OMNIA Q&A: So You Call Yourself a Liberal

Samuel Freeman, Avalon Professor in the Humanities, on classical liberalism, high liberalism, libertarians, and distributive justice.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Samuel Freeman, Avalon Professor in the Humanities

Samuel Freeman comes from several generations of lawyers. “It's what you did in my family,” says the Avalon Professor in the Humanities, who holds appointments in the Department of Philosophy and Penn Law. Freeman studied philosophy in Germany for two years between college and law school. After clerking for two years in the North Carolina Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals, he applied to graduate school.

At Harvard, he studied and worked with John Rawls, whom Freeman describes as “one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century.” Freeman has published several books on Rawls’ work, as well as authoring Justice and the Social Contract. We talked to him about his latest book, Liberalism and Distributive Justice.

What is the difference between how we think of liberalism in the U.S. today and the liberalism you write about in your book?

The liberalism of today is generally understood to refer to an active government and certain kinds of programs, like food stamps and social insurance. In that sense, liberalism had its heyday between the New Deal and when Ronald Reagan was elected. I use the term more generally to stand for a grand political tradition that goes back to the classical liberalism of John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher widely regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and commonly regarded as the "Father of Liberalism." The American constitution was really the first liberal constitution, because liberalism is so associated with the rule of law, constitutionalism, and individual rights.

The characteristics of classical liberalism are the ideas that individuals ought to be free to decide how they're going to live their lives and speak their minds, and that they should also be free economically. Free to use their property as they please, and engage in trade and production and so on with minimal government limits, so long as they don't violate other people's rights. And the distribution of income and wealth should be whatever people acquire by voluntary transfers.

For many years this was what the Republican Party stood for, before it recently shifted to the right. Many Republicans are conservative in the economic sense and are classical liberals. But many are also socially conservative and reject liberal tolerance of practices such as gay marriage.

You introduce the term high liberalism—what do you mean by that?

All liberals accept certain basic institutions: constitutional rights and liberties, equal opportunity, a free market economy, government's role in providing public goods, and a social safety net to meet basic subsistence needs. Adam Smith, a classical liberal who is thought of as the father of free market capitalism, accepted the Elizabethan poor laws [a 1601 parliamentary act that provided relief and assistance for the poor]. That is a social safety net that’s been around for 400 years.

High liberalism goes beyond the classical liberal safety net.  It stands for the idea that if people's freedoms are to have any value to them, they have to be able to effectively exercise them. It's the government’s role to provide people with adequate education and health care so they can take advantage of the opportunities available to them, and also sufficient resources if they're unable to gain adequate income by working. For a person who's miserably poor and homeless, freedom of speech and freedom of association just don't have much value. High liberalism seeks to guarantee the worth of people’s freedoms by providing not simply for subsistence needs, but also their individual independence.

What is distributive justice?

Distributive justice is an idea based in the fact that in any society, economic production and commerce is a cooperative effort. A lot of people contribute to economic output.

So, the question is, given that people contribute their fair share, what's the fair distribution of income and wealth? Classical liberals and libertarians think that people ought to be rewarded only according to the value of their economic contribution, which is the market price of their labor, their property and so on. The high liberal tradition argues that market distributions of income should be supplemented to meet people's basic needs and guarantee a fairer distribution of income and wealth than results from market contingencies.

John Rawls’s theory says that economic distribution is fair when a society maximizes the minimum position, so that members of the least advantaged class are better off during their lifetimes than they would be in any other economic system. That requires a market economy with government transfers of social benefits for the least advantaged and social insurance programs for everyone. In large part, this is what The New Deal and Great Society were about.

This has long been one of the biggest debates we have in politics, once you cut through the smog generated by the current political environment. How we're going to fairly divide up the jointly produced social product is a very significant issue in any society.

How have the ideas of economic and distributive justice played out in the U.S.?

The major 20th-century classical liberals, like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, defended the traditional classical liberal view. Their view was that we should try to mitigate concentrations of market power, to make markets efficient and free. Given that, whatever contributions people make should be rewarded according to whatever price their service is getting on the market. They rejected the liberal welfare state and growth of social insurance programs that apply to everyone.

But Friedman and Hayek still both accepted the safety net for the poor, as did Reagan: the idea that some people are just going to lose out. Some can't work because of disability and so on, so a just society has a duty to maintain the social safety net.

That idea has come under more attack recently, particularly since the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, is a self-professed libertarian. Libertarians think that there should be no government transfers to people, that people have to take care of themselves or their families have to take care of them, so we should get rid of all these government transfer programs, and even minimize government provision of public goods except protection of persons and their property. That view has gained support among many Americans recently.

Is libertarianism linked to liberalism?

The term libertarianism is used a lot with classical liberalism, and one thing I try to do in my book is sharply distinguish between the two. If you take libertarianism seriously it is not a liberal view at all. It rejects basic liberal institutions that we've taken for granted for 300 years. I think that one of the great achievements of the American constitution is that, in spite of differences between classical liberals and high liberals, there is a joint commitment to these basic constitutional ideas. I see libertarianism, whether consciously or not, as an attempt to destroy that, to undermine all of those institutions. It's a kind of feudalism, the idea that political power should be privatized and political protections and services should be sold depending on people’s ability to pay for them.  That rejects the liberal idea that political power is a public power to be impartially exercised for the good of all citizens.

How do you relate liberalism and distributive justice to socialism or communism?

Socialism traditionally is public ownership and control of means of production, with government deciding how to allocate and use resources. There's also liberal socialism, or market socialism, where means of production are publicly owned yet rely on markets to allocate them for productive purposes.  Command economy socialism is quite inefficient, so the move among socialists now is toward liberal socialism. That's never really been tried.

To say any kind of activity by government engaged in the economy is socialism is really a libertarian view. Any modern government needs to provide for national defense, police, courts, highways, water works, basic education, and other public goods. This requires government investment—it's not socialism.

How do you see your role as a political philosopher today?

Freeman: I always say to my students that they need to look at the influence of political philosophy as long term. We study the great figures in political philosophy: Hobbes, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, David Hume, people like Rousseau and Rawls. And I tell them that John Maynard Keynes said that people’s thoughts about society and politics are just the thoughts of some dead philosopher, filtered down across generations.

These ideas have very long-term, deep effects on people's consciousness. I'm trying to help students get clear in their minds where their ideas come from, and what the forebears that set forth and refined these ideas were really trying to accomplish. I do have my own proclivities, but much of this work, I'm just trying to lay out what's going on.

What you think is going to happen in the next 30 years?

It's hard to say. I think we're going into an era where democracy and liberalism are under siege. This is especially true overseas, where you have people like Putin trying to destroy western liberal democracies, and others in Eastern Europe that agree with him. I think liberal institutions are in danger in many parts of Western Europe, unfortunately, because of the war in the Middle East. And now we have a president who doesn't have a great deal of respect for constitutionalism and the rule of law.

I think that we're going to rectify it in the next 10 years. In the U.S. we have a very strong commitment, I think, to liberal institutions in the broad sense. Optimism and confidence in humanity is part of liberalism, so you have to have a hopeful view.