‘Yes’ is the vigorous answer in [amazon_link id=”069114446X” target=”_blank” ]Free Market Fairness[/amazon_link] by John Tomasi. In both the popular view and among left-inclined intellectuals, free markets are intrinsically unfair, and the economic growth they foster only reaches people on low incomes through the notoriously fickle ‘trickle down’ effect. Freedom in the economic domain and fairness are in conflict.
Tomasi has two main counter-arguments. One is that long run economic growth in free market economies has done far more to benefit the poor than any alternative approach to organising the distribution of resources. He calls economic growth “the great fact.” I agree that the everyday benefits of growth – such as plumbing and affordable lighting and antibiotics and toothpaste and tea bags and …… – are almost always overlooked and certainly do benefit those on low as well as high incomes. However, I don’t think he addresses adequately the social justice question being asked in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crash, which is why almost none, none, of the real GDP gains of the past generation have gone to anyone below the top fifth or so of the income distribution. (I would probably answer this by saying we have only had a pretence of free markets, as a cover for creeping oligopoly.)
However, his second main argument is a powerful one often overlooked by many on the left of centre (although very much not ignored by Amartya Sen in his [amazon_link id=”0141037857″ target=”_blank” ]The Idea of Justice[/amazon_link]), that people who are poor care at least as much about freedom – including economic freedom – as people who are rich. Freedom is a good in itself, and social institutions should not be seen only instrumentally as a means of attaining an ideal distribution.
Anyway, this rather densely-argued book does a pretty good job of bridging the ground between libertarians and liberals (using the American terminology). He calls this third way “market democracy” and says it involves a “fundamentally deliberative approach to the questions of political life.” This emphasis on procedural justice is derived from (as in Sen) from [amazon_link id=”019825055X” target=”_blank” ]John Rawls[/amazon_link]. Tomasi’s plea for us to step away from polarized views is surely welcome – although it seems pretty unlikely to make much headway in the US this presidential election year.
[amazon_image id=”069114446X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Free Market Fairness[/amazon_image]