Self-Government, Market Democracy, and Economic Liberty

In a critical, but fair-minded review of Anarchy, State and Utopia, T. M. Scanlon argued that Nozick’s minimal state framework of property and contract rights does not constitute an adequate account of the claims of economic liberty.  But he noted that it was a virtue of Nozick’s book that it pressed its readers to take economic liberty seriously.  As Scanlon saw matters, Nozick was correct to view economic liberty as a condition for the legitimacy of social institutions.  But Nozick erred in thinking that the minimal state would adequately secure or protect this value.  What is needed, Scanlon wrote, is a deeper account of the economic liberties, one that relates them to political and civil liberties and integrates them into an overall account of liberty – a systematic account that ties economic liberty to the value of having control over various aspects of our lives.
For the most part, Scanlon's suggestion that rejecting Nozick’s defense of the minimal state should not lead one to ignore Nozick’s insight that economic liberties are an important dimension or aspect of self-government has fallen on deaf ears.  Friends of economic liberty have not been absent from the scene, to be sure, but they have not attempted to integrate the value of economic liberty into the kind of framework that Scanlon was gesturing toward.  John Tomasi’ Free Market Fairness is the first sustained attempt to do so.  For that reason alone, it is an important and interesting book.
I share the idea that both Scanlon and Tomasi find attractive – economic liberty is an aspect, and a neglected aspect in contemporary political philosophy, of self-government, or, as I would put it, autonomy.  But, in this critical notice, I want to raise some questions about the relationship between economic liberty and capitalism.  My questions center partly on the unclarity, or what I take to be the unclarity, of the phrase “thick economic liberty,” which is the phrase that Tomasi repeatedly uses to describe the regime of market democracy that he favors.  My questions also center partly on the relationship between economic liberty and the worth of economic liberty.  That relationship is a good deal more complex, I argue, than Tomasi’s general argument suggests.



Published in: Social Theory and Practice
2013 Volume 39 No 3 Pages 522-534