For John Tomasi, Director of the Political Theory Project at Brown University

Posted on Friday, October 26, 2012

John Tomasi will deliver his lecture Free Market Fairness on Nov. 1. / Photo courtesy of John Tomasi.Can libertarians care about social justice? In his book Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Political Theory Project at Brown University, argues that they can and should. Drawing simultaneously on moral insights from defenders of economic liberty such as F. A. Hayek and advocates of social justice such as John Rawls, Tomasi presents a new theory of liberal justice. This theory, free market fairness, is committed to both limited government and the material betterment of the poor.

On Thursday, Nov. 1, Tomasi will deliver his lecture Free Market Fairness as part of the Research Group on Constitutional Studies’ lecture series. The lecture will be held in the Thomson House ballroom from 5-6:30 p.m. For the lecture series schedule, go here.

Your new book, like your McGill lecture, is titled Free Market Fairness. We usually think of free markets as giving us efficiency or productivity, but how are they fair?

What would it mean for a society to be fair? I think a society would be fair if it treated all its citizens, regardless of their social or economic class, as free and responsible authors of their own lives. So fairness requires the respect people’s freedom, but also that everyone shares in the bounty of a free and prosperous society. In Free Market Fairness, I argue economic activities – personal decisions people make about working and saving – are among the most important domains of freedom. These are domains of activity in which people define themselves and express their values. So I argue that a strong set of private economic liberties are basic rights.

I also suggest that an enthusiastically market-based society holds a uniquely attractive ideal of what it means to share the bounty of a free society.

In the book you say that “market democracy” is an “American style” of social justice. To many Canadians that would probably make it sound less appealing. Is market democracy just a defence of the American economic status quo?

Free Market Fairness is emphatically not a defence of the social or economic status quo of contemporary America. From the perspective of my market democratic ideals contemporary America is riddled with grave injustices: systemic violations of private economic liberty; a corrupt political system increasingly dominated, on the one side, by an administrative establishment and, on the other side, by a military one; a monopolistic and unimaginative educational system that unjustly limits the social and economic mobility of millions of young Americans; pervasive crony capitalism, and more.

Nonetheless, I think there is a moral idea within traditional American values that is enormously attractive. This is the idea that once led poor people from around the world to set out to America and launch new lives for themselves and their families here. On that American idea, our society best respect our fellow citizens not by enacting an ever-thicker array of social service programs, intended to minister to their needs. Rather, we respect people by recognizing the importance to each of them of being in some sense, the causes of their own success.

This is an ideal of social justice that can be held up as a moral rival to the social democratic ones the dominated thinking in the late 20th century. I call it market democracy. But I don’t mind if people give it a less formal name: social justice, American style.

You offer an interesting account of changes in what justice might demand from one era to another. What makes the economic liberties more valuable now than they might have been fifty or a hundred years ago?

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that within one hundred years, the wealth of western democracies would have increased by roughly eight times. My economist friends say this proved to be a stunningly accurate prediction. But like many others of his era, Keynes believed that the growth of wealth would make the personal exercise of economic liberty increasingly less important to ordinary working people. However, something close to the opposite seems to have occurred. For one thing, as incomes rose, people began to experience an increasing range of personal options about how that income might be spent.

Facing this wider range of options, people increasingly seem to find meaning in economic decision-making. I think our theories of social justice need to be adjusted upward in order to account for this phenomenon.

When you say that our theories of social justice need to be “adjusted upward,” what do you mean?

Most simply, I believe that the growth in our understanding about the moral requirements of social justice has not kept pace with the growth in our understanding about the economic problems of socialism and social democracy alike. Countries such as Sweden that have most successfully begun implementing market-based reforms typically were initially forced to embark on those reforms, say, when looking down the barrel of an economic gun.

As their institutions moved increasingly away from the old social democratic model and in the direction of what I call a market democratic one, many citizens of such societies had a sense of moral disappointment, or even anger. My suggestion is that we need to think anew about what social justice requires. We should begin this process of rethinking not because of anything the economists have learned, but because of a moral lesson that we political philosophers are only now just beginning to absorb. This is the lesson that economic liberty is among the most important domains of responsible self-authorship.

Regrettably, this is a fact that the great defenders of social justice from the late 20th Century failed to appreciate, or even to consider. So I believe that it is time for advocates of democratic justice once again to raise our moral standards. In Free Market Fairness, I offer one vision of that new and loftier market-based ideal.

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Category: Four Burning Questions

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