John Tomasi: “IHS Encouraged Me to Become a Better Scholar”

At his first IHS seminar, John Tomasi was enthralled by the ideas and conversations that were being juggled around by so many bright minds. At one lecture, he made a stark objection to a point from one of the speakers that was quickly brushed off. But this didn’t deter Tomasi from asserting his message with even greater force. Following the event, Tomasi heard about an upcoming essay contest that was being held, so he wrote his objection and submitted the paper to IHS.

Six weeks later, he received a letter informing him that he’d won and would be invited to the next summer seminar. This outreach, he reflects, filled him with a profound sense of recognition and an appreciation for IHS for taking his ideas seriously.

“These people who are committed to an idea that I seem to be criticizing, take the idea so seriously that they welcome a serious critic. It taught me that they were serious enough about the free society that they actually encouraged someone like me to delve into the ideas and push hard on the sensitive parts. From there, IHS completely changed my life.”

– John Tomasi

John Tomasi
John Tomasi

The paper was later accepted into the same journal that published the original article that sparked Tomasi’s criticism. “It was my first publication ever,” he remembers, “I had my first publication from IHS critiquing one of their biggest speakers and it taught me to believe in IHS.”

John Tomasi is president of Heterodox Academy, an organization devoted to advancing the conversation in higher education through “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.” Tomasi previously served as the Romeo Elton 1843 Professor of Natural Philosophy at Brown University, where he was also the founding director of the Political Theory Project, a program that fosters interdisciplinary research on the ideas that lead to the “free, prosperous, and fair” society.

Following the essay contest, which he cites as both gleeful and bizarre, Tomasi recounts the many examples of support he received from IHS throughout his early career. For instance, he jestingly remembers how unprepared he was as a public speaker. “I was just terrified of public speaking,” he says, until IHS hosted a weekend seminar that gave him the tools to become a better orator. “IHS even went so far as to hire a speaking coach,” he recalls.

More importantly, Tomasi says that what IHS focused on was preparing scholars to become well-rounded intellectuals in addition to their professional growth. He explains that “IHS called my attention to the fact that I’d better become a good speaker if I’m going to make it in this profession.”

Similarly, the financial support that IHS provided Tomasi gave him great freedom to pursue his studies even further. For example, when he transferred from the University of Arizona to Oxford, IHS funded his scholarship. The early interest displayed by IHS, he adds, inspired him to attend future IHS programs as a speaker and to pass on the lessons he learned as a past participant.

“IHS didn’t wait until I was an established academic, they got me doing that very early in my career. Because of IHS, I was a more refined academic and working at it consistently for many years. I knew the things that they said to me were functional lessons, so I was aware that it worked. I was living proof that it worked, and so I was eager to go back to the same organization that gave so much to me.”

– John Tomasi

Many of the insights Tomasi has imparted on his students were the same he gathered from his longtime friend and colleague Dave Schmidtz, a philosophy professor at the University of Arizona. Their friendship bloomed from when they were graduate students at Arizona, where Schmidtz would constantly share classical liberal scholarship with his fellow philosophers.

In some cases, Schmidtz would even remind other graduate students about future career opportunities, like IHS programs. Schmidtz helped to shape Tomasi’s mentorship approach, which has trickled into the advice he gives IHS participants whenever he speaks at programs.

In 2012, Tomasi published “Free Market Fairness,” which makes significant inroads by weaving together the principle of private economic liberty with a strong commitment to social justice. The book has been described by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, as “one of the very best philosophical treatments of libertarian thought, ever.”

In the book, Tomasi introduces the idea of “market democracy,” which he refers to as welding a “thick conception of economic liberty” with “a robust conception of social justice as the ultimate standard of institutional evaluation” (p. 88).

Tomasi strongly believes that a firm defense of and adherence to economic liberty grants individuals the capacity to achieve their best selves. Upholding private economic rights, he says, ought to be equally secured with other essential rights, like civil and political rights, that many others hold dear.

According to Tomasi, however, market democracy accepts that there will be limits to the extent of private economic liberties. It may be the case that political institutions emerge to protect the poor and indigent so that they have the tools to exercise their moral independence. So long as there exists a “range of self-authorship,” he says, citizens will be protected from overbearing government incursion while also affirming the belief that no one should be left behind.

In fact, the book was so well received that Chilean president Sebastián Piñera spoke with Tomasi about the ways in which market democracy could be incorporated within his administration. Government leaders in Sweden and members from the Centre for Civil Society, an Indian think tank, also took interest in exploring more of the themes in his book.

John Tomasi

“There was a big hole in the literature,” Tomasi explains. In conversations with his students, Tomasi seemed to cross many bridges with people who were sympathetic with the free society but were reticent in sharing a philosophy that they believed to be bypassing the needs of the poor. This fundamental misunderstanding, he notes, is what drove him to write the book.  

Tomasi emphasizes that social justice is not incompatible with classical liberalism, and that for centuries, approaching the free society has always been coupled with a concern for the poor and disadvantaged. “My students helped direct me towards a set of issues that if we could address them better, we could do a better job moving toward a free society,” he says.

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

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