The Magazine

Fair Enough

Competing visions of economic justice.

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