can be justified in this way; he instead frequently and easily slips into discussions of broadly market liberal policy agendas as if they’re obviously derivable from the economic liberty associated with self-authorship. Or, perhaps, he runs together “market democracy” in the sense of the theory built on Rawlsian foundations that take the economic character of self-authorship seriously, and “market democracy” in the sense of a familiar range of extant political societies that are generally described as both democratic and free market in their economic policies. Either way, the gap between the two levels remains unbridged. And so we are told, for example, that “market democratic regimes” are vigilant against inflation, favoring fixed monetary rules (255); we are here a long way from economic self-authorship!

There is no reason to think that a complete political economy is derivable from the basic moral claims of individual persons. Tomasi sees this in his rejection of traditional deontological libertarianism’s emphasis on self-ownership, but it applies just as firmly to the moral power of self-authorship. Questions of state regulation of corporations, for example reduce poorly or at all to such analyses of the moral powers. Tomasi evidently favors a light regulatory hand (as do I), but the arguments here will have to be the classical liberal, institutionalist, consequentialist, and frequently second-best kinds of arguments that Tomasi disavows. The ideal-theoretic resources he officially allows himself are wildly under-determinate compared to the kind of broadly free market capitalism he endorses throughout the book. If the emphasis really is on the economic liberties’ role in the use and development of the moral powers, then the argument is insufficient to generate the generally market liberal political economy Tomasi seems to favor. Corporations as such are almost entirely undiscussed in the book. But Tomasi’s sense that existing market-liberal political agendas have, broadly, something to do with “market democracy” can’t hold up unless he can show that corporate freedom from heavy taxation and regulation has something to do with individual self-authorship. This strikes me as implausibly difficult, but the book doesn’t even make the attempt.[…]

This is a provocative and valuable book, and I share its hopes about bringing egalitarian and libertarian liberalisms into more direct, productive, and perhaps reconciliatory conversation.  But my normative sympathy does not ultimately overcome my methodological skepticism.

  • Cool. When’s the special issue due out?

    • Not a special issue– we’ll be a pretty small fraction of the whole journal! April.