Liberals and Libertarians: Kissing Cousins or Distant Relatives?

Joshua Cohen discusses in Boston Review:

“Liberals and Libertarians: Kissing Cousins or Distant Relatives?” That question was debated at a January 13 event sponsored by Stanford University's Program in Ethics in Society and the Cato Institute. Boston Review co-editor Joshua Cohen gave these comments.

In his book Political Liberalism, John Rawls offers a general description of a liberal political outlook. He intends the description to cover views ranging from the classical liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, arguably in the tradition of Locke and Adam Smith, to the more egalitarian liberalism of his own Theory of Justice. Rawls writes, “the content of a liberal political conception of justice is given by three main features:

1. a specification of basic rights, liberties and opportunities (of a kind familiar from constitutional democratic regimes);

2. an assignment of special priority to those rights, liberties and opportunities, especially with respect of claims of the general good and perfectionist values; and

3. measures assuring to all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use of their liberties and opportunities.

These [three] elements can be understood in different ways, so that there are many variant liberalisms.”

Aren’t these just the typically vacuous abstractions that only a philosopher could love? No. Quite to the contrary, Rawls here identifies the common ground shared by classical and egalitarian liberals. And, I think, the common ground occupied by the participants in this discussion.

The abstract description of shared ground is located at the level of principle, not policy, but it is not vacuous at all, and in two important ways.

First, to believe in the equality and priority of basic personal and political liberties; to be skeptical as a corollary about paternalism, moralism, and perfectionism; to embrace an ideal of equality of opportunity and an assurance of adequate resources for all: these mark out a distinctive family of political views.