What John Rawls Missed

Jedediah Britton-Purdy in New Republic:

A Theory of Justice was both radical and conservative. Yes, it proposed a sweeping reconstruction of “the basic structure” of American life—Rawls’s term for the key institutions of public life, such as government and the economy. At the same time, it described the principles of reconstruction as ones that Americans already held. This strategy of squaring the circle might seem odd: How can a country be committed to principles it routinely and pervasively defies and ignores? Yet it’s also peculiarly American. The American political myth (meaning not a simple fiction but a kind of shared master-story) is “constitutional redemption,” the idea that moral truths are woven deep into the country’s character, imperfectly expressed in the Constitution and existing institutions, but awaiting realization in “a more perfect union.” This was how Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln talked about freedom and equality in the 1860s, and how Martin Luther King and Lyndon Baines Johnson talked about the same values in the mid-1960s. Constitutional redemption was the defining ideal of Cold War liberal patriotism. Its strategies became, by subtle philosophical transformation, the strategy of A Theory of Justice: to say that Americans already are what they have never yet been—and that this ideal is also incipiently universal, if other peoples can make their way to it.

More here.