A Muddle of Libertarian Factions
Samuel Brittan reviews (6 May) John Tomasi’s, Free Market Fairness, Princeton University Press, in The Financial Times HERE
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. …
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. …
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…. 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”.
… The substance of Tomasi’s case is that the lowest-paid worker does better in the long run with some form of civilised free market capitalism than with social democrat alternatives. Tomasi says too little about those who can’t or won’t work; and his case depends heavily on economic growth still being a valid long-term objective even in advanced western economies.
Samuel Brittan was disappointed with John Tomasi’s book. It covers subjects that I have remarked on more than once on Lost Legacy.
The different meanings attached to ‘liberalism’ in the US and the UK is quite confusing.
Those interested in Adam Smith’s works, Ricardo, Mill, and so on, describe themselves as “classic liberals”, which I would go along with, except an acquaintance with those other political economists, who followed Smith (Ricardo, Mill), showed quote vast differences in their approach to certain important questions, not least the miss-designation of what became an ideology of known as “laissez-faire” to the actual views (and temperment) of Smith, which was not what Smith argued for (he never mentioned “laisssez-faire”), and the widespread presentation of Smith’s case against the state’s promotion of mercantile political economy, as an alleged assault on the very notion of government intervention, belied by the contents of Wealth Of Nations. Hence, I dropped references to my views as “classic liberalism” and Smith as a believer in “laissez-faire”.
I have an ambivalent attitude to the designation of being “libertarian”, given the wide range of schools under than umbrella, from anarcho-left libertarians though the spectrum of rightist libertarians, who hate the idea of a capitalist State. Neo-liberalism, says Samuel Britan, is a term of abuse in the US and UK from the left. I agree with parts of the libertarian consensus and have reservations about some other parts.
Follow the link and read Samuel Brittan’s review and see what you agree with. He says that Tomasi leaves many questions unanswered about his thesis of libertarianism.