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This lecture focuses on the relationship between markets and freedom and the extent to which freedom should be seen as being entirely a matter of freedom of choice and the number of choices which an individual has available. Markets have often been seen as the embodiment of individual choice. Does freedom mean that the ends or goals which an individual chooses are beyond moral assessment or does choice involve some reference to moral standards and, if so, what can be the source and basis of such standards if in fact they do seem to be necessary?  If freedom has to be linked to ideas about virtue and the greater value of some sorts of goods over others how can such judgements be justified – aren’t we just imposing our own choices in order to restrict the choices of others?

The is a part of the lecture series, Religion and Values in a Liberal State.
The other lectures in this series include the following:
   Markets in their Place: Moral Values and the Limits of Markets
   Just Markets
   Selling Yourself Short: The Body, Property and Markets
   What's it Worth? Values, Choice and Commodification
   Trust in Markets?

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27 November 2012

Markets, Freedom and Choice

Professor the Lord Plant

As I said in the first of these lectures, the theme of the whole of the three years of lectures will be an examination of the various dimensions of the relationship between religious and particularly Christian faith and the beliefs, principles and institutions which characterise a liberal society. Many aspects of this relationship have been found to be more and more problematic in the last twenty or thirty years and my task is to explore as many aspects of this as I can. A central feature of a liberal democratic society is a free market economy and many faith communities have found the idea of the market economy quite a challenging one. As I argued in the first lecture central this concern has been the issue of values. It cannot be a focus of faith groups to have a view about technical aspects of economics, rather their concern has been about both the values which the free market economy exemplifies and relies on together with concern about the impact of market values on other important social values such as justice, community and the common good. In this lecture I want to focus our attention on the relationship between the free market and the role of choice.

There is a very close interrelationship between markets and choice. If people are free and uncoerced then they will naturally take part in acts of exchange – a point which goes back to Adam Smith. Engaging in such acts is just an expression of our capacity for free agency. To proscribe markets in some respect is to limit the freedom of the individual to engage in those exchanges which he or she thinks are going to be to his or her benefit. To say just as much as this which may appear uncontroversial but nevertheless it brings with it a range of important assumptions the implications of which have to be unpacked These include the following: the relationship between markets, choice and individualism; the nature of the freedom which is embodied in freedom of choice; the relationship between individual choice and collective values; the relationship between choice itself and values; the question of whether there are moral limits which can be reasonably imposed on choice or alternatively whether values themselves to be seen as entirely matters of choice; and the relationship between the free market and liberal democracy more generally.

I will first of all expound at least some of the main features of the free market case in relation to freedom and choice and then move on to discuss some of the ethical issues and controversies which are involved in this case and what if anything a religious perspective has to say about these ethical issues and controversies.

First of all and most basically we need to understand the nature of the freedom that is being invoked when we talk about free markets and freedom of choice and how this relates to the more general issue of a liberal and free society of which a free market is a part. Typically the idea of freedom that is being invoked here is that of negative freedom: that is to say that I am free including free to choose when I am not being coerced or prevented by the actions of another person or persons. Freedom is freedom from and what it is freedom from is coercion. If I am free from coercion then I can use that freedom to choose what I shall regard as having value to me including economic goods.

It is important to realise that this freedom is restricted only by human activity. It may well be that I am prevented from doing something by some natural event like the weather: I cannot go to the cinema because the snow is too deep; I cannot sunbathe because the sun is not shining. These are certainly forms of prevention but they are not restrictions on liberty because they do not involve human intention and agency. In this sense freedom is a relational value: it depends on others abstaining from coercing me and in my abstaining from coercing them.

Taking this negative view of freedom in its broadest perspective in the context of a liberal society including a free market order we can say that the liberal ideal is a society of equal freedom, of equal freedom from coercion. This applies to the liberal idea of the rule of law: the central aim of the rule of law in a liberal society is to ensure that all are equally free from coercion and that this applies to the economy too. The aim of the law is to secure equal freedom for all whether in political, social and economic life. This is typically done by laws which prevent coercion whether this coercion is the coercion of physical power or whether it is the coercion of fraud, and of the infringement of basic rights. This is what we mean, so it is argued, by a free society: that each person is equal before the law and that the basic function of that law is to prevent coercion.

If individuals are to be equally free from coercion then it will follow that they will be equally free in terms of freedom of choice. Choice is the primary way in which I express my freedom in a free society with the only constraint being that my choice should not infringe the basic rights of others to exercise their free choices also. This leads naturally to individualism. Each individual will make choices which are specific to them in the sense that the mix of choices which they make will reflect their personal desires and preferences. To impose a restriction on someone’s choices which goes beyond the requirement to respect the choices of others in the exercise of one’s own right to freedom is to substitute the choices of others for one’s own choice and this would be a form of coercion imposing that choice on me and so preventing me from pursuing my own good in my own way as the result of my exercise of freedom of choice. So on this view there cannot be a legitimate moral assessment of the choices which someone makes with a view to restricting that choice through collective, governmental action except in circumstances in which my own choice infringes the rights of other in exercising their choices. Such moral assessments cannot be imposed on individuals because it would be an infringement of the ideal of equal liberty and an illegitimate limitation on the ideal of a free society.

This point is sometimes allied to a more general philosophical claim about the nature of moral values namely that moral values are also expressions of choice. There are not objective moral values which our moral vocabulary and our moral concepts, as it were, track; rather such values just represent the choices that people make and it is entirely to be expected therefore that values will differ from person to person and are to be regarded as preferences and as subjective. Hence, to impose values on me to restrict my range of choice is to substitute the choices of others as embodied in those values for my own choices and that this is an illegitimate and coercive substitution. The desires and preferences issuing in the choices of mature adults are to be taken as basic and incorrigible. They cannot de discounted in terms of some comparison with choices which are regarded as being in some sense more legitimate or morally valuable. So long as my choices do not constrain your choices then they are legitimate however much others disapprove of them. In a free society and a free economy there cannot be any moral assessment of the ends which people choose.

This point reads directly over to the case of free markets. On the standard free market view economic value is a subjective matter. There is no such thing as an objective or real price for something or a just price. The value of something is fixed by the interplay of individual choices. There is not a real price or a just price to be determined outside the choices and preferences of individuals who are party to the transaction in which the issue of price has arisen. The price is fair or just if those who have engaged in the transaction have done so non coercively without violence and without fraud . It is not the job of government or any other body to determine either the prices or the value of goods nor is it the job of government to determine which goods should be produced and put into the market. Goods are created and brought to market if there is a demand for them on the part of individuals exercising their free choice. Any attempt to restrict this choice in favour of some collective view of what are to be regarded as desirable goods is to substitute in a coercive way the choices of others for the choice of an individual. So the choice of the individual is paramount so long as in exercising that choice he or she does not interfere with the rights of others to exercise their choice. Hence on the face of it any limitation on acts of free exchange in a free market subject only to this principle would be a form of illegitimate coercion. So, for example, to restrict or prevent a market in body parts such as kidneys, blood for example is illegitimate. I undoubtedly own my body and its constituents and if I choose to sell such parts to those who wish to purchase them then this is a free act which does not diminish the capacity of other to exercise their free choice. Others may regard what I am doing as morally wrong but these values are just a matter of their commitments and value preferences which in a free society cannot be legitimately imposed on me.

A very important set of issues are raised by these points. The first is that if morality is entirely a subjective matter – a matter of choice- then it is not clear that there can be any defensible limit on what can be regarded as a commodity to be traded in a market. If I choose to regard my body and its constituent parts as a commodity from which I can make money then that is my own subjective moral choice. The fact that others disagree with me just reflects their choices and preferences. In a liberal market order why should the moral choices of some take preference over and be substituted for the choices of others? This is an issue which I want to flag up for the moment but I will discuss it in detail in a later lecture. The issue is central however: if the market is based on individual choice on what grounds can the choices which an individual makes be constrained when such choices do not prevent others making their own choices in the same domain of life?

The second issue is about the status of freedom and choice in relation to the market. Freedom can be considered as being a basic human good or goal and markets are to be regarded as being instrumental and indispensible for the achievement of such freedom. Markets provide a domain within which individuals are able to express their preferences and make the choices that they make. These choices are to be taken as basic data about an individual. They cannot be prevented, constrained or revised in terms of the values of others except when the choices of one prevent another person from pursuing his or her choices. Freedom is fundamental and it is because it provides an arena within which freedom can be exercised that markets are justified and indeed are essential to the achievement of the human good of freedom. What is being claimed here is that freedom of choice is a and perhaps the fundamental good in human life. It would be strange if the Western religious tradition did not have deep questions to ask about this assumption and as we shall see later in the lecture it does.

If choice is an absolutely basic feature of human nature and if values reflect choices then there can be no obvious restriction on the scope of the free market order given that it is central to the facilitation of choice. The market extends the choices which people have and these cannot be limited by some kind of moral framework because that itself is a matter of choice. This is very important to the idea of the common good which has become central to modern Christian social philosophy. On this view the common good embodies some kind of standard in terms of which social arrangements like markets can be judged and if necessary found wanting. On the market based view however the only common or collective good which can legitimately be acknowledged is in fact a procedural one. The common good consists in that framework of rules –typically a constitutional order which secures the framework within which individuals can pursue their own good in their own way. Otherwise goods are private and subjective matters of individual preference which can be pursued within the set of procedural rules like a constitution which allows individuals to be free from coercion in pursuing their own good in their own way.

There is however an alternative way of looking at this which again I shall explore in more detail in the lecture. It might be argued and has been argued by many defenders of the free market that in fact freedom is instrumental to the market and not the other way round. On the view that I have just considered freedom is an intrinsic good in human life and markets are justified because they facilitate the achievement of that good. On the view that I am now going to examine the boot is on the other foot : that is to say that freedom facilitates the market and not the other way around. The main exponent of this idea is Friedrich von Hayek the Nobel Prize winning economist. His argument goes as follows. Human beings have as individuals very little knowledge. Knowledge is fragmented across society and certainly cannot be concentrated into the hands of one group who can use their alleged claim to knowledge to determine some kind of rational plan for society as a whole to which all individual choices would be subordinate. In addition to the dispersal of knowledge across any particular society, what we claim to know is often habitual and tacit knowledge, not explicit propositional knowledge. A great deal of knowledge is about knowing how to do something rather than knowing that something is the case. Knowing how or tacit, habitual knowledge is crucial to economic efficiency but is in its particular form relative to each individual. I can drive a car but I cannot explain the working of the engine or the gear box; when I go to the supermarket I have learned over time that I prefer brand X to brand Y, courgettes to carrots. I buy these things almost instinctively without having to rehearse to myself all the reasons which might lead me to prefer X to Y and this vegetable over that vegetable. This knowledge is specific to me and others will have different habitual preferences but for myself and others the utilisation of such knowledge is crucial to my being able to act effectively in the world and this knowledge cannot be displaced by a set of more universal propositional forms of knowledge. To be able to act as an economic agent I have to be able to use my own fragmented and dispersed practical and tacit knowledge. I can only do this if I am free from the coercion of others seeking to impose their values and their own particular habitual forms of knowledge onto me. Hence freedom is essential for me to be able to make use of this knowledge. Freedom on this view is not an end in itself but rather is an instrumental good which is crucial for an individual to act effectively in the world. As Hayek makes clear if it were possible to turn all knowledge into a universal and propositional form then there would be no need for freedom. Freedom is valuable to us not as an end in itself but as a means to the achievement of other ends including economic ends.

This contrasts sharply with the first view which sees freedom as an end in itself. As we shall see shortly the Christian tradition has tended to see freedom as a means to great human goods but not necessarily as such a good itself or as an intrinsic good. To this extent the Christian tradition might be thought to be more consistent with the second alternative which I have been considering. The Christian tradition has tended to regard the view that freedom is itself as and perhaps the greatest human good as embodying a rather impoverished view of the nature of the human person. I shall return to all of this in a few minutes but it is worth saying that from a Christian point of view the issue of whether freedom is intrinsically valuable or only valuable as a means to other ends is crucially important.

I said a few minutes ago that defenders of the liberal market order tend to treat freedom as being entirely negative freedom that is to say freedom from coercion. This point is crucially important for their position for a whole range of reasons.

First of all it is crucial to have a clear definition of liberty to enable us to determine whether set of circumstances A limit the freedom of person B. This is crucial to the idea of a free economy and a free market. Take just two examples. It is crucial to the full liberal market case that if as the result of free economic exchange person A becomes rich and person B is impoverished then this outcome is legitimate if it was the result of a free and uncoerced transaction or set of transactions. What matters is the process whereby the positions of A and B were arrived at not what their relative positions actually are. So long as the relative positions were arrived at as the result of uncoerced exchange then those relative differences or inequalities are fair and legitimate. Hence it is crucial to have a clear idea of the nature of coercion and what constitutes a coercive act. The procedure is fair if it is uncoerced and unfair outcomes cannot arise out of a fair procedure. So our ideas about what constitutes coercion are crucial to our being able to decide whether a particular market outcome is fair and legitimate.

Secondly it is crucial to arguments and claims about exploitation. It is sometimes argued, particularly from a socialist or social democratic point of view that a particular act of exchange was coercive because person A exploits B. Let is say in an economic down turn A, the employer unilaterally changes B’s terms of employment to B’s detriment such that some would now say that B is being exploited and that because of this A’s action is coercive. Again in order to assess this kind of argument, indeed this kind of charge, it is necessary to have a clear account of the nature of coercion since if A’s action in relation to B can legitimately be regarded as a form of exploitation and coercion then even from a free market liberal perspective t would be a wrong act.

Finally , at least in terms of this lecture coercion is central to a full understanding of the idea of a society of equal liberty. After all if freedom is to be understood as freedom from coercion then if we are to be equally free then we must be equally free from coercion and thus we must know what we are to understand by coercion – so let me say something about that. The issue is crucial because if we are trying to think about the nature of law and indeed the rule of law in a free society then the function of the law primarily is to secure equal freedom from coercion in the political, civil and economic spheres. So the nature of coercion is essential to the idea of freedom. This leads on to a crucial issue.

One central point made by most defenders of the free market order is that we have to be able to distinguish clearly between freedom and ability. I am, on the negative view of liberty, free to do X if I am not being prevented by another or others from doing X. Whether I am able to do X is a completely different matter. I may not be able to do X for all sorts of reasons: I may not be able to produce a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture because I am not clever enough; I may be unable to give birth to a baby because I am of the wrong gender; I am now unable to run a mile because of my age and other consequential effects of choices that I made decades ago and so on. These are not restrictions on my freedom although they are all forms of inability. Behind these examples lies a philosophical point namely that freedom and ability are not synonymous and we can, so it is argued see this quite easily. I am free to do everything that I am currently not being prevented from doing indeed the list of what I am free to do in this sense is indefinitely large. However, I am able only to do a small number of the things that I am free in this sense to do. No one is able to do all that he or she is free to do and this shows that freedom and ability are two quite different things. This point has an immediate impact on arguments about capitalism and freedom in the following way. Ability is closely linked to resources. If I lack resources then I may not be able to do some of the things that I would otherwise do if I had the resources. However, this inability because of my lack of resources is not a restriction on freedom because freedom and ability are not the same thing.. The political rub here is clear enough for, if one agrees with these points, then Sir Keith Joseph, one of the intellectual founders of Thatcherism, was quite right when he argued in his book on Equality (with Jonathan Sumption) that “poverty is not unfreedom.” The fact that I am poor and lack resources certainly means that there are many things that I am unable to do but these are not restrictions on freedom. Freedom is about the absence of intentional coercion; it is not about resources or the lack of them and it is not about what one is able or unable to do.

So the defender of the liberal market order has a clear social, political and economic vision. The job of the state is to set a framework of law to secure to individuals equal liberty understood as equal freedom from coercion. In relation to the economy is again to provide a framework of law to protect freely entered into contracts and to prevent expropriation, fraud and other forms of force and coercion. The aim of government is essentially procedural: to provide this framework; it is not teleological, that is to say devoted to the achievement of certain sorts of substantive goals or outcomes. It should also be committed to extending the market order into the largest possible scope in society because the extension of this order is an extension of freedom and choice. Individuals should assume responsibility for their own lives and their own choices and not rely on government substituting its choices for them.

It would certainly be strange given the centrality of the idea that choice and liberty are the two central features of human life and human striving if faith communities had nothing at all to say about this claim about the centrality of choice in human life. One way of putting this point is that in the modern world with the growth of individualism and moral subjectivism – the idea that morality is just a matter of choice- both of which have been heavily influenced by liberal political and economic ideas has tended to see the idea of human dignity as being rooted in the capacity which human beings have to exercise choice. Human beings have dignity and worth because they are free to deliberate and choose between alternatives. Choice is at the centre of what we are as persons and in our choices we reveal our moral preferences- for that is what morality is – a set of preferences which is bound to differ between persons. So when religious people talk about human dignity then on this view that should celebrate institutions like the free market economy which are predicated on the idea that human dignity is based on individual liberty and freedom of choice.

However, it is important to remember that the weight of the Christian tradition is against this view as indeed is the liberal tradition of political and legal thought in its formative stages. From this alternative point of view freedom and choice re not in fact good in themselves. Freedom is valuable and ought to be demanded because in that way, in a free society we will be able to pursue important human goods. Freedom was to be justified by the idea of the good and not the other way round. On this view freedom and virtue are closely related. Virtue consists in pursuing and practicing in our lives basic forms of human goodness and we can only pursue such ends, goals and purposes in human life if we are free to do so. Far from freedom and choice underwriting moral subjectivism thus making the exercise of choice criterionless, freedom was to be justified as a means to a set of basic goods in human life those encapsulated in our understanding of the virtues.

So is such a view of freedom defensible. It is certainly at the moment rather countercultural because a lot of the thrust of public debate about such issues is that freedom of choice is just valuable in itself and part of the reason why we think that is because morality is a matter of subjective preference and we cannot agree on any account of what sort of goods freedom of choice serves beyond itself. However this view of freedom is deeply defective largely for the reasons set out by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his essay What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?

Most defenders of the idea of a liberal society and a liberal market economy want to argue that as a moral ideal this is preferable to a closed or a planned economy just because it is more free. However we have to explore what it means to say that one society let us say society A is freer than society B? If freedom is just freedom from coercion then this would in practice mean that A is a freer society than B if there are fewer rules and laws preventing action in A rather than B. That is to say that the answer about whether one society s freer than another is a quantitative one – how many rules are there preventing choice and action in one society compared to another. The answer has to be quantitative because as we have seen the idea of freedom and choice has been detached from an idea of human goods and human virtues. We cannot say society A is freer because of the sorts of goods that we can pursue in society A rather than society B just because judgements of this sort are wholly subjective This cannot be right.

Why not. The answer is that it produces utterly unbelievable results. Let us assume A is a complex modern society with a very wide range of activities and practices ranging from sophisticated forms of transport, forms of property ownership, financial and economic practices of complex and pervasive sorts; let us assume equally that B is an underdeveloped society with few if any or these practices and little or none of the complexities which society A embodies. Given this it is perfectly possible that society B will have far fewer rules preventing action than society A and if the judgement about freedom is made on quantitative grounds then society B simple and primitive though it is will have to be regarded as being freer than society A. If you think that this is a contrived example thin k of Taylors own contrast between a developed western society say in the 1970s and Enver Hoxas Albania during the same period. It would be completely unbelievable to say that Albania at this time was freer than the west because it had fewer coercive rules because of its simplicity. Why we think Albania was a much less free society has not to do with the number of rules but with the range of goods in each society. We think that Albania was less free because certain sorts of human goods were denied in the country like: the opportunity to participate in politics, to leave the country, to criticise the government, to have a private life etc. etc. That is to say we cite certain kind of valued goods to make our judgement –goods which could be pursued in society A and not in society B, in the west but not in Albania- not in terms of the sheer number of rules preventing action in one country rather than another. If this is so then freedom has to be linked to the idea of goods and the good for human life. What goods contribute to human flourishing and human welfare? Freedom is justified in terms of facilitating the achievement of those goods not the other way round. If we are to have a defensible view of freedom then two things follow in the light of this argument I have just presented. The first is that the goods of human flourishing are part of a common good which is not to be regarded as only procedural and that such goods cannot be regarded as just subjective preferences because if they are they cannot underpin precisely the comparative judgements about freedom to which I have just referred.

The importance of the idea of a set of common goods to freedom can be demonstrated in other ways too. First of all if we take the simple view that freedom is the absence of coercion then what matters is what one is free from not the range of things which one is free to do. So it would be difficult to argue on this basis alone that freedom had to be judged in terms of the range of choices open to a person – a point made strongly by Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty. The reason why this would be a difficult judgement to make in relation to negative freedom is that if we were to concentrate on the range of choices open to an individual then we would get into qualitative and normative issues. There is an indefinitely large list of things which someone is free to do when he or she is not coerced so which of these are to be regarded as important and significant? We need to be able to answer this question because the range of choices open to person A may be very trivial whereas those open to B may be regarded as important and weighty. We cannot really argue that A is freer than B because he has a wider range of utterly trivial choices open to him whereas B may let us say have fewer choices but that they are of greater significance. Again we cannot answer this question about the significance of choice without having some idea of the significance of those choices i to human life and human flourishing. Economic liberals accept this at least implicitly because for example they regard the availability of an alternative labour contract as being of crucial importance to determining whether or not someone has been coerced by a change in a contract by the current employer. That is to say it won’t answer the question as to whether the person so treated is exploited or coerced by saying that he/she still has lots of choices open to him/her playing chess, twiddling thumbs, spending more time at home or whatever. What is crucial is whether there is alternative employment available not another range of choices. Thus shows that we have to be able to make qualitative judgements about the choices available to a person. Again judgments of this sort require some shared conception of the good and the importance of certain sorts of good in human life.

The same point can be made about the nature of coercion itself. In some ways what coercion is might seem to be obvious. If I prevent you from doing something e.g. by locking you in a cupboard then that is clearly coercion and your negative freedom is infringed. However most coercion, including the coercion of the law is not like this. Coercion operates by threat: do that and I will disinherit you; if you do that you will go to prison etc. However something is only a threat if it is made against a valued good of some sort. If you utter a threat against something which I regard as completely valueless then it is not a threat to me although it might be to someone who valued that against which the threat is made. Coercion as a threat presupposes values but what if all values are subjective. If they are then what is a threat and therefore a form of coercion for me will not be for you if what you value is not threatened. If this is so then the liberal free market ideal of a society of equal freedom will disappear like a will o’ the wisp. If we are to be equally free from coercion then there have to be certain goods which we all share in common so that the threat to these goods has to be treated as a form of coercion by everyone. Unless there are goods that are held in common then the liberal idea of a free and equal society evaporates because we cannot make sense of coercion as being the same for all and yet freedom is to be seen as the absence of coercion. So again freedom as the absence of coercion has to be seen in terms of values which cannot just be regarded as subjective if freedom is to be defined and achieved in the same way for everyone in a free society.

There is a parallel point to be made about coercion and value. Sometimes coercion it is argued has to be understood as a threatened distortion or prevention of the expected course of events. I have bought a ticket for the theatre and your action is coercive if it somehow prevents me going since my going is the expected course of events. Again this depends on values. If I couldn’t care less about the expected course of events then it is not obvious that your action is coercive. It is only because I value the expected course of events and their taking place that the action in question is coercive. However again we have to have some agreement about what are valued courses of events and how these contribute to happiness and welfare so that we can in fact come to have a shared view of coercion.

I want to return to the idea of ability in relation to freedom and choice since this bears upon both conceptual and political aspects of freedom. The argument presented earlier was that freedom is the absence of coercion only and therefore that whether a person is able to do what he/she is free to do is a quite different question. Restrictions on abilities unless they are the result of the deliberate actions of others are not restrictions on liberty. The underlying conceptual point here is that freedom and ability are claimed to be categorically different and the justification of this claim is that no one is able to do all that they are free to do. Therefore freedom and ability are separate categories. The political point is also clear- namely that the lack of ability and resources to do something is not a restriction on freedom and therefore that a free society has to be seen in terms of a framework of laws guaranteeing mutual non coercion and not additionally in terms of laws which secure to individuals the resources which they might need to be able to do what they are free to do. So on this view there could not be a case for limiting the role of the market in terms of freedom and there was no case for a welfare state to be justified by a confusion between freedom and ability.

All of this to my mind can be doubted. The issues hinge on the conceptual separation of freedom and ability but are we in fact convinced by this separation? It surely makes no sense to ask whether someone is free to do what no one is able to do like jumping from Gresham College to New York. Someone can only be regarded as being free or unfree to do something if there is a generalised ability to do that thing. A generalised ability to do X is a necessary condition for trying to determine whether A is free or unfree to do X. If this is so then there cannot be a categorical difference between freedom and ability and this point could then be the basis of an argument that in a free society all should have access to the generalised abilities which determine the conditions of freedom/unfreedom in that society- that is to say abilities such as health, education and security. These could then be regarded as basic welfare goods which are essential to freedom but which will not be provided directly by the process of choice in a wholly market order.

Again this raises the issues of a common or shared morality in a liberal market order. If there is this link between freedom and ability then we would need to have some conception of those important abilities which all people in a society value and which are regarded as being central to human flourishing in such a society. This takes us back to the points made earlier in relation to comparative judgements about freedom. We have to have a link between freedom and ideas about human goods and the abilities to exercise and pursue those goods. In the debate about such goods in a liberal society and what constitutes fair access to them there is no reason to deny an input from faith communities in the determination of such goods. These things have to be debated in the public realm and there is no reason for debarring faith groups from that kind of debate.

So my lecture has sought to establish two broad things. The first is that while market freedom and choice are immensely valuable we cannot cut off freedom from questions of value and human flourishing. Our dignity as persons does not reside in the sheer act of choice devoted to no particular ends, but rather has to be linked to an account of basic goods and their associated abilities. The second point is much more general namely that markets cannot be seen as purely technical practices separated from issues of moral value because we cannot make sense of the idea of freedom and markets without invoking values. Freedom is a moralised conception for all the reasons that I have tried to suggest and since markets and freedom are so closely allied cannot therefore be regarded in the words of the great economist Fred Hirsch as being ‘In principle unprincipled.’ Because of the link between markets and morality there is every reason for faith communities to contribute their moral understandings and perspectives to the debate about the moral basis and the moral purposes of the market order.

For further discussion of these themes see R. Plant, The Neoliberal State, Oxford University Press, 2010.


© Professor The Lord Plant 2012

This event was on Tue, 27 Nov 2012

raymond plant

Professor the Lord Plant of Highfield

Professor of Divinity

Lord Plant has been Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Philosophy at King’s College London since 2002 and he has been a Member of the House of Lords...

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