Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy
New Thinking in Political Economy series
Chapter 5: Equality and Social Justice: The Challenge of Egalitarianism
INTRODUCTION The analysis thus far has sought to rebut some of the economic and moral arguments against classical liberalism. Economic arguments in favour of widespread government action rely on the claim that a laissez-faire approach leads to examples of inefficiency owing to the phenomena of market failure. Moral arguments in favour of a more than minimal state, meanwhile, focus on the contention that ‘exit-based’ institutions fail to cultivate an environment conducive to ethical learning and that without government regulation such institutions are unstable. Of all the arguments that have been used to thwart the cause of classical liberalism, however, it is the claim that the outcomes generated by minimal state institutions fail to meet appropriate standards of social justice that continues to exert perhaps the greatest influence on public policy debate. At the forefront of the attacks against the alleged injustices wrought by classical liberalism have been those associated with egalitarianism. Central to these arguments is an attempt to specify the institutional arrangements that are thought to embody the principle of ‘equal respect’. For theorists in the liberal egalitarian tradition, the large-scale income inequalities that may be generated by a classical liberal system fail to ensure that all members of society have access to the equal life chances that a commitment to equal respect is said to imply. For contemporary theorists of multiculturalism, meanwhile, inequalities in wealth constitute only one dimension of the failure to show equal respect. According to this view, cultural attitudes towards issues of gender, race and...
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