We’ve talked about conservatism before and socialism last week. What about liberalism? It’s easy to think of liberalism as just the mushy middle ground between the other two. But, it isn’t. We may not agree with the reasoning, but Liberalism stands on its own philosophically. It has its own justification based on both moral and practical grounds. With the recent conservative challenge to the core ideals and programs of the welfare state, I suggested we explore one of the most interesting defenses of liberalism, that of the philosopher John Rawls.
Rawls was an American political philosopher who died at age 81 in 2002. Thus, his career spanned the heyday of Great Society liberalism and the conservative counterrevolution and the recent growth in economic and political inequality. I’ll go over his views briefly on Thursday, and then we can talk. But, basically Rawls was concerned with how the United States could have a morally decent and stable political system when so many of its citizens disagreed about morality and basic political principles. It was 1971 when he first came up with this, after a decade of burning cities, riots, and political chaos. So, he asked, what combination of (1) liberty and (2) equality would be both (a) legitimate and (b) stable in a country of Southern white conservatives, rioting students, working class ethnics, African-Americans, Mormons, Catholics, etc.?
Rawl’s answer: A liberal democratic system with equal opportunity and a level of social and economic inequality that he thought people would be more likely (than under socialism or laissez-faire) to perceive as just and fair. He said the best way to do this is to have a political system that does two things:
- Guarantees basic rights that apply equally in practice to all citizens. These rights include Bill Of Rights rights but also equal opportunity to acquire the tools necessary (like education, health care, non-discrimination in employment) needed for each person to realize their inborn potential.
Why? Even though Americans disagree on so much, we still share a common morality, from which we can derive a set of basic rights. More controversial — especially today — under the second principle, a just society:
- Allows inequalities of wealth and privilege only to the extent they make the least well-off citizens better off. I’ll explain this “difference principle” and its implications better on Thursday.
To me, the really interesting part here is how Rawls comes to these conclusion. I’ll explain this, too. In short, he asks people to empathize, something we could use more of today, IMO. He imagines what kind of political system Americans would create and agree to support if they had to create it under a “veil of ignorance.” Rawls asks how unequal a society would people desire if they did not already know how privileged they were in it; i.e. if they thought maybe they would end up on society’s bottom rung. What would you do? Would you value freedom and equality the same way you do now?
- Rawls’ Theory Of Justice (Wiki, short and easy)
- Another brief explanation.
- Much more detail (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- How far we are away from Rawls’ ideal.
- A conservative apostate calls for his brethren to accept the welfare state and still remain conservatives.
[UPDATE:] Two discussion questions to ponder. I’ll ask them after I’m done with the intro:
For conservatives: The public likes big, middle class social programs like Social Security and Medicare, but dislikes programs for the poor. Is that fair? Isn’t “freedom” dependent on equal opportunity? Who can provide it if not government through programs justified via a social contract?
For liberals: What if the American people, acting together through the democratic process, don’t want an expanded social welfare state — or even the one we’ve got? What then would justify its continuance?