John Tomasi Rearranges the Deck Chairs on the Good Ship Liberalism

The number of contradictory positions associated with the words “liberal” and “liberalism” have led some to conclude that such expressions are now so unstable in their meaning that they lack sufficient descriptive power of any lasting significance. Of course, the same could be said of terms used to describe most modern political positions, including “conservatism” and “socialism.” Liberalism, however, seems particularly amorphous inasmuch as the phrase is associated with figures as apparently different in their starting points and conclusions such as Friedrich Hayek and John Rawls, but also David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Or is it? In his new book Free Market Fairness, the political philosopher John Tomasi challenges and seeks to overcome some of the internal divisions among those who ascribe to the liberal nomenclature. Rather than attempting a synthesis of competing schools of liberal thought, Tomasi outlines what he is very careful to specify as a “hybrid” (87) political theory that draws upon classical liberalism and libertarianism on the one hand, and what he calls high or left liberalism on the other. Tomasi does not seek to somehow ground classical liberal institutions on the basis of left liberal moral imperatives, or vice-versa. Instead he argues for what he calls market democracy as a “justificatory hybrid . . . which combines insights from the classical and liberal traditions at the level of moral foundations” (95).

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