In Free Market Fairness, Brown University political science professor John Tomasi seeks to defend free markets on a Rawlsian “social justice” foundation. In laying the groundwork for his argument, Tomasi thinks it is notable that even most free-market thinkers appeal to “social justice” concerns, i.e., that they almost all — from Adam Smith to Herbert Spencer to Milton Friedman — stress that free markets are good for “the poor.” In doing so, he writes,

these classical liberal and libertarian thinkers come very close to an attractive idea that lies near the very heart of social justice. This is the idea that institutional regimes should be evaluated in terms of the benefits they provide to all citizens subject to them. In particular, institutional regimes should be evaluated in terms of how those systems are expected to affect the interests of the working poor.

I was intrigued to see that Tomasi includes Ayn Rand under this heading. After an on-the-whole accurate summary of Rand’s moral perspective and its role as the foundation of her support for capitalism, Tomasi observes that “Rand takes pains to point out that capitalism is a positive benefit to all who are willing to engage in productive work,” including — here he quotes Rand — “the inhabitants of the slums.”


While making it clear that Rand “starkly rejects all ideas of distributive justice,” he nevertheless concludes, “Even avowedly egoistic defenses of libertarianism [sic] recognize the moral imperative that material benefits of social cooperation reach the least well-off class.”


I don’t think this follows. In the examples Tomasi cites, Rand is not working from the premise that we evaluate capitalism morally by asking whether it benefits “the least well-off class.”


Rand’s perspective is thoroughly individualist. As an egoist, her view is that each individual should pursue his own happiness, and her moral defense of capitalism consists of arguing that capitalism frees each individual to pursue his own happiness. Poor individuals have no special standing in her view.


So why does she bring them up at all? I think the answer is that Rand is heading off the objection that capitalism sacrifices those with less ability to those with more. You’ve heard this argument: Capitalism, it’s claimed, may be good for productive geniuses, but what about the person of limited ability?


Rand’s answer is that there is a harmony of interests under capitalism: each individual can pursue and achieve his interests under freedom (and only under freedom) — even the poorest individual. Under capitalism, no one is sacrificed to anyone.


The difference here may seem subtle, but it’s profound. Tomasi says that “institutional regimes should be evaluated in terms of how those systems are expected to affect the interests of the working poor.” Rand would say we shouldn’t evaluate institutions by how they affect any group. It’s wrong, she thinks, to approach political questions by thinking in collectivist terms like “the rich,” “the poor,” or “society.” The question is not which social system benefits which groups, but which social system is geared toward the life of an individual human being.


Notice that this is different even from Tomasi’s broader formulation: “institutional regimes should be evaluated in terms of the benefits they provide to all citizens subject to them.” Rand doesn’t hold that capitalism is good for “all citizens,” and doesn’t believe this is the standard by which capitalism should be evaluated.


The way to evaluate a social system, in her view, is by reference to man’s nature. The question is: what social system is geared toward the survival requirements of a rational individual? (For details see her article “What Is Capitalism?”) Capitalism is good, not because it’s good for everyone — it’s certainly not good for criminals, moochers, power-lusting politicians, or businessmen who live off special favors from Washington — but because it’s good for anyone who chooses to think and produce.