The Magazine

Fair Enough

Competing visions of economic justice.

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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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.