May 6, 2012 9:16 pm

Free Market Fairness

John Tomasi’s attempt to reconcile the beliefs of libertarians and left liberals leaves too many questions unanswered

Free Market Fairness, by John Tomasi, Princeton University Press, RRP$35 (£24.99)

The word “liberal”, with a small l, has acquired so many different and contradictory meanings that I tend to avoid it. The fact remains that it is very much in currency in some parts of the world. Leave aside the use in French political rhetoric of “neoliberalism” as a term of abuse for Anglo-American capitalism. Liberalism per se is used a great deal in both highbrow and lowbrow US debate. Former president George Bush senior used the “l word” to damn his Democrat opponents. On the other side of the fence, most American academics regard themselves as liberals of one kind or another.

John Tomasi, a US professor of political philosophy, helpfully lists the beliefs that should be common to all liberals: the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, political participation, personal autonomy and so on. Beyond that liberals divide. So-called libertarians value the economic rights of capitalism: the right to start a business, personally negotiate terms of employment, and make autonomous savings and investment decision, are essential rights. For those Tomasi calls “left liberals”, these are less important if they matter at all. Indeed the late Harvard professor John Rawls, regarded by many as the pope of left liberals, believed that the rights he regarded as essential could as well be achieved in a socialist economy as in a capitalist welfare state. They might well be called social democrats on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Libertarians, on the other hand, value “spontaneous order” on the model of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

Tomasi much prefers the libertarian interpretation. But he notes that most of his friends and colleagues are left liberals, who are sceptical of the moral significance of private economic liberty and believe that a central function of government is to provide a wide range of social services. You can say that with knobs on for those of us who work in the broadsheet media or state-financed broadcasting. But this is not just a matter of personal frictions. The author is genuinely attracted by some aspects of left liberalism – including its insistence that social institutions should benefit all members of society, above all the poorest – and he tries to give substance to the term “social justice”.

But being a theorist rather than a party manager, he is not content with an opportunistic compromise between the two ideals. He has his own conception, which he sometimes calls “market democracy” and sometimes “free market fairness”. His position is so sympathetic that I was looking forward to hailing his book as the most important of its kind for several decades; but in the end I could not.

Unfortunately the book does not live up to its splendid introduction. Far too much of it falls into the category of commenting on professor X’s gloss on professor Y’s comments on professor Z. American academics seem to have taken over the high German pre-1914 mixture of erudition and pedantry. The reader will be helped if he or she has a nodding acquaintance with terms such as “thick” and “thin” theories or “self ownership”. Tomasi insists that his is not a book about Rawls. You could have fooled me. Although he scores some direct hits against the fount of left liberalism, there is incessant reference to him all the way through.

The substance of Tomasi’s case is that the lowest-paid worker does better in the long run with some form of civilised free market capitalism than with social democrat alternatives. Tomasi says too little about those who can’t or won’t work; and his case depends heavily on economic growth still being a valid long-term objective even in advanced western economies, (in opposition for instance to Adair Turner in Economics After the Crisis). Left liberals such as John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes hoped that after material wealth had reached a certain point, people would abandon the rat race and concentrate on higher things. In fact, ordinary non-philosophers do value the latest gadgets, to say nothing of increased communication and travel opportunities, deliberately begging the question of whether it makes them “happier” or not.

More basically, the author does not elaborate enough on what he means by economic freedom. Let me give two examples from my own experience. I entered professional life just as military conscription was being phased out. Later, in the 1960s, the first Harold Wilson Labour government imposed a £50 travel allowance in a vain attempt to maintain an unsustainable exchange rate. I was conscious that many of my social democrat friends did not share my outrage at such interference with career and lifestyle choices and consumer freedom. But it is a far cry from this to advocating bankers’ freedom to market the products that triggered the biggest financial crisis in living memory. Tomasi describes free-market fairness as a research programme rather than a fixed dogma. There is clearly a lot more to research.

samuel.brittan@ft.com

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