Liberalism Beyond Justice

Stuck in the Cramped Corridor of Establishment Liberalism

The first several chapters of John Tomasi’s Liberalism Beyond Justice are devoted to his pledging eager and cloying allegiance to the world of Rawlsian liberalism that dominates political theory and philosophy, especially in the corridor of academic power that stretches from the University of Pennsylvania through Princeton, Columbia, Brown, and Harvard. In his last two chapters, however, Tomasi mildly dissents from some of the most culturally elitist and economically egalitarian policy recommendations of what he calls “High Liberalism.”

But in the course of his deferential dissent, Tomasi, who teaches political theory at Brown, avoids any reference whatsoever to the arguments of unfashionable classical-liberal or libertarian theorists. This is particularly striking because the dissenting arguments that Tomasi advances have for some time been advanced much more clearly and powerfully by various classical-liberal or libertarian authors–including authors such as Tibor Machan and David Schmidtz with some of whose works Tomasi must be familiar, since they appear in his bibliography.

To understand the character of Tomasi’s venture, one needs a brief sketch of the breathtaking intellectual developments that have issued from Harvard philosopher John Rawls over the last several decades. In his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that the principles of justice are the norms to which rational people who are unencumbered by any concern about their own specific personal traits, circumstances, or goals would agree. Such rational people would seek out principles that would nullify as much as possible social and natural inequalities. According to Rawls, these people would agree to principles that would mandate equal political liberty and radical income redistribution.

Despite his endorsement of extensive state action, Rawls’s position has one virtue from the point of view of genuine liberalism. Once one complies with Rawls’s various (and too demanding) principles of justice, one has satisfied all the demands of sound political theory and may live what remains of one’s life free from further political surveillance. It is this virtue of Rawls’s theory that Tomasi objects to in the first several chapters of Liberalism Beyond Justice.

According to Tomasi, what goes on in one’s life beyond one’s compliance with justice is also a concern of a proper political liberalism. Tomasi construes even one’s self-development and search for meaning as a civic duty, part of what citizenship demands. Accordingly, Tomasi contends that liberal theory mandates a civic education that “must also prepare each citizen to play her socially constructive role in making her society flourish as the type of society it is.” In effect, Tomasi politicizes dimensions of life that even Rawls at his most intrusive places beyond the purview of political liberalism. One shudders at the thought of the curriculum that would comprise that “civic education” and the people who would teach it.

Tomasi also focuses on the problem that, although a regime of political liberalism purports to be neutral among different conceptions of the good life, it in fact is likely to undermine certain of those conceptions. For example, a public emphasis on rights that individuals may exercise as they choose inclines people to think of their life plans as objects of deliberate choice, and this inclination undermines traditionalist or authoritative conceptions of the good life. Tomasi’s solution is to require liberal regimes to work harder at being respectful of all “reasonable world views.” This might involve, for example, greater tolerance within schools for expressions of religious views. It is a strange twist on liberalism to conclude that authoritarians must not only be free to promote their ideas, but that the state is obliged to help them.

More significantly, Tomasi dissents from the Rawlsian conclusion that all reasonable people would agree to a regime of coerced maximal downward income redistribution. Some reasonable people will instead believe that the way for them to fulfill their citizenship duty of nullifying misfortune is for them to engage in uncoerced income redistribution. A sound political liberalism must to some extent accommodate those who dissent from coerced maximal downward redistribution.

Tomasi has a glimmering here of two ideas that many classical liberals and libertarians have articulated. The first is that generosity and benevolence are virtues that only contribute to the goodness of one’s life if they are undertaken voluntarily. The second is that the more pluralistic a society is, the more difficult it becomes to get general agreement on enforceable positive duties. But, to do justice to these ideas, Tomasi would have had to venture beyond the cramped corridor of establishment liberalism.

What this book illustrates is how little the case for liberty has advanced within the confines of academic orthodoxy. Tomasi may think of himself as a bold intellectual rebel, but it would have been far bolder to have done justice to the classical-liberal ideas with which he is familiar.

Eric Mack is a professor of philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.