Most academic friends of the free market are economists while a high percentage of academic philosophers are critical of markets. When considering the list of great thinkers in the history of philosophy who espouse market friendly views, Immanuel Kant is usually excluded from that list.
For those of us working on Kant’s practical philosophy, that he is excluded is surprising. He placed high importance on individual freedom and claimed that the state generally possesses no coercive authority beyond what would be possessed by a regular citizen. Kant’s practical philosophy lends itself to a type of liberalism that recognizes the importance of individual freedom and self-determination, but takes the promotion of these values to provide the justification of coercion within only a fairly narrow range of circumstances, both from state and non-state entities.
Individual freedom plays a central role in Kant’s moral and political philosophy. He writes, “Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice, insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law, is the only original right belonging to every man by virtue of his humanity” (MM 6:237). Kant’s moral and political philosophy both center on freedom.
In his moral philosophy, individual freedom or autonomy is the “supreme principle of morality” (Gr 4:440). In his political philosophy, the function of civil society and the state is to secure the external conditions that makes autonomy possible. For Kant, an individual is autonomous when he adopts principles for action consistent with the categorical imperative (Gr 4:421).
The Categorical Imperative is Kant’s formal principle against which we can test practical maxims to determine if they are consistent with the moral law. A principle fails when tested against the categorical imperative because it is contradictory: either it is not possible to conceive of the action that comes as a result of universalizing that maxim (i.e., a contradiction in conception), or the result of universalizing the maxim somehow is self-defeating (i.e., a contradiction in the will).
Kant claims that the person who adopts contradictory maxims is not free, at least not in the fullest sense. For Kant, complete freedom requires what we might identify as positive and negative freedom, or both (1) capacity to adopt the kind of maxims that Kant identifies, and (2) the absence of impulses external to an individual’s will that influence him to the extent that they are the determining factor in why he adopted his maxim of action.
The second component of complete freedom requires an individual to be free from external forces that could determine the maxims he adopts. Although autonomy is connected with an individual’s ability to participate in the process of rational deliberation and act on maxims that are not contradictory in nature, an individual’s external circumstances, circumstances that are often beyond his control, can play a significant role in determining whether it is possible for him to be autonomous in practice.
Consider life for someone living in a condition where he constantly fears sudden and violent death, or, perhaps less violent but similarly difficult, someone who is in extreme poverty and lives with a real risk of death from starvation or exposure. It is not unreasonable to think that a person whose survival is threatened constantly may act from basic instincts and not reason in response to external pressures.
Kant’s solution is for individuals to enter into conditions of civil society, the defining feature of which is “distributive justice,” or where what is yours and mine is secured by juridical law (MM 6:255, see also 6:306 and 6:312) and an arbiter who “could judge a dispute with rightful force” (PP 8:346). Notice how the recognition and protection of private property is given a central role in Kant’s system.
Since (1) individuals are under a moral obligation to act autonomously; (2) autonomous action is possible in practice only if an individual’s life, health, liberty, and possessions are secured; and (3) the only mechanism to realize this security is by living in civil society; therefore, (4) individuals “do wrong in the highest degree” by failing to enter or remain in this condition (MM 6:308).
As a result, Kant claims that individuals are under a moral obligation to enter civil society, and, further, that individuals are justified in coercing others to enter this condition with them if they refuse to do so willingly. Although coercion violates individual freedom and is wrong as a general rule, if an individual’s use of freedom “is itself a hindrance to freedom in accordance with universal laws (i.e., wrong), coercion that is opposed to this (as a hindering of a hindrance to freedom) is consistent with freedom in accordance with universal laws, that is, it is right” (MM 6:231).
Appealing to this same principle, Kant argues that coercion can also be used by the state to extract tax dollars to support not only the administrative functions that make possible maintaining this civil condition, but also welfare programs for the poor and destitute. That Kant would take this position on taxation is not surprising given his discussion of autonomy and the role of the state in securing an external condition that makes autonomous action possible.
Autonomy is connected with an individual’s ability to participate in the process of rational deliberation, but an individual’s external circumstances, circumstances which are often beyond his control, play a significant role in determining whether it is possible for him to be autonomous in practice
If state authority is justified because it helps to secure the external conditions that make autonomy possible, then some degree of taxing the rich in order to support the poor is legitimate. What is at issue is not fairness, but the freedom of the individuals who are destitute. Without state support to provide the basic necessities, these individuals would be in constant fear of lacking what is necessary to survive.
For Kant, no one can be autonomous when living in this condition. Coercion was justified when it hindered a hindrance to freedom. While taxation is a form of coercion, it is justified coercion when the funds are used to remove individuals from an external condition that hinders their ability to be free by providing them with basic necessities. But providing anything beyond these basic necessities allow poverty to become “a means of acquisition for the lazy,” and an “unjust burdening of the people by government.”
Kant, I., Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Gr), in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, trans. by M. Gregor, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
______, The Metaphysics of Morals (MM), in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel
Kant: Practical Philosophy, trans. by M. Gregor, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
______, “Perpetual Peace” (PP), in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant:
Practical Philosophy, trans. by M. Gregor, Cambridge University Press, 1999.