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Free Market Fairness – Finally, a Middle Ground?

John Tomasi

I’d like to introduce you to a ship of the BHL Line that I call “Free Market Fairness.” As an institutional matter, Free Market Fairness proudly shows the colors of the classical liberal camp. As such, she affirms the powerful set of personal liberties long championed by liberals of every type: freedom of thought, expression, association and more. Against the left liberals, though, she also affirms a wide range of private economic liberties—powerful rights of ownership and of individual freedom of contract—as among the weightiest rights. Like traditional classical liberals, she sees the economic freedoms of capitalism as intimately connected to personal freedom, broadly understood.

But Free Market Fairness is an icebreaker through and through.

She has no interest in sitting dock-tied outside the classical liberal camp, locked in the wind-worn conceptual ice, shouting out arguments across the straight about why high liberals should abandon their camp and come over to hers. Free Market Fairness is built to move. In terms of her fundamental justificatory commitments, she steams away from the camps of the traditional classical liberals and the traditional libertarians too.

So Free Market Fairness rejects that idea, often associated with libertarians such as Robert Nozick, that self-ownership is the grounding principle of social life.

Similarly, Free Market Fairness rejects the idea that happiness, or efficiency, or economic growth (viewed as an end in itself) should be allowed to serve as the fundamental principle of social life. Instead, Free Market Fairness breaks her way over to the high liberal side. She affirms the same moral ideas of personhood and society affirmed by traditional denizens of that camp. She means to build her own camp there, directly on high liberal ideas.

Free Market Fairness takes a fundamentally deliberative (or, if you like, “democratic”) approach to the questions of social life. Society, in its moral essence, is not something private—like a web of commitments spontaneously spun by self-owning individuals. Citizens are not merely self-interested contractors. Nor are they utility maximizers. They are moral beings committed to living with others on terms that even the weakest among them can accept.

At base, society is a fair system of cooperation among citizens committed to respecting one another as responsible self-authors. Politics is essentially about creating a framework that respects the freedom and dignity of all citizens, regardless of their different innate abilities and family backgrounds. A social framework does this when it is designed to enable all citizens to exercise and develop their “moral powers.” Those powers involve the capacity people have to become responsible authors of their own lives, along with their capacity to recognize their fellow citizens as responsible self-authors too. Webs of private commitments grow as self-authoring invidivuals interact voluntarily within the framework of public morality. But it is that public framework that defines the moral character of Free Market Fairness.

Free Market Fairness affirms the idea, long associated with high liberals, that respect for citizens sometimes requires more than formal equality. 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 these ideas sound left liberal or high liberal, it is because they have long been affirmed exclusively by denizens of that side. Free Market Fairness has broken its way across the frozen straight. Arriving at the high liberal camp, it invites the traditional defenders of left liberal institutions to look afresh at the moral ideas beneath their own feet. Are the rickety (erstwhile “progressive”) structures we find there really suitable for that site? On these attractive moral foundations, couldn’t we build something stronger, more enduring and true?

Free Market Fairness invites high liberals to look down and rethink their moral premises.

If citizens are truly committed to honoring one another as responsible self-authors, precisely which rights and liberties should be affirmed as basic possessions of all of them? In particular, do we really best respect our fellow citizens as free and equal self-governing agents by restricting their private economic liberties? Perhaps the surest foundation for private economic liberty is not to be found in traditional libertarian or classical liberal ideas of self-ownership or economic efficiency. Perhaps the more enduring foundation for such liberty is to be found in an idea directly beneath the old high liberal camp, in the idea of democratic legitimacy itself.

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?

Free Market Fairness is a version of bleeding heart libertarianism that seeks to answer those questions. I invite you to think about them too.

This article was originally published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

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