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Samuel Fleischacker: a Third Concept of Liberty, Judgement and Freedom in Kant and Adam Smith (1999)

sfFleischacker is a Professor at University of Illinois-Chicago. Though all his degrees and academic appointments are from the USA, he is English in origin. He is a leading Adam Smith scholar, author of On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion (2004) and co-editor of Essays on Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy (2010). Amongst currently active thinkers inspired by classical liberalism, he could be taken as representing the other pole to Chandran Kukathas, who was discussed in my last post. Fleischacker is definitely a ‘liberal’ in what is now the normal sense in America, that is someone of egalitarian left leaning inclinations. However, he is also much less of a statist social democrat than the average American ‘liberal’, and he tries to establish an alternative to the kind of top down statism often employed to advance social egalitarianism. He is critical of libertarians for what he sees as indifference to the need for government action to aid liberty, but much of what he says fits with those libertarian thinkers who believe government has a role in promoting public goods.

Fleischacker looks back to Adam Smith and to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who will be addressed soon in this series of posts. Kant was greatly influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, and has similar ideas to Smith about the benefits of free trade, property rights, and individual liberty under law. Kant also puts those Scottish Enlightenment ideas in the context of a philosophy much more concerned with ‘transcendental’ questions, that is questions of the limits of knowledge, and the way our knowledge of the world depends on the nature of our consciousness.

One part of Kant’s study of our consciousness is concerned with the power of judgment itself, which he thinks is at work in our taste for beauty and our philosophy of nature. Fleischacker is particularly concerned with beauty in Kant, which Kant connects with the most inner and subjective aspects of judgment. Kant’s view of our power for subjective judgements of beauty, is that it joins with everyone else’s judgement of beauty in ways which are the basis of communication, which join subjective pleasure with universal standards. For Kant, the capacity for judgments of beauty is deeply connected with our freedom as human beings and with our capacity to make moral judgements regarding other free individuals.

This aspect of Kant builds, in part, on ideas in Hume and Smith about the improvement of human morality, liberty, and taste over history. It is this capacity which provides a third concept of liberty beyond, the ‘negative’ liberty of freedom from interference, and the ‘positive’ liberty of collective action to provide conditions of liberty.
Fleischacker looks at liberty and self-determination in Kant in the first part of the book, and follows it up in the second part with an examination of the moral and political aspects of Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). Fleischacker thinks of Smith’s political economy as referring to the kind of values of moral reflection and freedom from external domination, that can be found in Kant. He looks at how for Smith, the increase in the prosperity and independence of labourers is a prime concern.

Fleischacker refers to the various points in Smith, which identify the manipulation of markets by the rich and powerful who try to exclude competitions. Merchants collude in trying to rig markets against new competitors, guild masters try to limit and control the people entering that guild.

Fleischacker looks at Smith’s famous line about the benefits we receive from the self-interest of butchers, bakers and brewers, rather than from their benevolence. The main point for Fleischacker is the value of personal independence. It is better for me to depend on myself for my food and drink, rather than depend on anyone’s charity. Fleischacker also notes Smith’s enthusiasm for indirect taxes on luxury goods rather than taxes which bear on the poor, and his disdain for those who look down on, and preach at, the poor for their supposed irresponsibility. Fleischacker’s extrapolation that Smith would be a supporter of redistributive tax and welfare policies are no doubt open to debate, but his views are certainly based on deep knowledge of Smith’s writings.

The last part of A Third Concept of Liberty is concerned with John Rawls, the dominant figure in recent egalitarian liberal political theory. Though Fleishacker agrees with Rawls’ overall view, he thinks Rawls leans too much towards rigid views of social organisation and distribution of income. Fleschacker argues for a more contextual approach, in which policy solutions emerge in reaction to particular conditions. He argues for public action to be directed against monopolistic economic power, rather than towards distribution of income. Rawls himself is often take as master thinker of left-liberalism and social democracy, but he also been taken up approvingly by some classical liberal and libertarian thinkers including Friedrich Hayek (Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. 2 The Mirage of Social Justice, 1979). So if Fleishacker takes Rawls, and tries to move away from the more designed from above elements of Rawls thinking, he certainly has something positive for classical liberals and libertarians. Rawls himself will be dealt with in a future post.