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  1. The Weekend Essay
22 April 2023

Do we really need Rawls?

Daniel Chandler’s much-hyped new book says that, in an age of polarisation, the American philosopher offers a blueprint for society.

By William Davies

Liberal ideas have typically been forged in dialogue with their opponents of the time. Thomas Hobbes’s defence of the sovereign state in Leviathan (1651), widely viewed as the year zero of liberal political philosophy, was provoked by him having seen the devastating consequences of religious wars. For Hobbes, only a secular politics founded in reason could rescue mankind from competing belief systems. Adam Smith’s defence of markets in The Wealth of Nations (1776) was a critique of mercantilism and feudalism, both of which aimed to hoard wealth.

During the 19th century, liberalism became a public campaign, waged on behalf of industrial and finance capital, to remove political impediments to international trade. Newspapers, political parties and gentlemen’s clubs were established to add heft to this agenda, while remaining silent about the economic contribution of colonialism. And in the 20th century, liberal arguments were remade once more, in the face of a new set of threats and enemies. The neoliberals, coordinated by Friedrich Hayek from the 1940s onwards, saw themselves as engaged in a rearguard action against socialism, Keynesianism and the welfare state.

The 20th century’s most revered work of liberal political philosophy was published in 1971: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice posed a fundamental question of how a society should be designed such that any reasonable person would consent to live in it. The LSE economist and philosopher Daniel Chandler describes A Theory of Justice as a “watershed moment in the history of political ideas”, and it is also the inspiration for his new book, Free and Equal. Rawls’s claims included the egalitarian “difference principle”: that any inequality should be only so great as to benefit the worst off, maximising the improvement of the least advantaged.

But who or what was Rawls’s “target”? What was the equivalent of the religious “schoolmen” who worried Hobbes or the “planners” that so terrified Hayek? An enigma of his work is that it is not entirely clear.

As Chandler demonstrates, Rawls offers various resources and arguments for progressives seeking to challenge mounting inequality and authoritarianism today. But the period that gave birth to A Theory of Justice (conceived and developed from the early 1950s onwards) was one in which liberal egalitarianism had never enjoyed so much support. Although Chandler stresses that Rawls should not be read simply as an advocate for interventionist fiscal policy, the “difference principle” has nevertheless been deployed as a defence of the welfare state and progressive taxation.

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A suspicion that Rawls was offering an argument for a redistributive policy already well established in postwar America (albeit entering political and economic crisis when A Theory of Justice was published) has led some to read Rawls as politically quietist, despite his philosophical ambition. Rawls changed political philosophy, but did Rawlsian liberalism change politics? Certainly not in the way Hayekian neoliberalism did.

[See also: Reflecting on Richard Rorty: is America worth keeping?]

A Theory of Justice did, however, force the critics of both liberalism and egalitarianism to hone their arguments, producing the debates that would dominate US political philosophy over the following decades. Chandler briefly reviews the arguments of Rawls’s main critics: free market conservatives, Marxists, communitarians and realists. Of these, it was the communitarian tradition associated with the ex-Marxists Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor that developed most fruitfully in response, and which arguably anticipated some of the post-liberal and identity-based movements that have swept Western democracies in the 21st century.

Rawls’s communitarian critics focused on one aspect of his liberalism: the abstract, unencumbered model of the reasoning self at the heart of A Theory of Justice. For Rawls, the way to establish the norms of justice is to ask what kind of society we would choose to live in if we had no idea of our economic or political position in it (the thought experiment known as the “veil of ignorance”). But for communitarians, this is to ignore the very things that make us who we are and lead us to engage in politics in the first place: our beliefs, traditions, identities and social bonds. These may be accidents of history and culture, but they are also indispensable components of solidarity, which can tip into something uglier when they become too exclusionary. Rawls invites us to consider politics from the perspective of a disembodied observer; communitarians insist that it is only through embodied, lived social experience that ethical values exist at all.

It would be simplistic to claim that the communitarians have “won” this argument. However, liberalism finds itself deadlocked and beleaguered facing political movements that challenge the possibility of universal principles of justice. What Taylor termed the “politics of recognition” (whereby individuals and groups demand to have their particular identities and differences affirmed by others) has stretched liberalism almost to breaking point, as events such as Brexit attest. On both left and right, “liberal” has become an insult, aimed at anyone who strives for consensus or objectivity in public life, as if to do so is merely a form of hubris born of cultural privilege.

In many cases, liberalism has been swallowed whole by communitarian logic, such that the defence of “liberalism” has itself become (or become represented as) a kind of identity-based demand for recognition. David Goodhart’s distinction between “anywheres” and “somewheres” turns liberals into just another tribe, while ongoing Conservative attacks on “activist lawyers”, “citizens of nowhere” and “north Londoners” adds a whiff of anti-Semitism to the critique. If A Theory of Justice lacked any clear sense of an enemy in 1971, the same can’t be said in 2023. How to defend liberalism in the age of Suella Braverman, Elon Musk, Facebook, millennial socialism, Viktor Orbán, Brexit and so on?

There is a post-2016 subgenre of books that rise to this challenge, including How to Be Right by James O’Brien and How to Be a Liberal by Ian Dunt, by meeting cultural fire with fire, after the rash of liberal pessimism that accompanied Donald Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote. And yet Free and Equal is neither polemic nor diagnosis. Instead, it starts from the rather unusual premise that a single philosopher holds the answers to how we should organise our society. A more commercially ruthless editor might have slapped an Alain de Botton-esque title on it such as How Rawls Can Change Your Society. At the very least, it is an accessible primer on Rawls’s ideas, and what they imply for public policy.

Chandler walks the reader through the fundamentals of Rawls’s thinking. These include the “basic liberties principle”, the idea that there are certain freedoms that no reasonable person would agree to give up, assuming (as per the “veil of ignorance”) that they didn’t know in advance what their status in society might be. This is what marks Rawls out as a liberal philosopher, in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, in contrast to communitarians (who challenge the individualistic starting point) and utilitarians (who define justice in terms of consequences, not a priori structures).

Chandler then shows how such ideas might be employed in addressing contemporary political dilemmas and reforming today’s economy. Some are the sorts of worthy constitutional issues that struggle to quicken the pulse, such as electoral reform. Others are far thornier and more contentious, concerning free speech, gender identity and positive discrimination. It’s to Chandler’s credit that he addresses these head on, using A Theory of Justice as his guide. On culture war issues, Free and Equal is an exemplary demonstration of how public reasoning can be done in ways that resist the urge to pick a side.

[See also: Reimagining political philosophy: on Charles Mills]

Nevertheless, in its scrupulous sense of fairness and consideration of both sides to every cultural conflict, it is also a reminder of why liberal voices so often get overwhelmed in today’s media. Liberal democracy is not short of opponents and critics from both left and right. The difficulty, for those wishing to fight back, is how to avoid seeming like a tepid centrist. To put that another way, how to be a liberal democrat without sounding like a Liberal Democrat? Appealing to “civility” and “liberal patriotism”, as Chandler does at a couple of points, is all very well, but he is not the first to politely request these things, and it hasn’t got anyone very far.

Chandler really gets into his stride on the subject of economic inequality. Despite copious analysis over the past half century, nobody has ever quite ascertained what fiscal settlement Rawls’s “difference principle” translates into. But today’s oligarchical capitalism isn’t it.

This allows Chandler to draw on a rich tradition of radical, leftist liberalism (what the political theorist Stuart White characterised as “revolutionary liberalism”), consisting of ambitious structural reforms to the core institutions of industrial market societies. He recommends wealth taxes, income guarantees, employee ownership and progressive income tax. This is the zone of policy radicalism where liberals, such as Thomas Piketty, join hands with socialists, such as the late American sociologist Erik Olin Wright.

Chandler’s virtue is his blend of philosophy with evidence-based policy. This is a kind of erudite public intellectualism reminiscent of Amartya Sen (whom Chandler worked with at Harvard), and is a welcome respite from the knee-jerk moralism that dominates the op-ed pages and social media. Whether many illiberal conservatives will pick up the book is doubtful. But for anyone on the left who hears “liberal” and thinks only of Hillary Clinton, Nick Clegg or the European Central Bank, Free and Equal will offer pause for thought.

Free and Equal is also a stirringly hopeful book, not unlike – in spirit, ideology and policy recommendations – Will Hutton’s The State We’re In (1995). Hutton’s book was read partly as a blueprint, briefly adopted in opposition, for the coming Blair government at a point when conservatism seemed exhausted. A Theory of Justice itself appeared at the tail-end of a long economic boom, amid fractious but successful struggles for civil rights and an ascendent culture of individual autonomy.

Are we approaching another left-liberal moment, and if so, how? There is no indication that Free and Equal has been timed to shape the Starmer platform, and its economic proposals have far too many echoes of the “institutional turn” of Corbynomics to be read as a job application aimed at the Labour leadership. And yet, the unspoken assumption – inherent in both the Rawlsian project and Chandler’s style of policy expertise – is that political and ethical arguments are all ultimately about what the state should do. The communitarian headwinds confronting what can only be an elite-led liberal project are considerable. But in his faith that carefully reasoned interventions such as Free and Equal might change how we are governed, Chandler’s hope is one we should share.

Free and Equal
Daniel Chandler
Allen Lane, 416pp, £25

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[See also: Plato was wrong about “philosopher kings”, just look at Kwasi Kwarteng]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age