…We may reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carry over to human arrangements. Occasionally this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice is on a par with being unable to accept death. The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. Aristocratic and caste societies are unjust because they make these contingencies the ascriptive basis for belonging to more or less enclosed and privileged social classes.John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
It is a commonplace amongst Rawlsians to sadly observe that his philosophy was introduced to the world when the exact conditions to realize it began to wane. Rawls’ great work A Theory of Justice was published in 1971, the product of long decades of thinking and revision. This was as the “Golden Age” of the post-war welfare state with which Rawls’ writings would be (somewhat unfairly) aligned gave way to the cruel “Greed is Good” ethic of neoliberalism and its ideological complement neoconservatism. This led to the wildly contradictory result that Rawls became the most important political philosopher in the world, producing a library’s worth of commentary and critique. And yet even admirers who held the levers of power showed little interest in working towards the “realistic utopia” sketched in Theory. Bill Clinton may have awarded Rawls the National Medal of Honor in 1999. But all the theoretical platitudes didn’t keep Clinton from declaring that the “era of big government was over” and carrying on the Reaganite ambition to roll back welfare benefits.
Rawls was self-effacing and academic to a fault, rarely commenting on concrete political developments. Nevertheless, there is a sense of melancholic regret in Rawls’ later work that things were not going the way they should have and that U.S. politicians and economic elites in both parties seemed eager to make the country an ever-less-just society. In his 2001 swan song Justice as Fairness: A Restatement Rawls bucked the neoliberal triumphalism common to the “end of history” period. He reiterated that “laissez-faire capitalism (the system of natural liberty)” clearly “violates the two principles of justice” because it secured “only formal equality and rejects both the fair value of the equal political liberties and fair equality of opportunity. It aims for economic efficiency and growth constrained only be a rather low social minimum.” But Rawls then went on to reject the longstanding attempt to describe his work as a defense of centrist liberal welfarism by claiming “welfare-state capitalism” also violates the two principles. He claimed that “welfare-state capitalism also rejects the fair value of the political liberties, and while it has some concern for equality of opportunity, the policies necessary to achieve that are not followed. It permits very large inequalities in the ownership of real property (productive assets and natural resources) so that the control of the economic and much of political life rests in a few hands.” Moreover while “welfare provisions may be quite generous and guarantee a decent social minimum covering the basic needs, a principle of reciprocity to regulate economic and social inequalities is not recognized.” According to Rawls, only what he called “property owning democracy” or “liberal socialism” could therefore adequately enact liberal justice.
Principles for a fair society
Rawls was nothing if not a careful and methodical thinker. This makes the fact that he regarded our contemporary liberal democracies as falling well short of what is required for justice remarkable. It has been recently that liberals-and even some on the Marxist left have-come to appreciate that the 20th century’s greatest liberal philosopher followed in the footsteps of J.S Mill in regarding free market capitalism and even moderate welfarism as not good enough. But while we are happily in the midst of a long-delayed theoretical revaluation of Rawls’ contributions to egalitarian justice, it wasn’t clear what implications this had for the messy world of practice. If the ambitions of liberal egalitarian justice didn’t stop at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or William Beveridge’s solidaristic welfare state, then what was the end goal?
Daniel Chandler’s eminently readable Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like offers the most comprehensive answers yet to these questions. An economist and philosopher based at the London School of Economics, Chandler has a real gift for transforming Rawls’ rather turgid prose into an inspiring and achievable vision for a better society. He acknowledges that while it is “almost impossible to overstate Rawls’ influence within academia” nevertheless his “ideas have had little impact on real politics.” This is no doubt due to the very “abstract nature of his work” and the fact that Rawls was a “philosopher’s philosopher.” Nevertheless Chandler makes the compelling case that Rawls’ philosopher is the right one for a moment when liberalism is in crisis, and is faced with either retreating into conventional wisdom and irrelevance of reinventing itself in the face of authoritarian challenges. As Chandler puts it:
Rawls philosophy defines a vastly more attractive liberalism which can respond to these concerns. As we shall see, he provides one of the most searching critiques of capitalism developed by any liberal thinker, and a powerful argument for a more humane, equal and sustainable society. And far from celebrating selfish individualism, it is cooperation and reciprocity which are the cornerstones of Rawls’ theory-a theory which recognizes the vital role that family, community and religion play in most of our lives.
The earliest chapters of Chandler’s book are taken up with a clean summation of Rawls’ philosophy and a response to some of his theoretical critics on the left and right. Briefly, Rawls held that the chief subject of justice was the “basic structure” of society. This might appear innocuous. But it actually constituted a deep transition in liberal thinking away from methodological and possessive individualism and towards reflecting on the enduring impact of institutions and social structures, and their generational impact on citizens. The normative takeaway is that liberal justice cannot be exhausted by simply asking about what rights individuals are entitled to in a social vacuum. Instead Rawls thinks we must ask principles of justice orienting the basic structure would be subject to an overlapping consensus by free and equal citizens. Or in the terminology of Political Liberalism, what principles could be endorsed by citizens of a pluralistic society who are aware that there are many individuals and groups hold different and potentially competing comprehensive conceptions of the good life?
Rawls famously concludes that, behind a veil of ignorance in the original position (we won’t discuss this here), free and equal citizens would opt for what he calls “justice as fairness.” This would consist of two principles of justice. Firstly, that each person would have an exclusive right to the most extensive scheme of basic liberties compatible with a similar systems of liberties for all others. Secondly, that social and economic inequalities are to be organized so that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off, and attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
Chandler does a good job defending this Rawlsian approach; though he is somewhat too generous in ignoring some serious flaws in Rawls’ analysis. But the heart of his book isn’t in the realm of theory. According to Chandler, the “only way to see whether Rawls’s principles can help us with the real problems and choices we face today is to put them to the test.”
What would a fair society look like?
More than two thirds of Chandler’s Free and Equal is devoted to offering that rarest of things: a comprehensive and down to earth blueprint for a “fair” society. This is where Chandler’s background as an economist and policy wonk really shines. Rarely is a book so comparatively heavy on theory so grounded in nitty-gritty recommendations. This not only gives real analytical weight to Free and Equal. Dare I say it? Chandler makes Rawls’s vision of a “realistic utopia” seem very realistic indeed.
Chandler begins by reemphasizing the importance of defending the “basic liberties” increasingly under threat by illiberal and post-liberal authoritarians. This includes a moving discussion of the need to uphold free speech rights even for those we deem repellent. Chandler acknowledges that as a gay man he finds anti-LGBTQ rhetoric especially repellent. But he insists that “progressives should resist the temptation to dismiss claims about religious freedom as simply a bad-faith attempt to use liberal principles for illiberal ends (even if this is sometimes the case).” A balance needs to be struck which acknowledges the liberal rights of social conservatives, while insisting at turn that they recognize that religious liberty is simply one freedom amongst many and may not be the most important in all cases. I think this latter point is key in demarcating a liberal theory of freedom of expression. Social conservative expressions of contempt towards LGBTQ persons are reprehensible, but shouldn’t be restricted by the state. But social conservative efforts to pass discriminatory legislation is a different matter. In those circumstances we must ask ourselves which liberty is more important. Adrian Vermeule’s liberty to discriminate against the queer community, or queer individuals liberty to love whom they wish as equal members of our society? Here the answer is clear.
But, as one might expect, far and away the most girthy part of Chandler’s books deals with economic inequality and workplace democracy. Here Chandler has a laundry list of recommendations for how to achieve a fairer society. Firstly, he recommends sharply raising taxes on the very wealthy to provide social services, and raising them more generally overall. This could rise to the level of 45-50 per cent of GDP, which Chandler acknowledges would be high. But not meaningfully higher than they already are in some of the flourishing Nordic social democracies, or even large countries like France. This could be used to fund a variety of different or overlapping policies, ranging from a UBI backed by the provision of public education and health to a guaranteed inheritance for all citizens upon reaching the age of maturity. He also recommends introducing a carbon tax which would be redistributed in the form of a “carbon dividend” to all citizens, which Chandler estimates would provide $500 in revenue and increase all but the highest 30 per cent of earners standard of living.
More ambitious still, Chandler takes seriously the burgeoning literature on “workplace democracy” and reinvigorating the labor movement. Like Mill, Chandler questions the conventional wisdom that “companies should be controlled by their owners rather than their employees.” At the very minimum he recommends experimenting with the introduction of “co-management” in the workplace along the lines of the German and Finish co-determination models. Chandler points to studies showing that co-managed companies “generally have better working conditions” and “greater job security” and are associated with “more family-friendly polices, such as flexible working, parental leave and childcare provision.” Going even further Chandler argues that states should make it far easier to form workplace cooperatives. He points out that, despite facing major structural disadvantages, recent data suggests workplace cooperatives can be more efficient that capitalist run firms while providing extensive benefits for participants.
The problem of power
There is more, but you get the picture. Added together this would constitute a remarkable transformation in the “basic structure” of society. So remarkable in fact that, even while everything Chandler proposes is indeed “realistic” and backed by reams of data, it is hard to see how it could be achieved? How can something be both realistic and unachievable one might ask? This is where we run into the very serious limitations of Rawlsianism as a political philosophy. From the standpoint of ideal theory and even policy prescriptions I offer a ringing endorsement of Chandler’s vision of a fair society. But it is seriously lacking a sufficient theory of power and social change which could demonstrate how one could overcome the very serious obstacles which will be thrown up to achieving it. This isn’t a condemnation per se, since no political theorist can possibly comment on every worthwhile problem effectively. Rawls worked in the realm of “ideal theory” and was very good at it. It falls to those of us keen to actually see a just and fair society arise to fill in the gaps in his outlook.
This is where Rawlsian optimism of the will badly needs to be complemented by a Marxist pessimism of the intellect. Historical materialist accounts of power, once considered passe, have made a dramatic resurgence in their level of sophistication and acumen. One only needs to read Soren Mau’s impressive Mute Compulsion for a sobering account of how capitalist neoliberalism will insulate itself through the perpetuation of hegemonic modes of thinking which deny there is any alternative to the status quo. This includes fostering the kind of aggressively competitive culture and meritocratic ruling ideologies which have proven a serious barrier to progressive politics, but which right-wing populists like Trump have been able to ride very successfully. It should come as no surprise that the basic bifurcation of Trumpism is between “winners” and “losers” while insisting to followers that only giving power to the leader will keep you on the right side of that line. Until Rawlsians (including myself!) take these questions of power and hegemony seriously, we are unlikely to have adequate theoretical answers to how a fair society can be brought about even if we now know what it should look like.
While Chandler is ambivalent about whether to call this “inclusive capitalism” or “liberal socialism” as a card-carrying liberal socialist I can say his vision is pretty close to what I want. Free and Equal is a book all liberal egalitarians and democratic socialists should read for its wisdom, lucidity, and above all visionary realism. In his recent book Liberalism Against Itself the historian Samuel Moyn chastises American liberals for giving up on the Enlightenment dream of a better society, and pollinating the liberal tradition with fundamentally conservative arguments about the need for vast disparities of wealth and power. Moyn closes by ruminating that if 21st century liberalism is unable to reinvent itself it will probably not survive and “anyway survival is not good enough.” Chandler’s Free and Equal proves that liberalism is capable of reinventing itself, and becoming good enough to not just warrant survival but loyalty.
Featured image is A group of dressmakers on strike hold signs urging unionization and fair labor practices, 1958. By Harry Rubenstein