April 16, 2016

The Guardian has an article by George Monbiot on “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems“, an excerpt from a forthcoming book.  He cites von Mises, Hayek and Friedman as the original neoliberals, which is fair enough given their roles in organizations such as the Mont Pelerin Society. What struck me is his account of the role of ideas of deservingness, or merit, in neoliberalism.

“The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances. Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.”

As a description of a popular belief system, this account of neoliberalism may be accurate.  But since Monbiot cites Capitalism and Freedom, let’s take a look at what Friedman says.

“The ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free market society is, “To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces” (161-2).

Here are the main points Friedman makes about this principle, which he refers to as “payment in accordance with product”:

  1. The operation of this principle depends upon the definition of property rights, hence on state action.
  2. Inequalities of reward can be a form of equal treatment, where individuals who are alike in ability and initial resources have different preferences e.g. over leisure vs. consumption of marketable goods, and therefore make different choices about how much and where to work.
  3. Inequalities of reward due to attitudes towards risk are also compatible with equality of treatment.
  4. However, “a large part [of the inequality of income produce by payment in accordance with product] reflects initial differences in endowment, both of human capacities and of property” (163-4).  Later: “Most differences of status or position or wealth can be regarded as the product of chance at a far enough remove.  The man who is hard working and thrifty is to be regarded as ‘deserving’; yet these qualities owe much to the genes he was fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to inherit” (165-6).
  5. Many people argue that there is an important ethical distinction between inequality in innate personal endowments and inheritance of property.  They are wrong.  “Is there any greater ethical justification for the high returns to the individual who inherits from his parents a peculiar voice for which there is great demand than for the high returns to the individual who inherits property?” (164). [Also, from Free to Choose: “Frank Sinatra’s voice was highly valued in twentieth-century United States. Would it have been highly valued in twentieth-century India, if he had happened to be born and to live there?” (22)]
  6. Yet the invalidity of this argument against the capitalist ethic doesn’t show that the capitalist ethic is acceptable. “I find it difficult to justify either accepting or rejecting it, or to justify any alternative principle.  I am led to the view that it cannot in and of itself be regarded as an ethical principle; that it must be regarded as instrumental or a corollary of some other principle such as freedom” (164-5).
  7. The main role of payment in accordance with product is “instrumental”; “the essential function of payment in accordance with product in a market society is to enable resources to be allocated efficiently without compulsion” (167). [Leaving aside the compulsion involved in the enforcement of property rights, of course]

Hayek made essentially the same points in Ch. 6 of The Constitution of Liberty (though not, I think, in Road to Serfdom). Hayek and Friedman took these ideas from Frank Knight, one of Friedman’s teachers, in particular his essay “The Ethics of Competition.”  (Monbiot says “Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.” Knight’s aim, in this essay, was to provide an ethical assessment of the competitive system, as he called it.  In Knight’s view, it did poorly, in absolute terms – though he also said (in 1923) that critics of the system tended to underestimate the chances of doing vastly worse.)

Although Friedman concluded that reward by product was purely of instrumental significance, not itself an ethical standard, he recognized that popular opinion disagreed.  Market society is unlikely to be tolerated unless it is regarded as yielding distributive justice, and payment in accordance with product was one of these accepted value judgments, Friedman thought (167). He supported this claim by arguing that Marxists accepted the capitalist ethic too.

“Marx argued that labor was exploited.  Why? Because labor produced the whole of the product but got only part of it… the value judgment only follows if one accepts the capitalist ethic. Labour is ‘exploited’ only if labor is entitled to what it produces. If one accepts instead the socialist premise, “to each according to his need, from each according to his ability”… it is necessary to compare what labor produces, not with what it gets but with its “ability”, and to compare what labor gets, not with what it produces but with its “need” (167).

Marx was aware of the divergence between these two standards; in his Critique of the Gotha Program he criticized the idea that workers have a right to the full product of their labour for this very reason (see Stuart White’s Civic Minimum p.52, and Paul Warren’s 1994 Canadian Journal of Philosophy article p.46).

Regardless, the interesting thing about Friedman was that he saw popular belief in merit or desert as a potential threat to the system.

“Despite the lip service that we all pay to ‘merit’ as compared to ‘chance’, we are generally much readier to accept inequalities arising from chance that those clearly attributable to merit.  The college professor whose colleague wins a sweepstake will envy him but is unlikely to bear him any malice or to feel unjustly treated.  Let the colleague receive a trivial raise… and the professor is far more likely to feel aggrieved” (166).

Friedman is actually saying two different things, about the stability of capitalism.  On the one hand, in order to be stable, an economic system has to be perceived as fair, or not too unfair, by most people. From this point of view, popular belief in reward by individual desert would support the market system if people thought that the market system did in fact reward the meritorious. The problem is that in Friedman’s view it does not  – at least not very reliably.  The market rewards luck; it sends signals based on current scarcity, not past efforts.  (Knight would have added that it also rewards and encourages competitiveness, which neither Christian nor ancient Greek ethics thought was a virtue; the ‘losers’ in the competitive system will include not just the lazy and the irresponsible but those who are scrupulously honest, gentle, and kind).

On the other hand, inequalities based on merit are resented more than those based on chance, because they strike at self-esteem.  From this perspective, popular belief that the market system realizes reward by merit is destabilizing.

The belief in merit might be destabilizing was an important part of Hayek’s thinking too. Hayek distinguished the “value” of a person’s product to her fellows from the “merit” she displayed in generating this product. Value is based on results, assessing results in terms of usefulness for other people’s personal goals, whereas merit is based on the character of action, assessed in terms of ethical standards that justify praise or blame. From the point of view of merit, looking backwards, we would want to cancel out the effects of luck. But from the perspective of efficiency, looking forward, and given limited information about the balance between luck and merit in any particular case, we must reward luck, because that sends the rights signals. We might try to make rewards correspond with merit rather than value, but in so doing we would destroy the incentives that allow the market to reconcile efficiency with individual liberty, and also make a lot of people unhappier.

“A society in which it was generally presumed that a high income was proof of merit and a low income a lack of it, in which it was universally believed that position and remuneration corresponded with merit… would probably be much more unbearable to the unsuccessful ones that one in which it was frankly recognized that there was no necessary connection between merit and success. [In a footnote, Hayek quotes from Crossland’s The Future of Socialism, and cites Michael Young’s The Rise of Meritocracy, though he said he hadn’t read Young’s book yet] It would probably contribute more to human happiness if, instead of trying to make remuneration correspond to merit, we made clearer how uncertain is the connection between value and merit. We are probably all much too ready to ascribe personal merit where there is, in fact, only superior value. The possession by an individual or a group of a superior civilization or education certainly represents an important value and constitutes an asset for the community to which they belong; but it usually constitutes little merit… There is every reason why we ought to endeavor to honor special merit where it has gone without adequate reward.  But the problem of rewarding action of outstanding merit which we wish to be widely known as an example is different from that of the incentives on which the ordinary functioning of society rests” (Constitution of Liberty, pp.98-99)

Sometimes in reading Hayek one gets the sense that he is being guided less by what he thinks is true than by what he thinks it’s necessary for people to believe in order to stabilize what he takes to be a free society; always at the back of his mind is his fear of totalitarianism.  Perhaps when he says “we are probably all much too ready to ascribe personal merit where there is, in fact, only superior value” this is one of those occasions, where he is thinking of what people need to believe to stabilize the market order. But I think that’s being too cynical.

“[T]he value that the performance or capacity a person has to his fellows has no necessary connection with its ascertainable  merit [in the sense of “the attributes of conduct that make it deserving of praise”].  The inborn as well as the acquired gifts of a person clearly have a value to his fellows which does not depend on any credit due to him for possessing them.  There is little a man can do to alter the fact that his special talents are very common or exceedingly rare. A good mind or a fince voice, a beautiful face or a skilful hand, and a ready wit or an attractive personality are in large measure as independent of a person’s efforts as the opportunities or the experiences he has had” (94).

In passing, Hayek makes the same point Friedman did against egalitarians who drew an ethical distinction between innate talents and inherited wealth.

“Egalitarians generally regard differently those differences in individual capacities which are inborn and those which are due to the influences of environment, or those which are the result of ‘nature’ and those which are the result of ‘nurture’  Neither, be it said at once, has anything to do with moral merit. [Here, Hayek cites Knight 1940: “There is no visible reason why anyone is more or less entitled to the earnings of inherited personal capacities than to those of inherited property in any other form”] Though either may greatly affect the value which an individual has for his fellows, no more credit belongs to him for having been born with desirable qualities than for having grown up under favorable conditions” (88-9)

As an example of the egalitarianism he was criticizing, Hayek cites Plamenatz’s summary of Tawney; “all inequalities that rest on birth and inherited property ought to be abolished and none remain unless it is an effect of superior talent and industry.” Perhaps Rawls had read the same summary of Tawney, and that’s why he described Tawney as a defender of “liberal equality” (= fair not just formal equality access to advantaged positions + efficiency) rather than “democratic equality” (fair equality of opportunity plus inequalities between social positions must raise lower positions); A Theory of Justice §12, p.63 Revised Edition.

So here, finally, we have a formula for Rawls’s idea of democratic equality: take Knight, Hayek and Friedman’s thesis that natural and social inheritance are morally equivalent rom the point of view of merit or desert, but then argue that it is not enough for economic inequalities that track innate ability or social position at birth to maximize aggregate prosperity or well-being, in order to be justified; instead, such arbitrary inequalities must benefit the worst off, i.e. raise the lowest social position. Here is Rawls from this 1967 article “Distributive Justice”:

“It is perfectly true, as some have said [here Rawls cites Hayek, from the passage where Hayek cites Knight], that unequal inheritance of wealth is no more inherently unjust than unequal inheritance of intelligence; as far as possible the inequalities founded on either should satisfy the difference principle” (142-3, from his Collected Papers).

Compare this statement to Daniel Bell’s 1973 take on Rawls (on which Michael Sandel relied heavily; see p.73 of his Liberalism and the Limits of Justice).  Bell cites Rawls’s statement that the difference principle represents “an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset” then says the following:

“We have here a fundamental rationale for a major shift in values; instead of the principle `from each according to his ability, to each according to his ability,` we have the principle `from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.` And the justification for need is fairness to those who are disadvantaged for reasons beyond their control. With Rawls, we have the most comprehensive effort in modem philosophy to justify a socialist ethic.” (Bell, “On Meritocracy and Equality,” The Public Interest, 1972, p.57, though Sandel cites the book version).

So Rawls is a socialist because he agrees with Knight, Hayek, and Friedman’s rejection of the claim that scarce innate talent is the basis of desert of superior reward!

Friedman on Capitalism vs. Poverty

October 21, 2015

In a previous post, I wrote about Hayek’s claim that capitalism reduces economic inequality. Milton Friedman makes the same claim about capitalism and inequality in “Free to Choose.”  This claim was quite plausible in the early 70s, less so today.  There’s an irony here, which is that the data upon which Friedman and Hayek relied to show that capitalism reduced or didn’t exacerbate inequality were taken primarily from the post-war period of strong unions and active government, the very economic phenomena they were trying to curtail.

Anyway, even if they’re wrong about inequality, Hayek and Friedman can still claim that capitalism benefits the poor – the claim taken up recently by so-callled bleeding-heart libertarians such as John Tomasi and Jason Brennan.  Here’s Friedman, from Free to Choose:

The main bit:

“I do not know any exception to the proposition, that if you compare like with like, the freer the system, the better off the ordinary poor people have been.”

Is that true?

Inspired by Friedman, the Fraser Institute started to measure economic freedom across the globe, and to relate such freedom to other economic variables, such as the income level of the worst off. In their 2015 Annual report, they provide this table that describes the relationship between economic freedom and the economic fortunes of the worst off, across the globe:

Economic Freedom and Income of Poor

The freer a country is, in economic terms, the higher the income of the country’s poorest citizens.

What do the data themselves look like?  Here’s a graph I did for 2005 – I chose an earlier year because there isn’t data for every country for each year, so I wanted to be able to use data from an earlier or later year, whichever was closest. The measure of income is from the World Bank’s Development Indicators.


So there is an association – and if you’re prepared to consider a curve as opposed to a straight line, then past some mid-level of economic freedom the income of the bottom 10% takes off!

However, one thing that leaps out (well, it would leap out if the data points weren’t so close together, and if my country labels weren’t idiosyncratic) is that the bottom tail is composed of very poor countries, countries that do poorly on economic freedom because they also have weak rule of law (protection of property rights). For example, here are the countries with the lowest economic freedom rating, along with their component ratings on “Legal System and Protection of Property Rights” for 2005 (max score = 10)

Angola – legal / property score = 3.15

Congo (Republic) – legal / property score = 2.35

Venezuela – legal / property score = 2.77

Central African Republic = 2.81

Congo (Dem. Repub.) = 1.75

By way of contrast, Canada scored an 8.08 on legal / property rights in 2005.

There is no doubt in my mind that the impartial, predictable enforcement of known property rights is a component of economic freedom. Security of property rights goes along with rule of law, and and rule of law I presume is a key factor that explains economic growth. But the fact that rule of law raises up the worst off is not necessarily a reason for thinking that shrinking government is good for the poor, or that reducing regulation is good for the poor.  These are some of the other components of the Economic Freedom of the World Index (along with openness to trade and low inflation / convertible currency). It might be that rule of law is essential to growth and raising up the worst off, but that once some level of legal and economic development is attained, government spending is good for the poor.  So let’s look at the top part of the chart.  I more or less arbitrarily truncated at $8000 per capita GDP (this is all quite rough, I admit):


Clearly I should have truncated a bit higher to get rid of troublesome Croatia and Slovenia, which are threatening to give a positive slope. To compensate, I’ve very subtly circled in GREEN Sweden et al, and in RED the anglo-saxon countries.  The point is that if one thinks that these countries are the ones that are truly comparable, it looks like more economic freedom is associated with the worst off doing worse, in absolute terms. (I think the main story here is that the countries in green, while being highly open to trade, have larger shares of their economies going through the hands of government.  Will Wilkinson has recently suggested that it may be in part because citizens there are more protected from the ups and downs of the market economy that they are willing to tolerate such openness to foreign competition. If I’m not mistaken this is essentially Geoffrey Garrett’s thesis,in Partisan Politics in the Global Economy).

There are lots of complexities here, in the data, and in the inferences we might want to make about causal mechanisms, but as this is the second post in one day, I will leave it at that.

Friedman vs. Knight

October 21, 2015

This week in my course on liberalism we’re reading Milton Friedman. I’m really enjoying watching the PBS documentary “Free to Choose.” Here is a bit where Friedman discusses gambling, and the benefits of risk-taking:

The corresponding text from the book Free to Choose:

“Still another facet of this complex issue of fairness can be illustrated by considering a game of chance, for example, an evening at baccarat. The people who choose to play may start the evening with equal piles of chips, but as the play progresses, those piles will become unequal. By the end of the evening, some will be big winners, others big losers. In the name of the ideal of equality, should the winners be required to repay the losers? That would take all the fun out of the game. Not even the losers would like that. They might like it for the one evening, but would they come back again to play if they knew that whatever happened, they’d end up exactly where they started?”

Of course one issue is that people choose to visit Las Vegas and play Baccarat; they don’t have a similar choice about whether to play the economic game, in daily life. Also they don’t necessarily start out with equal piles of chips, if children are being raised in private families. In addition, however, people may object to competition itself, to economic life being organized so that they have to compete against others in order to flourish. Milton Friedman’s teacher Frank Knight captured this sentiment in a very nice passage from his essay “The Ethics of Competition”:

“Turning to look for motives attached to production as an activity rather than to the product, the most obvious is its appeal as a competitive game. The desire for wealth takes on more or less of the character of the desire to capture an opponent’s pieces or cards in a game. An ethical criticism of the industrial order must therefore consider it from this point of view. In so far as it is a game, what kind of game is it? There is no doubt that a large amount of radical opposition to the system arises in this connection. The propertyless and ill-paid masses protest not merely against the privations of a low scale of living, but against the terms of what they feel to be an unfair contest in which being defeated by the stacking of the cards against them is perhaps as important to their feelings as the physical significance of the stakes which they lose. In a higher social class, resentment is aroused in the hearts of persons who do not like the game at all, and rebel against being compelled to play it and against being estimated socially and personally on the basis of their successor failure at it.”

That’s from pp.603-4 of the version that’s in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 37, No.4, 1923.

Knight was no fan of socialism, but he showed a keen understanding of the sources of opposition to capitalism.

Grad course on “Social Justice and Desert”

June 16, 2015

Here is the draft course description for a course I’m teaching in Winter 2016:

Social Justice and Desert

One of the standard criticisms of the welfare state is that social provision of income, housing, etc. rewards the imprudent, the irresponsible, the feckless, the lazy – in short, the undeserving. Recent increases in high-end inequality have raised similar questions about whether the market system itself rewards the undeserving; what have the top 1% done to deserve their enormous share of total income and wealth? Are CEOs today really so much more deserving than they were in the 1970s? The association between justice and desert has a long history, and is an important part of common sense thinking. However, the main political theories of the 20th century assign little or no fundamental importance to desert. The classical liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, and the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls – none of these views hold that in order to be just institutions must match shares with individual merit. The purpose of this course is to get a better understanding of this disconnect between theory and common sense. The first part of the course covers the free market critique of the “just deserts” interpretation of marginal productivity, Rawls’s rejection of the common sense position on desert, and the criticisms this rejection led to on the part of people such as Miller, Nozick, and Sandel. The second part of the course examines theories that attempt to accommodate the intuitions about desert that motivated the critique of Rawls and the welfare state without explicitly appealing to desert. So-called luck egalitarians emphasize the importance of responsibility, and of people “paying the costs” of their choices. An interesting alternative is to appeal to the idea of reciprocity, connecting liberal egalitarianism with social democratic thinking from the first part of the twentieth century. The final part of the course will focus on specific issues that present challenges for a theory of justice-as-reciprocity: disability, global justice, and economic incentives.

Reading that over, I see that it might suggest that Rawls was a welfare-state liberal, as if his theory would be satisfied by the formula ‘laissez-faire + enough social provision so that the poor don’t starve and the system remains stable’. Will have to work on that.


November 5, 2014

Mankiw on Just Deserts

May 12, 2014

From Greg Mankiw’s “Joe the Plumber” essay (see also his “Defending the One Percent“) on alternatives to utilitarianism:

“Let me propose the following principle: People should get what they deserve. A person who contributes more to society deserves a higher income that reflects those greater contributions. Society permits him that higher income not just to incentivize him, as it does according to utilitarian theory, but because that income is rightfully his. This perspective is, I believe, what Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, and other classically liberal writers have in mind. We might call it the Just Deserts Theory.”

Mankiw goes on to say that a competitive market equilibrium is not just efficient but fair, since it gives people what they deserve:

“[T]he Just Deserts Theory… gives a new normative interpretation of the equilibrium of a competitive market economy. Under a standard set of assumptions, a competitive economy leads to an efficient allocation of resources. But we economists often say that there is nothing particularly equitable about that equilibrium. Perhaps we are too hasty in reaching that judgment. After all, it is also a standard result that in a competitive equilibrium, the factors of production are paid the value of their marginal product. That is, each person’s income reflects the value of what he contributed to society’s production of goods and services. One might easily conclude that, under these idealized conditions, each person receives his just deserts.”

But that’s not at all what Nozick or Friedman said! I want to set the historical record straight.

First, a preliminary about Friedrich Hayek.  Hayek was a noted classical liberal, and he rejected “just deserts”.  Hayek distinguished merit from value.  Merit and value diverge because of luck.  No one can predict with any precision how the distribution of tastes and technology will evolve, but we each make choices about career, investment, where to live, etc. and some are luckier than others.  Two people could work equally hard, with exactly the same degree of diligence and prudence and responsibility, but one gets lucky and the other doesn’t.   The price signals in a free market reward such luck (and punish bad luck), and must do so if they are to send the right signals i.e. the signals that will shift resources to where they can be best used.

Nozick cited Hayek’s rejection of desert approvingly, but argued that Hayek didn’t go far enough.

“Hayek argues that we cannot know enough about each person’s situation to distribute to each accord to his moral merit (but would justice demand we do so if we did have this knowledge?)… Hayek concludes that in a free society there will be distribution in accordance with value rather than merit: that is, in accordance with the perceived value of a person’s actions and services to others [without regard to merit, e.g. how much or how little effort the person in question put in – ADL]… Distribution according to benefits to others is a major patterned strand in a free capitalist society, as Hayek correctly points out, but it is only a strand and does not constitute the whole pattern of a system of entitlements (namely, inheritance, gifts for arbitrary reasons, charity, and so on) or a standard that one should insist a society fit” (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p.158)

Nozick’s point is that even distribution according to value is not justice.  Justice in holdings, accruing to Nozick, is simply a function of just initial acquisition of unowned resources followed by just transfer, indefinitely iterated (leaving rectification of injustice to one side).

So Nozick wasn’t a believer in Just Deserts.  What about Friedman?

In the chapter on the distribution of income in Capitalism and FreedomFriedman examined the “the ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free society,” which was  “‘to each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces’.”   The “ownership” bit is crucial, but leave that aside for today.  Friedman directed most of his critical fire against the common view that there is an important moral difference between inequalities in inherited talents and inequalities in inherited wealth.  “Is there any greater ethical justification for the high return to the individual who inherits from his parents a peculiar voice for which there is high demand than for the high returns to the individual who inherits property?”  But Friedman recognized that this inconsistency could be resolved either by saying that there is nothing wrong economic inequalities that are due to fortunate family circumstances, or that there is something wrong with economic inequalities due to innate talents – or at least no positive reason to think that such inequalities are fair, in and of themselves.   It is perhaps for this reason that Friedman concluded that distribution according to productive contribution “cannot in and of itself be regarded as an ethical principle… [but] must be regarded as instrumental” (165).  In other words, the reason for having institutions that distribute income more or less according to productive contribution (and hence in part according to natural talent and social class at birth) is not that the result is fair or unfair but that it is efficient in allocating resources and hence in generating wealth.

Friedman’s final remarks express a remarkable degree of scepticism about “deservingness.”

“Most differences in status or position can be regarded as the product of chance at a far enough remove.  The man who is hard working and thrifty is to be regarded as ‘deserving’; yet these qualities owe much to the genes he was fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to inherit” (165-6)

Friedman even notes that inequalities that are perceived as being due to chance are more easily tolerated than those that are perceived as being due to merit (166), an issue Rawls would confront in his discussion of the objection that his (Rawls’s) theory would lead to a “meritocratic” society (Section 17 of A Theory of Justice, p.91 Revised Edition – meritocracy being an objection! Rawls cites Michael Young’s 1958 The Rise of Meritocracy; Hayek also cited Young on this point, in The Constitution of Liberty, though he said that he hadn’t yet read Young’s book).

So: Nozick and Friedman (and Hayek) all explicitly reject “just deserts” as a theory of just distribution.  In particular, they deny that distribution according to productive contribution is a matter of justice.  Mankiw’s idea of “just deserts” can’t be what they had in mind.


Is Distribution According to Contribution Fair?

February 15, 2012

In a recent article on “The Income Gap,” economist Mark Thoma asks whether the distribution of income is fair.  To answer this question, he adopts (at least for the sake of argument) the neoclassical view of income distribution.  Assuming a perfectly competitive market economy, “each person in society receives an income equal to their contribution to national output.”  Thoma admits that judgments of fairness are best left to society as a whole rather than economists, but says that “if we adopt the simple notion that every person has a right to a share of output equivalent to their contribution to it… then a competitive economic system does produce a justifiable outcome, at least in theory.”  Thoma’s criticism of this view is that it relies on “a whole host of assumptions,” and that when these idealized conditions (such as perfect competition) don’t hold, “there is nothing that says the resulting outcome necessarily accords with the ‘every person gets what they deserve’ properties of perfect competition.”  I assume Thoma is right about that, but I think he’s giving far too much credit to the idea that distribution according to contribution is a plausible principle of justice.

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Review of Gaus’s Order of Public Reason

January 18, 2012

I’ve written a longish review of Jerry Gaus’s The Order of Public Reason (CUP, 2010).  The review is called “The Classical Tilt of Justificatory Liberalism,” because I raise some doubts about whether justificatory liberalism does incline in favour of classical liberalism, as against social justice liberalism.  However, the main purpose of the essay is just to lay out Gaus’s overall argument about how the authority we claim over each other’s conduct in ordinary social morality can be justified.  The answer, perhaps not surprisingly given the title of the book, is “only if this morality is publicly justifiable,” (where “publicly justifiable” has its technical sense of “being acceptable to each and everyone one of a range of reasonable but conflicting points of view,” rather than the ordinary meaning of “being justifiable in public, without need for (noble) lies”).  The book also argues that, correctly understood, our everyday moral practices (e.g. feeling and expressing resentment, indignation, forgiveness, and so on) presuppose a recognition of others as free and equal persons.  And the book reconciles the explanatory / evolutionary / Humean perspective on morality with the justificatory / Kantian perspective on morality.  All that for the low price of CDN $60.78 (low on a per page basis, that is; it’s 549 pages long, not counting appendices etc.).  This is a very ambitious book because it aims to synthesize a wide range of material from diverse fields in the service of a general argument that unfolds over the course of the whole book (comparable to A Theory of Justice, in that respect).  My main aim was to state that overall argument in a radically condensed form.  And of course to question the classical tilt.


October 14, 2011

Not me.  But I do live in Ottawa.

Public Reason vs. Social Justice?

July 5, 2011

One of the things I’ve done this year is to rework the main portions of my paper “Public Justification and the Limits of State Action“, as a chapter for my book manuscript about public reason and political community. This chapter addresses a common objection to Rawls’s “political liberalism,” which is that if reasonable disagreement about the nature of the good life requires the state not promote or discourage any of these rival conceptions, but there is room for reasonable disagreement about justice as well as about the good life, then the state may not implement controversial conceptions of social justice, or do much of anything.
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