Free Market Fairness

On Monday, I attended Brown Professor John Tomasi’s talk on his book “Free Market Fairness,” where he attempted to offer a theoretical framework for uniting libertarian theories on free markets with theories of social justice. I had anticipated a predictable talk, outlining the magic of the invisible hand and how the removal of the government would solve problems of racism, sexism and class mobility would be solved. I was wrong. Certainly Tomasi is a fan of free markets, but he is not an ideologue. Instead, he tries very deliberately to bring together traditions guaranteeing economic liberty and Rawlsian distributive justice and in doing so offers a space for real compromise and dialogue.

Tomasi put forth a lot of effort to demonstrate that this was not always his view. For most of his life, he was almost exclusively a fan of Hayekian morality, following the economic logic of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. It was only over time, after remodeling his understanding of society, that he came to value social justice, a central tenet of the left. He remodeled his view to “see society as a public thing, the basic institutions of which must be justifiable to the people living under them.” (pg 88,“Free Market Fairness”) From there, he began to modify his views. He places economic liberty and social justice on similar pillars and constructs a loose vision of a market-based economy, but one with a government that takes an active role to ensure some level of equal opportunity.

Throughout his talk, Tomasi used the case that while a market democracy would be less equal than a socialist society, it would better preserve economic liberty. More significantly, it would better satisfy Rawls’ standard that society provide for the least well-off as well as it’s able. He borrowed from other liberal philosophers the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats” An unequal market democracy will grow faster than an equal society, so that eventually, people will be better off, regardless of their place in society. This sounds like a classical liberal argument and initially it seemed to me, that despite his claim of embodying social justice, he was just rehashing old ideas.

I was offered a chance to speak during the question and answer session. My criticism of this model was that it offered an oversimplified vision of economic liberty. Sure, anyone can hypothetically start a business, but what does that mean for someone with kids and two minimum wage jobs? Or someone who did not receive a good education and was therefore severely limited in their career choice? In these examples, idealistic economic liberty does not account for how inequality limits individual’s options.

To my surprise, Tomasi’s response was not further hand waving that the free market would address this. Instead, he advocated for a welfare state, one that provides a minimum income for everyone, regardless of their economic decisions. He said “the hope is that they will decide to use [the money] to participate in the economy,” but that if “they decided to spend it all on Night Train” that is fine; “next month, they get another check.” On the subject of education, he advocated for a “meaningful voucher system,” hoping to prevent vouchers from just becoming a discount ticket for wealthy kids’ private education. Finally, he is a fan of progressive taxation, claiming that “it’s hard to see how economic liberty is violated for those making a couple million dollars.”

On the fundamental level, what I liked about Tomasi was that he tried to build bridges not by just compromising his positions, but by thinking through what the “other side” values and incorporating those into his system. He tried to address social determinants of economic results, offering answers that, while I disagree with them, get to the heart of the disadvantages people have in an unequal society. Somehow, he offered a viewpoint that I did not have to either fully accept or fully reject, but that I could consider and modify based off my prioritizing of the same values of liberty and fairness. This is how dialogue is done.

Dialogue has been the main buzzword on campus, but it seems to occupy more a conceptual space than a practical space. Lots of emails, events, and columns have talked about what dialogue on campus should focus on how and how it should be conducted, but rarely do we see examples of how to do it well. The realization I had when watching Tomasi was not that I agreed with him or that he had moderated his positions so he agreed with me, but that by realizing the importance of the central virtues on both of our sides, we could find common ground where worthwhile decisions could be made. It was not a magic solution to political gridlock, but it was a good place to start talking.

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