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I just began reading John Tomasi’s recent book Free Market Fairness, which is an attempt to synthesize Libertarianism’s concerns for property rights and the importance of spontaneous order (rather than top-down government control) with High Liberalism’s concerns for social justice and care for the poor. I don’t know whether Tomasi’s project will be successful, but something like it is certainly welcome. And for me, the book has already been worth the purchase for the sake of a single sentence.

Tomasi here is paraphrasing the arguments of John Rawls, and particularly that institutions should be arranged so that poorer citizens are supported from the wealth of the richer—as Rawls put it, so citizens “share one another’s fate.” Tomasi adds: “Institutions must be arranged so people can look upon the special skills and talents of their fellow citizens not as weapons to be feared but as in some sense a common bounty” (Introduction, pg. xiv).

That phrase—”weapons to be feared”—is something that struck me. And yet it is obvious that in a system of competition, one man’s advantage is another’s loss. It would seem rational, from a narrow point of view, for economic competitors to try and minimize each others’ skill and ability. But if we all did that, society would collapse and there would be little wealth left to compete over. We need other people to trade with, and they must have talents worth trading for, or else no products of any complexity would ever be created.

So in a pure competitive system, you are left in an uneasy search for the optimal level of skill in other people—just enough to support your own activities without threatening your position. In theory, you can avoid the problem by designing institutions where other people’s success contributes to your own; this is the supposed aim of redistribution. (Still, redistribution is a blunt tool that discourages activity by the most productive, and also requires oppressive political structures that create their own problems.)

What annoys me is that the political faction most in favor of redistribution is not speaking of “shared bounty” and communal unity at all. Instead, they speak of how the rich don’t deserve the wealth they have, how they have exploited others, how they have a duty to give up their wealth, and so on. In fact, the reason that Tomasi’s turn of phrase was so striking to me is precisely that I had never encountered the idea put in quite that way before. The idea that—in the absence of proper institutions—a competitive society would lead to social discord and envy floats half-formed throughout much of our discourse, but more often is expressed in precisely those envious terms that Tomasi seeks to preempt.

So what sort of institutions can lead to a sense that one person’s success contributes to everyone else’s? The first thing that comes to my mind is anything having to do with inventing new things. Inventing new medicines, or a new and better solar panel, or writing clever software, can make many people’s lives much better. Software in particular is inherently scalable; it is nothing more than information, which can easily be transmitted to many people. So the success in inventing new things can certainly help many people. (I think this is why most people don’t resent the massive wealth of, say, Apple as they might do for an investment bank—because they can readily appreciate the way in which Apple’s wealth was generated by selling products that they, as individuals, benefited from.)

Still, this doesn’t precisely address the point. Not all industries act as such powerful force-multipliers for all of humanity as science or computing can. How can we create such an alignment of interests across society? I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, but probably institutions such as workers’ co-ops point in the right direction. Still, the most important part of finding answers is asking the right questions. Tomasi’s formulation is incredibly valuable for that purpose.