Liberty and Its Economies


Abstract: The revival of classical liberal thought has reignited a debate about economic freedom and social justice. Classical liberals claim to defend expansive economic freedom, while their critics wish to restrict this freedom for other values. However, there are two problems with the role ‘economic freedom’ plays in this debate: inconsistency in the use of the concept and indeterminacy with respect to its definition. Inconsistency in the use of the concept ‘freedom’ has mistakenly made a certain kind of ‘left-wing’ critique of poverty, and of markets generally, appear to be a concern with inequality in means to enjoy freedom, not with freedom itself. Indeterminacy about which beings and doings the basic liberties protect misrepresents the left-wing position as about something other than economic freedom. Inconsistency and indeterminacy lead to artificial narrowness in current debates and to a failure to see that disagreement is based not just on moral differences but also on conceptual confusion. This confusion leads both classical liberals and their critics to claim more than they may legitimately do, and to ignore a position that accepts the standard of definition of freedom but arrives at different institutional conclusions about what secures that freedom.