Varieties of liberalism

This post (via Crooked Timber) is about British politics, but it nicely lays out the distinction between “economic liberalism” and “social liberalism,” or what we in the U.S. would call “market liberalism” (or libertarianism) and egalitarian or left-liberalism.

For economic (or market) liberals,

there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified.

For egalitarian liberals, by contrast,

the ‘free market’ is simply one possible ‘basic structure’ for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which ‘basic structure’ to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure – including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements – to achieve justice so understood. On this view, taxation and ‘redistribution’ are not invasions into people’s pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally ‘theirs’. Tax-transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.

Of course, while the UK has at least one party (Labour) that is, theoretically, devoted to this egalitarian ideal, the U.S. has, essentially, more and less severe versions of market liberalism seasoned with generous dollops of crony capitalism.

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6 thoughts on “Varieties of liberalism

  1. The idea of “designing” a basic structure is pretty radical, and not just in the sense of going to the root of one’s basic ideas. This doesn’t take society as any kind of a given. In fact, I’m not even sure it provides any guidance in deciding what is or is not society. I would think that it would be important, if you are going to recognize society as having authority over individuals, to be able to recognize what is or is not society. Does this receive an answer? I fear the answer will be assumed to be the nation state. So the entire structure of society comes into question, but the modern nation state does not. Does it really play out like this?

  2. The characterization of egalitarian liberals sounds like a summary of a book by Nagel and Murphy, “The Myth of Ownership.”

    All of the philosophical liberals referred to in the Next Left post as not sharing the idea of the market outcome (with strong inheritance and gift rights, I think) as a moral baseline but committed instead to equality as that are Americans: Rawls, Dworkin, and Ackerman.

    That really ought to make you wonder about classifying American liberals under the same rubric as American libertarians and fiscal conservatives rather than an egalitarian liberal group defined by reference to Americans.

    Doing that privileges American sociolibs and mere safety-net liberals while ignoring not only the academics but the whole traditional of popular progressivism or simply lets the Democratic Party’s ideological mushiness and incoherence define liberalism.

    I think the Democrat Party as a whole is rather a Scrooge-like bunch of social moderates and safety-netters, at best.

    We really can’t judge American liberalism by them, since it is just as false that the Democrats are a distinctly liberal party as that they are socialists, Marxists, communist, or fascists.

  3. The way I read the distinction, one side (market liberal/libertarian) says that the market is prior to society, the other (egalitarian liberal) says society is prior to the market. If you take the first view, you’re more likely to see the market distribution as natural, normal, or moral and any deviation therefrom as requiring justification. If you take the latter view, you will see markets as one tool (among others) for securing certain outcomes (efficiency, fairness, justice, etc.).

    I don’t know how useful the language of choosing the “basic structure” of society really is; I take it the author is cribbing from Rawls, but I think you can get to the same place as Rawls without introducing the cumbersome machinery of the “original position,” etc.

  4. Yes, it does come back to that.

    And that signifies two differences (by no means the only ones) between two strands of the contract myth.

    For the Locke/Nozick strand the market is prior to civil society and government exists essentially to police the market.

    Government has no right to meddle with it or make other arrangements.

    That is the libertarian tradition.

    For this tradition government is only a poor expedient of which democracy (actually, republicanism) is one type for the defense of the market and the rights associated with property.

    If government (or the republic, or democracy) starts to do otherwise, right is on the side of those who oppose it, even by force if need be.

    They read the Declaration of Independence as affirming such a right of rebellion to defend the God given right to property so thoughfully affirmed by Locke and, according to Gingrich, our Founders.

    People who take this sort of view think rather highly of the CIA’s history in Latin America, and regard Augusto Pinochet unambiguously as a hero.

    For another strand of the contract tradition, that of Rousseau and Hobbes, the compact that makes civil society and the state makes property and property relations.

    The sovereignty of the whole people and the power of the government through which they act extends to all our social arrangments.

    Such derogations of property rights and the market as regulation, public ownership of the means of production, nationalization with or without compensation, land reform, and taxation for redistribution are well within the right of the sovereign people acting through their government.

    For this strand of the mythical contract tradition, democracy is a political good in itself and a right of the people, the popular will being the only source of legitimate political authority.

    People who see things this way read the Declaration very differently, as an affirmation of the right of the people to government of, by, and for the people.

    They see the economic rights of the people as consumers, workers, and citizens as trumping those of property owners, capitalists, and the rich.

    They see the authority of democracy trumping property rights, as well.

    For these people, many if not all of the CIA’s Latin American adventures were on the wrong side, as was the coup against Arbenz and as would be, at least so far, a coup against Hugo Chavez.

    Of course, the Lockean tradition has the advantage of affirming the priority of morals (so-called “natural” rights and justice) over politics and thus founding the right of rebellion in justice and right.

    The latter, by treating rights and justice as creations of the contract, misses and even denies the priority of morals but has the advantage of recognizing that what are rights and justice are themselves contested points of political controversy no more to be settled by appeal to John Locke’s (or Thomas Jefferson’s) list than to the Ten Commandments.

  5. Another question is what is the efficiency of transfers for egalitarian purposes. Even if you accept you want to alter the distribution of wealth or income, the transfers to the poor may a lot less than the value of income to the rich lost, if incentives to work are reduced. You may favor a fairer distribution but not be willing to pay the cost of fully achieving it.

  6. Thanks for the comment. What you say is true; the trick is determining where that “tipping-point” is. It seems to me that, in the US at least, we could have a good deal more redistribution without that being a significant problem. Also, redistribution can actually have positive economic feedback effects (e.g., universal health care might enable people to take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t).

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