More on Neoliberalism

The Guardian had a ‘long read’ a couple weeks ago on “neoliberalism” by Stephen Metcalfe. I want to comment on the piece’s interpretation of Hayek. Although I don’t share Hayek’s politics, I think it important not to misrepresent what he said. (See also this earlier post on neoliberalism, and this post on the issue of the fairness of reward by contribution).

Continue reading More on Neoliberalism

Worries about the Stability of Meritocracy

In §17 of A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempted “to forestall the objection to the principle of fair equality of opportunity that it leads to a meritocratic society” (86, emphasis added; see also 73). This statement is surprising, at least at first glance; isn’t meritocracy a good thing? Continue reading Worries about the Stability of Meritocracy

Talk on Frank Knight and John Rawls

This past weekend I attended the inaugural conference of the PPE Society in New Orleans – an excellent event, with lots of interesting papers on related themes. My presentation was based on my paper ‘Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,’ Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 16, (2017): 47-69. It was called The Free Market Critique of Desert, and its Relation with Justice as Fairness; the text of the talk (lightly revised) is available on my site, via the link above. “Free-market critique of desert” is misleading; it should really be “the free-market critique of the desert-based justification of capitalism” but that’s too long. Another possible title for the talk would be “the neoliberal foundations of liberal egalitarianism,” but that would generate too much confusion.

Self-defeat, anarchy, unfair exclusion

I have a new paper forthcoming on public reason, in The Journal of Moral Philosophy. The paper ties together three objections that are central to David Enoch’s recent critique: that theories of public reason are self-defeating, that they lead to libertarianism / minimal-statism / anarchy, and that they unfairly exclude people deemed unreasonable.  Here is the abstract:

Theories of public reason are alleged to be self-defeating, to lead to anarchy, and to treat those classified as unreasonable with unequal respect, suggesting that public reason is incoherent rather than simply outweighed by competing considerations. To avoid anarchy and self-defeat, advocates of public reason can idealize heavily, adopting a strict standard of reasonableness. Yet the more they restrict the justificatory constituency, the more the resulting exclusion of putatively unreasonable views seems unfair. This paper shows how to avoid this dilemma. The paper focuses on David Enoch’s recent critique of public reason, which marshalls the worries about self-defeat, anarchy, and unfairness of exclusion to undermine the very idea of public reason. Although he doesn’t explicitly identify the dilemma sketched above, it is consistent with his view to recognize that the solution to the first two problems exacerbates the third. My suggestion about how to avoid the dilemma depends on a distinction between two models of public reason. The first frames the principle as a constraint on coercive state action, with a default of inaction; the second sees the principle as a constraint on reasons for decisions, with a default of exclusion from consideration. The coercion model is vulnerable to the worry about anarchy but not self-defeat, I argue, the reasons model to the worry about self-defeat but not anarchy. The coercion model does not apply to itself, and so cannot be self-defeating, and there are plausible ways of avoiding anarchy without idealizing heavily. As a result, this model is less vulnerable to the charge of unfair exclusion. The reasons for decisions model is not subject to the anarchy objection, but does apply to itself. The only way to avoid self-defeat is to idealize heavily, making the reasons model is thus particularly susceptible to the worry about unfair exclusion. My response is to appeal to reciprocity, in order to justify making acceptance of public reason one of the conditions of reasonableness. Those who exclude everyone but themselves from the constituency of justification can’t object that others draw the boundaries of this constituency too narrowly, since they themselves draw its boundaries more narrowly still.

Forthcoming Paper on Frank Knight and John Rawls

A few years ago I wrote a paper on Hayek and Rawls (ungated early version here). This, plus teaching a course on libertarianism, led me to the early 20th century University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. One of the points of commonality between Hayek and Rawls is their scepticism about desert as the basis for social institutions. This scepticism owes much to Frank Knight. Rawls cited Knight’s 1923 essay “The Ethics of Competition” in the discussion of desert from A Theory of Justice, and in an earlier essay cited Hayek, who in turn cited Knight. Knight is remembered as one of the founders of Chicago economics, and thus indirectly one of the fathers of free market fundamentalism. He was indeed a teacher / colleague of both Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Yet Knight was a fierce critic of what he took to be bad, simplistic arguments for laissez-faire, chief among them the view that by distributing income according to marginal product the competitive system rewards the deserving. Knight didn’t deny that marginal productivity explained the distribution of income, he just denied that reward according to marginal product was ethically important, in itself. Hayek and Friedman had essentially the same view. The virtue of reward by marginal product is efficiency, not fairness. It’s surprising, then, to read that neoliberalism teaches that markets reward the deserving. I posted about this earlier, but now I have a paper on the topic forthcoming in PPE. It’s called “Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,” but its subtitle could be “Knight, Hayek, Friedman, and Rawls (vs. Bell, Nozick, Sandel, etc.)” The final section includes some discussion of the reciprocity objection to proposals for an unconditional basic income.


The Guardian has an article by George Monbiot on “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems“, an excerpt from a forthcoming book.  He cites von Mises, Hayek and Friedman as the original neoliberals, which is fair enough given their roles in organizations such as the Mont Pelerin Society. What struck me is his account of the role of ideas of deservingness, or merit, in neoliberalism.

“The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances. Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.”

As a description of a popular belief system, this account of neoliberalism may be accurate.  But since Monbiot cites Capitalism and Freedom, let’s take a look at what Friedman says. Continue reading Neoliberalism