Neoliberalism and Rawls

by Tim Sommers

Katrina Forrester begins “The Future of Political Philosophy” (adapted from her just released book “In the Shadow of Justice: Liberalism and the Remaking of Liberal Philosophy”) with a series of dramatic claims. “Since the upheavals of the financial crisis of 2008 and the political turbulence of 2016, it has become clear to many that liberalism is, in some sense, failing,” this is “due in part to the nature of political philosophy today” and, in particular, to the fact that “for the last five decades, political philosophy in the English-speaking world has been preoccupied” with John Rawls. Let’s start with the first claim, that liberalism is failing. Forget “failing”, for the moment, my question is, ‘Which liberalism?’

I think that the kind of liberalism that is failing is “neoliberalism” which is, of course, “neo” – that is, a “new” kind of liberalism. Neoliberalism argues for (i) the marketization of most public services and (ii) that inequality doesn’t matter. Marketization is supposed to make the provisioning of public services more efficient and cheaper. And inequality doesn’t matter both because the absolute level of poverty is all that counts and (as Bill Clinton loved to say) “a rising tide raises all boats”. This kind of liberalism was always more a political, than intellectual, movement – and a duplicitous one at that. This liberalism, that began in the Reagan and Thatcher era and continued through Clinton/Gore right up to now, is, I agree, failing.

However, this kind of liberalism has nothing to do with John Rawls. He would have objected to (ii) the second claim on principle – on his account inequality is only justified when it makes the least well-off as well-off as possible and inequality tends to undermine the fair value of political liberties, corrupting democracy. As for (i) the first claim, he would have thought of it as empirical. Sometimes the market is a more efficient way of provisioning for public goods, sometimes it isn’t. But since Rawls believed that no one had the right to own the means of production, and that capitalism has led to wide-spread, systemic inequality, he would have objected not just to privatizing public schools or utilities, but also to private control of capital itself. To suggest that because Rawls has been hugely influential in academic philosophy, he is somehow linked to contemporary neoliberalism is just wrong. But, maybe, Forrester just means that Rawls (or Rawlsians) can’t – or didn’t – muster a sufficient rejoinder to neoliberalism. I think she’s wrong about that too, as I will explain shortly.

Another influential liberalism, often intertwined with neoliberalism, is “classical liberalism”. Robert Nozick, contemporary libertarians, and (arguably) disciples of Ayn Rand, advocate for a form of liberalism (that they often trace back to John Locke) that says you own yourself and whatever you acquire through consensual exchanges with others (where there is no force, fraud, or theft). This view also says inequality doesn’t matter (because the welfare of the disadvantaged is of no concern or, at least, no concern of the state). They favor hyper-marketization – sometimes calling for the elimination of the state altogether in favor of markets alone (though how you can have markets without a state, I don’t know). Rawls not only disagreed with the substance of this view, but argued that it doesn’t really count as a theory of justice. It’s more a theory of why we don’t need a theory of justice.

But, maybe, since Forrester seems to take the “modern capitalist welfare state”, or “postwar liberalism”, as her target, she means that the kind of “liberalism” that is failing is just the small “l” liberalism ushered in by FDR. For the record, the word “liberalism” was not widely used in the U.S. until the presidential contest between Hoover and Roosevelt. It had come to America from England, where Tories and Wigs had been replaced with “conservatives” and “liberals”- and before that, originally, from the Spanish “Liberales” party. Since “liberality” was associated with tolerance, the word had positive connotations. For that reason, Roosevelt and Hoover fought over it, both claimed to be the “true liberal” in that presidential race; but, since FDR won, we now associate “liberalism” with Roosevelt and the welfare state he built in response to the Great Depression and not with Hoover.

Neoliberalism’s failure, by the way, might be wholly explicable in terms of how it broke with welfare-state liberalism. In the U.S., this breaking with was the result of a systematic, carefully orchestrated campaign to use new marketing techniques (especially, direct mail) and, later, new media strategies (talk radio, cable news, and now social media) to harness resentment of the “liberal elite”, nationalism, racism, and sexism to push an otherwise unpopular agenda of cutting taxes by cutting public services. The Republican party has been aptly described as the greatest, and most successful, tax-avoidance scheme in history. It continues to be so under Donald Trump – only now the nastier parts have become more explicit. (I can’t find where this “tax-avoidance scheme” line comes from, but it may have been Paul Krugman.)

Be that as it may, Rawls certainly is, in some sense, in the welfare-state tradition, or, better, a successor to it. But he was also influenced by the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism, and the anti-war movement. (See, for example, his theory that civil disobedience is justifiable even in a reasonably just society.) Forrester’s claim that “The political crises of the 1970s largely passed Anglophone liberal philosophers by” is not entirely inaccurate; it’s just hard to see that as the fault of Rawls. For one thing, most political crises, through most of history, have passed most philosophers by – with a few notable exceptions (like the American and Russian revolutions). Is Forrester insinuating that academic philosophers would have had sage political advice to offer on stagflation or the oil shocks if they hadn’t been so distracted by Rawls?

In any case, Rawls core concern was inequality, especially economic inequality. He thought it was the greatest injustice we face today and that it threatens to undermine liberal democracy altogether. Rawls thought that even race and gender inequalities are, to a great extent though not entirely, maintained and perpetuated by economic inequality.

Why, then, even put Rawls in this tradition – of welfare-state and other liberalisms? Well, he explicitly situated his work as part of the long history of social contract theory, Kant, Mill, and other mainline liberal thinkers. And he grew up in the shadow of the New Deal and fought in World War II. But, bottom line, Rawls just is in the tradition which includes all of these other liberalisms because his theory of justice is a liberal theory of justice. What does that mean?

(1.) The first principle of justice (for liberals) is that everyone is entitled to certain equal basic rights, liberties, and freedoms. Again, this is what makes neoliberals, classical liberals, libertarians, welfare-state liberals, and Rawls all “liberals”. Most liberal thinkers interpret these liberties as “formal” or “negative” liberties – including Rawls. That is, you are not necessarily entitled to the means to achieve any exercise whatever of said liberties, but you should be protected from government (and sometimes other kinds of) encroachments upon these liberties. For many, including Marx, liberalism is a farce, undermined by its own defense of merely formal liberties. (Think Anatole France’s remark that “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges…”)  But for Rawls the formality of the basic liberties is rectified in two ways. First, an egalitarian distribution of wealth and income assures that people have as a great a means as possible to fully exercise their liberty (since the least well-off are as well-off as possible). Secondly, Rawls stipulates that political liberties, in particular and alone, must not be merely formal; that justice requires that we respect, what he called, the “fair value” of political liberty – that everyone should have some opportunity to influence the political process. In fact, at a conference celebrating the impending 25th anniversary of the publication of “A Theory of Justice” at the University of California, Santa Clara in 1995 (a conference attended by Jurgen Habermas, Ronald Dworkin, Bernard Williams, and a host of other well-known political philosophers (and, surprisingly, me)), Rawls broke his own prohibition on commenting on current politics to say that the greatest challenge to American democracy, at that moment, was the systematic undermining of the fair value of the political liberties by the growth of capital and rising income inequality. As I recall, he described growing inequality as leading to a growing imbalance in political power and as a “crisis” that threatened the survival of democracy. I’m pretty sure he was talking about neoliberalism.

(2.) The second principle of liberal justice is that everyone has a right, not just to “formal” equality of opportunity (the right not to be discriminated against in the pursuit of social roles in the basic social structure), but to a more substantive “fair equality of opportunity”. This required, on Rawls’ view, at a minimum, the fair value of political liberties, limits on allowable accumulations of wealth, education and health care for all, and whatever other institutional supports were necessary for widely-shared opportunity. Many liberals, including welfare-state liberals, certainly accept, at least, a right not to be discriminated against along with some reasonable expectation of social mobility. In fact, I think, most citizens of the modern world accept these basic liberal tenants [i.e., some version of (1.) and (2.)] Here’s where it gets more contested.

The rise of welfare-state liberalism was the rise of the idea that in addition to (1.) and (2.) citizens were entitled to have their most basic needs provisioned for as well – by the state (if necessary). Think FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech where one of these freedoms is “freedom from want”. But Rawls went even further. The real controversy he began was over what he called “the difference principle”.

(3.) In a just society, the least well-off should be as well-off as possible. Inequalities are only allowable where their benefits rebound to the good of everyone, where everyone is bench-marked in terms of the least well-off. Initially, some people read this as a justification of capitalism. It never was. It was a challenge to it. First of all, to return to (1.), while Rawls believed that everyone had a right to “personal” property, he denied that anyone had a right to own the means of production or the economic institutions of the basic structure. He rejected classical liberalism, libertarianism, and would have rejected neoliberalism if it had had a name at the time. Secondly, the implications of the difference principle are so profound that even a cursory unpacking will lead you to conclude that it is incompatible with any strong form of capitalism. Rawls thought it compatible only with “market socialism” (socialism with price and restricted labor markets, but no capital markets) and “property-owning democracy” (think of Mill’s idea of worker-owned firms applied to the whole of society and not just firms).

However, what was really interesting (I think) is how much Rawls left it to economics, political science, and the other empirical pursuits how to achieve justice. He thought that, for the most part, it was an empirical question what arrangements of social institutions would best realize his theory of justice. Whenever I think of Rawls’ view of the relation between economics and political philosophy, I think of a remark of economist John Roemer’s, that I shared with Rawls (and he agreed with). Romer said something like, the great failure of economics as presently practiced is not merely that it functions as applied capitalism, but that it represents a massive failure of imagination. Romer (more influenced by Marx) and Rawls (more influenced by Dewey), both had a vision of a very different approach to economics: economics as an attempt to build competing models of institutional arrangements that aimed at achieving a just distribution of wealth and income, and of a just society as necessarily incubating “experiments in living” (and the institutional forms that support them). Far from squeezing “out other ways of thinking about the dynamics and organization of economic, social, and political life”, as Forrester says, Rawls thought (like Marx), that it would be foolish to think that we know from here exactly what a future, more fully-just, social world will look like. To get there would require philosophical insight, empirical study, and political action. There was no guarantee. Rawls, echoing Kant, used to say that the question was “For what may we reasonably hope?”

Forrester thinks that Rawls’ popularity unnecessarily narrowed the range of topics political philosophers took up. Critical race theorists and feminists sometimes think that too. They should all feel some relief then, since Rawls is not nearly as influential as he once was. (For some evidence of that see, “John Rawls, Philosopher”, 3QD, 9/9/19), But I find the claim odd, in any case. Forrester says “Since Plato, philosophers have always asked about the nature of justice.”; but now they are “preoccupied” with Rawls. On the one hand, I just don’t think that’s true. There are all sorts of political philosophers. Feminists and critical race theorists may well outnumber the Rawlsians at this point. Furthermore, Rawls himself encouraged his students to focus, not on his work, but on historical figures like Hobbes, Kant, and Sedgwick. And, finally, there are still plenty of libertarians and classical liberals around. But, even if Forrester were right about Rawls setting the agenda; so, what? Rawls was a great philosopher. He ended philosophy’s long silence on substantive theories in political and moral philosophy (a silence that lasted through most of the twentieth-century) and ushered in a renaissance in normative thought. Great philosophers always set the agenda for those who come after, especially those who come immediately afterward. Rawls did too. (All of philosophy, on some accounts, is just a series of footnotes to Plato anyway. Did Plato unnecessarily narrow the range of philosophical topics?) And, as I have been arguing, the focus of Rawls principles, the agenda he was setting, is one that emphasizes the injustice of economic inequality and its corrosive effects on democracy. This still seems pretty relevant.

In any case, as I emphasized last month, Rawls was not a politician or a political activist or even a political commentator. He was a philosopher. For better or worse, he thought you needed to know what justice demanded before you could achieve it. He spent his whole life unwaveringly working to understand justice (and the related notions of legitimacy and justice between peoples). The edifice he constructed is still well worth studying – and the agenda he set well worth pursuing.

Forrester’s approach to Rawls reminds me of Allan Bloom’s approach to Nietzsche in his out-of-nowhere, much touted 1987 best seller “The Closing of the American Mind”. Bloom lamented the state of America and American universities in the late 80s, not just the lazy college students with their “cafeteria-style” approach to college and (supposed) moral relativism, but also their loud rock-in-roll (I’m not joking, most people forget it, but one of Bloom’s complaints was about unruly, Dionysian music (and how you kids should get off his lawn)). But the supposedly serious strand of the argument, from this previously obscure Plato scholar, was that Nietzsche was responsible for many of the social ills that beset American universities – and democracy in general. (See, Bertrand Russell on Nietzsche as one of the causes of WWII for (I think) a somewhat more respectable (though widely disparaged) version of this claim.) What I find most questionable in Forrester, as in Bloom, is the claim that real, actual politics has been very much hindered or helped by the work of some particular philosopher or other – even by Nietzsche or Rawls.

If it seems like I am waffling between saying that Rawls was very influential and that he wasn’t, let me be crystal clear. I think Rawls was extremely influential as a philosopher on other philosophers, but that he had little or no influence on late twentieth-century American politics. In my opinion, the financial crisis was caused by the financialization of the economy and the ever-increasing concentration of wealth that gave powerful economic actors the political power and opportunity to execute a calculated political strategy to maintain and concentrate their wealth partly by mobilizing the disaffected and disadvantaged on their behalf, while the election of 2016 was a result of this rabid base of deplorables either no longer buying that these self-same economic elites had their interests at heart or simply itching for the quiet parts of their racist and misogynist agenda to be said loud. But if Rawls’ views had had more influence on politics, I believe, it would have been for the best.

Two brief addendums. First, what about race and gender? Last month I promised to talk about Rawls’ take on these as well – especially in relation to criticisms from feminists and critical race theorists. But since Forester’s book just came out and I find her arguments more objectionable than I had anticipated, I decided to focus (for the moment) on her critique. (Hopefully, we can come back to Rawls on race and gender soon.) On race, I will just say this. When Rawls thought of the “original position” as being behind a “veil of ignorance”, where we would not know certain particular facts about our identity, his first inspiration, as he often said, came from worrying about how to address racism. Charles Mills, and others, have objected, rightly, I think, that we need more than an ideal of “color-blindness” alone to achieve racial justice. Hence, Mills has been calling for more “nonideal” theories for more than twenty years. But despite all the “calling for” nonideal theories, only recently did Mills himself actually try constructing one. Surprisingly, or maybe not, he begins with a modified version of the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance”.

As for feminism, Rawls later work was profoundly influence by Susan Moller Okin’s “Justice, Gender, and the Family” – and he cited it often. He thought that part of the answer to feminist concerns about his theory of justice hinged on seeing exactly how the family could be fit into his account of the basic social structure (and to what extent justice applies within families). I think he never found a way of dealing with this that fully satisfied him. And he was not circumspect about it. You can’t do everything. Rawls was well aware that his work was not finished. I would suggest, contra-Forrester, that this would be a great place to do further work in the (broadly) Rawlsian tradition; see for example, recent books by Asha Bhandary, “Freedom to Care: Liberalism, Dependency, Care, and Culture” and Gina Schouten, “Liberalism, Neutrality, and the Gendered Division of Labor”. Both do important work on their own, of course, but both are (arguably) in the Rawlsian tradition (broadly construed).

Second addendum. The influential philosopher/blogger Brian Leiter, a long-time critic of Rawls and Rawlsians, linked approvingly to Forrester’s article. Many of Leiter’s disagreements with Rawlsians (as I understand them), after all, are similar to Forrester’s. For example, Leiter thinks that there are too damn many of us. Maybe. I don’t know. Again, he should take some comfort in the fact that there seem to be fewer and fewer these days. He also disapproves of a methodology, that we have not had time to get into here, “reflective equilibrium’, and its applications to particular moral problems. I won’t weigh in on that except to say that I am not sure that Rawls is really to blame for all the particular uses this approach has been put to; and I don’t think Rawls’ “wide reflective equilibrium” has the same defects as the narrower form (since it can, I believe, take critical-social theories into account).

But Leiter’s more cutting concern is that Rawls does the wrong kind of social theory altogether and that Rawls’ sort of social theory functions as ideological cover for capitalism as currently practiced or, at least, domesticates dissent, defanging resistance into abstract moralizing. I think this is a very serious challenge, well worth taking up. Maybe, he is even right. But if we are comparing Marxist professors to liberal professors, since they both do they same job, its hard to see one kind of theory as obviously more accommodationist than the other. I get the coolness factor of saying, ‘We don’t need no stinking normative theory, we are waiting for the real action – revolution!’, but it seems more a pose than a promise. In my more hopeful moments, I ask myself this. Who’s really more unrealistic? Rawlsians thinking that if they can hit on the best formulation of an anti-capitalist theory of justice it might, somewhere down the line, contribute to real world change? Or Leiter, who thinks that a full-blown Marxist revolution is still on the way (about a hundred years away, he speculates at one point)? I don’t know. For the moment, my money is still on egalitarian liberalism.

But I share the hope with Leiter, feminists, critical race theorists, socialists, and progressives everywhere for justice, economic equality, an end to, and reparations for, the utterly horrifying racial injustices that have shaped America, and the final defeat of patriarchy (which I once heard, not implausibly, described as the single most destructive social evil in all of human history). Quite an ambitious agenda, I guess.

And it’s probably true that no work of philosophy in all of human history, no matter how well thought out, well-written, or accurate, has ever, all on its own, ended an injustice or solved a social problem. So, if you think writing philosophy papers will be the proximate cause of justice, I wouldn’t count on it. But I think it might just still be worth doing. To paraphrase the David Estlund quote from last time, Rawls’ hope that philosophy could make any difference at all, these days, looks positively audacious. I hope in a good way.