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LIBERAL EGALITARIANISM: New analysis of the implications of the ‘harm principle’ for redistributive policies

  • Published Date: December 2016

Classical liberalism and libertarianism do not provide a radical alternative to egalitarianism, according to research by Michele Lombardi, Kaname Miyagishima and Roberto Veneziani, published in the Economic Journal.

Their study suggests that if one adopts a liberal view of non-interference in people’s lives based on John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’, then one is forced to embrace egalitarian redistributive policies, including progressive taxation and the welfare state.

In particular, a liberal non-interfering approach can help to adjudicate some fundamental distributive issues, including those related to intergenerational justice. This is a key policy area in the light of current debates on climate change and carbon emissions, and a natural application of the harm principle, which embodies some important aspects of the very idea of sustainability as defined in the United Nations’ Brundtland Report.

The researchers note that a standard assumption in policy analyses and political debates is that classical liberal or libertarian views represent a radical alternative to a progressive or egalitarian agenda.

Unlike the latter, classical liberalism and libertarianism underpin laissez-faire policies and reject any redistributive action, including welfare state provisions and progressive taxation. This is motivated by a fundamental belief in the value of personal autonomy and protection from (unjustified) external interference, including from the state.

The new study analyses the consistency of classical liberalism and libertarianism. In particular, the authors adopt the modern tools of economic analysis in order to provide rigorous answers to the following questions:

  • Can liberal views of individual autonomy and freedom provide consistent foundations for social choices?
  • And what are the implications of classical liberal and libertarian approaches for distributive justice and economic policies?

Thanks to the work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, It has long been known that classical liberalism and libertarianism may contradict some fundamental democratic principles as they are inconsistent with the principle of unanimity – the idea that if everyone in society prefers a policy A to a policy B, then the former should be adopted.

This study shows a different and possibly more troubling implication (for classical liberals and libertarians) of liberal views of autonomy and non-interference.

The researchers study a property – formally, an axiom – capturing a liberal non-interfering view of society, the harm principle, whose roots can be traced back to John Stuart Mill’s classic book On Liberty (1859).

The basic idea of the harm principle is that: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.’ (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter I).

The new study shows that classical liberal views of individual autonomy and freedom – as embodied in the harm principle – can provide consistent foundations for collective evaluations, and are consistent with the fundamental democratic principle of unanimity.

Indeed, the harm principle has a surprising and counter-intuitive implication when coupled with the principle of unanimity and a basic notion of fairness – according to which policies should not be ad hominem and be designed independently of individual identities.

The new study shows that it leads straight to the adoption of strongly egalitarian policies. In other words, contrary to the received view, classical liberalism and libertarianism do not provide a radical alternative to egalitarianism: rather, this analysis can be interpreted as showing that if one adopts a liberal view of non-interference (and the fundamental democratic principle of unanimity), then one is forced to embrace egalitarian redistributive policies, including progressive taxation and the welfare state.

ENDS


Notes for editors: ‘Liberal Egalitarianism and the Harm Principle’ by Michele Lombardi, Kaname Miyagishima and Roberto Veneziani is published in the November 2016 issue of the Economic Journal.

Michele Lombardi is at the University of Glasgow. Kaname Miyagishima is at Waseda University. Roberto Veneziani is at Queen Mary University of London.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh); Michele Lombardi via email: Michele.Lombardi@glasgow.ac.uk; Kaname Miyagishima via email: kaname1128@gmail.com; or Roberto Veneziani via email: r.veneziani@qmul.ac.uk