On Changing the Liberal Ideology among Academics

Milton Fisk, Department of Philosophy, Indiana University, USA


For the “Breaking down the Ivory Tower” event at the World Social Forum
Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 28-30, 2005

1   Cycling around In North American universities, academics slide as easily from supporting a mixed economy to a free market as they do from supporting a free market to a mixed economy.  This fecklessness is common not just among economists but also among those in other disciplines. Still, something stays constant through these shifts. It is a commitment to the general lines of philosophical liberalism. This is the liberalism that runs from Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Isaiah Berlin to Richard Rorty today.[1]

To avoid cycling around the circuit between free market and mixed economy calls for strong medicine.  We need to give the academic system a purgative strong enough to expel the liberal waste, replacing it with a political morality that calls for cooperation toward shared goals. In the most common current criticisms of the failures of the latest version of economic liberalism – the free market version dubbed “neoliberalism” – economists like Joseph Stiglitz, William Greider, and Paul Krugman serve us up a version of the mixed economy.[2] Should the mixed economy return as the dominant fashion in the universities and institutes, it would do so only to usher in, a bit later on, calls for a free market.  In short, we would continue cycling around the liberal circuit.

I am not suggesting that cycling through these liberal variants takes place in universities entirely cut off from changes in the real capitalist economy outside them.  Milton Friedman, with his free market doctrine was something of a curiosity in the 1950s and 1960s when the role of government was a significant factor in a market that generated growth.[3] It was when stagflation hit, beginning in the late 1960s, that the strong voices for the mixed economy were muted. Then Friedman’s point that state regulation and investment are distortions leading to inflation and stagnation came to be taken seriously. In the 1970s, influential Brookings Institution economists Arthur Okum and Charles Schultze wrote about the need to turn away from state regulation and spending in order to achieve “efficiency.” [4]

Now that neoliberalism’s proneness to crisis is evident, it is not enough to say that all we need as an alternative to it is regulation on capital flows, a slower pace in opening new market economies, and meaningful labor standards.   We had all that by adding Bretton Woods of the 1940s to the New Deal of the 1930s. But by 1970, capital insisted that it be freed from these restrictions, and it showed it had the power to free itself.

2   Liberalism What then is the liberal philosophy that is the sub-text for these changes in economic fashion?  It is, of course, the idea of liberty and its mate equality. It is not popular to be against liberty and equality, so I need to explain myself.  Liberty here is not justified as allowing us to realize certain goals; instead, it is prior to any common good as a fundamental right of persons.  Since all persons have this right, nobody can use it to deny the liberty of someone else.  Nobody can claim for his or her self a superior liberty that can override the lesser liberty of some other person. Thus, liberty in liberal thought is inherently egalitarian. Notice though that this equality is limited to an equality of liberty, leaving unsettled the question whether any other forms of equality are implied by equal liberty.  To settle this question calls for giving more content to the root concept of liberty.

Expressions like “dignity,” “respect,” “autonomy,” and “moral worth” come into play as we probe the idea of liberty.  Not to violate the liberty of people is to treat them with respect since it recognizes them as free. Likewise, not to violate the liberty of people is to accord them the dignity, autonomy, and moral worth of a free being.  Even these characteristics of persons tell us little about how we should behave toward others without giving more content to the concept of liberty itself.

In the philosophical liberal tradition, the content given to the concept of liberty tends to make it a concept about will.[5] Others should not thwart our will so long as our will does not threaten the will of those others.  The ideal situation for equal liberty is, then, one in which nobody is subject to the will of another. It is clear then that the concept of liberty interpreted voluntaristically has a near perfect realization in the capitalist market. For, when one cannot get what one wants in that market, it will not be because of restrictions imposed by other agents in it. Such restrictions would be incompatible with a free market. One would have to blame, instead, one’s own inability to get what one wants.

3   Mixed liberty Suppose though that we take notice of the fact that effective liberty is reduced not just by intentional interference but also by the combined results of many otherwise innocent acts.  Our effective liberty might be reduced by the poverty that keeps us from having the means to do what we want or by a culture that keeps us from even aspiring to do something we might want. How then can we enhance the effective liberty of agents? The solution comes through collective action imposing rules on our wills. In short, the condition for liberty becomes social or state coercion. Those who interfere indirectly with what we can do without any intention to do so are placed under norms that keep them from doing some at least of what they want to do. Norms control them so others can be free.

This interpretation of liberty as will subject to norms is the one realized in the mixed economy, one in which policy and market coexist in a state of tension. There is a trade off between liberty and norms for the sake of maximizing effective liberty. In the market realization of this idea, regulation reduces market freedom for the sake of the market itself, which would be damaged even more in the absence of regulation.

Even John Maynard Keynes, an important innovator of the mixed economy, did not abandon the imperatives of the market in urging states to take a hand in preventing destabilizing unemployment.[6] Intervention, he thought, could leave the basic design of the market unchanged. Thus for proponents of the mixed economy, the market did not disappear into a new unity with the state. The mix was decidedly dualist, and this allowed for a fall back to the free market once the role of the state was trimmed under neoliberalism.

Likewise, in philosophical liberalism, the mix of individual will and collective norms has never been more than a shaky dualism. With this mixed morality, there was no intention to dim the beacon of liberal liberty underneath the covering of norms. Isaiah Berlin in his “Two Concepts of Liberty” says that, although other values may put limits on liberty, a minimum area of personal freedom has to be preserved.[7] Liberty remained as a precious possession of humans, separable from any mixing with the social goals that inspired other norms.  Yet, when the covering of norms seemed to dim liberty, academics could easily denounce the norms and return to the more libertarian view.

So long as philosophical liberalism, in either the pure or the mixed form, remains its framework, academic thought will be a pillar of support for economic liberalism. It will support the free market when the mixed economy is malfunctioning and the mixed economy when the free market is malfunctioning. Therefore, the way to end support for economic liberalism in general is to drop the philosophical liberal paradigm in favor of another one. Of course, for this to be possible there must be a context of widespread protest against merely advancing liberal solutions to liberal problems. Before addressing the practical issue of an enabling context of protest, let us first explore an illiberal alternative that even some liberals have been groping towards.

4   Public goods and defectors In the era of the mixed economy, Paul Samuelson thought the public goods of such an economy could be characterized in market terms.[8] They are then goods for which increasing demand by having an additional individual enjoy them does not increase the costs of supplying them significantly. They are then “non-exhaustible.”  Also, they are goods for which exclusion of an individual does increase the expenses for the society significantly. The expense comes not just from the individual excluded but also from others who are indirectly affected. Thus, a child excluded from education may as an adult incur welfare expenditures the society will pay and may reduce the society’s potential for growth by including an untrained individual. Public goods are then “non-excludable.” Self-interest is sufficient to bring about goods with these two features. They seem then to confirm Adam Smith’s conjecture that individual choices, rather than collective effort, would be sufficient to realize social goods.

Rather than call for cooperation and solidarity between individuals, groups, or states, we need only appeal to so-called “positive externalities.”  When I use the health care system for my own benefit, I am also benefiting in a variety of ways those external to me. They benefit from my being on the job more often and from my costing less for health care in the future.  Ignoring positive externalities will lead to equilibrium in what people using a public good contribute toward its maintenance that is sub-optimal. That is, by making greater contributions than they make, they would enhance their total welfare. This Nash equilibrium, so-called after Noble Laureate John Nash, could be shifted to correspond to a higher welfare level if each person took account of the “spillins,” or positive externalities, coming from the others.[9] Taking account of these spillins would lead to a larger contribution by each to provision the public good.

Stiglitz has used the ideas of positive externalities to develop the important notion of global public goods.[10] Like others, he thinks it possible to avoid some of the woes of neoliberalism by global public goods. In relying on global positive externalities, his global public goods fall within the pure liberal model by relying solely on self-interest for motivation.

This approach does not resolve the hoary problem of the defector or free rider. Why pay at all for the provision of a public good if others are willing to pay for it? Having countries reduce their carbon dioxide emissions can control global warming. A given country that reduces its emissions will have a positive effect on other countries by its contribution to abating global warming. However, even if the given country does not reduce emissions, it could still enjoy the abatement of global warming generated by the countries that do reduce emissions. Of course, by being a defector, the given country would cease to be a source of positive externalities to its neighbors. With less to gain from complying, they too would defect leading to a collapse of the public good that promised pollution abatement.


5   Common goals and cooperation There is then a reason to move beyond the philosophical liberalism that is imaged in both neoliberalism and current efforts to modify neoliberalism. As I have hinted, one way to get beyond it is to replace its notion of liberty and equality with principles grounded in concepts of agreement, cooperation, and common goals. Liberty then is a conditioned concept rather than a stand-alone one. Liberty then fits into the framework of “our” values as set by the common goals “we” have agreed to and are willing to cooperate in achieving. Our values can be the values of groups we identify with rather than values that some country or the world agrees to. There are too many deep divisions in countries and certainly in the world to suppose that there are significant agreements within such wide areas.

For philosophical liberalism, there is no special importance given to cooperation with others. What an individual chooses to do with his or her life may involve only personal goals. In this case, relations with others, including cooperation, will serve as instruments to those personal goals. The only requirement is that we not violate the liberty of those so used.  Even when social goals and the cooperation needed to reach them complement personal goals, liberalism does not make them essential to its adherents.

In contrast, I want to give cooperation a central role.[11] It is tied to goals people have in common – goals like peace, education, and a fair society. In any such case, my goal is not something you are excluded from. Cooperation is necessary for achieving goals like these. In liberalism, this kind of cooperation is possible, but it is not made into a norm alongside liberal liberty. That it is not a norm for liberalism is clear from the fact that liberalism has a realization in the free market, which has disastrous consequences for multitudes of people in terms of poverty, inequality, autocracy, and opportunity.

Liberalism has no basis for a criticism of the pursuit of personal gain through the market without expanding its notion of interference with others beyond its original intent. We need a political morality that goes farther by calling us to cooperate with others in the pursuit of common goals. This is not a call to the common goals some particular group pursues. Such a political morality leaves room for criticism before making a choice of the goals of any group. It privileges no group. What matters is that there be an effort to find a group, or at least a group in embryo, which dedicates itself to pursuing what can feasibly become common goals rather than the special interests of one group to be won at the expense of another. We suffer today from a perniciously narrow form of liberalism in which governments, many civil institutions, and individuals set aside the pursuit of common goals and become advocates for the capitalist class, for a religious current, or for personal ambition. Their rhetoric, though, remains that of pursuing common goals, showing that common awareness insists on holding those who make a claim to lead to the norm of commitment to the common good.

The imperative to cooperate on common goals does not exclude particular goals, whether of groups or individuals. It is only a charge to participate with others in trying to improve living together. Matching this imperative is a right that is the counterpart of the liberal’s right to liberty; it is the right to expect cooperation in achieving common goals. Part of the cooperation comes in the achieving of goals, but another part comes in the deciding on them. The right cooperate is not a novelty in recent moral writing. It appears at the starting point of John Rawls’ theory of justice.[12] He assumes a society in which there is cooperation and then goes on to show that the reciprocity found among cooperators is a basis for justice.

These features of cooperation lead directly to a critique of liberal liberty. On the one hand, making cooperation a norm expands liberty beyond the liberty to do what one wills. For, by engaging in the process of setting goals and implementing them, people give one another the liberty to have what those goals offer. For example, we have established institutions that guarantee the freedom to vote, to get health care, and to protest. On the other hand, it narrows the traditional liberal liberty. The common pursuit of a common goal frames a context that sets a limit on legitimate appeals to liberty. One has a right to exit from such a common pursuit when one is in opposition to the goal, but at the cost of giving up the benefits of other social goods for this non-cooperation. This interference is coercive in nature, finding its justification, not in an abstract reasonableness, but in the cooperative nature of a common pursuit.

6   Elements for an alternative In the universities, it is this cooperative ideal that can substitute for the liberal ideal. The liberal ideal has become powerful in the universities precisely because it has an application in the market, which has won its way to dominance in the global economy over more cooperative practices. If, however, the universities only reflect changes in the economic world, is there any hope to displace the liberal ideal by a cooperative one?

The situation is not as bleak as this might suggest.  The world outside universities is, after all, not a monolith; there are oppositions at a variety of levels. There is Venezuela that is reorienting its economy in order to deal seriously with massive poverty.[13] In Mexico, there is a cooperative movement, which has grown due to low prices for farmers’ produce and to high unemployment.   In response to neoliberal privatization, there are movements in Asia, Africa, and South America to protect and rebuild public goods. Salvadorians, for example, are successfully resisting the privatization of their health care system.  In almost every country, there is protest against the continuing war in Iraq as part of the effort of neoliberal leaders to open the world to financial penetration and to the market in general.

Those who wish to begin to construct a counter hegemony within academe can, then, go beyond their own thinking to find suggestions for constructing it. They can find guidance in these and other concrete movements, where common goals are being decided and acted on. Each of these movements is, to an encouraging degree, following the imperative to cooperate on common goals. We have then the elements for an effective counter within the universities to the dominant liberal ideal. One of those elements is a critique of neoliberalism as a source of personal misery and economic instability. Another element is an elucidation of the cooperative ideal as an alternative by reference to movements challenging neoliberalism.

In changing the widely accepted norm from liberal liberty to cooperation, our task is not finished. We must then probe the consequences of the norm. How does it affect the notion of justice, for example? In a group cooperating to reach a common goal, there are two things relevant to justice. We do not talk about justice among individuals without connection to one another; one is just or unjust to someone with whom one is bound together in some way. Here the bond is cooperation. The second thing is that one is just or unjust to others in reference to some common good; the kidnapper, for example, is unjust by denying the good of liberty.  So in view of these two features we see that justice is violated when the cooperative effort to reaching a common goal is setback in some way.  In elucidating justice, the liberal must rely on the idea of respecting persons, which yields a view of justice that is much less promising than the alternative view of it sketched here. The reason is that respect for the liberal means not interfering with personal goals.[14]

In conclusion, the dominant liberal ideal of the universities in the United States is used to give support to the dominance of the market in economic affairs. A challenge to this ideal by academics is possible using the notion of cooperation and forming a rationale for an imperative to cooperate others engaged in the pursuit of common goals. For this challenge to be effective, one must link it with the rich variety of movements around the world that are challenging the neoliberal economy.


[1] See e.g. Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), chapter 3.

[2] See e.g. Greider’s  series in The Nation (January 30, April 10, April 24, 2000).

[3] Milton Friedman, Essays in Positive Economics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1953).

[4] Arthur Okun, Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (Washington DC: The Brookings Institute, 1975), and Charles L. Schultze The Public Use of Private Interest (Washington DC: The Brookings Institute, 1977).

[5] See Milton Fisk, ¿Han Seducido los Liberales a los Radicales? in his Bienes Públicos y Justicia Radical (Cali, Colombia: Programa Editorial Universidad del Valle, 2004), 37-70.

[6] Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (London: Macmillan, 1936), chapter 3.

[7] Berlin, in his Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 165-171.

[8] Paul A Samuelson, “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 36, 4 (1954): 387-389.

[9] On Nash equilibrium, see Todd Sandler, “Intergenerational Public Goods: Strategies, Efficiency, and Institutions,” in Global Public Goods, editors U.Kaul, I.Grunberg, and M.A.Stern (New York: Oxford University Press and United Nations Development Program, 1999), 20-50.

[10] See e.g. Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents (New York: Norton, 203), 222-229. Also his Economics of the Public Sector (New York: Norton, 1986).

[11] This theme is developed systematically in Milton Fisk, “Social Feelings and Socialist Morality,” to appear in Socialism for a New Generation, editors  R.Schmitt and A.Anton.

[12] Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 15, 102. See also his Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 16-17, 50.

[13] A concrete example of changing the liberal mind-set in the university as conditions change in the society is given  by Orietta Caponi in her unpublished paper “El Papel de la Universidad en el Proceso de la Revolución Bolivariana: La Verdadera Transformación Universitaria”

[14] For a liberal view of justice that sets out from respect, see Stefan Gosepath, “The Global Scope of Justice,” in Global Justice, edited by T.W. Pogge (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 145-168.