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


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.