Kant, coercion, and the legitimation of inequality

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Immanuel Kant’s political philosophy has enjoyed renewed attention as an egalitarian alternative to contemporary inequality since it seems to uncompromisingly reassert the primacy of the state over the economy, enabling it to defend the modern welfare state against encroaching neoliberal markets. However, I argue that, when understood as a free-standing approach to politics, Kant’s doctrine of right shares essential features with the prevailing theories that legitimate really existing economic inequality. Like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, Kant understands the state’s function as essentially coercive and, in justifying state coercion, he adopts a narrow conception of political freedom that formally preserves the right to choose while denying that the range of choices one actually has can be a matter of justice. As a result, Kant cannot identify various forms of social pressure as potential injustices even as he recognizes their power to create and sustain troubling inequalities. For both Kant and the neoliberals, the result is that economic relations almost never count as unjust forms of coercion, no matter how unequal they are. Views that identify coercion as the trigger for duties of justice are thus particularly ill-suited to orient us to contemporary inequality.
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Archival date: 2019-08-25
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