Why modern liberals should love capitalism

Dan Osborne
October 2, 2012
Modern liberals believe in social justice. They ought to also believe in capitalism which makes redistribution possible. But even though a new author makes a persuasive case, reviewer Dan Osborne explains why the two are not likely to twin any time soon…

Why modern liberals should love capitalism

Dan Osborne
October 2, 2012
Modern liberals believe in social justice. They ought to also believe in capitalism which makes redistribution possible. But even though a new author makes a persuasive case, reviewer Dan Osborne explains why the two are not likely to twin any time soon…
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How liberals lost their way

A review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness by Dan Osborne

Is it possible to bridge the gap between the modern liberal and their classical counterparts?  In his new book, Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi thinks so.

Tomasi argues that the main point of contention between the modern liberal and classic liberals (and libertarians, who resemble the latter more than the former) is in their view of the individual. He does not argue that man is a utility seeker or a self-owner, as classical liberals and libertarians do, respectively. Instead, he accepts the premise first put forth by the philosopher John Rawls that people are “democratic citizens” who “deliberate” their views in a political arena.

Modern liberals advocate for an overly interventionist state which redistributes wealth and power to make society fairer. In short, modern liberals believe in social justice. Tomasi’s logic is that if one can convince a modern liberal that economic liberties are compatible with their notion of a democratic citizen, they can be convinced of including economic liberties into their redistributionist social justice state.

One can test a policy’s compatibly with abstract principles of justice in two ways. By looking at the real world or by looking at the ideal world. Rawls dismisses testing anything else other than the world of “ideal theory”, though he notes that the “ideal theory” must be feasible.

Tomasi tries to address the criteria for what makes an ideal world feasible. He makes the point that there is not a settled test among those who think, debate and write about such things and tries to argue that, if properly understood, “ideal theory does not permit us to take the formal institutional guarantees of candidate regime types at face value… The mere act of guaranteeing, like that of aiming, is not enough to realize justice as fairness”.  

But we all know that promising to do something is different from actually doing it. The government’s promise of delivering health care often ends up merely being a waiting list.

Tomasi continues that “if a regime type pursues justice as fairness by an institutional strategy that is utterly unrealistic in light of the general facts of political sociology, that regime type is unjust no matter how many official ‘guarantees’ it includes”. Tomasi, in effect, suggests that the guarantee of health care by provincial governments fails the test of social justice because it may be unrealistic.

Why should one care about intentions, if the result is the opposite of those intentions? Even the Surpreme Court seems to agree with Tomasi’s argument, just look at Chaoulli v. Quebec.

But the answer is that modern liberals do.

Philosophers and economists of the classical liberal tradition have always emphasised the importance of paying attention to the least well-off in a free market system. That is in part why they were free-market thinkers; the market improved the lives of ordinary people and not just the already-rich, the well-connected, and others already favoured by the state.

Thinkers like Locke, Smith, Madison, Spencer, von Mises, Hayek and Friedman all defended classical liberalism on these grounds. Tomasi dedicates nearly an entire chapter to the classical liberals and libertarians who have argued this.

Between his philosophical treatment and his references to other thinkers, Tomasi does a great job at showing how economic liberties are compatible with modern liberal philosophy. To those who believe in social justice, it would seem that nothing would stand in their way from believing in economic freedom.

Despite the evidence, modern liberals have not accepted economic liberty. They reject evidence proving that economic liberty is compatible with their views. This suggests that their “ideals” are inconsequential to their actual world view.

Rawls recognizes people have different desires. Instead of letting them be free to live without harming others, Rawls and his followers think we need democracy to figure out the best way for society to function. In the real world, this democratic deliberation might lead to chaos and destruction like the French and Bolshevik Revolutions. But in the world of Rawls’ idealism, it’s the most thought-out system that wins. The one produced in the citadel towers of the academy.

What modern liberalism ultimately represents is not democratic deliberation, but a justification for a philosopher to push his view on how society should be. Even if economic liberty is compatible with the ideals of social democracy, it’s just an obstacle for the philosopher.

Using democracy as a justification for a philosopher’s views does not make those views more moral. It does not make those views any less the result of human design.

And therein lies the slippery slope of Tomasi’s argument. Arguing from personal moral conviction that one ought to help the poor or the indignant does not ascribe one’s values upon other people, yet alone an entire society.

“Social justice” may be alluring. It may be something classical liberals shouldn’t ignore. It may be a moral imperative for society. But that is the key word: may.

It is not possible to authoritatively and objectively state that a vision of society is more moral or less moral than another. Though that may be one’s personal belief, it doesn’t change the fact that some prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate. It doesn’t change the fact that none of us are gods amongst men.

To fall to the level of the sophist and claim that one vision is grander than another – by virtue of design and not of action – is to teeter on loosing the fundamental basis of classical liberalism: subjectivism.

To play the devil’s game is unsettling. But would it work?

Like it or not, moral arguments tend to be wholly losing propositions. If one argues that someone ought to change their entire worldview – something which may be substantially due to genetic factors – one is unlikely to have much success. And any success would likely be offset by those who disagree.

Tomasi does a good job of explaining how free markets, economic liberties and classical liberalism may be compatible with Rawls’ philosophy. Free Market Fairness provides a great overview of both sides of the debate.

The question of whether any one will listen to Tomasi’s call. But his arguments will ultimately fail. Though his rhetoric may be compatible with a “modern liberal’s” purported philosophy, he would have to change their worldview to change their beliefs. That’s not very likely.


Dan Osborne is a recent graduate of Queen’s University and sells liberty-themed ties at libertyties.ca. He has worked with a number of think tanks including Students For Liberty is a past member of The Prince Arthur Herald‘s Board of Directors.

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