In Search of a Realistic Utopia

16 November 2023

Review: Daniel Chandler, Free and Equal:What Would a Fair Society Look Like?

In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, a book frequently described as the 20th century’s greatest work of political theory, in which Rawls re-examined notions of justice and fairness in modern democratic society, offering a vision of a society where equality for the least well off was compatible with maximum individual freedom for all. “It’s almost impossible to overstate Rawls’s influence within academia,” writes Daniel Chandler in Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like.  Rawls’ work provided a “model of constructive and systematic political thinking” which “inspired a new generation” and led to an “’outpouring of philosophical literature on social, political, and economic justice unmatched in the history of thought.’”


But as influential as A Theory of Justice has been within academia, its influence in the world outside has been negligible — and it is not difficult to see why.   While Rawls’ seminal work described what he often termed a “realistic utopia,” it said infuriatingly little about the granular details of that utopia, or how we might someday come closer to realizing it. That task was best left to social scientists, Rawls maintained, a task which Chandler, both an economist and a political philosopher, undertakes in this rigorously argued volume.


Chandler begins with an illuminating summary in the first third of the book of Rawls’ theories.  Over the last two thirds, he offers suggestions as to how Rawlsian principles could be put into place in the real world, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, the two countries he focuses upon most intently. His recommendations are not intended to be a “rigid blueprint,” he writes, but rather a “contribution to a more open and imaginative public conversation about how we should organize our society.”  His recommendations assume the existence of a well-functioning state and bureaucratic infrastructure: countries that lack these basic institutions, Chandler argues, will “inevitably need to focus on putting them in place first.”


Chandler concedes that his attempt to defend and reimagine political liberalism, “both as a set of values and as a way of organizing society” is likely to appeal most to the “progressive” or “left wing” side of the political spectrum. His recommendations include a more progressive tax policy, a more generous allocation of social welfare, more workplace democracy, more freedom for workers to organize, and more public and less private financing for both political parties and education. Readers of a “progressive” persuasion are likely to view these recommendations as eminently sensible solutions to some of the most intractable problems afflicting contemporary America, Britain, and other prosperous modern societies. But in Chandler’s view, Rawls’s ideas are capable not only of providing an overall conceptual coherence to the progressive political project but also of appealing to people across the political spectrum, not simply progressives.  With cooperation and reciprocity as their cornerstones, Rawls’s ideas can “help us find common ground even where there appears to be none,” Chandler writes. His vision, grounded in the “‘common sense’ of democratic life,” should be fully palatable to “citizens irrespective of their wider religious and moral beliefs.”


This seems like a tall order. It’s hard to imagine successfully pitching Rawls to supporters of Donald Trump at a rally for the movement known as Make America Great Again (MAGA). And whilst we will probably never have the opportunity to learn whether Rawls’ ideas could withstand the scrutiny of Trumpian crowd, after making my way through Chandler’s recommendations, I remain skeptical whether Rawls’ theory is vital to advancing progressive reform.  agenda. Chandler’s faith in the power of Rawlsian ideas to unite a polarized polity likewise left me behind as a non-believer. But it is difficult to resist Chandler’s core point that we need a vigorous defense of liberal democracy in today’s world, given widespread global dissatisfaction with democratic governance and the accompanying rise of authoritarianism. To restore faith in democracy, “we need to redesign it from the bottom up,” Chandler contends, articulating a vision of a “better society that people will stand up and fight for.”


Rawls set out the implications and ramifications of his thinking over some six hundred dense pages. summarizing those ideas succinctly in understandable terms represents a daunting challenge, which Chandler deftly meets in the first third of his book. There, he provides an almost Cartesian overview of Rawls’s body of thought,  with major principles broken down into component sub-parts. But he starts by explaining why A Theory of Justice shook up the ivory tower world of academic political philosophy when it first appeared in 1971. At the heart of Rawls’s complex work lies a “strikingly simple and powerful idea,” Chandler writes: “that society should be fair” – which was precisely why Rawls called his theory “justice as fairness.” Rawls devoted his life to thinking through what it means to live together in a democracy on “terms that everyone could accept as fair;” and to identifying a clear set of principles that could guide us in designing fair democratic institutions.  The result was a philosophy “committed to both freedom and equality at the deepest level.”


Rawls staked out ground that set him apart from both the classical liberal tradition that “prized individual freedoms above all else” and a socialist tradition “often willing to sacrifice these freedoms in the name of equality.” He also emphatically rejected the “harsh neoliberalism” that was to gain ascendancy in the 1980s and in Chandler’s view still dominates political discourse today, characterized by an “almost religious faith in markets and an overriding focus on economic growth.” Rawls’s ideas further rejected the deference to tradition that is one of the defining features of conventional conservative political thought. Communitarian philosophers have argued that he failed to take seriously enough the importance of family, religion, and community — that he failed to recognize that “our values and beliefs are shaped by our social context and that many of us have commitments we cannot imagine ourselves without.” Many on the left have found him insufficiently attentive to questions of race and gender, arguing that his “relative silence” on these matters “points to a deeper flaw in his theory, and indeed with liberalism itself.”


Rawls distanced himself from all these perspectives and defined his thought in terms of what Chandler dubs a “humane and egalitarian liberalism,” primarily through three far-reaching and interdependent principles that are key to understanding Rawls: the “basic liberties” principle, the “difference principle; and the “just savings” principle.


Taken together, Rawls’s three principles provide what Chandler describes as a “unified and comprehensive framework for reimagining society, moving us beyond vague platitudes about freedom, equality and sustainability.”


Basic liberties are “those rights and freedoms that we need in order to live freely and to play our part in society,” which for Rawls were personal, political, and economic.  Personal liberties, including freedom of expression, association, and religious belief, constitute the “liberal core of Rawls’s theory, and the foundation on which everything else is built.” They reflect his deep commitment to the “liberal ideal of a society in which people with different mores and religious values can live side by side, and where we agree not to use the power of the state to impose our beliefs on anyone else.” We are “probably closer to achieving this aspect of Rawls’s ideal than any other,” Chandler argues. Citizens in today’s rich liberal democracies “enjoy more wide-ranging personal freedoms than has been true of almost any society in history.”


Political liberties include the right to vote and otherwise participate in the political process, but also the right to “scrutinize and criticize the government and to form political parties and campaign groups,” all based on a commitment to political equality, in which everyone has the same opportunity to influence and participate in the process – “substantively equal opportunities to exercise [his or her] rights and to influence collective decision-making, irrespective of wealth, race, [and] gender.” This commitment to equal political opportunities distinguishes democracies from those forms of government in which decision-making is the province of a single individual or a minority. But Rawls’s notion of political equality remains far removed from current reality, Chandler writes, primarily because the preferences of the wealthy have a “much greater influence on government policy than those of average and poorer voters.”


Rawls considered only two economic rights to be basic: the right to own personal property and to choose one’s profession, rights without which it would be “impossible to live freely and to express ourselves.” Rawls thus rejected most of the economic freedoms from state regulation trumpeted by neoliberal thinkers, which he argued were not necessary to live freely or engage in democratic debate. If economic freedom is defined too widely, he cautioned, it “severely limits what the state can do to address poverty or inequality, or even to regulate markets in order to promote more economic growth.” Distinguishing the economic freedoms that are truly essential from those that are not constituted one of Rawls’s most significant achievements, Chandler contends.


As the complement to the basic liberty principle, the difference principle is based on a “strongly egalitarian idea of ‘shared prosperity,’” where all citizens enjoy an equal chance to develop and employ their talents and abilities within an economy organized to maximize the life chances of the least well off. Although the difference principle addresses the broad notion of economic inequality, Chandler stresses that it is concerned “not just with the distribution of income and wealth, but with the concentration of economic power and control, and with the extent to which people have opportunities for self-respect, including through work.”


Economic inequalities can be justified “only if everyone ultimately benefits from them” and therefore must be of “greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle,” Rawls posited. We should “only want some people to have more than others if this also benefits those who have less.” In terms of the familiar economic pie analogy, the difference principle aims to make the slice that goes to the least well off as big as possible. It thus contrasts to simply growing the size of the pie, as a market capitalist would prefer, or rigidly insisting that everyone’s slice be the same size, the end goal of some socialists. This led Rawls to a relatively benign, pragmatic approach to market capitalism, another reason many on the political left remained unimpressed by Rawlsian theory.


From the perspective of the difference principle, if free markets can “increase the total wealth of society, then, with the right institutions in place, they can also help to raise the living standards of the least well off.” When properly regulated, capitalist markets have “proven themselves to be the most effective system for generating economic prosperity.” Market capitalism offers individuals their best chance to exercise their basic freedom of occupational choice. The problem with capitalism, Rawls argued, is not the existence of private ownership, but ownership that is “so heavily concentrated in the hands of a wealthy elite.”


The just savings principle involves our environmental obligations toward future generations. Already in 1971, Rawls argued that we have an “overriding duty to maintain the material wealth and vital ecosystems on which society depends,” as Chandler puts it. Whatever we do to increase prosperity and raise the living standards of the least well off “must be consistent with this basic commitment to social and environmental stewardship.” Today we are “dangerously failing to live up to this commitment: the world is facing the prospect of catastrophic and irreversible ecological and environmental breakdown,” Chandler writes. Addressing this crisis is the “most urgent and important policy priority of our times.”


After setting out with admirable clarity the complex interplay between these basic Rawlsian principles, Chandler picks up in the latter portions of Free and Equal where Rawls left off by looking at “how far our actual societies fall short of his inspiring ideal and, crucially, developing a bold practical agenda that would make it a reality.” This agenda needs to be about more than alleviating poverty, he argues, but it must begin by tackling the economic inequality that is “tearing apart our societies today.” Gaps between the wealthiest few and those in the bottom half of the income scale have increased dramatically since the 1980s in all the world’s prosperous countries, Chandler notes, reaching highs not seen since before World War II in the United States and Great Britain. If we are to move beyond the neoliberal laissez-faire dogmatism of the 1980s, we need to transcend vague platitudes about addressing economic inequality.


Tackling inequality necessitates rethinking the taxation system and, inevitably, increasing taxes, especially on the income of those with the highest incomes, while closing avenues for tax avoidance and evasion. Chandler likes Thomas Piketty’s idea of a “universal minimum inheritance,” a “one off transfer of wealth to every citizen when they reach adulthood, funded by taxes on large inheritances and the very wealthy.” Without raising taxes, governments can increase the minimum wage and strengthen trade unions. More public funding for education is imperative: there must be a universal, legal entitlement to high quality early education, starting as early as the end of parental leave, and we must raise the quality and status of vocational education for those who do not attend university.


But the two priorities on Chandler’s agenda are a system of Universal Basic Income (UBI) regular cash payments paid to every citizen at all income levels; and what he and others term “workplace democracy,” where workers have the legal right to participate in workplace decision-making on much more equal terms. UBI is a system that is both “universal” and “unconditional,” paid without any requirement to be in the workforce or looking for work. A UBI could replace most existing welfare transfers and benefits, he contends. The justification for a UBI “rests on the importance not just of income but of dignity and self-respect,” meeting individuals’ needs “in a way that supports rather than undermines the independence and self-respect of the least well off.”


Chandler downplays the possibility that a UBI would allow some people to stop working altogether. The number is likely to be small, he asserts, and would be more than balanced by the enormous potential of the UBI to bolster the self-respect of the least well off by ending the need for intrusive and humiliating assessments of eligibility and the stigma associated with receiving means-tested benefits.  Critically, a UBI could fundamentally alter the balance of power at work: everyone would be able to say “no” to demeaning and degrading work, one of the potential benefits of workplace democracy. Workplace democracy seeks to expand the opportunities for meaningful work and enhance individuals’ self-respect in an area of peoples’ lives too often characterized by “subservience and powerlessness quite unlike any other domain of life in a modern democratic society.”


Workplace democracy challenges the “shareholder primacy” model of corporate ownership, in which shareholders retain final control over the organization of economic activity and the conditions of work. Although there is no single formula for effective workplace democracy, workers’ councils have emerged across continental Europe as a feasible form of co-management power sharing between owners and workers. By limiting shareholders’ exclusive rights over corporate direction and policy, workers’ councils serve as a mechanism through which employees can shape decisions at both the strategic and day-to-day level.


For example, in Germany, which has the continent’s most extensive co-management system, workers enjoy the right to a certain percentage of seats on the board of directors and thereby share control rights within a given corporation. As an extensive body of academic literature on co-management in Europe reveals that co-managed companies generally have better work conditions, greater job security, and more family-friendly policies, such as flexible working hours, parental leave and childcare provisions. Further, although co-management has proven to have little or no impact on corporate productivity and profits, and only minimal overall impact on wages, it “tends to reduce inequality within companies, mostly by increasing the wages of the lowest paid,” precisely the objective of Rawls’s difference principle.


Political progressives, even those who do not acknowledge the need for a Rawlsian conceptual framework, are likely to embrace most of Chandler’s recommendations for what a truly fair society would look like. But Chandler raises what might be termed the ‘MAGA problem’ with his qualification that there are boundaries to legitimate democratic debate. Put simply, Rawls recognized that there are “limits to what we can achieve through the power of reason.  If we want to persuade others, we “always need to find some common starting point . . . [E]very argument has to begin somewhere, from some shared premise.”  Racist or authoritarian views are “incompatible with any reasonable interpretation of fairness, freedom and equality that rightly sets them outside the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.”


With the Trumpist movement retaining its firm grip on one of America’s two major political parties, it is difficult to see where the shared premises might come from that would lead to a genuine Rawlsian debate in today’s United States.  Overt racism is never far from the movement’s surface and one of its core articles of faith is that the 2020 presidential election was “fraudulent” and “stolen”, a notion for which there is near-zero empirical evidence, rejected repeatedly by courts at all levels throughout the United States. Numerous surveys have indicated that Trump voters are far more likely than other voters to advocate violence in support of political objectives.  Rawls’s theories unsurprisingly have little to say to such people, Chandler indicates.


Of course, the United States is not the only country where a Rawlsian transformation could take place. But it is Rawls’ home country and one of the two that Chandler concentrates on, along with Great Britain.  Despite the formidable political obstacles facing a Rawlsian transformation in today’s United States, Chandler’s work constitutes a useful reminder that A Theory of Justice can be a template for the realistic utopia which Rawls imagined in his day, and progressives continue to imagine in ours. But it is a sobering reminder: the chances of applying Rawls’ notions of fairness and justice in the real political world seem weaker today than when Rawls first articulated them over a half-century ago.

Image credit: Free and Equal:What Would a Fair Society Look Like? [Cover] (Penguin Books), Fair Use.

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