Liberalism Made Right
CLASSICAL LIBERALISM: THE UNVANQUISHED IDEAL
St. Martin's Press, 1995, ix + 150 pgs.
David Conway stands in resolute opposition to most contemporary Anglo-American political
philosophers. Conway defends vigorously and effectively the classical liberal ideal of a society
people free to lead their lives without the coercive tutelage of the state. In contrast to "modern"
liberals, who have perverted the classical doctrine into its opposite, Conway holds that personal
freedom most definitely includes the right to own property. A free society rests on a free market.
In taking this view, Conway confronts some of the giants of modern philosophy, not least
them John Rawls and Alasdair MacIntyre. He sets forward the major objections to classical
liberalism advanced by these supposed master figures and proceeds to dispatch them.
Before he dissects the doctrines of particular thinkers, Conway discusses an argument against
free market which has won wide favor. Granted that people have a right to freedom, must not the
liberty to acquire and use property be tempered with state provision of welfare? Otherwise, those
without resources face starvation. "By refusing to countenance welfare rights, classical liberalism
is widely thought to fail to accommodate the needs and interests of those who, through no fault
of their own, are destitute and unable to provide for themselves" (p. 20).
Conway handles this argument in a way that Mises would have approved. Like Mises,
asks: will interference with the market achieve the goals its advocates profess? The legal
enactment of a "right" to welfare does not by itself put bread on the table of the destitute; why
cannot a free-market order provide for the poor through private charity? If the market works
better than its rivals in all other spheres, why not here?
But, it will be replied, this leaves the objection unmet. Even if the market provides
the poor, it extends no right to relief: the poor are left to the mercies of charity. Is this not unjust?
Conway meets this objection head on. Unless you have caused someone else s poverty, you
not responsible for his plight: he thus has no right to seize your property. Mere "need," absent an
account of how the need arose, generates no rights. To this, however, our author allows one
exception: "a liberal polity is justified in compelling the natural parents of a child to provide for
it, until such time as the child becomes capable of providing for itself, or else a third party
voluntarily assumes responsibility for it instead of its parents" (p. 22).
Readers may be inclined to quarrel with one or two details of Conway s analysis. (His
that a newborn left to die is worse off than had it never been conceived strikes me as
ungrounded.) But, on the main point, his case cannot be gainsaid: people, regardless of how
badly off they are, have no right to the labor or property of others.
Those sympathetic to the free market may find the foregoing the merest commonplace; but it
precisely here that Conway finds himself opposed by the most influential writers in his field. Let
us begin at the top: the single most dominant moral philosopher of our times, John Rawls, denies
that people have an unrestricted right to what they have voluntarily produced and exchanged.
What you obtain on the free market depends, to a great extent, on what you do not deserve.
Those born to rich or well- connected parents, or with abilities that place them far above average,
have a much better chance of success than those less favored. Since you do not deserve your
"natural assets," Rawls holds that they may be taken from you in order to fulfill the terms of his
notorious "difference principle." Under it, inequalities are allowed only if they benefit the least
Conway s response takes hold of a crucial point that most critics of Rawls have missed. In
fascination with details of Rawls s theory, such as the "original position" and the "veil of
ignorance," commentators have overlooked a simple point. Rawls maintains that his theory fits
ordinary morality. To Rawls, it is unfair, in the common usage of that term, that some, through
"accidental" causes, have vastly more than others. (This alleged unfairness is, if anything, even
more prominent in the work of Rawls's student Thomas Nagel, whom Conway also insightfully
Rawls's case, to reiterate, depends in large part not on an arcane theory, but on a simple
intuition. "Rawls remarks 'intuitively, the most obvious injustice of the system of natural liberty
is that it permits distributive shares to be improperly influenced by . . . factors so arbitrary from a
moral point of view,'" (p. 29, quoting Rawls, A Theory of Justice).
Conway, following Robert Nozick, locates an elementary fallacy in Rawls's contention. Our
author agrees that you do not deserve your parents or your abilities: You have not acquired these
owing to your own virtue. But it does not follow from this that you deserve not to have them, or
that the state may legitimately take them from you. "It is clear from what Rawls writes that there
is only one sort of difference between individuals which morally justifies their enjoying different
life-prospects. This is differences in degree of merit or desert" (p. 30). Absent this assumption,
Rawls's theory collapses.
Conway pursues with great ingenuity the variants of egalitarianism defended by other
moral philosophers: the aforementioned Thomas Nagel, Ronald Dworkin, Kai Nielsen, and Ted
Honderich. But once the essence of his criticism of Rawls has been grasped, the rest is but a
mopping-up operation that need not be described in detail here. Rather, let us turn to another of
our author's battles in defense of the market. For Alasdair MacIntyre, whose After Virtue (1981)
has been vastly influential, Rawls's criticism of the market does not go deep enough.
Classical liberalism, as MacIntyre sees it, has undermined the basis of morality. Today, on
such as abortion and economic justice, opinions clash in irreconcilable conflict. The dispute
between Rawls and Conway, MacIntyre might say, illustrates his thesis. Each philosopher argues
cogently from a given premise: Rawls from the value of equality, and Conway from that of
liberty. If you accept the premise, the philosopher's conclusion follows; but no argument will be
of use should you reject the starting point.
What has brought about this battle of opposed value judgments? For MacIntyre, the culprit is
liberalism. Unlike the societies of classical Greece and Christendom in the Middle Ages, people
under liberalism share no sense of a common good. Instead, each person devotes himself to his
own selfish concerns. Lacking a sense of the common good, people cannot be virtuous. Those
engaged in the pursuit of a goal in common will value certain habits that enable them to pursue
Laborers on a medieval cathedral, e.g., will come to value the exercise of careful
>From such goods internal to a practice, as MacIntyre calls them, the virtues develop: without
them, the virtues cannot exist. Through acquiring the virtues, in turn, people may weave their
lives into a narrative unity. This unity can be achieved not in isolation, but only in common
pursuit of a tradition.
In this brief account of MacIntyre, I have labored under a handicap. The main points of his
system strike me as unintelligible; and I fear that I have been unable to convey the sense, let
alone the appeal, of his views. All the more remarkable, then, is Conway's ability to give a clear
account of this difficult writer. I can only urge those baffled by MacIntyre to study closely
Conway's account (pp. 65 100).
But what of MacIntyre's assault on classical liberalism? Conway disposes of it in short order.
Nothing in a free-market order precludes goods internal to a practice, or any other of MacIntyre's
paraphernalia, from coming into existence. If indeed they are essential to the growth of virtue,
free market does not stand in their way. Neither does the market stand in the way of devotion to
the common good: the rise of emotivism and subjectivism in ethics, whatever their failings,
cannot be attributed to it. The classical liberal freedoms, to the contrary, offer a framework
within which moral action can take place.
Put briefly, Conway contends that MacIntyre's account of morality, even if correct, leaves
classical liberalism untouched. It by no means is the case, though, that Conway himself accepts
MacIntyre's account. In particular, he is concerned to challenge MacIntyre's claim that virtue can
develop only in communities with internal goods.
To the contrary, Conway replies, someone has reason to develop habits of virtue, entirely
from the communities that MacIntyre stresses. Virtues such as courage and temperance aid
people to achieve a happy life; hence they have reason to acquire them. Conway's Aristotelian
account of virtue closely resembles that of Philippa Foot. (See especially her collection, Virtues
At one point, I venture to suggest, the case against MacIntyre can be extended. Does
himself avoid the subjectivism about which he waxes indignant? It seems to me that he does not.
Let us return to MacIntyre's starting point, the breakdown that results when conflicting moral
premises prevent consensus.
MacIntyre does not attempt to settle conflicts of this sort. Quite the contrary, his point is that
cannot be settled. What he seeks, rather, is a group of people all of whom share the same values.
But then he has not escaped at all from subjectivism: he has instead replaced individual
subjectivism with a collective variety of the same malady.
Conway has sent MacIntyre packing; but his defense of classical liberalism is not yet
The English political philosopher John Gray, once an ardent classical liberal, has in part
Like MacIntyre, Gray stresses the existence of irresolvable conflicts of value. But for Gray, this
is not a situation to be remedied. Following Isaiah Berlin, Gray holds that values are necessarily
diverse and conflicting. If so, how can a classical liberal (or an advocate of any other political
system) hold that everyone ought to adopt his favored set of values? Classical liberalism, with its
stress on freedom, becomes but one of many valuable political orders.
Conway's strategy of response resembles his reaction to MacIntyre. Even if Gray's account of
value is true, a classical liberal regime can accommodate it. Each of the various forms of
attaining a flourishing life could exist within a liberal society, for all Gray and Berlin have shown
to the contrary. Our author pursues Gray in relentless detail; but since I discuss Gray's views
elsewhere in this issue, I shall for now leave it at that.
Suffice it to say that Conway's exceptionally well-organized defense of classical liberalism is
well worth the attention of all students of political theory. The author's exceptional knowledge of
the history of philosophy greatly enhances the book's value: how many authors, e.g., would
to quote Franz Brentano on the dangers of compulsory beneficence (pp. 47 48)?