Liberalism isn’t married to capitalism

'A liberal egalitarian state should interfere where markets sustain injustice in the name of liberalism,' says the writer.

'A liberal egalitarian state should interfere where markets sustain injustice in the name of liberalism,' says the writer.

I have never written about my views on people who wear Crocs. I also have not written before about how I see the relationship between liberalism and capitalism.Anyone interested in my views on either of these issues should simply ask me. That would help to avoid elementary errors in logic such as those that Mazibuko Jara made in these pages last week.

He argued, although the kind of liberalism, bent in the direction of egalitarianism, that I had sketched here, was a welcome break from the classic liberalism of many Democratic Alliance politicians, I should also have skewered capitalism.

Basically, Jara is terribly upset that I was “silent” about capitalism.
(I am not sure whether he is also terribly upset that I was “silent” about people who wear Crocs). His response to this silence was to impute to me a view I never stated and one that is not implied in my discussion about liberalism.

The first error he makes is to state that liberals fetishise “the free market”. He slides, throughout his analysis, between historical claims and theoretical ones. It is not entirely clear whether his chief aim was to describe only the contingent history of white liberals in South Africa or if he also wanted to make a substantive theoretical claim about the intrinsic features of liberalism.

The fact that the DA, as well as organisations such as the Free Market Foundation and the ironically named South African Institute of Race Relations, never seriously questioned capitalism does not mean that liberalism by design is married to capitalism.

It simply means that these organisations have misplaced faith in market-based solutions to serious moral and political questions. Jara cannot accept that there is a difference between classical, market fundamentalist liberals and liberal egalitarians such as myself, and also confuses the contingent history of liberal politics in South Africa with a normative debate about what liberalism may yet express.

That is tantamount to recognising a plurality of liberal positions but only doing so for a few seconds before reverting to old tropes about what all liberals “must” think about capitalism or markets.

Markets do not care for fairness and justice. Markets do not settle moral and political challenges such as the question of what a just society looks like.

Take the exploitative labour practices that Jara assumes only populists on the left care about. Liberals also have theoretical tools with which to criticise mining companies like Lonmin.

If the labour market settles the unit price of labour in the mining sector at, say, R11 000 a unit of labour, that does not also constitute an answer to the separate moral question: “What is a fair wage?”

The labour market answer is simply a determination of the wages that a capitalist can get away with paying, knowing there is someone else willing to do the job of a disgruntled miner who refuses the R11 000 recommended by an anthropomorphised labour market system.

If you are committed to egalitarianism and justice, then you can correct the market when it fails to take account of values such as equality and fairness. That is why the state plays a crucial and justified role in societies like our own. There are no incentives built into capitalism to march to a more just economic outcome than the status quo.

This scepticism about markets is not novel. Many philosophers, including liberal ones, recognise the moral limits of markets. Perhaps the most popular contemporary iteration is Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Jara would do well to read a range of liberal thinkers rather than to assume we all lack the philosophical resources to connect our commitment to freedom to a capable state committed to eradicating structural inequalities that subvert the value of freedom.

A liberal egalitarian state should interfere when markets generate or sustain historical injustice in the name of liberalism itself.

I share Jara’s venom for the history of colonialism, apartheid, patriarchy and racism. In fact, from within the liberal tradition, I would argue that Jara does not go far enough in articulating how members of some groups have been short-changed by history.

He does not seem to care about the philosophical differences between liberalism and libertarianism. At one stage, he half-jokes that I have similar economic views to those of Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher must be turning in her grave at his claim that she was of liberal bent. A miniature South African version of Thatcher, Leon Louw, must in turn be tossing in his bed at Jara’s implied claim that the Free Market Foundation is liberal. These are libertarians who care little for group identities, structural analysis and protection of workers at the mercy of amoral labour markets.

Some liberals, as Jara and I agree, are perilously close to the libertarian position. Just as socialists have many differences between them, so too do liberals. We must insist on the recognition of a diversity of thought within all political traditions.

In fact, it is also false to insist that no libertarian thinker has the intellectual and political material with which to engage injustices in society consistent with their libertarian foundations. Debates about political ideology quickly go wayward when we misdescribe our interlocutors.

I am, borrowing from Thomas Nagel and other philosophers, ever mindful of the role that luck plays in determining who wins and who loses in the capitalist system. Everything from my genes to the circumstances of my birth can determine my prospects of accumulating enough resources to be able to give the fullest possible expression to my autonomy.

If you have bad genetic luck — say, for example, severe intellectual or physical disabilities — and are born into conditions of severe poverty, then you may struggle to flourish. It seems as if many more facts about your life that you did not choose rather than your personal choices play a dominant role in determining where you end up in the lottery of life. That is not to deny individual agency but to situate its expression within social histories you are not responsible for. No one, in turn, who is committed to justice and egalitarianism can be unfazed by these structural realities.

Luck, whether genetic or circumstantial, isn’t an expression of an individual’s autonomy. There is, therefore, no moral reason for a liberal state to refrain from reducing the effects of luck in society. The state would not be subverting freedom when it seeks to correct the structural consequences of luck. It would be eliminating obstacles to freedom.

Take, for example, our current South African state, which is not fit for liberal democratic purpose. There is rampant looting at its core, as the state capture chronicles revealed. There is failure to regulate the private sector effectively to reduce or eliminate market failures and other injustices that capitalism is indifferent about. In fact, capitalism preys on injustice at times.

Our bureaucracy is also woefully ineffective but we have pockets of excellence within the state that should be shielded from the full reach of generalisations.

But a society with our history of colonialism and apartheid that reaches into the present needs more than just pockets of excellence. We need the state to be far more effective in executing the liberal ideals of the Constitution we adopted in 1996. The current South African state is an enemy of the most vulnerable people in our society.

It is not liberalism that is the obstacle to economic justice. Looting within the state, failing and weak state institutions, and corporates that are unmoved by moral criticism are the problem. These features do not stem from the liberal nature of our Constitution.

Our Constitution is pro-poor, pro-redress, founded on a recognition of the moral imperative to deal with past evils, including group-based injustices, and underpins an interventionist state with a view to animating the founding values of dignity, equality and freedom.

When we are pissed off with the levels of inequality and poverty in our country, we should not spuriously put liberalism on trial. We should put the current government on trial. And, yes, we should put the economic system or its core features on trial too.

Liberals are not of necessity committed to thinking that capitalism is socially good or that capitalism is the best economic system to give effect to the ideal of freedom at the heart of liberal ideology. Just as someone can be a socialist and yet find some carefully delineated role for markets or property rights in an ideal society, so too someone can be committed to freedom while not being convinced that capitalism is best suited to achieving maximum individual freedom in society.

And, just as you can be committed to fighting anti-black racism and be a liberal, so you, too, can define yourself as a liberal and be a liberal critic of market fundamentalism.

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