Political Decisions Must Be “Secular”? Since When?

Hovering like a stern schoolmarm over much of our political discourse and decision-making is a sort of lurking censor, monitoring political decisions to ensure that they are based on “secular” grounds and purposes. Let us call this regulator “the secularism constraint.”

In many cultural neighborhoods, the secularism constraint seems almost as natural and ineluctable as the law of gravity. Legal scholars and political theorists argue for one or another variant of the constraint (a/k/a “public reason”), or more often just take it for granted. Constitutional doctrine– the so-called Lemon test, from the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)– provides at least ambiguous validation with its “secular purpose” requirement for government action.

Read More

Economic Distributions and the Politics of Luck

It may only be rock and roll, but Alan Krueger, the outgoing chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, likes it, not least because it is economically illuminating.  Among the ways in which the economy and the recording industry are alike, he said in a recent address at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, is that outcomes in both depend substantially on luck.  The suggestion is that distributions dictated by chance are arbitrary, problematic and—this last point is unstated but seemingly latent—fair game for rearranging.  The typical conservative response is to deny that luck rather than merit is at play.  But were the point ceded just for fun—and luck stipulated as a potent force in economic affairs—an interesting question might result: So?

Read More

Can Reason Bear Liberalism’s Weight?

“All we ask is that law and policy be based upon reason.” So begins Ralph Hancock’s latest book, Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age. This opening quote was actually delivered by a frustrated political scientist at an academic conference, who asserted “the authority of simple reason” against perceived rubes who doubt its truth or rather its efficacy for impartially reconciling competing claims within a pluralist democracy.

Read More

John Tomasi’s Free Market Synthesitis

John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness[1] has the intellectual ambition of formulating a synthesis – at least a tentative synthesis — of key elements of libertarian or classical liberal thought on the one hand and social democrat thought on the other hand.  From the former Tomasi purports to take robust economic rights that have a strong claim on being recognized within any acceptable social-political order and an appreciation of the beneficial outcomes of spontaneous orders; and from the latter, he takes a strong commitment to “social justice” that is understood in difference principle fashion as a commitment to making the worst off members of society as well off as possible. 

Read More

John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness

Over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians site, they are having a symposium on John Tomasi’s new book Free Market Fairness.  The book takes a Rawlsian approach to political philosophy, but argues that Rawlsians should treat economic liberty as one of the basic liberties.  Under this approach, economic liberty would not simply be ignored by Rawlsians and treated as part of the matters that are subject to the difference principle, but would be given a very high priority similar to personal freedoms.   The symposium includes a lot of important philosophers and is well worth reading.

Here is a brief summary of one aspect of Tomasi’s argument by Samuel Freeman, a Rawlsian scholar and one of the participants:

[John Tomasi’s] position purportedly supports both laissez faire and a restricted welfare state capitalism. (pp.116-117)  The latter–“democratic limited government”–he says resembles the views of Hayek and Friedman.  There’s little indication that [Tomasi] would endorse more extensive social welfare systems characteristic of Northern European capitalist social democracies.

Tomasi says: “the central moral claim of market democracy [is] that thick economic liberties are among the basic rights of liberal citizens.”  (p. 121)   He understands basic rights in terms of Rawls’s first principle of justice, the principle of equal basic liberties.  For Rawls the basic liberties include liberty of conscience and freedom of thought and expression; freedom of association and the rights and liberties that maintain freedom and integrity of the person (including freedom of occupation and a right to hold personal property); equal political liberties and the rights establishing the rule of law.  Rawls explicitly rejects economic rights, including ownership of means of production, as among the basic liberties, saying that the scope of economic rights are to be defined and regulated by his second principle, including the difference principle.

I am happy to see Tomasi’s book.  Back when I was a junior in college in 1979, I took a course in Rawls’s Theory of Justice, and wrote a paper that argued that Rawls should have included economic liberty as a basic liberty.  My professor thought that the paper, if revised, was publishable in a philosophy journal, and it has always been one of my regrets that I didn’t make the effort necessary to do so.  (The paper also argued that there was no justification for applying the difference principle to a single country rather than to the world.)

There are some differences between Tomasi’s book and my former approach.  I wasn’t a Rawlsian, but a Nozickian.  I was merely arguing against Rawls’ justification of welfare liberalism; I did not think his approach was the best one.  It seems that Tomasi does.

These days I continue to believe these critiques of Rawls are well taken.  I also continue to believe that his basic approach is the wrong one, but I am no longer a Nozickian.  Instead, I am a welfare consequentialist.

(Note: I deleted a sentence from the end of the post, which upon reflection seemed to raise complicated issues that are unnecessary to my basic point.)