Free Market Fairness

A blog about business and economics.
March 11 2012 6:04 PM

Free Market Fairness

I just cracked open my review copy of a book that should be of interest to my more philosophically inclined readers, John Tomasi's Free Market Fairness:

Can libertarians care about social justice? In Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi argues that they can and should. Drawing simultaneously on moral insights from defenders of economic liberty such as F. A. Hayek and advocates of social justice such as John Rawls, Tomasi presents a new theory of liberal justice. This theory, free market fairness, is committed to both limited government and the material betterment of the poor. Unlike traditional libertarians, Tomasi argues that property rights are best defended not in terms of self-ownership or economic efficiency but as requirements of democratic legitimacy. At the same time, he encourages egalitarians concerned about social justice to listen more sympathetically to the claims orinary citizens make about the importance of private economic liberty in their daily lives. In place of the familiar social democratic interpretations of social justice, Tomasi offers a "market democratic" conception of social justice: free market fairness. Tomasi argues that free market fairness, with its twin commitment to economic liberty and a fair distribution of goods and opportunities, is a morally superior account of liberal justice. Free market fairness is also a distinctively American ideal. It extends the notion, prominent in America's founding period, that protection of property and promotion of real opportunity are indivisible goals. Indeed, according to Tomasi, free market fairness is social justice, American style.
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Blurbing the book, Tyler Cowen calls it "one of the very best philosophical treatments of libertarian thought, ever." Upon reflection that's actually a strangely low bar to climb. Market liberalism has been extremely politically influential over the past 40 years, but lacks a modern philosophical reformulation that copes adequately with traffic jams and air pollution.

Without being by any means a libertarian, I do think that people of a left-wing orientation sometimes give short shrift to the non-pecuniary aspects of economic freedom. Whether or not you buy that barber licensing rules are a big deal economically, the specter of the government throwing a person in jail for participating in an exchange of haircuts for money between consenting adults should bother liberally inclined people for basically the same reasons that all random state interference in the conduct of private life is bothersome.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.