Monday, December 12, 2005

Decidely Immoderate

This post at Balkinization, and the series of which it is a part, is interesting, because amongst other things it illustrates what people who don't really know anything about political philosophy at all know about political philosophy, which is something I think political philosophers might do well to be more aware of. For example, Rawls.

The moderate left position staked out by Rawls has become passe, rejected almost as much by left critics as by conservatives.

Now, the difference principle alone (see passim), despite having been subjected to fairly extensive criticism on the grounds that it is insufficiently radical, still stands as a damning critique of more or less every society in the world. There can be very few states which can say with any confidence whatsoever that any departures from equality in the distribution of income, wealth, and the social bases of self respect are designed to be to the long term advantage of the least well off. Maybe some of the Scandinavian ones, but I'm skeptical.

But the difference principle is far from the most radical of Rawls' principles in terms of policy implications. Ensuring the fair value of the political liberties is likely to mean ensuring that everyone, for example, has roughly equal access to means of influencing the political opinions of their fellow citizens, which would either mean preventing money from becoming speech, or truly radical measures of economic equality. Equally, the requirement of equality of opportunity should mean the removal of any systematic inter-generational class advantage. This is not moderate. By any Rawlsian assessment, Britain, and certainly the United States, is spectacularly unjust. It is not a matter of tinkering. This is not a machine which is essentially sound, aimed at the right ends, and simply needs to be repaired or recalibrated, but rather a system which repeatedly produces injustice on a grand scale, which, were it the product of a mind, rather than of evolution, would be a damning indictment against that mind. Rawls was not a moderate.

Neither are his ideas passe, precisely because he was not a moderate. Ignoring their centrality to the discipline of political theory as it stands, to the extent that inequality, without any substantial improvement in the lot of the worst off, has increased since the seventies, they have obvious contemporary moment. Maybe if you think of the difference between strands of political thought as coming down to money and sex, they're a bit passe, since, after all, the idea that we should be able to justify political arrangements to people who are subject to them, the key Rawlsian insight, isn't really about money or sex: it's about political theory.

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