Basic Economic Liberties: John Rawls and Adam Smith Reconciled

The Independent Review, 2021, Vol 26, No. 2, 263–285

36 Pages Posted: 4 Jun 2020 Last revised: 7 Jul 2022

See all articles by Nick Cowen

Nick Cowen

School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln

Date Written: November 1, 2021

Abstract

The moral status of economic liberty is a critical point of contention within liberal theory. Classical liberals, including Tomasi, suggest that economic activity is fundamental for exercising personal autonomy and its protection to be to the overall benefit of all persons. By contrast, egalitarian liberals, following Rawls, argue that economic activity is not a sufficiently significant site of moral development. Drawing on contemporary interpretations of Adam Smith, I argue that commercial practices cultivate attitudes of mutual trust and respect in a way that is unique and necessary for developing the moral powers. Although they need not be universally exercised, basic economic liberties must be available to all. While rejecting laissez-faire, this case suggests that well-ordered societies must protect a substantial degree of commercial activity as part of the basic structure.

Keywords: liberalism, markets, Rawls, Adam Smith, moral powers, economic liberty

JEL Classification: B12

Suggested Citation

Cowen, Nick, Basic Economic Liberties: John Rawls and Adam Smith Reconciled (November 1, 2021). The Independent Review, 2021, Vol 26, No. 2, 263–285, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3596764 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3596764

Nick Cowen (Contact Author)

School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln ( email )

Lincoln LN2
United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://https://ulincoln.academia.edu/NickCowen

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