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A masquerade of Rawlsian liberalism

An interesting but unconvincing Rawlsian case for socialism


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Until recently political theory in the West had seemed to settle into an entente cordiale within classical liberalism between the respective champions of freedom and equality. Liberalism was beset from the outset by a tectonic tension between these two moral ideals, because bestowing freedom on individuals to pursue their private conceptions of human flourishing must always issue in the kind of unequal outcomes that will strike the unreflective observer as morally objectionable. Today, it seems, the battle between the libertarian and egalitarian expressions of liberalism has broken out afresh and there is no reason to suppose it will be resolved anytime soon. The widespread application of the label “postliberal” to describe a range of frequently incompatible political outlooks neatly expresses an emerging consensus on the left and the right that liberalism has failed to make good on its promises of freedom and equality for all. 

Free and Equal, Daniel Chandler, Allen Lane, £20

So the experience of reading Daniel Chandler’s bold defence of political liberalism Free and Equal is somewhat akin to stumbling on a soldier in a cave carefully sharpening his bayonet for a battle that will never come because the war was lost long ago. Chandler’s goal is both to revitalise that towering torah of contemporary liberalism, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), a work whose influence on the political philosophy of the last half-century is almost impossible to overstate. Justice has been invoked by more judges, economists, and politicians than any other philosophical work in more than a century. At a single stroke it toppled the utilitarian models of distributive justice that had dominated political philosophy since the nineteenth century. It proposed the first startlingly plausible reconciliation of the libertarian stress on individual autonomy and the egalitarian impulse for maximising socioeconomic parity. It devised a stunningly ingenious rights-based solution to integrating rival conceptions of the true and the good in a pluralist polity that was congenial to liberals and socialists alike and that even conservatives could learn to learn to tolerate. 

Chandler’s contribution is indisputably a worthwhile addition

Rawls’s masterwork has been buried by so many mountains of midrash since its publication that one could be forgiven for wondering why it was necessary to add to them. But Chandler’s contribution is indisputably a worthwhile addition, not least because it is one of the very few successful attempts in the last half-century to bring the Rawlsian program to the attention of the general public. The first half contains one of the most accessible expositions to date of a text that—even by the standards of Anglophone philosophy—is dry, dense, and difficult. And Chandler sustains that accessibility without neglecting the many and various epicycles of scholarly scrutiny of the Rawlsian project, though these are thankfully sequestered in the endnotes, which make almost a third of the book. His sketch of the theoretical architecture of Rawls’s “realistic utopia” sparkles with insight and intelligence. Pivoting from political theory to social science in the second half, Chandler applies the Rawlsian schema to a swathe of policy questions from voting systems and early education to environmental policy and employment practices. 

Chandler’s exposition of Rawls is exemplary and his attempt to bring his thought to bear on public policy is strikingly innovative, but his generally uncritical endorsement of his more contentious assumptions can grate. One would not glean from this book that egalitarian liberalism has been subjected to a barrage of objections in recent years. In the first place, egalitarianism’s central claim that social or economic disparities are intrinsically inequitable seems more contentious these days: it is not obvious, at least, that a society in which everyone is equally poor is a fairer society than one in which everyone has enough to lead a flourishing life. The standard counter to this objection is Rawls’s famous “Difference Principle”, the idea that some inequalities are permissible provided the policy that causes them benefits the least advantaged. But that principle implies that a policy that benefits the overwhelming majority of society but neither helps nor harms the least advantaged is unjust.

Chandler takes it for granted that while there is reasonable disagreement over the desirability of securing equal outcomes, no one can deny that equality of opportunity is the hallmark of a fair society. But nowhere does he explain why equalising access to opportunities would require a less extensive redistribution of goods than would be needed to equalise socioeconomic outcomes. He advocates for the abolition of private schools on Rawlsian grounds but does not explain why Britain would be a fairer society if it deprived parents of the freedom to educate their children as they see fit or forced them to entrust the formation of its future citizens to a state education system that routinely inculcates plainly contentious ideological narratives that denigrate its history and heritage and elevate the progressivism’s sacred trifecta of race, sexuality and gender. 

Chandler is troubled that disparities in wealth and income between the sexes persist even though sex-based discrimination is now almost universally unlawful in Western democracies and women are now more likely to attain a university degree and through it access to high-paying employment. Yet the assumption that statistical disparities in income between men and women are morally unacceptable ignores the more empirically plausible explanation that they arise from basic biological differences between men and women, differences that could be eradicated only by a degree of government coercion that no liberal should be willing to tolerate.

The policy proposals Chandler recommends would require one of the most aggressive redistributions of income and wealth in Britain’s history 

The constructive proposals that Chandler advocates—from nationalising childcare to introducing a program of Universal Basic Income—rest on a more radical interpretation of Justice than Rawls and most of his followers would have countenanced. At this point in the book, it becomes clear that Chandler is happy for the socialist currents in Rawls’s program to subvert the delicate balance that Justice strikes between freedom and equality. In doing so, he neatly illustrates Milton Friedman’s contention that a society that puts freedom before equality will secure a measure of both, but one that ranks equality above freedom is unlikely to achieve either. Under current economic conditions, at least, the economic revolution for which Chandler advocates would inflict irreparable damage to an already fragile economy, which would in turn disproportionately disadvantage the lower socioeconomic tiers of society that Rawlsian liberalism is supposed to protect by inflating wages, increasing unemployment, and worsening levels of welfare dependence. The policy proposals Chandler recommends would require one of the most aggressive redistributions of income and wealth in Britain’s history at a time when sovereign indebtedness is already larger than the entire economy, taxes are at their highest levels since records began, and public services are deteriorating as rapidly as the tax revenues diverted to prop them up are increasing. 

However implausible some of these ideas may sound, there is no doubt that Chandler offers a theoretical framework whose coherence and sophistication will commend it to many on the British left who are still searching for an organising ideological horizon as they prepare for government. But no one should be fooled into thinking that the program is anything other than a masquerade of Rawlsian liberalism that would make Britain much less equal and much less free.

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