Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

The Fictitious Liberal Divide: Economic Rights Are Not Basic

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

The Fictitious Liberal Divide: Economic Rights Are Not Basic

Article excerpt

I.Are Economic Rights Basic According to Classical Liberals?

It is common to assume that the core disagreement between classical and high liberals concerns the harmonization of economic rights with a theory of justice. On the one hand, high liberals, like John Rawls and Samuel Freeman, have argued that economic rights can be outweighed by social justice. On the other hand, classical liberals, like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, are known for defending economic rights against those who would override them so as to pursue extensive programs of taxes and transfers. Therefore, it is usually thought that the main question dividing classical and high liberals is about how economic rights rank compared to other rights and public goals. Such was Freeman's argument in his paper "Capitalism in the Classical and High Liberal Traditions":

Where liberals primarily disagree is on the nature and status of economic rights and liberties, including the extent of freedom of contract and rights to private property in land, raw materials, and other productive resources (2011, 20).

More precisely, Freeman argued that economic rights are "basic" for classical liberals, in the sense that they are restrictable only by other basic rights; by contrast, economic rights are "prima facie" for high liberals, such that they can be overridden to provide the means to ensure that citizens can take advantage of their basic liberties. Recently, neoclassical liberals, like John Tomasi (2012, 42), Jason Brennan (2012), and Daniel Shapiro (1995 a), have argued that economic rights are indeed basic in the classical liberal tradition. As such, they embrace Freeman's widely held view according to which economic rights are basic for classical liberals, and prima facie for high liberals. This paper challenges such a view.

There is no real disagreement about the nature of economic rights within the liberal tradition.1 Both classical and high liberals, I argue, share the same understanding of economic rights as prima facie rights, not as basic rights as defined by Rawls. One could retort that classical and high liberals disagree about what economic rights people have; but people have mostly the same economic rights according to these two liberal traditions. Both classical and high liberals defend property rights and freedom of contract, although both acknowledge that such rights can be limited, for instance, by regulations on land use, monopolies, and building codes. This paper will therefore attempt to bridge the gap between these two liberal traditions, focusing specifically on the classical liberal side of that gap. The gap, it seems, is due to inflated rhetoric coming from both sides, which overshadows an important consensus regarding the nature of economic rights.

classical, high, and neoclassical liberals have created a fictitious divide. it is true that these three liberal traditions have different views on, say, social justice. Classical liberals like Hayek (2013, xix), for example, have characterised social justice as a "mirage", as well as a "fraudulent", "meaningless", "thoughtless", "empty", and "vacuous" concept. High liberals, following Rawls (1999, 3), have defended social justice as "the first virtue of social institutions". it is an approach which neoclassical liberals have also embraced, though they highlight the importance of market capitalism for ameliorating poverty. There are enough genuine disagreements between liberals that we do not need to invent fictitious ones, such as the purported disagreement about basic economic rights.

Many high liberals like Rawls, as Freeman noted (2007, 49), have downplayed the importance of economic rights for a theory of justice. Conversely, classical liberals are known for criticizing such "economic exceptionalism", that is, the undue relegation of economic rights to a lower level of protection (Tomasi, 2012, 58). It would thus appear that although classical and high liberals may agree on a few common redistributive policies to help the poor, they simply cannot agree on the nature of the economic rights behind any such redistribution. …

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