Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Liberalism Made Right

Winter 1996

David Conway
St. Martin's Press, 1995, ix + 150 pgs.

David Conway stands in resolute opposition to most contemporary Anglo-American political philosophers. Conway defends vigorously and effectively the classical liberal ideal of a society of people free to lead their lives without the coercive tutelage of the state. In contrast to "modern" liberals, who have perverted the classical doctrine into its opposite, Conway holds that personal freedom most definitely includes the right to own property. A free society rests on a free market.

In taking this view, Conway confronts some of the giants of modern philosophy, not least among them John Rawls and Alasdair MacIntyre. He sets forward the major objections to classical liberalism advanced by these supposed master figures and proceeds to dispatch them.

Before he dissects the doctrines of particular thinkers, Conway discusses an argument against the free market which has won wide favor. Granted that people have a right to freedom, must not the liberty to acquire and use property be tempered with state provision of welfare? Otherwise, those without resources face starvation. "By refusing to countenance welfare rights, classical liberalism is widely thought to fail to accommodate the needs and interests of those who, through no fault of their own, are destitute and unable to provide for themselves" (p. 20).

Conway handles this argument in a way that Mises would have approved. Like Mises, Conway asks: will interference with the market achieve the goals its advocates profess? The legal enactment of a "right" to welfare does not by itself put bread on the table of the destitute; why cannot a free-market order provide for the poor through private charity? If the market works better than its rivals in all other spheres, why not here?

But, it will be replied, this leaves the objection unmet. Even if the market provides adequately for the poor, it extends no right to relief: the poor are left to the mercies of charity. Is this not unjust?

Conway meets this objection head on. Unless you have caused someone else s poverty, you are not responsible for his plight: he thus has no right to seize your property. Mere "need," absent an account of how the need arose, generates no rights. To this, however, our author allows one exception: "a liberal polity is justified in compelling the natural parents of a child to provide for it, until such time as the child becomes capable of providing for itself, or else a third party voluntarily assumes responsibility for it instead of its parents" (p. 22).

Readers may be inclined to quarrel with one or two details of Conway s analysis. (His statement that a newborn left to die is worse off than had it never been conceived strikes me as ungrounded.) But, on the main point, his case cannot be gainsaid: people, regardless of how badly off they are, have no right to the labor or property of others.

Those sympathetic to the free market may find the foregoing the merest commonplace; but it is precisely here that Conway finds himself opposed by the most influential writers in his field. Let us begin at the top: the single most dominant moral philosopher of our times, John Rawls, denies that people have an unrestricted right to what they have voluntarily produced and exchanged. What you obtain on the free market depends, to a great extent, on what you do not deserve. Those born to rich or well- connected parents, or with abilities that place them far above average, have a much better chance of success than those less favored. Since you do not deserve your "natural assets," Rawls holds that they may be taken from you in order to fulfill the terms of his notorious "difference principle." Under it, inequalities are allowed only if they benefit the least well-off class.

Conway s response takes hold of a crucial point that most critics of Rawls have missed. In their fascination with details of Rawls s theory, such as the "original position" and the "veil of ignorance," commentators have overlooked a simple point. Rawls maintains that his theory fits ordinary morality. To Rawls, it is unfair, in the common usage of that term, that some, through "accidental" causes, have vastly more than others. (This alleged unfairness is, if anything, even more prominent in the work of Rawls's student Thomas Nagel, whom Conway also insightfully discusses.)

Rawls's case, to reiterate, depends in large part not on an arcane theory, but on a simple moral intuition. "Rawls remarks 'intuitively, the most obvious injustice of the system of natural liberty is that it permits distributive shares to be improperly influenced by . . . factors so arbitrary from a moral point of view,'" (p. 29, quoting Rawls, A Theory of Justice).

Conway, following Robert Nozick, locates an elementary fallacy in Rawls's contention. Our author agrees that you do not deserve your parents or your abilities: You have not acquired these owing to your own virtue. But it does not follow from this that you deserve not to have them, or that the state may legitimately take them from you. "It is clear from what Rawls writes that there is only one sort of difference between individuals which morally justifies their enjoying different life-prospects. This is differences in degree of merit or desert" (p. 30). Absent this assumption, Rawls's theory collapses.

Conway pursues with great ingenuity the variants of egalitarianism defended by other influential moral philosophers: the aforementioned Thomas Nagel, Ronald Dworkin, Kai Nielsen, and Ted Honderich. But once the essence of his criticism of Rawls has been grasped, the rest is but a mopping-up operation that need not be described in detail here. Rather, let us turn to another of our author's battles in defense of the market. For Alasdair MacIntyre, whose After Virtue (1981) has been vastly influential, Rawls's criticism of the market does not go deep enough.

Classical liberalism, as MacIntyre sees it, has undermined the basis of morality. Today, on issues such as abortion and economic justice, opinions clash in irreconcilable conflict. The dispute between Rawls and Conway, MacIntyre might say, illustrates his thesis. Each philosopher argues cogently from a given premise: Rawls from the value of equality, and Conway from that of liberty. If you accept the premise, the philosopher's conclusion follows; but no argument will be of use should you reject the starting point.

What has brought about this battle of opposed value judgments? For MacIntyre, the culprit is liberalism. Unlike the societies of classical Greece and Christendom in the Middle Ages, people under liberalism share no sense of a common good. Instead, each person devotes himself to his own selfish concerns. Lacking a sense of the common good, people cannot be virtuous. Those engaged in the pursuit of a goal in common will value certain habits that enable them to pursue their projects.

Laborers on a medieval cathedral, e.g., will come to value the exercise of careful workmanship. >From such goods internal to a practice, as MacIntyre calls them, the virtues develop: without them, the virtues cannot exist. Through acquiring the virtues, in turn, people may weave their lives into a narrative unity. This unity can be achieved not in isolation, but only in common pursuit of a tradition.

In this brief account of MacIntyre, I have labored under a handicap. The main points of his system strike me as unintelligible; and I fear that I have been unable to convey the sense, let alone the appeal, of his views. All the more remarkable, then, is Conway's ability to give a clear account of this difficult writer. I can only urge those baffled by MacIntyre to study closely Conway's account (pp. 65 100).

But what of MacIntyre's assault on classical liberalism? Conway disposes of it in short order. Nothing in a free-market order precludes goods internal to a practice, or any other of MacIntyre's paraphernalia, from coming into existence. If indeed they are essential to the growth of virtue, the free market does not stand in their way. Neither does the market stand in the way of devotion to the common good: the rise of emotivism and subjectivism in ethics, whatever their failings, cannot be attributed to it. The classical liberal freedoms, to the contrary, offer a framework within which moral action can take place.

Put briefly, Conway contends that MacIntyre's account of morality, even if correct, leaves classical liberalism untouched. It by no means is the case, though, that Conway himself accepts MacIntyre's account. In particular, he is concerned to challenge MacIntyre's claim that virtue can develop only in communities with internal goods.

To the contrary, Conway replies, someone has reason to develop habits of virtue, entirely aside from the communities that MacIntyre stresses. Virtues such as courage and temperance aid people to achieve a happy life; hence they have reason to acquire them. Conway's Aristotelian account of virtue closely resembles that of Philippa Foot. (See especially her collection, Virtues and Vices.)

At one point, I venture to suggest, the case against MacIntyre can be extended. Does MacIntyre himself avoid the subjectivism about which he waxes indignant? It seems to me that he does not. Let us return to MacIntyre's starting point, the breakdown that results when conflicting moral premises prevent consensus.

MacIntyre does not attempt to settle conflicts of this sort. Quite the contrary, his point is that they cannot be settled. What he seeks, rather, is a group of people all of whom share the same values. But then he has not escaped at all from subjectivism: he has instead replaced individual subjectivism with a collective variety of the same malady.

Conway has sent MacIntyre packing; but his defense of classical liberalism is not yet complete. The English political philosopher John Gray, once an ardent classical liberal, has in part recanted. Like MacIntyre, Gray stresses the existence of irresolvable conflicts of value. But for Gray, this is not a situation to be remedied. Following Isaiah Berlin, Gray holds that values are necessarily diverse and conflicting. If so, how can a classical liberal (or an advocate of any other political system) hold that everyone ought to adopt his favored set of values? Classical liberalism, with its stress on freedom, becomes but one of many valuable political orders.

Conway's strategy of response resembles his reaction to MacIntyre. Even if Gray's account of value is true, a classical liberal regime can accommodate it. Each of the various forms of attaining a flourishing life could exist within a liberal society, for all Gray and Berlin have shown to the contrary. Our author pursues Gray in relentless detail; but since I discuss Gray's views elsewhere in this issue, I shall for now leave it at that.

Suffice it to say that Conway's exceptionally well-organized defense of classical liberalism is well worth the attention of all students of political theory. The author's exceptional knowledge of the history of philosophy greatly enhances the book's value: how many authors, e.g., would think to quote Franz Brentano on the dangers of compulsory beneficence (pp. 47 48)?


Close Window