Exploitation and Economic Justice in the Liberal Capitalist State

Guest Author: Mark R. Reiff

My PictureI have been thinking about the issues addressed in Exploitation and Economic Justice in the Liberal Capitalist State for a number of years. My work on these did not begin in earnest, however, until the financial crisis hit in the summer of 2008. My thinking was that because the concept of exploitation had been so associated with Marxism, non-Marxists had tended to avoid relying on this concept when devising theories of economic justice for liberal capitalist societies.  For example, the concept of exploitation played no role whatsoever in the theories of economic justice of John Rawls, or Robert Nozick, or Ronald Dworkin, or in the work of any of the political theorists who built upon their works. And while “analytical Marxists” such as G. A. Cohen and John Roemer attempted to take Marx’s theory of exploitation forward and revise it in ways that would allow its application to and provide a justification for democratic socialism, almost no one attempted to develop and defend a theory of exploitation that would regulate but not prohibit inequalities in a liberal capitalist welfare state.

But that is what I have attempted to do in this book. My aim was to develop a new, non-Marxist, liberal theory of exploitation that could compete with the two theories of economic justice that currently dominate the liberal landscape—the difference principle, from John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and luck egalitarianism, an approach inspired primarily by the work of Ronald Dworkin—but which can also be seen as consistent with both left and right libertarianism. In constructing my theory, I have relied on two key concepts or toolsExploitation (Book cover) new: the just price, and intolerable unfairness.  The first has a long history; indeed the idea of the just price can trace its roots back through medieval to ancient times. The concept of intolerable unfairness, in contrast, is largely my own invention.  But as I hope the book makes clear, this is what makes my theory liberal—it is the interaction between toleration—a key feature of political liberalism—and my re-conceived notion of the just price that allows my theory of exploitation to regulate but not prohibit the inequalities that capitalism would otherwise invariably produce.

Accordingly, my book should be considered a work of political philosophy, or, to be slightly more specific, of political economy. But that does not mean the book is an exercise in formal economics. Indeed, the book has almost no formal economics in it. It is a book about economic justice, designed to be accessible to all those who are concerned about the moral status of our current economic relations and what we might do to put those relations right. What I argue is that there are good reasons to believe that we can have full or close to full employment and an equitable or at least substantially less inequitable distribution of wealth and income in our society without compromising any of the fundamental principles of either economics or political morality that most of us already accept, and our failure to restrain the growth of economic inequality much less reverse it is in large part due to our failure to take principles we already accept seriously enough.

The book

  • Develops the first wholly new, liberal theory of economic justice since the theories proposed by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and other theorists in the 1970s and early 80s
  • Offers a theory that can function as either a replacement for or a supplement to the difference principle and luck egalitarianism, the most popular liberal egalitarian theories of economic justice of the day
  • Contains a comprehensive discussion of the history and development of the doctrine of the just price from Aristotle through the present day
  • Develops a new, non-Marxist theory of exploitation that is designed to be a creature of capitalism, not a critique of it, and shows why and how we can regulate economic inequality using the presuppositions of capitalism and political liberalism that we already accept
  • Provides a new, highly-topical moral justification not only for increasing the minimum wage, but also for imposing a maximum wage, one that tells us not only why but to what extent we should limit the kinds of corporate bonuses we all find intuitively excessive
  • Provides a new and specific moral justification for continuation of the estate tax on the wealthiest members of society, those with estates in excess of (at least) $2 million
  • Provides a timely and new specific moral justification for the prohibition of certain kinds of speculative trading, including trading in most kinds of the now infamous credit default swap, trading which contributed greatly to the advent of the current financial crisis
  • Provides an explanation and a new specific moral justification for dealing with certain aspects of climate change now regardless of what other nations do
  • Suggests that the theory presented can be the subject of an overlapping consensus of not only for liberal egalitarians but also for right and left libertarians too

The book also contains numerous references to other works that readers can consult if they want to go deeper into the history or intellectual background of any of these matters. 

Author’s Bio:

Mark R. Reiff is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester. In addition to Exploitation and Economic Justice in the Liberal Capitalist State (Oxford University Press, 2013),  he is the author of and Punishment, Compensation, and Law: A Theory of Enforceability (Cambridge University Press, 2005), as well as various papers on topics within legal, political, and moral philosophy.  During the 2008-09 academic year, Dr. Reiff was a Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He is currently completing work on his third book, On Unemployment

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