Free market fairness and the challenges of the 21st century

Many people recall that John Maynard Keynes characterized “practical men” as being the “slaves of some defunct economist.” Fewer people recall that Keynes accorded political philosophers equal weight in influencing the opinions of those practical men. I note this to justify why I spent several hours of my spare time reading the political philosopher John Tomasi’s new book Free Market Fairness, which according to the blurb “offers a bold new way of thinking about politics, economics, and justice—one that will challenge readers on both the left and right.” It’s also why I now feel compelled to spend a bit more time recommending it to others and outlining why I think it’s important.

As Tomasi himself notes in the book, political philosophy is not like mathematics, an exercise in pure thought divorced from everyday considerations. Politics is the mechanism by which some individuals and groups acquire and exercise power over others in pursuit of their own interests. Political philosophy in some sense is then just a special case of the general contention that we reason not to discover truth but in order to convince others: Its goal is to furnish plausible arguments as to why the institutions of society should be arranged to some people’s liking and not to others’.

However political philosophy can also serve a higher goal of pointing to more productive and congenial ways of managing those political conflicts that will inevitably arise, and more effective ways of evolving the institutions of society to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”–to quote the Constitution created by politicians influenced by the defunct political philosopher John Locke.

In general I see Free Market Fairness as being written in service of this higher goal, as part of a “research program” (as Tomasi puts it) to explore new and better ways to meet the political, economic, and related challenges of the 21st century. As Thomas P.M. Barnett emphasizes, we are partway through the decades-long project of integrating billions of people into the global economy, raising their standard of living and opening up new opportunities for personal freedom and fulfillment.1 We also look to technological and economic innovation to help address predicted crises related to climate change and resource depletion, among others. Historically liberal democracies with free market economies have proved best at meeting such challenges, as evidenced by their surviving and thriving while other systems did not.

However such societies face their own internal challenges in mustering the political will and skill to effectively promote globalization and innovation: As more people participate in the global economy, their entry into the labor force supporting globally-integrated supply chains erodes the wage premium that many workers in more developed countries were previously able to command, contributing to stagnation in the growth of those workers’ real incomes. This trend is made worse by technological advances that enable software to increasingly substitute for people, extending the possibility of wage stagnation from unskilled and semi-skilled workers to college-educated middle-class professionals.2 Finally, the global economy of “real work” is tied to a complex global financial system prone to periodic crises, crises which further increase the stress and instability placed on the bulk of the population not part of the global economic elite.

These trends imperil the project of innovation-fueled globalization: Why should people support policies that may make the world better in the long run but leave themselves worse off (at least in the short run)? And how should politicians respond to these concerns: With a simple reiteration of the joys of capitalism and a dismissal of concerns about the disruptions the future might bring? Or with a call to slow down or even turn away from globalization and economic growth and innovation? Both of these seem insufficient to the situation in which we find ourselves.

Or perhaps there is another option: Pursue growth, innovation, and globalization through policies that promote a dynamic market economy, but do so in a way that limits the stress placed on those likely to be adversely impacted by the changes associated with such dynamism, and helps ensure that changes in the global economy will benefit the many and not just the few. Free Market Fairness can be seen as providing the philosophical underpinnings for such a project.

In the coming week the folks at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog will be hosting an online symposium on Free Market Fairness. If past experience is any indication they’ll be focusing most closely on the details of Tomasi’s philosophical arguments. If I have time I’ll give my own layperson’s take on Tomasi’s ideas and how likely it is that they’ll have any impact in the real world of politics.

1. See for example Barnett’s column “In Globalized World, Time is On America’s Side“, his book Great Powers: America and the World After Bush, or the full “World according to Tom Barnett” brief on YouTube.

2. For a brief and relatively optimistic discussion of this trend see Marc Andreessen’s column “Why Software is Eating the World” in the Wall Street Journal; for a more nuanced book-length treatment see Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. See also Venkatesh Rao’s Forbes column “The Rise of Developeronomics” for interesting thoughts on software developers as the key factor of production in this new world.