Free Market Fairness
April 2, 2012

Yesterday, Big Think‘s Peter Lawler extolled the virtues of political theorist John Tomasi’s new book, Free Market Fairness. Tomasi’s project is to massage away any underlying tension he sees between the twin virtues of social justice and individual (specifically economic) liberty. Regular readers of the blog know that I have a particular interest in theories that can accommodate both notions of fairness and notions of individual liberty — it’s one of the primary reasons I’m such a big proponent of republicanism. A satisfying libertarian-leaning treatment of some of the same issues would be a great boon to the, uh, marketplace of ideas.

After Googling around a bit, I found a more comprehensive summary of Tomasi’s argument, from the man himself, over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. In the post, he sketches out a blue print of his project that involves grounding a libertarian conception of economic freedom in Rawlsian liberalism’s “moral ideas of personhood and society.” All well and good, if those two ideas are reconcilable. And if the political implications hang together at all coherently.

So what are the political implications? Maybe Tomasi held all of that material for the book, because his answer on BHL is deeply underwhelming:

A game of Monopoly in which players start with substantially unequal amounts of money would be unfair. The stain of that unfairness would not be lifted merely by the requirement that, once that game had begun, those differently endowed players must all abide by the same set of formal rules. High liberals have long claimed that inequalities in people’s talent endowments and family situations raise issues of public morality. Free Market Fairness agrees: undeserved inequalities can generate moral claims within politics. This does not require that society seek somehow to prevent those inequalities from arising or being expressed in the first place (as in the Kurt Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron”). Nor, I hasten to add, need this require that society somehow attempt to equalize the material holdings of all citizens. But this recognition does require a specific institutional response. In a just society, institutions and rules should be crafted so that whatever broad patterns of inequality emerge reflect our commitment to respecting all citizens as valued members of a cooperative whole.


If we are concerned about fairness, what kind of framework best honors that (now common) concern? For example, is the best way to improve “the position of the least well-off class” to enact government programs designed to transfer wealth (whether within generations or between them)? Might we better express a concern for the least advantaged by creating a society focused not so much on issues concerning the transfer of wealth but on its creation?

There are two questions that are absolutely key to understanding what this would look like in practice, and Tomasi leaves them both unanswered. They are: What patterns of inequality would “reflect our commitment to respecting citizens as valued members of a cooperative whole?” And: Does wealth creation alone satisfy our moral responsibilities in this framework, or do we still need to talk about who captures the newly created wealth? Sidebar: How do we talk about that? A couple of concrete examples probably could have clarified the issue.

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Hierarchy and Domination, Cont.
April 1, 2012

Replying to my last post on liberalism and republicanism, Corey Robin writes:

Nice job, though you should point out that my main concerns are: 1) freedom as non-interference fits a commonsensical understanding in US, which the workplace compromises all the time, and thus provides us with a good standard to mobilize political argument; and 2) I’m not against notions of freedom as non-domination, I just don’t want to throw out freedom as non-interference as well. Also I’m not sure I’d include Milton in that camp; he seems okay with some hierarchies and other parts of republican tradition are very okay with social hierarchy, including slavery.

The final point about Milton and pre-modern republicanism is well taken. Early republicans desired non-domination, but only for a select class of people: usually land-owning white men. One of the crucial differences between modern and pre-modern republicanism is the modern republican’s conviction that non-domination is a global imperative.

But the principle of non-domination requires to distinguish between dominating and non-dominating hierarchies. Republicanism is not pure horizontalism. Instead, republicanism condemns certain existing hierarchies — in modern times, hierarchies predicated on gender, race or sexual orientation — on the basis that they are de facto dominating. We can imagine other hierarchies that are not inherently dominating, such as the social hierarchies that often exist between a student and a teacher, a governor and constituents, or a jury and a defendant. But note that these hierarchies have very clearly defined formal legal boundaries, and that they are not static; a constituent can run for office, a student can become a teacher, and a member of the jury may one day be put on trial. Republicanism is not inherently anti-hierarchy, but seeks to make necessary hierarchies transparent and dynamic.

This, I would argue, is a preferable alternative to abolishing hierarchy altogether. Informal hierarchies will always be with us in one way or another, but carefully constructed formal hierarchies can serve as a check on them. Without that formal element, informal hierarchies become opaque and impossible to contest through anything but brute force.

But to return to the conflict between non-interference and non-domination: I should have been clearer about the fact that Corey is not opposed to using the concept of non-domination in our understanding of liberty. Our disagreement is entirely over whether non-interference as liberty is also a necessary concept. I would argue that it is not, for two reasons: the first, which I presented in my last post, is that non-domination theory already adequately accounts for any conceivable instance of unjust interference.

The second objection is implied by the first: freedom as non-interference can’t adequately account for cases where interference is warranted or even desirable. As a result, contemporary liberal theorists have had to propose various side constraints on freedom from interference, and various other criteria for what constitutes justice. Those additional criteria — fairness and equality, for example — may plug the gaps created by freedom as non-interference, but the result is far from elegant. (And, as I have noted before, these additional criteria can still leave critical weaknesses exposed.)

In Justice For Hedgehogs — which I’ll be blogging more about in the near future — Ronald Dworkin repeatedly references the old aphorism about the fox who knows many little things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. He diagnoses most modern analytic moral theory as being rather foxy: a cumbersome patchwork of narrowly targeted principles that often conflict with one another. In place of the fox’s approach to ethics, he argues for hedgehog morality: one big mutually-reinforcing system of value. Freedom as non-domination is that system, and freedom from non-interference seems increasingly to be a millstone around the neck of the progressively-minded fox.

As to Corey’s first point, about non-interference’s usefulness as a rhetorical appeal to common sense: that may be so, in some cases. The art of political messaging is very different from the art of moral philosophy, thank christ. But I stand by non-domination as the appropriate test of what our political goals should be. When you take that case to the voters, you can call it whatever the hell you like.

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Hierarchy and Domination
March 31, 2012

Hierarchy, order, control, domination.

Hierarchy, order, control, domination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shawn Gude and I had an interesting Twitter debate the other day with Corey Robin, regarding the relative merits of classical liberalism and small-r republicanism’s differing conceptions of liberty. Before I get to my disagreement with Corey, here, by way of background, is my most recent gloss of the liberal/republican disagreement, using Philip Pettit’s framework for republicanism. In Pettit’s account, republicans want to maximize freedom from domination (carefully defined), whereas liberals want to maximize freedom from interference.

Corey’s understanding of the republican tradition differs from Pettit’s. Over Twitter, he criticized republicanism for abandoning liberalism’s conception of liberty without offering a sufficiently comprehensive alternative. Classic republicanism, he argued, is mainly concerned with the eradication of social hierarchy; as a result, it is defenseless against attacks on freedom that don’t exploit those hierarchies.

Here, with the breaks between tweets eliminated, is the thought experiment he used to demonstrate his point:

Imagine one co-worker, equally situated, pestering another co-worker. Just bothering them, preventing them from getting their work done, preventing from doing what they want to do. Not to dominate or create a hierarchical relationship, but to interfere and get in their way. Seems important to hold onto that as an abridgment of freedom.

It’s entirely possible that the republican tradition as embodied by Milton, Machiavelli, Skinner, etc., (but excluding Pettit) has no satisfactory response to Corey’s challenge. He’s the one with a Ph.D. in political theory, and my own dealings with those theorists is both scant and second-hand. But I will note that, under Pettit’s definition, the pestering employee is definitively dominating his co-worker, and therefore restricting his liberty. That is to say, the pestering employee is interfering in his co-workers affairs 1.) on an arbitrary basis (he’s just bugging this one guy, and seemingly without provocation), 2.) without reference to the interests of the co-worker (who would clearly be better off if he wasn’t being pestered), and 3.) without allowing the co-worker recourse to any means of contesting the pestering (we’re assuming that the co-worker already asked him to stop, and was ignored). Dominating interference is any form of interference that satisfies at least one of those conditions — the pest’s interference satisfies all three.

So at the very least, Pettit’s gloss of republicanism includes an adequate response to Corey’s challenge. It could be that Pettit is the only republican with an adequate response, but I can’t rule one way or another on that without learning more about how both Corey and non-Pettit republicans use the term “social hierarchy.” Corey would likely concede that some forms of workplace pestering and bullying (such as racist remarks and sexual harassment) are contingent on the presence of social hierarchy, but he also maintains that bullying can exist in the complete absence of hierarchy. I’m not so sure — I think we could construct an account of hierarchy that maps roughly onto Pettit’s “domination” framework, and also allows that any instance of bullying is an a priori example of a small-scale, informal hierarchy.

In the meantime, as it stands, I have yet to hear an adequate liberal response to the republican master-slave thought experiment.

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Rights and Net Neutrality
August 17, 2010

I think it’s important to note that in my Salon column on net neutrality and the Tea Party’s theory of liberty, I assiduously avoid talk of rights except for a passing reference in the final paragraph. There’s a good reason for that: I’m not so convinced that net neutrality can be considered a “right” in any meaningful sense, and whether or not it can be seems largely beside the point. It seems to me that the case for net neutrality is less about rights than about aggregate liberty; it’s about maintaining a free and open space in a way that doesn’t unduly encroach on the liberty or rights of ISPs.

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One More Thought For Rick Barber
July 10, 2010

Since the man communes with the spirits of our founding fathers and seems to think there’s a linear inverse correlation between the size of a government and the individual liberty of its citizens, he should ask Jefferson, Adams, Washington et. al. why they ditched the Articles of Confederation. Considering how much weaker the federal government was under the Articles—and therefore how much more sweet, sweet liberty everyone had—I’m at a loss to explain why the founders scrapped that model and held a Constitutional Convention.

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Liberty and Government
July 10, 2010

U.S. Federal Spending FY 2008
Image via Wikipedia

You might remember Alabama congressional candidate Rick Barber as that guy who likes to release ads about communing with the spirit of Zombie Lincoln and how modest health care reform is totally like the Holocaust. Well in today’s Washington Post, he provides—no kidding—an explicit defense of the politics of fear. It’s a predictably schizophrenic argument, based as it is both in the teleological benefits (Fear is a great motivator for change! Change like getting me elected.) and fear on its own merits (The guvimment is trying to make policy! Scary!). As a result, it sort of feels like two half-columns abruptly pasted together with the connective tissue between premise and conclusion left out of each.

But put all that aside for a moment. I want to focus on one particularly bizarre (and, unsurprisingly, unsupported) assertion Barber makes. He writes:

Whenever the government grows, individual liberty withers.

That’s Tea Party gospel right there. And, like most passages from the Tea Party Tanakh, it’s both a simple, appealing platitude, and something no human being actually believes if they think about it for more than fifteen seconds.

Remember, Barber is a former member of the Marines, presumably defending our liberty and whatnot. Of course, the military—that bulwark of freedom—is a part of the federal government. In fact, with almost a quarter of the federal budget going towards military spending (see the above graph), it represents a towering example of government expansion. So if there really is a simple, linear correlation between the size of government and loss of individual liberty, presumably Barber would be in favor of whittling down the United States military to almost nothing. Someone should ask him if that’s how he feels!

I’d also be curious to see what he thinks of the state of individual liberty in countries where the government is, relatively speaking, incredibly tiny. One example that immediately springs to mind, since it’s been in the news recently, is the Karzai government in Afghanistan, which is virtually nonexistent outside of a small perimeter around Kabul. Sure, much of Afghanistan is poverty-ridden, pre-industrial, and ground beneath the heel of brutal warlords, but surely that’s a small price to pay for not having basic government infrastructure breathing down their necks, right?

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Our Founding Fathers’ Fathers
July 4, 2010

U.S. Declaration of Independence ratified by t...
Image via Wikipedia

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Today is, of course, the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—a remarkable document in many ways, but of particular interest to me because it confirms, in its most famous line, one of the central theses I keep hammering on this blog: that philosophy is alive, vital, and very much a concern for each and every one of us.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As most of you who have taken a high school civics course likely already know, that bolded section is a paraphrase of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who argued for a natural right to “life, liberty and property.” It’s a crucial, high-profile nod in the direction of the towering philosophers who laid the groundwork for the framers’ grand project.

This isn’t to downplay the genius of the founding fathers; their ranks included some of the greatest thinkers in American history. But all brilliant men are scholars first and foremost, and if Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others had not been political philosophy students of the first order, then whatever form the government of the post-revolution states took would be but a shadow of the vibrant, resilient American Republic.

They were giants, yes—but they stood on the shoulders of other giants. I refer not just to Locke, but also Hobbes, Voltaire, and even the ancients. The evidence lies not just in the shout-out I cited above, but in the collected writings of our greatest founders. The Federalist Papers, to name one particularly good example, were a relatively sophisticated work of political philosophy in their own right.

We’re living the result.

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