Free Market Fairness, Distributional Adequacy and Distributivism

There’s an interesting review of Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness by O’Neill and Williamson in the Boston Review. The thought struck me recently that there isn’t much in the way of centre-right political philosophy. Many political philosophers present a set of principles which are squarely centre left, accommodating the free market but underlining the need for the maximum possible level of equality compatible with economic efficiency. The usual foil for this brand of liberal egalitarian position is the sort of minarchist free-market libertarianism defended by Robert Nozick, according to which individuals have an absolute right over legitimately acquired property.

According to the review, it looks like Tomasi wants to defend a compromise position which starts from a basically Rawlsian position but accords special value to market exchange and property rights. But it’s difficult to make such a compromise work – the reviewers don’t seem to think that Tomasi manages it.

The basic problems are that Rawls’s position does not prohibit market exchange and, once we’ve acknowledged that property rights are not absolute and can be compromised for the sake of social justice and/or the provision of public goods, it seems difficult to think of reasons why we shouldn’t arrange institutions to benefit those who are least well-off. There’s not much space for centre-right political philosophers to work with here. The best argument against liberal egalitarian conclusions seems to be an empirical one about the levels of equality that are realistically compatible with economic efficiency. But that isn’t a critique of liberal egalitarian principles as such.

In the review, O’Neill and Williamson report that Tomasi addresses this challenge by proposing his own test of ‘distributional adequacy’ as an alternative to Rawlsian distributive equality (i.e. maximise the position of the least well-off). But I didn’t really understand the idea of “distributional adequacy”, which is defined as being the requirement that ‘each and all should benefit from political and economic arrangements; if all are better off, it is acceptable that some have much more than others’. Better off than what? What is the counterfactual for comparison? It sounds like it is the requirement for pareto-optimality, but pareto is dependent on a comparison with the status quo. So a change is only ‘distributionally adequate’ if the rich are no worse off than they are at present? Or is it some kind of ‘state of nature’ comparison between the present set-up and a life of banging rocks together? Neither are very satisfying. I feel like I’m missing something…

In any case, it seems like O’Neill and Williamson are suggesting that Tomasi’s own principles point towards something like distributivism, a variant of European Christian democracy according to which the problem with industrial democracy isn’t that we have too many capitalists, but too few and too big.

If I get the chance I might give Tomasi’s book a read. I’m interested in seeing where contemporary philosophers might take the arguments of Hayek, who seems to be under-recognised by political philosophers as one of the major conservative liberal thinkers of the last century. But I start from a position of scepticism; I think it’s pretty difficult to make a clear philosophical case for the sort of centre-right position favoured by Anglo-American conservative liberals.


Posted on December 3, 2012, in inequality, justice, political economy, political philosophy, political theory, theorists. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. “The thought struck me recently that there isn’t much in the way of centre-right political philosophy.”

    Maybe because conservatism is small and shrinking in academe. I doubt if there is much conservative sociology. Or maybe also because that genre of political philosophy, attempting to deduce the universally right level of redistribution without much empirical reference, is not congenial to the conservative mind.

    I doubt there is much conservative science fiction. IIRC, Ken MacLeod is an ex-trotskyist. Are there any conservatives among SF writers?

    • It does seem that much (though not all) of the academy leans further and further left, yes. But it isn’t as if political philosophy is monolithic, right-libertarianism has a pretty strong presence in the discipline. I just don’t know of any major centre-right work of political philosophy that set out principled limits on the level of desirable redistribution. Because for Rawls the right level of distribution depends on empirical facts about human distribution one could, however, easily be a centre-right Rawlsian if one believed that, for example, progressive taxation is a strong impediment to economic efficiency. There’s also a strong tradition of Humean conservativism in political philosophy sceptical of general principles based on a priori reasoning, but perhaps the highest profile political philosophers who shares this temperament is David Miller – who is a centrist liberal nationalist.

      Yes, MacLeod is a left-libertarian former Trotskist who worked with the samizdat movement in the Soviet Bloc. A lot of the New Space Opera (Banks, MacLeod, Stross) is quite left-wing, as was the New Wave (Moorcock, Le Guin) before it. I’m not sure it’s surprising that science-fiction is attractive to those on the left considering that it presents alternative futures, the terms ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ do express different attitudes towards the future and the past after all. But the UK’s Peter F Hamilton is more centre-right: left-wing terrorists and dictators crop up a few times in his novels. Vernor Vinge is, I think, a right-libertarian – as is much of the milieu surrounding futurist and ‘extropian’ concepts such as strong artificial intelligence. Orson Scott Card is a conservative Mormon. The Military SF sub-genre is also apparently quite conservative, but I’m not so familiar with it.

  2. And fantasy is a genre for reactionaries (like JRR Tolkein).

  1. Pingback: What Political Philosophy and Science Fiction Have In Common | Breviosity

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