Can John Rawls Save Democracy?

Daniel Chandler

In Free and Equal, economist and philosopher Daniel Chandler argues that the ideas of John Rawls offer solutions to the crisis of liberal democracy. Jacobin spoke with Chandler to discuss how socialists should engage with Rawlsian politics.

John Rawls in 1971. (Alec Rawls / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Matt McManus

John Rawls is undoubtedly one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century, and his A Theory of Justice is an essential reference point for academic debates in moral and political theory. Outside of the Ivory Tower, though, his ideas have had little influence.

With Free and Equal: A Manifesto for a Just Society, economist and philosopher Daniel Chandler hopes to change that. Chandler argues that Rawls’s liberal theory of justice speaks powerfully to the crisis of liberal democracy that has enveloped much of the developed world in the last decade; according to Chandler, Rawls’s ideas offer a framework for a program of far-reaching political and economic reforms to drastically reduce inequalities of wealth and power and neutralize the ascendant authoritarian far right.

Jacobin contributor and political theorist Matt McManus recently sat down with Chandler to discuss Rawls’s theories, what a Rawlsian political program would look like, and what socialists might find of value in the late philosopher’s work.

Matt McManus

What was your motivation for writing Free and Equal?

Daniel Chandler

I started thinking about the book in 2018, and it was partly a response to the growing “crisis of liberal democracy” literature in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. There were lots of books coming out, many of them excellent, but I was struck by how they were almost exclusively diagnostic: books about how and why we had ended up in this terrible situation, with little to say about what we should do next, beyond maybe a short final chapter with a few familiar policy ideas. There was nothing that felt like it matched either the scale of the problems facing advanced liberal democracies, or the opportunity of this moment — when the neoliberal paradigm is clearly exhausted and there is political and intellectual space for something new to emerge.

It was also a response to a sense that the Left was struggling to make the most of this historic opportunity, and that one of the reasons was a lack of intellectual and philosophical reference points. Whereas Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher could draw on thinkers like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, it’s not clear where progressives should look for similar inspiration today.

There has been a resurgence of interest in democratic socialism in the past decade, and I think that tradition has a huge amount to offer. But I wanted to draw people’s attention to the modern liberal tradition, and specifically the ideas of John Rawls. There is a tendency on the Left to dismiss Rawls as a liberal apologist for the status quo, but his ideas are much more radical than is commonly recognized. They offer an unparalleled, and as-yet mostly untapped, resource for developing a more coherent and ambitious progressive politics.

Politically, I hope the book can help bridge divides within the broader progressive family — to persuade democratic socialists that the liberal tradition contains some of the most powerful arguments for a radically more equal society, and to persuade self-described “liberals” that if they take their liberalism seriously, they should embrace the need for far-reaching reforms.

Matt McManus

What drew you to Rawls’s thought?

Daniel Chandler

What I love most about Rawls, and why I think his ideas are so vital right now, is that his thought is fundamentally hopeful and constructive. Rawls’s mission was not simply to critique society as it is — and arguably he didn’t do enough of that — but to develop a “realistic utopia”: a picture of the best that a democratic society can be, taking people as they are and institutions as they might be, to paraphrase Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

What you get from Rawls is a set of fundamental principles to do with freedom, equality, and sustainability, and I have found myself coming back to these principles time and again to work out my own thoughts about everything from free speech to whether education should be free and — as an economist, maybe most important — what a truly just economy would look like.

Unfortunately, Rawls himself didn’t say much about how we might put these principles into practice, which is one reason why his ideas haven’t had much impact outside of academia. A key aim of my book is to pick up where he left off — to use his ideas to set out a practical agenda for how we could reinvigorate democracy and transform capitalism as we know it.

Matt McManus

One of the ideas Rawls is most famous for is his thought experiment of the original position and the veil of ignorance. Why is this thought experiment a useful tool for thinking through what kind of society we should want?

Daniel Chandler

The essence of Rawls’s thought experiment is that if you want to work out what a fair society would look like, you should imagine how you would choose to organize society if you didn’t know what your position within it would be — whether you would be rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, and so on.

It’s a very intuitive way to think about fairness. It is, in effect, a secular interpretation of the “Golden Rule”: that you should treat others as you would have them treat you. But Rawls was interested not so much in how we should treat one another as individuals, but in how we should organize our main political, legal, and economic institutions: the courts, the democratic process, markets, property rights, and so on — what he calls the “basic structure” of society. In fact, this focus on institutions rather than individual behavior was itself a major development in liberal political thinking, and one that has really taken hold since Rawls.

The point of the original position is to get people to think about society in an impartial way. In doing so it forces us to critically examine our political beliefs, which often reflect our own interests and experiences. So rather than just thinking about what would be best for me as an individual, we have to look at things from a variety of perspectives.

Most of us recognize that just because a policy benefits us individually doesn’t make it just or fair. Yet our day-to-day political judgments often reflect our own particular interests and experiences, whether consciously or not — we might be less likely to support higher taxes on the rich if we think we’ll end up paying them, or less likely to prioritize efforts to tackle racial injustice if we haven’t experienced it ourselves. Rawls’s thought experiment is useful because it forces us to critically examine our political beliefs, and it gives us a shared framework for a democratic conversation about how we could organize society so that it could be justified to everyone.

Matt McManus

A Theory of Justice claims that individuals in the original position would choose two principles of justice to organize society. What are the principles, and why does Rawls think they would be chosen?

Daniel Chandler

Rawls argues that we would choose two fundamental principles, having to do with freedom and equality, respectively, which we can then use to think through more concrete questions about how to organize society. The first, the “basic liberties” principle, says that everyone should be entitled to an equal set of truly fundamental freedoms, including personal freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and sexuality, as well as the political freedoms we need to play genuinely equal parts in collective decision-making. The basic idea as to why we would choose the principle in the original position is that if we didn’t know our own characteristics, we wouldn’t want to gamble on living in a society where we might be persecuted for our religious beliefs or our sexual orientation, or be denied the right to vote because of the color of our skin.

This first principle is the liberal core of Rawls’s philosophy, and the basis for a broadly liberal democratic constitution with a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, and a democratic political system.

Rawls’s second principle, which has two interlocking parts, gives his theory its distinctively egalitarian character and provides a framework for thinking about social and economic justice. First, we would want “fair equality of opportunity” for all: not just the absence of discrimination, but a guarantee that everyone would have a truly equal chance to develop their talents and abilities irrespective of class, race, or gender. Second, and this is the most original and radical of Rawls’s principles, we would permit inequalities only where they ultimately benefit everyone, say by encouraging innovation and growth, and more specifically we would organize our economy so as to maximize the life chances of the least well off. Rawls called this the “difference principle.”

While people mostly talk about those two principles, Rawls also made the case for a third principle of intergenerational justice or sustainability, which he called the “just savings principle.” This principle says we have an overriding duty to maintain the material wealth and vital ecosystems on which society depends for future generations. Whatever we do to increase prosperity and raise the living standards of the least well off must operate within the limits of a finite planet. This aspect of his theory has often been overlooked, but it’s obviously more important now than ever.

Matt McManus

For decades, many people in the West took something like Rawls’s basic liberties for granted. But since at least the mid-2010s, they’ve come under increasing pressure from a variety of reactionary forces, ranging from Donald Trump and his supporters in the United States to Viktor Orbán in Hungary and others.

Daniel Chandler

For decades I think Rawls’s basic liberties principle seemed like a statement of the obvious, something nearly everyone agreed with. That’s clearly no longer the case.

We can see this in attempts to roll back fundamental personal freedoms like the right to bodily autonomy in the case of abortion, and the existential threat that a second Trump term would pose to democracy and the rule of law. In this context, it’s more important than ever that we can give a robust defense of the liberal and democratic freedoms that are the foundation of any just society, and that must be at the heart of any emancipatory politics, whether liberal or socialist.

That said, some liberal ideas of freedom — like the classical liberal or libertarian idea that a commitment to economic freedom rules out government intervention to tackle inequality or protect the environment — are deeply problematic, and responsible for many of the problems we face today. Part of my aim is to recover a liberal conception of freedom that doesn’t suffer from these flaws.

For Rawls, some economic freedoms, like the right to own personal property such as clothing and housing, or freedom of occupational choice, are part of his list of basic liberties, because without them we cannot live a free and independent life. But there is no fundamental right to freedom from taxation or regulation, or even to private ownership of the means of production — in fact, Rawls was clear that liberal socialism, in which firms are owned by workers or the state, is compatible with his conception of freedom.

Rawls was also clear that our fundamental right to political freedom does not only include formal freedoms like the right to vote or freedom of political speech, but all the freedoms we need to have a roughly equal chance to take part in and influence the political system. That means thinking much more carefully about the regulation and funding of political parties and the news media. It cannot be just, for example, that just one-tenth of one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans gave almost half of the money spent in the 2012 federal elections. When it comes to political parties, I argue that the ideal system would be a “democracy voucher” scheme, like the one currently used for municipal elections in Seattle — with strict caps on private donation, where every citizen would get an equal amount of public money they could give to the party of their choice.

Matt McManus

Much of your book is taken up with the call for a far more egalitarian economy. Why is that equality important, from a Rawlsian perspective?

Daniel Chandler

As the title of my book suggests, a just society needs to recognize the importance of freedom and equality, and Rawls’s principles are a way of working out how these values can fit together: which freedoms matter most, and how much and what kind of equality we should be aiming for. While liberal freedoms give us the space to pursue our own ideas about how we want to live, the value of those freedoms and the extent to which we can pursue our dreams depends in large part on our access to material resources. Any serious political philosophy must take both into account.

Rawls shows us why liberals should care about equality on a philosophical level. On a practical level, this matters because the inequalities that blight the United States and most other advanced democracies today are both the greatest source of injustice and the most serious threat to the survival of liberal democracy.

Matt McManus

You offer a variety of policy proposals for how to achieve a greater level of economic equality in developed countries. These range from provisioning a universal basic inheritance, to introducing workplace democracy in the form of codetermination, to raising unionization rates.

Taken together, enacting these proposals would undoubtedly constitute a big change. What would you say to critics on your right who worry that these sorts of far-reaching reforms might be unsustainable or damaging to the market economy?

Daniel Chandler

These are concerns we should take seriously, and I discuss them in detail in the book. After all, one of the main motivations of Rawls’s difference principle is to recognize that we need to balance the importance of material equality with the benefits that can come from a dynamic market economy.

The first thing I would say is that all of these policies are compatible with a dynamic market economy. That’s true of a universal basic inheritance, of comanagement, of stronger unions. That isn’t just a conceptual claim — versions of these institutions already exist in market economies around the world.

I would also point these critics toward the evidence. In the 1970s and ’80s, it may have been plausible to claim that tax cuts for the rich would boost economic growth, but we now have more than forty years of evidence, and this idea just doesn’t hold up. There is very little relationship between the overall level of taxes and either the rate of economic growth or the size of an economy. Even in high-tax countries like France and Denmark, whatever negative effects taxes may have on how hard people work, they appear to be offset by the benefits that come from investing in infrastructure, in schooling, and in boosting demand from lower-income workers.

Ultimately, though, even if we could show that higher taxes or increased worker power would reduce economic growth, that shouldn’t be seen as a knockdown argument. From the perspective of Rawls’s difference principle, the aim is not to maximize economic growth, but to create an economy where prosperity is widely shared, where the least well off are as well off as possible, and where workers are treated with dignity and respect.

Matt McManus

Looking in the other direction, how would you respond to leftists who argue that, even taken together, the reforms you recommend are insufficient to fundamentally alter the basically exploitative and unjust nature of the capitalist mode of production? I’m thinking here of figures like the Marxist David Harvey, who has argued that the problem with liberal egalitarian programs is they only ever push for greater equality in distribution; liberals don’t fundamentally challenge capitalist relations of production, which are a site of serious discrepancies of power.

Daniel Chandler

I think that’s a fair criticism of many liberal thinkers, but not of Rawls. A crucial feature of Rawls’s theory — though one that has often been overlooked — is that his difference principle is not only concerned with inequalities of income and wealth, but with the distribution of economic power and control, and what he calls “the social bases of self-respect” — which includes access to meaningful work.

From this perspective, the balance of power between workers and owners is very much on the table. This doesn’t mean we should abolish all workplace hierarchies or bring all companies into public ownership. Just as a degree of income inequality can encourage people to work hard and undertake valuable training, a degree of workplace hierarchy is necessary for large organizations to function, and hence for society to benefit from economies of scale.

But unequal power relations are not taken for granted — they have to be justified. I think the comanagement model I argue for would strike the right balance between greater workplace democracy and economic efficiency, though there is room for debate in both directions.

Comanagement would fundamentally alter the balance of power in the economy. I’m not just arguing for token representation on boards; I think we should be moving toward a system where workers have half of the seats in most companies, alongside workplace forums like “works councils” that would have genuine co-decision-making rights over important questions about working conditions.

Matt McManus

Some on the Left see socialism and Marxism as fundamentally opposed to liberal ideals, which they characterize as “bourgeois.” There’s also the long-standing criticism that moral theory of the sort Rawls engages in is ahistorical and utopian, and that attempts to theorize what a just society will look like is the kind of misguided venture in “writing recipe books for the cookshops of the future” that Marx criticized. What would you say to leftists wary of liberalism?

Daniel Chandler

On one level, I think leftists have good reason to be wary of liberalism — after all, the dominant form of liberalism in our political debate in recent decades has been neoliberalism. But liberalism is a broad school of thought, and while liberal politics might be stuck in a broadly neoliberal paradigm, liberal philosophy has moved on. The leading edge of liberal political thought today is radical and egalitarian and shares much in common with democratic socialism. And there is a long tradition of fruitful dialogue between left-liberals and socialists.

I also think there are very good political and strategic reasons for leftists to embrace the language of liberalism. Liberalism is the language of the political mainstream, especially in the United States, and I think leftists are more likely to win broad support for bold ideas if they can connect them with widely held liberal values. To the point about “recipe books,” this isn’t about developing a rigid institutional blueprint. But I think it’s helpful to have at least a rough sense of which institutions would best achieve progressive values. Even if the ideal society seems remote, having this kind of programmatic vision can help galvanize people to get involved in politics, and reassure us that the goals we are striving toward are achievable and not naively utopian, as critics of socialism have often claimed. On a more practical level, it can help us identify the incremental steps we can take here and now.

Matt McManus

What do you think the prospects are for enacting a program of the sort you describe? What challenges do you think such a political project would confront?

Daniel Chandler

It’s in the nature of any long-term vision that it’s unlikely to be achieved quickly, and these ideas — as with any bold progressive agenda — would obviously provoke fierce resistance from those who benefit from the status quo. But I think there is reason to hope we could make significant progress in the right direction. That’s partly because of the historical moment we are in with the exhaustion of neoliberalism, and the once-in-a-generation opportunity that has created to craft a new political and economic consensus.

I also think that these ideas can help mainstream center-left parties like the Democrats and the UK Labour Party — which, however imperfect, are the most likely vehicle for progressive change — overcome some of the electoral obstacles they face. For a start, they offer a unifying alternative to more divisive forms of “identity politics,” as well as a commitment to mutual respect that can help to defuse the culture wars. To be clear, this isn’t about downgrading questions of race, sexuality, gender, the environment, and so on. These are fundamental issues of justice that should be at the heart of progressive politics. Rather, we need to connect these struggles to universal values, and to build solidarity between groups with different priorities.

At the same time, they can help progressive parties to win back lower-income and less-educated voters who have been deserting them in recent years. We know this has been driven in large part by the embrace of more right-leaning economic policies. Rawls’s ideas point toward a bold economic agenda that would address the long-neglected concerns of lower-income voters, not simply for higher incomes, but for a sense of independence, meaning, and social recognition. And they would do so in a way that appeals to widely shared notions of fairness, freedom and equality, and a tradition with deep roots in the United States’ political history and culture.