There's a fantastic symposium on the book Free Market Fairness going on over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian website. Make sure to check out Sam Freeman and Elizabeth Anderson, as well as Tomasi's replies to both.
There's a fantastic symposium on the book Free Market Fairness going on over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian website. Make sure to check out Sam Freeman and Elizabeth Anderson, as well as Tomasi's replies to both. I'm going to add my thoughts on reading the book; note that I'm an amateur when it comes to many of these political theory debates but something strikes me as missing.
One of the core parts of Free Market Fairness' theory of "market democracy" is enshrining economic liberty at the level of basic liberties protected by the constitution, like free speech, the right to a trial or political participation.
In Rawls' formulation, it means that economic liberties would be protected by the first principle of justice. This is the principle that each "person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all." These basic liberties are “inalienable,” and “any undertakings to waive or to infringe them are void ab initio [to be treated as invalid from the outset].” Citizens cannot bargain or trade their basic liberties away.
Many on the left point out how economic liberty isn't true liberty unless it is a fair value liberty, or a liberty that isn't just formally equal but also is substantively equal. To see examples using Rawls' framework, political equality is of the substantive variety, as it matters whether you can actually vote and participate, but religion is only formally equal, as you don't have a right to an expensive church for your personal, elaborate religious ceremonies. The left says economic liberty isn't really liberty unless there's substantive equal ability to participate in the economy.
I'm all for that critique as far as it goes, but I think it is important to go a step further and argue that formulating economic liberty as a basic liberty is, practically speaking, incoherent.
The Department of Stabilization
Rawls described a stabilization branch of the state in Theory of Justice, tasked with bringing about full employment. In practice a lot of our economic debates are focused on what to do about mass unemployment in this crisis. Let's do a quick map of economic agents in our current Great Recession and how the downturn has impacted them:
There are workers, many of whom are unemployment, and they have sluggish wage growth and low quit rates. Incumbent managers and owners are experiencing big profits and large bargaining power over their workforce. Capital owners have benefitted from disinflationary trends. Entrepreneurs find it difficult to start new businesses amidst mass unemployment. The government could lean against all these trends by doing stimulus, but taxpayers would be on the line if it didn't work out.
Now here's what I mean by incoherent: treating economic issues as a basic liberty tells us nothing about how to address stabilization one way or the other and substantially confuses our intuitions about how to approach the problem - which is one of tradeoffs. The first principle would only allows certain breaches of inalienable economic liberty in order to make the most extensive set of liberties, compatible with similar liberty for others. Now I understand that the regulation of basic liberties (like free speech) is problematic for Rawls, but it dissolves into nothingness here under market democracy.
Basic liberties can't guide us, because liberty for one comes at the expense of liberty for others. Which economic liberties are we to preserve? The one of the unemployed to work, the entrepreneur to have customers, bosses to their profits or rentiers to their capital income? All of these liberties are part of the economic realities of each agent, and these are fundamentally in tension with each other. There's no way to view them as "compatible" with each other as a sufficient condition to animate decision-making.
The only way to address them as a matter of policy is to balance them against each other according to some principle. Full employment? Price stability? Deflation and the Gold Standard? Bringing in the concept of liberty prevents the ability to discuss these in terms of tradeoffs, as the whole point of basic liberties is that groups of citizens can't have their basic liberties traded off each other.
One could say that the only system is thus one of no stabilization. But this is a policy choice, no different than emphasizing full employment at all costs. There's nothing about mass unemployment that must contain more inalienable liberty than full employment - it is just a different set of actors who benefit. And this would look suspiciously like bringing in one set of arguments for how the economy should work and whom it should work for through the courts, rather than democratically through argument in the public sphere.
This incoherence exists more broadly. For instance, uses of basic liberties aren't up for being traded. I can't sell you my vote, and I can't ask the government to enforce a contract where you've sold me your right to a fair trial. Yet economic transactions are all about trading off economic rights. When I sell you my labor I'm accepting serious limitations on what I can do with my labor - it now belongs to you.
Thus economic liberty is often, at any moment, zero-sum: a more extensive liberty for the boss comes at limiting the liberty of the worker. The same for the creditor and the debtor. One of the first big "liberty of contract" cases was Pennsylvania's state court's 1886 Godcharles v. Wigeman, which struck down a state act prohibiting payment of wages in scrip. Here the benefit of the boss (and the company) came at the expense of the worker in the form of the means of payment. This may be a pareto-optimal trade when it happens - market democracy would presume that it must be by definition of it happening - but assuming I'm giving away a liberty for my ultimate long-term benefit, as well as the benefit of the economy as a whole, is way off the reservation of how we consider the other basic liberties.
The best way to conceptualizing it is within a framework of justifying inequalities, which is what Rawls' second principle tries to do. The second principle's difference principle could be the wrong approach - we might want to maximize growth regardless of its impact on the poor - but it is the right spot on the lexical framework to approach such a question. Pushing these questions into the highest lexical position leaves us with nothing coherent to say on the matters, it disrupts our normal thinking about liberty and stops our ability to see these issues as what they fundamentally are, which is balancing private forms of power and providing rules that bend them towards the greater good of the economy. Rules that are, I'd argue, best constructed through democratic argument; but rules that are in no way clarified by referring to more abstract notions of liberty.