Sunday, May 6, 2012

Free Market Fairness

Review by Samuel Brittan

Financial Times

May 6, 2012

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”.