The Magazine

Fair Enough

Competing visions of economic justice.

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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When CNBC’s Rick Santelli took to the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade on February 19, 2009, to launch a tirade against a government plan to assist homeowners with troubled mortgages, few could foresee that the Tea Party would come into existence and exercise such influence on political debates. Likewise, after holding demonstrations last fall in hundreds of cities worldwide, the Occupy Wall Street movement returned this spring, leading many to wonder what impact it will have on our public discourse. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson

AP

These two movements provide a helpful reminder of how economic issues are frequently debated, and the past three years have highlighted the importance of normative thinking about economic issues. Partisans on the right and on the left speak in morally charged language about the rights of private property and the right to universal health care, about the justice of keeping what one earns and the justice of providing for the basic needs of all our society’s members. Sarah Palin’s Tea Party and Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats are obviously at odds on these issues; but how one thinks about the bailouts, the Bush tax cuts, Obamacare, and “spreading the wealth” should be informed by deeper considerations of rights and justice.

To my mind, the rhetoric coming from both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street gets it about half right and half wrong. Neither side has a coherent, consistent, and plausible argument (which shouldn’t be too surprising, given their nature as activist, political protest groups). But as I survey the academic literature on economic justice and rights, I find something similar: Of the leading right-leaning and left-leaning scholarly positions, each paints only part of the picture.

John Tomasi, professor of political philosophy at Brown, sees the same limitations in our scholarly discussions. As he puts it in this new and, in many respects, brilliant book, political theorists are presenting too many false dichotomies: 

Property rights or distributive justice. Limited government or deliberative democracy. Free markets or fairness. One side or the other, everyone must choose.

But Tomasi is drawn to ideals in both the libertarian tradition (he opens the book with a confession that “some of my best friends are libertarians”) and what he calls “contemporary high liberalism” (the creed of today’s academy). As Tomasi writes, “Most of my professional friends and colleagues, by far, are left liberals.” 

From the libertarian right, Tomasi finds capitalistic freedoms that protect personal agency and conceptions of society as spontaneous order inspiring. And from the liberal left, he is drawn to the norms of political legitimacy that should be at the heart of political institutions, with social justice providing the ultimate standard. Tomasi develops a hybrid of the two, a theory he calls “market democracy.” This theory “combines ideas that have long seemed uncombinable: private economic liberty and social justice; spontaneous order and democratic self-governance; free markets and fairness. Market democracy makes room for them all.”

The heart of Tomasi’s book entails serious engagement with John Rawls and his liberal theory of justice as fairness. While many scholars have defended capitalism from leftist critics by pointing to the practical problems with social democracy and the welfare state—“great in theory but it doesn’t work in practice”—Tomasi challenges Rawls on the level of ideal theory. He covers why a government that is too involved in economic matters usually fails to achieve social justice or the common good (the problems of poverty traps and rent-seeking that public choice theorists have so well explained). But Tomasi casts his main argument on moral grounds, claiming that Rawls and the other high liberals have the wrong conception of justice: “That choice is strictly moral: which conception of fairness, the social democratic one or the free market one, offers us the more inspiring ideal?” In other words, it neither works in practice nor is great in theory.

The problem is that while high liberals protect robust conceptions of noneconomic rights—free speech, freedom of association, religious liberty, voting rights, eligibility for office—they advocate only a thin conception of economic rights: protection for personal (but nonproductive) property and (limited) occupational choice. They couple this with strong demands for (re)distributive justice. Tomasi traces the historical origins of their view to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill’s critiques of classical liberalism. While Mill is a great defender of liberty and individuality, Tomasi shows that he “did not see how activities in the economic sphere could contribute to individuality,” and thus, “none of these [economic] activities is constitutive of liberty.” The result is that “property, in Mill’s view, has no essential link to liberal freedom.” Tomasi continues this history to show how the Progressives, the New Deal Supreme Court, and the academy came to downplay economic freedom.

 Yet economic freedoms have to be among the basic liberties, Tomasi argues, and whatever institutions and policies a polity selects to improve the lives of the poor have to be consistent with protection of all basic liberties. He claims that what we do in the economic realm is critically important to shaping ourselves and expressing our values. And the data support him. As countries become more wealthy, citizens report valuing their economic liberties more, not less, for they see them as critically important to shaping their lives, to being what Tomasi terms a “responsible self-author.”

He castigates his colleagues, trained as they are in analytic rigor, for refusing to see how important economic liberty is in the lives of average people. Tomasi argues that “to understand the moral value of many experiences, a different kind of training is required. That training often consists of living a life in which experiences of the sort in question have a central place.” Rather than denouncing the moral values of their fellow citizens, professional philosophers might “have reason to go back and check their moral premises.” After all, “the opinions of the average good citizen may be just as reliable as those of the average professor of philosophy. Sometimes, the moral judgments of average citizens may be more reliable.” 

In a wonderful passage later in the book, Tomasi warns of what he calls philosophilia: “If philosophy is the love of wisdom, philosophilia is the love of philosophy, with or without wisdom.” But Tomasi also takes aim at libertarians, who he says suffer from “social justicitis.” Offering a quick history of the classical liberal and libertarian traditions, Tomasi shows their concern with protecting property rights and economic liberties, but he also highlights texts from John Locke, Adam Smith, and James Madison—as well as Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick—that show a concern for how the poor would fare within a market regime. Though Hayek wrote The Mirage of Social Justice, and claimed that social justice “does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense, like the term ‘a moral stone,’ ” Tomasi shows how he and the others nevertheless had an incipient awareness that regimes could be legitimate only if the poor did well.

Tomasi wants those on the right to see that this implicit commitment to the welfare of the poor needs to be made explicit, and that it requires giving up the absolute claims that libertarians frequently make about self-ownership and property rights. Instead, they should speak of self-authorship, and understand economic freedoms as similar to other liberal freedoms: basic but not absolute. Drawing comparisons with freedom of speech and religion, Tomasi argues that rights protect important goods by creating spheres of liberty, but they have to be compatible with each other and with a stable political regime.

The demands of social justice require that, while respecting basic liberties, institutions should be structured so that any resulting inequalities redound to the betterment of the least well-off. He concludes that market societies, particularly with constitutional guarantees of minimum income, basic education, and health care, have proven to generate the greatest personal wealth over time for all people, including the poor. Tomasi doesn’t provide particular policies, but suggests that the principles animating market democracy strongly point in the direction of nonstatist means of securing the well-being of the poor: through direct cash payments, vouchers, tax incentives, and other similar designs.

Free Market Fairness is an ideal academic book, which means that it may prove too difficult a slog, especially with its technical jargon, for nonacademic readers. But for fellow academics, it is golden. Judicious and charitable in interpreting other scholars, Tomasi proposes his own ideas not as the last word on a subject but as merely the first. This humility is a breath of fresh air. In fact, Tomasi repeatedly encourages others to contribute to what he calls the “free market fairness research project.” His proposed hybrid is merely the first on offer, he says, and he would like to see combinations of other conceptions of liberal justice with other defenses of economic liberty.  

Incidentally, I wish he had included more voices, including pre-liberal ones, in his study. I would be interested to know what he thinks of conservative criticisms of market society and the corrupting influence it can have on culture. More important, I worry that many will find his defense of social justice to be unpersuasive and lacking in motivational force. Caring about the poor in order to justify our political institutions, as a criterion of political legitimacy, might be persuasive to some; but aren’t there deeper moral obligations that have to do with human flourishing, and might these reasons provide some helpful nonliberal resources? If so, then social justice is a virtue of individuals, first and foremost, and this has important ramifications for the way states should relate to citizens as they fulfill these duties. 

Tomasi’s liberal foundations might explain why his difference principle, and the heart of his account of social justice, is concerned with material wealth but says nothing about the cultural inequality that Charles Murray has brought to our attention. His account also provides very little to help us think about what social justice requires in response to the leading causes of poverty: family breakdown, nonmarital child-rearing, crime, drugs, and opting out of the workforce. Last, framing social justice solely in terms of the least well-off overlooks important questions about how the middle class is faring. These questions will have to be addressed in subsequent contributions to the project Tomasi has launched. 

By the end of Free Market Fairness, something becomes clear about what Tomasi’s intentions have been all along. He writes that “from the high liberal perspective, as from the orthodox libertarian one, there is nothing exceptional, or particularly worth venerating, in the traditional moral and constitutional order of America”; both viewpoints see foundational flaws. But the average American recognizes something particularly praiseworthy in the way our polity has been able to protect important freedoms, offer opportunity to all, take care of those who fall through the cracks, and establish a regime that all can embrace. Tomasi suggests that “free market fairness gives philosophical structure to these inchoate but familiar ideas.” If you don’t like his technical name, however, he has an alternative that partisans in both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street need to embrace: “Social justice, American style.”

Ryan T. Anderson is the editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute.