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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Neoclassical Liberalism



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In the forthcoming 2012 edition of the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, Jason Brennan and John Tomasi offer a brief discussion of what they call “neoclassical liberalism,” a variant of classical liberalism:

Neoclassical liberals join with traditional classical liberals and libertarians in their skepticism about the high liberal platform of economic exceptionalism. However, neoclassical liberals offer positive arguments for thick economic liberty that distinguish them from classical liberals and libertarians alike. 

Consider the libertarians.  On the orthodox interpretation of Nozick, he grounds this account of property in the concept of self-ownership. Property rights emerge as a relation of persons to objects in the world, by the process of self-owners mixing their labor with un-owned things. Property rights are strongly prior to the state. The state exists to protect preexisting rights and so is bounded by those rights. 

Instead of starting with the idea of self-ownership, some neoclassical liberals seek to ground property rights (and other economic liberties) in the same moral ideas affirmed by high liberals. (Gaus 2007; Tomasi 2012a) For example, some neoclassical liberals focus on the moral ideal of citizens living together as responsible self-authors. This approach owes more to Kant than to Locke. By it, neoclassical liberals can affirm a wide range of individual freedom regarding economic questions for the same reasons they affirm general liberties with respect to religious and associational questions: a thick conception of economic liberty is a necessary condition of responsible self-authorship. Ownership rights are not so much relations between persons and objects as they are relations between persons as moral agents. Rights emerge as a social recognition that honoring the capacity of one’s fellow citizens to be self-authors requires that one respects their capacity to make choices of their own regarding economic matters. To restrict the capacity of people to make economic choices or, worse, to treat their economic activities merely as means to the social ends of others, would violate the dignity of such persons and so would be to treat them unjustly. Wide rights to economic liberty, while recognizable without the state, are validated and made fully binding by the political community. On this approach, the requirements of economic liberty help define the shape and limits of the state, even without being radically prior to it. 

This approach to economic liberty helps highlight another important difference between neo- and traditional classical liberal views. While classical liberals such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman advocate a social safety net, their advocacy seems ad hoc given their strong claims about the sanctity of property rights.  By contrast, neoclassical liberals advocate what we might call a “thoroughly principled” rationale for the safety net. A rationale for a policy is “thoroughly principled” if the same reasoning that supports the wider features of a view also support that particular policy. On the neoclassical approach described above, citizens’ status as responsible self-authors may be threatened by conditions of extreme need. The neoclassical state must be empowered to define and interpret the set of basic rights so as to protect people’s moral status as self-authors. Unlike many traditional classical liberals, therefore, neoclassical liberals can defend a safety net in a thoroughly principled way.  The same grounds neoclassical liberals use to justify the social safety net also explain their objections to the pervasive encroachments on economic liberty endorsed by high liberals. Without constitutional guarantees protecting independent economic decision-making, people cannot fully exercise their moral powers of self-authorship.  Neoclassical liberals affirm the importance economic liberty, and thus reject the high liberal platform of economic exceptionalism, for all these reasons. [Emphasis added]

Moreover, neoclassical liberalism rejects material egalitarianism, seeing it as a distraction from the real ends of social justice. 

The neoclassical liberal perspective is, in my view, directly relevant to contemporary political debates. Defending economic liberty isn’t about greed or selfishness. Rather, it is about our right to be the authors of our own lives. And that same right is why a well-designed, sustainable safety net isn’t a concession to the left or to political reality. The safety net should be embraced because it allows us to “protect people’s moral status as self-authors.” But a poorly-designed and unsustainable safety net is a very different matter: it threatens our status as self-authors through its endless expansion.



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