Rawls and Classical Liberalism as a Public Philosophy

I appreciate Sigrid’s posts about my discussion of Rawls. I would like to emphasize that one of the animating principles in Rawls’ philosophy is in fact respect for persons. His main foil in A Theory of Justice is a utilitarian theory that fails to recognize or respect persons as such, but only as expendable containers of pleasure and pain. His libertarian First Principle of justice–basically Spencer’s principle of equal freedom–embodies this concern for persons. Nozick’s critique of Rawls can be read as a work that explores what it would mean if Rawls took his First Principle fully seriously. (That is, Nozick is not just stipulating rights, but is simply accepting Rawls’ most important intermediate conclusion, and then seeing where that truly leads.) The distributive concern in the Second Principle–that the worst off class should be as well off as possible–is, literally, secondary.

I agree with Rawls (and Hayek, and many others) that a just society is a species of a well-ordered society. An optimally well-ordered society is one whose members positively affirm and are motivated to comply voluntarily with its principles of association. A society that fails to do as well as possible for the least well-off is unlikely to gain the endorsement of the least well-off, who will then have little reason to voluntarily comply with its fundamental rules, and this can have a devastating destabilizing effect on the social order. An unstable society–one out of dynamic equilibrium–is not well-ordered, and therefore cannot be just. (That’s one reason I think the fiscal imbalances of Social Security and Medicare are more than a mere practical problem that needs to be fixed, but a serious matter for our viability as a just society.) Additionally, it strikes many reasonable people, including me, that a society that fails to do as well as possible for the least well-off manifests a lack of respect for those people. If there was an irreconcilable conflict between liberty and a well-ordered society, one that that is truly, as Rawls put it, “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage”–if liberty truly was not to the advantage of some people–then it seems to me that people who do not find advantage in such a system of liberty would not be unreasonable to reject it. And in that case, I am afraid that liberty would be incompatible with a well-ordered society and therefore justice.

However, I am firmly convinced that there is a deep congruence between liberty, mutual advantage, stability, and justice. In very much the same way the great classical liberal Herbert Spencer valued total utility, but held that only a system of imprescriptible negative rights would reliably maximize it, I value positive liberty–the actual capacity or power of persons to achieve their ends–but hold that only a system of imprescriptible negative rights can be expected to reliably support the complex forms of social cooperation most likely to ensure that people’s liberties are actually valuable for the achievement of their ends. I do not think the nation-state, a system of taxation, or redistribution is illegitimate, unjust, or in any way expresses disrespect for persons as long as those instruments are in fact the best means to the end of ensuring people the worth of their liberties, and the ability to successfully pursue their well-being as they conceive it.

Last, it’s evident that even libertarian Cato Institute policy analysts do not share a common fundamental comprehensive moral theory or political philosophy. There is a great deal of pluralism within our ideological unity. As Rawls notes in his second great work, Political Liberalism, disagreement over fundamental moral conceptions strikes with a vengeance in American society at large, and accommodation of such broad, intractable pluralism is at the core of the liberal project. Only small enclaves or deeply illiberal police states can sustain social order on the basis of a single dominant conception of the moral good. Workable liberal societies do, however, require a broadly shared public philosophy based in what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus” of diverse comprehensive moral views that is compatible with most of them, but leans too heavily on none. One of my own major aims is to promote the viability of classical liberalism as just such a public philosophy–one that does not require utopian near-unanimous social agreement on controversial moral claims like “all coercion is immoral,” “taxation is theft,” or “God created us with natural rights to property,” for example, but which is fairly with consistent such views, as well as many others based in very different moral assumptions. I’m convinced that this is the best way forward if classical liberalism is to have a shot at becoming a viable public philosophy in a cosmopolitan, pluralistic societies like ours. But I wouldn’t believe this if it wasn’t for Rawls, which is one reason I hold him in such high esteem, despite my strong disagreement with many of his ultimate conclusions.