Hopkins Center Milton Party (and Thoughts on the Fuel of Capitalism)



The Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights’ panel discussion on the event of Milton Friedman’s hundredth birthday offset “liberaltarian” Brown professor John Tomasi with June Speakman, a Roger Williams professor more inclined to agree with the prefix of the coinage.  The panel would have benefited from the inclusion of an unabridged conservative who agreed with its root.

The most interesting idea placed on the Nick-a-Nees table was Tomasi’s hypothesis that free markets can correspond with social justice if we think of the latter concept “in new ways.”  The people who developed social justice, he says, just “happened to be all from the left.”

A conservative panelist might have suggested that there’s no “happened to be” about it — that the very concept was designed to supplant the competing idea of charity and free association.  Justice is the province of the police and the justice system, and “social justice” inherently suggests that those who hold the political levers can judge and impose their view of a just society on others against their will.

A famous clip comes to mind, in which Milton Friedman challenges Phil Donahue’s assumption that capitalism is unique in being founded on greed.  “You think [Soviet] Russia doesn’t run on greed?” asked Milton.  “Just tell me where in the world you’ll find these angels who are going to organize society for us.”

If I may presume to offer the master the compliment of mild disagreement, I think he erred in ceding the characterization.  Self interest and greed are not synonymous.  I’d venture to say that the great majority of people operating within a capitalist system (and therefore the great majority of transactions) do not run on greed, but on love — the kind of love expressed in devoting one’s life to supporting a family and advancing a community in some profitable way.

The social justice crowd raises high the image of those few who take the system to excess and do operate from greed so that they, themselves, may be empowered to express a broader but shallower love.  Taken to its current excess, that impulse has become a form of greed (even if we leave out the professionals who make very healthy livings advocating and administering).

The accomplishments and familial support of individuals becomes not an offering of their own love, but a passive acceptance of paths enabled by the state.  In the video, above, June Speakman speaks of figuring out “who doesn’t do well, why they don’t do well” and asks, “What do we do to take care of them?”  It would be more humane first to ask, “What do we do to allow them to take care of themselves?”

Speakman might object that, of course, we all want people to be as self-reliant as possible, but the system that those of her worldview would build places “we take care of them” at its philosophical center.  So, we wind up operating our entire society and sacrificing our freedoms in the service of a simplistic model that exaggerates the few who are greedy and the few who are irreparably dependent.  That’s like walking a tightrope with nothing but peripheral vision.

More important, though, is that an economic system is just a system.  What fuels it is not a structural determination, but a cultural determination.  Phil Donahue talks of “virtue,” but virtue is beyond the power of government to instill.  To the contrary, attempts to define virtue within the public law is an exercise of power, and the imposition of social justice is a miserly way of depriving the masses of the opportunity to be virtuous.

Lacking trust that people will act economically in a moral way is really just an expression of skepticism that they can recognize virtue at all.  That doesn’t strike me as particularly charitable.

  • archibaldtuttle


    Thanks for your efforts to see events like this covered and thanks for your comments. I certainly don't disagree that you could have had someone to the 'right' of Tomasi on any panel (for that panel I suggest the Federalist Society archives, http://www.fed-soc.org/publications/detail/politi… , best panel of their national convention this year which arguably had a figure to the left and several to the right of our effort).

    But partly because I was focusing on Tomasi's book, I think the most appropriate respondent is one from the modern liberal camp because that is the camp most thoroughly criticized in his work.

    Obviously he might be thought to implicitly criticize the right for not having attended to questions of justice, leaving themselves open to attack in this quarter – and if he concedes too much in the opinion of some I'm quite open to strong critique from the right as well. But for those of us who view 'social justice' as nothing but a thinly veiled justification for massive redistribution, the challenge from Tomasi is whether there can be any considering how a society treats the least well off in terms of the legitimacy of its design.

    It may seem obvious to people who are capable and self-motivated at acquiring property that property is a prior institution, that government is formed to protect that right, not to create it. But there is an equal practical argument about what interest does anyone who doesn't have significant property to protect have in allegiance to the compact?

    Yes there is the notion that one has the opportunity to obtain property and that if they obtained it it would be protected by the same compact. But if there is no warranty that you will get property, why invest the opportunity cost in the compact. You might think, on balance, better to go back to fuedalism and try to end up on the winning side (some would argue that is just what the current system is really like).

    The answer Tomasi has is not that social justice should warranty that all folks get property, that is the essential error of the present system. He argues that taking economic liberty from individuals violates the liberal commitment to autonomy. Essentially, no different than violating their rights to free speech. While speaking of social justice may seem a teeth gritted compromise of language that some could rightfully argue is unnecessary or counterproductive, Tomasi's actual concept of economic liberty is as robust as those who rely on more absolute visions of economic rights. For this reason, I think the left leaning response, for a mixed audience, is the most important – and especially at the level of real politic. At the level of theory, there is much space for debate on both sides of this ledger.

    Thanks again,


  • justinkatz

    I guess I find in the suggestion that it's revolutionary to be free-market and concerned with "social justice" an implicit assertion that folks who believe in free-markets and boo/hiss at "social justice" are uncaring. As I said above, "social justice" is a scheme to supplant the notions of charity that motivates the good works of so many conservatives.

    Of course, the tangential issue (for many libertarians) is that the idea of charity raises the practical need for religion and cultural conservatism, which they're just as happy as liberals to find a way around. I'd argue that impulse ultimately makes their political philosophy either selfish and cruel or incoherent.

    I should note, by the way, that I've put Tomasi's book on my "to read" list, so I can't yet say whether or where it fits that image.

    • archibaldtuttle


      Sorry, I didn't get back to this thread earlier. The Milton Friedman Society will stake you to a copy of Tomasi's book if you haven't gotten one yet. Let me know. I would have brought it to the meeting yesterday. Wanted to catch up with you about tax modeling anyway.

      I agree that it is meant to be a man bites dog moment for a libertarian to express interest in social justice and that the term as otherwise popularized is meant to create a value judgment to have the government supplant local charity in substantive circumstances.

      But it isn't a new idea for libertarians to argue that the poor will be better off with a freer economy. Many have made that argument and find saying so relevant, even if that is not the justification they themselves rely on for supporting free markets.

      I do wonder how you feel about the argument that the social compact makes some call to consider these outcomes. Obviously I believe that Americans in general think their opportunities sufficient to satisfy that criterion and do see that actions beyond those of government come in when assessing whether society serves all its members, i.e. charity and the bonds of family and close friendship. I don't believe such consideration to be a simple referendum on whether a majority would like to have more money at the expense of the minority although some discussion of social justice plays out that way. I do believe that the government overtake of charity has done damage to the society, and to the people it purports to help. So, I don't believe that simply invoking a concern for outcomes necessarily and logically leads to redistribution, despite the fact that those try to claim ownership of the term seem to have this fairly limited horizon.