Monday, May 07, 2012

Tomasi's Free Market Fairness

Andrew Koppelman

     In his new book, Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi offers a new synthesis of Rawlsian high liberalism and market-oriented libertarianism, which he calls “market democracy.”  It treats capitalistic economic freedoms as crucial elements of liberty, but demands that institutions be designed so that their benefits are shared by the least fortunate citizens.

     Other political theorists, notably Gerald Gaus and David Schmidtz, have also emphasized the value of entrepreneurial activity as a moral ideal, but Tomasi makes this his central focus.  All three try to supplant Rawls with a more market-friendly, less welfare-statist vision.  Tomasi’s important work also inadvertently reveals the limitations of that vision.

     Rawls’s theory of justice needs adjustment, Tomasi persuasively argues, because Rawls did not appreciate the moral importance of markets. (175-76)  “[F]or many people, commercial activity in a competitive marketplace is a deeply meaningful aspect of their lives.”  (182)  A society that seeks to facilitate the exercise of the moral powers ought to have a wide space for such activity.  Rawls undervalues what people really care about.  Here Tomasi is a useful corrective to Rawls, who thought his theory indifferent between capitalism and socialism.  The correction is largely of interest to specialists, however, since few left-liberals today are socialists, though Tomasi (270) thinks that the left “rejects market society and perhaps even capitalism itself.”

Tomasi is not just a free-market critic of Rawls.  He is also a Rawlsian critic of free markets.  He shows that Rawlsian concerns about distributive justice are shared by even the most uncompromising libertarian thinkers, such as Herbert Spencer and Ayn Rand, both of whom argue that unimpeded capitalism will benefit the worst off members of society. (20)  Some libertarians think that market distributions are just and ought not to be interfered with, but Tomasi follows Hayek in arguing that “it would be meaningless to describe the distributional patterns that result from market transactions as just or unjust.”  (152)  Hayek denounces the idea of social justice, but by this he means government micromanagement of economic transactions, not considerations of distributional equity; he has no objection to a welfare-state safety net.  (151-161)

At the deepest level, there is no disagreement between Hayek and Rawls.  (157-60)  This suggests the possibility of a middle ground.  Free Market Fairness tries to delineate that ground.

Tomasi’s book is a useful corrective to both Rawls and Hayek.  Any liberal theorist who wants to build an account of economic justice on Rawlsian premises will have to take account of Tomasi.  Any conservative who wants to invoke Hayek should recognize that Hayek offers no basis for rejecting redistributive taxation and expenditures.  (Tomasi does not put it this way, but Hayek today would be on the far left wing of the Republican party.)

At the level of policy, however, Tomasi becomes vague and weak.  Other than the rejection of some of Rawls’s crankier suggestions, such as his embrace of worker cooperatives (an idea that hasn’t had much appeal to actual workers) – Tomasi’s criticisms here are devastating - the elevation of economic freedom to the level of a basic liberty doesn’t entail much about the legitimate scope of regulation or redistribution.  That would depend on how unregulated markets actually work.

You can find the rest of this book review at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, here.

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