The Liberal Democratic Socialism of John Rawls

The Liberal Democratic Socialism of John Rawls

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 economy and much of political life rests in few hands. And although, as the name ‘welfare-state capitalism’ suggest, 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…This leaves…property owning democracy and liberal socialism: their ideal descriptions include arrangements designed to satisfy the two principles of justice.

John Rawls, Justice as Fairness; A Restatement 

The conflict between liberalism and socialism is an unusual one. Both are fundamentally modernist doctrines nominally committed to the ideal of moral equality and liberty for all. They both conceive the best kind of human life as one where individuals are cooperatively able to flourish without their distinctiveness disappearing through the imposition of traditionalist and parochial mores. But liberalism and socialism have often differed dramatically in their visions of how to achieve these ends.

The more possessive individualist stains of liberalism—from Locke through Hayek—contended that only a market society which employed legal coercion to enforce respect for expansive property rights and insulated the market from state and democratic pressure was legitimate. By contrast socialists have been far less committed to property rights, and have called for everything from state regulation to outright seizure of whole industries or all industries. In many contexts the more democratic and experimentalist approaches were very successful; as with the Nordic model of welfarism and high levels of unionization. In others, as with the command economies of the totalitarian states, it was a disaster. 

One author who was surprisingly sensitive to bridging the gulf between the two doctrines was John Rawls, often called the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century. Whether such hagiographic appraisals are true, Rawls was undoubtedly the most important liberal philosopher. His 1971 opus A Theory of Justice is widely seen as rejuvenating an interest in liberal political philosophy, resuscitating deontology and theories of the social contract and (for a time at least) putting utilitarianism on the defensive. Beyond these academic innovations, what was interesting about Rawls was how firmly he connected a commitment to liberalism to a moral requirement to material equality and care for the least well off. Indeed Rawls thoroughly dismantles many of the arguments for possessive individualist liberalism to argue that any principled liberal could only support material inequalities if and only if they could be shown to work to the benefit of the least well off. Claims about “natural rights” to property, or that wealth can gradually be allowed to trickle down to the poor if enough of it is produced, are not sufficient as far as he’s concerned. While Rawls initially interpreted his philosophical position as providing ammunition for defenders of the welfare state, he became more radical as time went on and the vulgarities of the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal counter-revolution grew increasingly apparent. In his last book Justice as Fairness: A Restatement Rawls concluded that only a property-owning democracy or what I have also called a “liberal socialist” regime could satisfy liberal principles of justice.

The basics of Rawls’ philosophy 

Rawls was one of those rare beasts: an academic superstar who rejected the limelight and genuinely modeled a life of quiet contemplation and intellectual rumination. He was also, appropriately enough for a man who centered his theory of justice around “fairness,” a notably even-handed thinker. When reading him, one is often bored by Rawls’ tedious insistence on engaging with virtually every possible criticism of his work. How meticulously he feels compelled to treat every objection charitably, and tinker with the architecture of his system accordingly. This is why his deepening radicalism, or as William Edmundson put it Rawls’ “reticent socialism,” is temperamentally surprising.  But I regard it as a testament to the integrity of Rawls’ moral vision that he recognized how his thought required such a fundamental commitment to material egalitarianism and was unafraid to push it even at the height of the neoliberal era. 

Rawls’ philosophy can be summarized by the old evangelical maxim that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Rawls himself had more than a passing understanding of this wisdom, losing two brothers at a young age and later fighting on the Pacific front in the Second World War. There he was struck by the arbitrariness of war’s horrors; how the virtuous and the cruel alike were struck down without discernible reason. The rest of his life was relatively uneventful, marked largely by the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 which summarized decades of thought on political philosophy and put forward his own account of “justice as fairness.” Rawls spent his remaining decades refining the arguments of Theory and responding to a library’s worth of criticisms, with his most sustained discussion of “property owning democracy” and “liberal socialism” appearing in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement shortly before he passed away in 2002. 

It is important to remember that Rawls begins by asking us to consider a collection of free individuals of equal moral worth. They are neither angels or devils, but self-interested persons who hold to different comprehensive visions of what constitutes the good life. Rawls asks us to consider a thought experiment entered into by these individuals which seeks to model the basic structure of the traditional social contract, but acknowledging its ahistorical character as a heuristic device. Parties to the contract would reason behind a “veil of ignorance” in the “original position,” where they would remain self-interested but would be denied knowledge of their individual biological and social circumstances. No one would know if they were actually a man or a woman, gay or straight, trans or cis gendered, black or white, rich or poor and so on. 

Rawls gives many arguments for why this seemingly abstract way of thinking about parties to the social contract is the right way to go, but the ideal is to capture something akin to Kant’s pure “good will” that seeks to determine the moral law. But rather than being compelled to do so by Kantian “duty,” the constraints imposed on knowledge of their real conditions would require parties to the social contract to ask what society ANY individual would feel it was safe and just to be a part of. After all, none of them could tell whether they’d wind up being a rich white male living in New York or a poor trans woman of color working at Walmart. 

Given this, we’d want to ensure either person would endorse the kind of society established by the social contract. Rawls thinks this is also crucial since liberal principles require that citizens regard institutions and laws as reflecting their interests, thereby requiring all endorse them as part of an “overlapping consensus.” Merely insisting that people accept, say, possessive individualist capitalism because it would produce high levels of wealth in the long run is insufficient if some parties to the social contract would lose out and so regard the system as unfair. 

Rawls argues that the parties would compare and contrast the most appealing principles of justice that could be chosen to order society. He notably argues that we’d reject the classical liberal vision of possessive individualist, market society. This is because, as he put it in Justice as Fairness, it “secures 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 by a rather low social minimum.” 

Instead he argues that they would choose the two (really three) principles of “justice as fairness,” ranked in lexical order or priority. The first is the recognizably liberal principle that “each person [have] the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.” The second is that “social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.” After their selection of these principles the veil of ignorance is lifted, and the parties to the contract enter into the society they have created as citizens governed by the principles they’d have chosen.

Rawls’ arguments for liberal socialism

What makes Rawls’ liberalism powerful is how, following predecessors like fellow liberal socialist J.S. Mill, he connects arguments for both high levels of individual and political liberty and material equality. Rawls acknowledges that demanding strict material equality would disincentivize economic activity, and benefit no one. This is why inequality is justifiable; something which even the Marx of Critique of the Gotha Program would have no trouble acknowledging. But Rawls insists that requiring material equality between moral equals is the baseline from which deviations have to be justified. And even then it is only justified by showing how any such deviations will ultimately benefit the least well off. While some “bleeding heart” libertarians have tried to argue an even more free market society would satisfy this condition, the late Rawls himself argued it could not. Only a “property-owning democracy” or liberal democratic socialism would be consistent with justice as fairness. 

In A Theory of Justice Rawls makes two main arguments for his (softer) egalitarian position. The first is that, not knowing who they would end up being, rational parties in the original position would choose to reject possessive individualist markets because they’d not know if they’d be the winners or losers in such a competitive society. Any sensible individual would want to at least ensure that if they wound up losing in a competitive setting, their interests would be very well cared for. The second argument is far more compelling. Rawls points out that many people who defend possessive individualist capitalism do so on the basis of rather vague, even crypto-theological views of merit. They argue that those who get ahead in market society deserve what they have because they worked harder, were more talented, or even happened to be more virtuous (a rather strange argument when you think about the Enrons, Bernie Madoffs and Donald Trumps of the world). 

But Rawls points out that in fact most of the reasons people fall ahead or behind have little, if anything, to do with our individual merits. They are “morally arbitrary” at best, and we could even go further and suggest the project of overt historical prejudice and tyranny and worst. Firstly, many people are initially disadvantaged by the arbitrary distribution of “natural talents” that results from a genetic lottery. Some are born with serious physical disabilities, while others are born with a predisposition for athletic excellence. Secondly, people may endure serious trials growing up within difficult social circumstances which inhibit their life prospects. These can range from having an inferior diet and education, to living in sub-par housing or even having parents unable or unwilling to read to them. 

Later in life, it is no coincidence that more students at Ivy League institutions come from the top 1 per cent than the bottom 60. And thirdly, even if we have natural talents we had the social opportunities to develop, being able to profit from those depends a great deal on them being valued by society. If I happen to have a genetic gift for playing hockey and practice 50 hours a week, that will only turn out to profit me if I happen to be born in Canada rather than South Sudan. Taken all together, the moral arbitrariness and historically determined injustices affecting marginalized groups gives the lie to the possessive individualist account of merit in a market society. 

Not only is a meritocracy morally undesirable, it could never even exist given the enduring reality of moral arbitrariness. Consequently Rawls thinks it is long past time we abandon it as another quaint mythology, rather like the Medieval notion that God appointed lords and kings to their place because they happened to be more righteous and effective. Instead of asking what do unequal people deserve, we should ask what it required for those whose lives are just as real as our own to thrive? Critics like Thomas Sowell contend that this is fanciful; a yearning for the state to achieve a kind of “cosmic justice” between fundamentally unequal people. Rawls’ counter claim is that inequality is indeed both natural and socially prevalent. These are simply the facts of our world today. But what makes a society just or unjust aren’t the stark realities it faces, but how it deals with them:

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. The basic structure of these societies incorporates the arbitrariness found in nature. But there is no necessity for men to resign themselves to these contingencies. The social system is not an unchangeable order beyond human control but a pattern of human action.

In Justice as Fairness Rawls doubles down on the egalitarian dimensions of this argument, by adding a further and intriguing twist. He argues that not only would possessive individualist classical liberalism and even welfarism be inadequate in how much attention they paid to the last well off. They would be politically illegitimate since a concentration of property in the hands of a wealthy elite would have the effect of ensuring political and economic power rests largely in their hands. This would result in the state ultimately working in their interest first and foremost, rather than for all. Let alone the least well off, who would have very little political and economic power given their situation at the bottom of an unjust social hierarchy. They would not enjoy “fair value” from their “equal” political liberties, since in reality some people’s “liberties” would matter a great deal more than others. 

Post-modern conservatism and liberal democratic socialism 

While Rawls ruminations on this topic are provisional and not especially sophisticated compared to other theorists of power in representative liberal democracy—from Karl Marx through Judith Butler—he is undoubtedly correct. Many studies have shown how, especially since the conservative counter-revolution against egalitarian liberalism that began in the 1980s, the state and international institutions have become increasingly responsive to the top and simply ignore the needs of people at the bottom. This has also contributed to a remarkably ugly culture of not just avarice and one-dimensional acquisitiveness, but competitive disdain. 

Nowhere is this better illustrated than with post-modern conservatism, which cast vast swathes of the population as “losers” who were undeserving of either respect or rights to political representation. In this we see the vulgar culmination of a neoliberal logic of competitive hierarchialization, where those who have succeeded are regarded as entitled to both what they have and to expand it and those who failed are to feel shame and self-hatred for their alleged failures. 

Far from acknowledging the arbitrariness of life, let alone long histories of racial, sexual, and gender injustice, our society tends to make those who fell behind through no fault of their own feel guilty over the material consequences of their own oppression. It is hard to think of a much more unjust cultural disposition, and the fact that it has become ubiquitous enough to command the loyalty of many is a sign of just how far from the liberal egalitarian ideal we’ve allowed things to slip. 

Rawls felt that transitioning towards a property-owning democracy—where ownership of human capital would be widespread—or liberal democratic socialism was the only just alternative to such a sorry state of affairs. Which we should choose would be determined by whether property-owning democracy or liberal democratic socialism better satisfied the two principles of justice. I would argue that the latter is indeed preferable, though with some major qualifications from Rawls. In the interest of space and the reader’s time I’ll limit myself to two especially germane observations. 

The first is that while Rawls admirably became more sensitive to the “democratic” side of the liberal argument, much of his work still remains too vested in realizing justice as fairness through elitist institutions. This was especially true of his veneration of the American Supreme Court, which as critics have pointed out was often idolized by US liberals who fixated on the all too brief glory days of the progressive Warren court. 

In fact the Supreme Court has quite consistently gone to bat for conservative and hierarchical policies, which is to be expected from an institution firmly wedded to elite culture and practice. Consequently liberal socialists should put their faith in majoritarian and civil society advocating for egalitarian and democratic reforms, rather than courts (a mistake I also made once upon a time). Indeed, successfully building liberal democratic socialism will mean working hard to restore the dignity of workplace democracy and cooperative labor unions to cultural pride of place after decades of conservative attacks. 

Secondly, Rawls’ vision was all too fixated on the nation-state level, with his sub-par book The Law of Peoples being a minor contribution to the field of cosmopolitan theory. But if there is anything progressive liberals can learn from neoliberal internationalism, it’s that the rest of the world matters. If liberal socialist regimes are going to survive and thrive it will be necessary to construct an international legal architecture which advances concerns for democratization and universal human rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights, while marginalizing the anti-democratic influence of capital. This would obviously be a titanic project that warrants an article of its own. But much of the skeleton is already in place circa the twinned covenants on civil and political rights and economic and social rights respectively. Empowering international institutions to take them more seriously would be a good place to start. 

Rawls knew that even a liberal socialist society would not be some kind of utopia, in the cheesy sense of life being perfect for everyone. Life will never be perfect, since all of us are very imperfect. Easily dissatisfied, resentful, and all too often vacillating between petty self-regard and grandiose delusion. But it is precisely because of our imperfections that we should crave a society where power and wealth are more evenly distributed, and consequently not allowed to concentrate in the hands of those who are no better equipped than anyone else to wield them.  Liberal socialism would not be perfect, but it would be just. And that is more than enough. 

Featured Image is Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, Belgium, by Emmanuel Huybrechts