“Questions for Free Market Moralists”: A Response

Amia Srinivasan’s “Questions for Free Market Moralists” has generated much attention among defenders and critics of free markets. Srinivasan argues against what she calls “free market moralism” by way of rejecting Nozick’s entitlement theory. While “free market moralism” goes undefined in the original post, I think it’s fair to define it as the view that free market institutions are morally defensible. Her argument, reconstructed, is as follows:

1) If Free Market Moralism is true, then the Nozickian entitlement theory must be true.
2) The entitlement theory must answer “yes” to questions 1-4
3) According to common sense morality, it is absurd to answer “yes” to questions 1-4
4) We must reject the entitlement theory (reductio ad absurdum)
5) So Free Market Moralism is false. (1, 4)

In this post, I want to address steps 2) and 3), building on several previous commentaries, as well as one that has received less attention–step 1). So let’s turn to 2).

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

As Mario Rizzo observes, fraud is a clear example of an unfree exchange in the absence of physical compulsion. Freedom to form beliefs without interference matters as well as freedom to act without interference. If A misrepresents or causes B to have a false belief about the exchange, A has obstructed B’s epistemic relationship with A and we can meaningfully say B has made an unfree choice.

Srinivasan is  concerned by unfree choices under limited alternatives, such as a woman in dire poverty who chooses to engage in sex work. The entitlement theorist, she argues, must claim that a desperate woman who is forced choose between starvation, theft, and sex work freely chooses to engage in sex work.

But that isn’t what the entitlement theory holds. The entitlement theory doesn’t hold that all choices with limited alternatives are necessarily free, only those where the alternatives are restricted by person(s). As G.A. Cohen notes in “Robert Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain: How Patterns Preserve Liberty,” “[the entitlement theory] holds that Z is forced to choose between working and starving only if there is a person (or person)  thus restricting his alternatives” (19). So if someone is indeed forcing the woman to choose between starvation, theft, and sex work, then the woman is indeed forced to work on the entitlement theory. The entitlement theory is a “historical” theory, which means on the woman’s freedom in a situation with limited options depends on the causes that brought about the situation, and whether any person(s) caused it to come about by restricting alternatives.

Srinivasan may of course dispute the view that no one forced the woman to choose among starvation, theft, and sex work. But that commits her to the view that circumstances themselves can force, which is no longer obvious to common sense morality. The upshot is that we cannot conclude this question unambiguously embarrasses the entitlement theory.

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

No. One free but morally murky exchange Nozick considers involves one party failing to disclose their full intentions in an exchange, and where the other party would not exchange had they known those intentions. There are plenty of exchanges that an entitlement theorist can think are morally blameworthy, without believing that those exchanges should be prohibited by physical coercion or threats.  The entitlement theory does not encompass the entirety of moral philosophy. It is rather a theory of political philosophy which, Nozick notes, “is concerned only with certain ways that persons may not use others; primarily, physically aggressive behavior” (32).

A skeptic might say that a right to morally blameworthy conduct looks like a “right to do wrong,” which many find a paradoxical idea. But this isn’t necessarily so. An “external right” is a right we have because prohibition would be too costly to enforce, not because the agent ought approve of his exercise of that right. External rights don’t create a “right to do wrong” since it is still wrong for, in Srinivasan’s case, a landlord to exploit her tenant.

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

No. Nozick denies that the entitlement theory is a theory of desert. Desert is one among many permissible “principles of transfer” under the entitlement theory, alongside others like love, productivity, and need.

This question reflects a common misconception about the entitlement theory–it is simply a naïve theory of capitalist morality. But as Nozick argues in Part III of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the entitlement theory is in fact compatible with a wide variety of forms of economic organization. One useful way to think about the entitlement theory is a set of side constraints on distributive patterns, just as Nozickian morality is a set of side constraints on the pursuit of goals.

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

The inspiration for this question is the apparent incompatibility between the entitlement theory and obligations of benevolence. If the entitlement theory denies we have obligations of benevolence, then isn’t this a mark against the entitlement theory?

To expand on Charles Johnson‘s response to Srinivasan, question 4 equivocates on the meaning of “obligation.” If obligation entails a permission to force, then the entitlement theorist denies we have enforceable obligations beyond side-constraints. But if obligation means something weaker, like a reflectively approved power, then an entitlement theorist can consistently hold we have obligations beyond side constraints.

The stronger sense of obligation would appear to embarrass the entitlement theorist, who must then deny that benevolence can produce obligation. But does it? Common sense morality tells us that it’s wrong to physically force or threaten people to engage in acts of benevolence.

We can see now that step 2) in Srinivasan’s argument is false. Her questions do not accurately reflect the entitlement view or its implications, and they do not embarrass free market moralism compared to common sense.

But suppose they did, and we reject the entitlement theory–whither “free market moralism”? Here we turn to step 1). While Nozick’s entitlement theory has gained the most attention in arguments about distributive justice in recent years, it is important to remember that the entitlement theory is not co-extensive with “free market moralism.” The entitlement theory is one among many possible justifications for broadly free market institutions, including natural rights, public reason, and social justice theories. We should think of “free market moralism” as a view free market institutions are morally defensible because multiple independent moral theories converge upon them.

The term “free market moralism” is unfortunate because it suggests that naïve belief that the free market is itself a moral theory in which  “the market will take care of morality for us.” Smart defenders of markets do not defend markets because they constitute the whole of morality, but because support for free market institutions follows from independently justified moral views.

Free markets, finally, are not unique in this regard–all economic orders are in themselves morally naïve. Srinivasan reminds us that all economic orders require philosophical justification, not just the market view. We may argue about economics, but philosophy does have the last word.


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