Liggio Lecture Series


Many people believe the bureaucratic machinery of the welfare state is necessary for the survival of the poor. John Tomasi, Romeo Elton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Brown University, uses a play from London in 1909 called A Message from the Forties to remind us, however, that the decentralized institutions of a truly free society are the necessary foundation for the least-well-off in society not only to survive, but to thrive. In his presentation of the annual Liggio Lecture at Atlas Network’s Liberty Forum and Freedom Dinner, Tomasi explains how individual rights, free markets, and the rule of law lead to an emergent order of widespread prosperity — and how central government planning short-circuits that process.

John Tomasi
John Tomasi, Romeo Elton Professor of Natural Philosophy, Brown University

Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014

Good afternoon. I am deeply honored to be giving the Liggio Lecture this year. I first met Leonard in the summer of 1988 at an Institute for Humane Studies weeklong “Liberty in Society” seminar. That seminar was taught by a remarkable group of liberty people: Leonard, Walter Grinder, Ralph Raico, Randy Barnett, and this really dynamic young guy named Tom Palmer.

The format in those days, and I think still, is that there are lectures all day long and then in the evening over beer we would talk ideas. And one evening, early on, I remember I was sitting with Tom Palmer in a small group, and Tom Palmer said to us — you know, I was young back then — Tom Palmer said to us, “You’re the next generation for liberty! You’re going to be the leaders. You’re going to come up with ideas we’ve never even thought of.”

And I was so excited by that, hearing that as a young person, the next day I sat at lunch with Leonard and I told him that Tom has said this thing, and maybe it’s true and it’s so exciting, and I babbled on and on. And Leonard sort of sat there in his quiet way, just taking it all in, and I finally stopped my babbling. He looked at me, and he gave me a smile, and a sly little look in his eye, that is exactly that smile, and that twinkle in his eye. And he said to me… He said, “John, the best place to find new ideas is in the old ones.”

Leonard Liggio and John Blundell

So what I’m going to do today, in honor of that Liggiesque thought, is share with you a new idea. It’s an idea that some of you, I expect, may initially resist — maybe resist it even after I finish, I don’t know. But I’m going to present it, in the spirit of Leonard, by looking into some old ideas. So let’s take a little journey back first.

So I’m going to begin in 1909, in London. And in London in 1909, there was this incredibly popular play, called [A Message from the Forties]. It was the big play in London that year. And [A Message from the Forties] was a reference to the 1840s, a time where the Corn Laws were still in effect; people were entering factory work now for the first time; the Corn Laws had this effect of inflating the profits of the aristocratic landholders, but also raising the price of bread and therefore making it really tough for factory workers to feed their children. And this play, [A Message from the Forties], was a spoof on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And the place of Scrooge was not played by some evil capitalist; rather, Scrooge was played by a person who was against free trade, and therefore a tariff reformer. And Bob Cratchit was played by a factory worker from Manchester who was very concerned about getting bread for his children — most of all, Tiny Tim.

Through the play, Scrooge is eventually reformed. The climax of the play is when he is visited by the ghost of Richard Cobden, who reminds him: Care about the poor; think of the children; abandon this opposition to free trade.

That idea, that free trade is for the poor, was common — a common idea in the free-trade days of England.


You can see the children are the ones who are being threatened by the taxes. That free markets are for the poor was a common theme.

The free-trade cupboard has a big loaf of bread, but the evil tariff reformers who are opposed to free trade are trying to raid the free-trade cupboard. And, again, it’s the children and the women, it’s the weak who we’re supposed to think about most of all when we think about the benefits of free trade.

That idea is rooted, I think, in works such as that of Adam Smith, who was famously concerned for the poor. This is one of my favorite lines from The Wealth of Nations. [“That state is properly opulent in which opulence is easily come at, or in which a little labour, properly and judiciously employed, is capable of procuring any man a great abundance of all the necessaries and conveniences of life….National opulence is the opulence of the whole people.”] The idea is that — in a decent country, in a just society or a good society, a prosperous society — things should be arranged so that anyone who is willing to work can do well. Anyone who is willing to put their time in, to make a real effort, should be able to succeed. And, as Smith puts it, “National opulence is the opulence of the whole people.”

Now, something happened along the way, because the party of free markets is no longer the party of the poor. And what happened, I think, was this term arose: “social justice.”

And people who became the advocates of social justice — it’s language you can use to express concern for the poor — were people who thought that you had to pursue social justice by way of these big state institutions. And so the term “social justice” — which could have been attached conceptually to the idea of helping the poor, and it should have been — became attached in popular language to the idea of big government.

And, for that reason, people on the free-market side came to think of the term “social justice” as meaning something like a call for big government. Thus, they rejected it. That’s not an actual quotation; work with me a little bit on this.

So they rejected social justice. And that idea, that sort of rhetoric, sort of got fixed in philosophical terms and the cement of philosophy in the ‘70s: a really important book in 1971 by this guy John Rawls, called A Theory of Justice, which is this seminal statement of what social justice is. And then we have Friedrich Hayek a few years later writing The Mirage of Social Justice, in which Hayek raises some concerns, perhaps, about social justice. Certainly, he says throughout the book, I hate social justice. Why does he say that? Well, here’s a quick summary of Hayek’s view.

Hayek thinks that we should think of a free society — a society in which people connect and grow and live together — as being a cosmos, or a spontaneous order, or an emergent order. That in a free society, people move around individually or in groups, they connect with one another, they change the world in unpredictable ways. The output is something that grows rather than something that’s made. It’s a product of human action, not of any human design.

Here’s the important point: The specific pattern of crystals on a collection of rock candy, like the specific pattern of distribution of goods and society at any given moment, is not something that anyone could have foreseen.

It just emerges that way. But, Hayek says, basic principle: Only products of deliberate human design can be called just or unjust. Therefore, if we’re going to start talking about “social justice,” if it’s going to refer to the particular distribution of goods, or if social justice now becomes a corrective to the distribution of goods, the only way we can make sense of that term applied to our society is by changing the nature of our society itself. We have to transform this natural, grown thing — the free society — into an organized, planned society. That’s a Lego model of the Death Star.

I always choose my examples to make my case… make it easier for me. And so, we can only get social justice if we change our society from sugar rock candy to Death Stars.

Well, so that’s the story, right? That’s the story I was told in grad school. That’s the story kids are still being told in grad school, though with a couple of little worries creeping in already, I think. But it’s actually kind of a weird story because it’s interestingly not true even historically. So, Pete Boettke, a professor at GMU, I recently came across some letters that he had sent to me — a correspondence between two great defenders of liberty, Friedrich Hayek and Jim Buchanan, both Nobel prize winners. And in Hayek’s letter, written in November of 1965 — it’s written in this little hen-scratch handwriting; it’s really hard to read; he signs it “Fritz” — anyway, but in the letter, kind of shockingly, he says, Hey, Jim, you know, I saw your recent article on ethics; that was really great. You know, I’m really thinking about this idea: What are the foundations for the free society? And then he says, The only modern philosopher from whom I’ve received some help for this is John Rawls of MIT. Rawls was a first-year assistant professor at MIT. He had one article at the time.

And Buchanan’s reply, three weeks later, Buchanan says, Yeah, I think Rawls is… well, I’ll say it: I think Rawls is the balls, too. And I hope that his ideas can have some impact. You’ll notice, by the way, that academics, when they want to wind down, we often read our own books. It’s very common. But here we have Hayek and Buchanan, the great defenders of the free society, complimenting John Rawls from the other side. What’s that about? It gets even weirder. In the book The Mirage of Social Justice, in which Hayek says, Look, if you believe in social justice, that’s like a belief in witches, in that book in the introduction… I’m sorry, in the preface, page 13, he says, Oh, by the way, as I’m finishing this book, I happened to have read this book by John Rawls. Actually, I studied it pretty carefully. It seems to me that despite what you all think, the differences between my view and that of Professor Rawls is more verbal than substantive.

What? The great advocate of social justice and the great critique of social justice has a note in the preface saying he affirms Rawls’s view? How can this be? There’s weirder stuff, too. It’ll come in a minute. So what’s going on? What is it that Hayek and Buchanan find so attractive in Rawls? What’s the thing? And the thing is the idea… Rawls’s first article was this crazy technical piece, but it provided the foundation for the growth of Rawls’s view. It was the foundation for his view that never changed for his entire career.

So, in that early article, which Hayek is going to quote, Rawls is asking this kind of weird philosopher’s question: What is justice a property of? The kind of question philosophers ask a lot. I know it sounds like it makes no sense at all, but it is this: If you have a theory, a device of representation that can produce a measuring stick of social justice, what is it that that thing should measure? What should it be applied to? And one answer, Rawls says, social justice could be a property of particular distributions — that is, who’s got what in society at any given moment. That’s the way social justice is often used in popular discourse. But Rawls says that that way of thinking about justice makes no sense. That, in fact, if that’s the standard social justice is meant to apply to — the particular holdings at any given moment — then there’s no solution to the question, “What counts as social justice?” It’s insoluble, because people keep moving and changing and doing things.

So instead, Rawls said — this is his first big move in his academic career — justice is not a property of holdings (the wealth barometer), rather justice is a property of institutions. So if you want to know if society is just or unjust, by some theory of social justice, we don’t look at the holdings that people have, we look instead to the institutions. And we look in particular, Rawls says, to the long-run institutions for the great classes of mankind, we could say. How well does the set of institutions do, say, for the least-well-off working class over the course of a generation or two compared to other possible systems. And, as I mentioned here, Hayek buried in the back of the book… he quotes that technical piece of Rawls. And again, that shows me that when he and Buchanan were saying, This guy Jack Rawls, he’s OK, what they were saying was, This is big. Because the popular uses of “social justice,” that require the big government, all are using it in the other way. They’re using “social justice” to refer to particular distributions that might be corrected by the big government. But the philosophical account says that that’s incoherent. Rawls’s account says that. Their guy says that. Rather, it’s institutions which need to be judged from a general point of view.

So, it’s kind of interesting, right? It opens up this kind of interesting possibility of thinking about spontaneous order, because remember that old sugar candy on the stick, versus the Death Star? And you recall Hayek’s sort of basic moral standard that only products of human design can properly be described as just or unjust. Well, if you think about where rock candy comes from, then we notice that it looks like it’s a design. It’s a design for liberty. It’s a design of a certain constitutional structure, let’s say, that will allow and support spontaneous processes to emerge. And that we can therefore judge the justice of spontaneous orders not by examining who’s got a big crystal or who’s got a small crystal — rather, we evaluate this principle of design, this set of institutions, by asking, “How well do people fare in a free society? How well do people fare — let’s say the lowest-paid working class, the ones that Smith was caring about — how well do they fare in a pro-market society as opposed to an alternative society such as socialist ones when we let things run over the course of a generation or two?”

So we ask the question by the most sophisticated, technical philosopher’s position from the left — we ask the question of social justice in those terms. And I think when you ask the question in those terms, and think about Adam Smith, and think about those pictures I showed you early about the free-trade movement in England being based on the idea that trade is good for the poor and for the weak, we suddenly see that there’s no reason for people who care about free markets, and are committed to individual liberty and personal responsibility, there’s no reason for us to be afraid of the term “social justice.” Quite the contrary.

If the test for a just society is which set of social institutions over time, over the course of a generation or two, does the best for the least-well-off working class — that’s Rawls’s test — then we have nothing to fear at all. We can match up our best institutions, our preferred institutional forms, against their preferred institutional forms. And when you do that, I think you find that the free market wins.

So, the idea that I want to leave you with — you probably already see it — is that we, maybe all of us in this room, are the party of social justice. Thank you.

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