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Rawls Continued

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By Jacob T. Levy

A few days ago, Linda Hirshman (I apologize for having misspelled her name a few times below) wrote:

Perversely, Rawlsian liberalism also produced a slippery slope into its opposite, complete selfishness. After all, unless you could achieve the degree of selflessness he required, there was no other place to stop. [...] The game that Rawls set in motion, designed to eliminate common preexisting political values, could also produce the result that everybody simply advocated for himself.

It is not a coincidence that the only successful two-term Democratic presidency of the Age of Rawls was engineered in part for Bill Clinton by Bill Galston, a political theorist with a background in classical thought. Although Galston pays due homage to Rawls, his crucial work is ends-driven, not justified on the blindness of the procedure (his foundational political work is tellingly titled Liberal Purposes). Rawls's work--the best effort to take a tradition grounded in the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--and make it relevant to a modern, industrial state simply left the country to the conservatives.

I bow to no one in my admiration for Bill Galston, and I do think that Galston was a real contributor to the intllectual shape of Clinton's first campaign and first term, even if he was not strictly necessary for the election to turn out the way it did. But the fact that there has been only one two-term Democratic presidency since 1971 really is, quite thoroughly, a coincidence, not at all causally related to the publication of A Theory of Justice. in that year. George McGovern's defeat came too soon after publication for the book to have had much impact outside academic philosophy yet, and in any event was by a large enough margin that it seems to have been rather overdetermined. A Democrat won in 1976; he lost in 1980, but he was a hectoring moralistic vocal born-again Christian ; whatever the faults of Rawlsianism, they are not the same as Jimmy Carter's.

After Clinton's presidency, only the election of 2000 could yet have generated a two-term Democratic president. So we're down to the elections of 1984, 1988, and (barely) 2000 lost by Democrats, and those of 1992 and 1996 won by Democrats. This is not the sort of electoral imbalance that calls out for any very extraordinary explanation. This is not a Democratic Party that went through some intellectual implosion like the Federalists or the Whigs did. It's a party that loses some and wins some, with the outcomes substantially predictable by the economy in the year and a half preceding each election.

Moreover, over those thirty-six years, the Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives for twenty-four, and the Senate for nineteen. The so-called age of Rawls simply has not been a time of mysterious Democratic impotence and Republican dominance; it's been a time of rough parity.

As to selfishness, while I wasn't around before 1971 to witness it myself, I have it on good authority that it was an attribute of political action and human action even way back in 1970, and that a great many elections in American history had been decided on the basis of something other than tens of millions of voters engaged in a disinterested inquiry about the common good.

Linda also wrote:

Just close your eyes, Rawls said, and think of what kind of political society you would make if you didn't know who you were. Black, white, male, female, smart, dumb--you might be anyone who would then have to live in the society you imagined. Rawls said if you did this, you'd produce unlimited free speech and moderately redistributive capitalism. The wags had it that this white male Harvard professor closed his eyes and produced the government of Cambridge, Massachusetts. No matter. It didn't happen.

This is really extraordinary--a weird cheap shot playing off the ambiguity of "you'd produce." Rawls never said that the thought experiment of the original position was some kind of substitute for political action. It was a way to organize thinking about justice prior to political action. It was a way to reinvigorate thinking about justice at all, in the face of the technocratic utilitarianism characteristic of the era of the best and the brightest, and the aggregative utilitarianism that had passed as thinking about the "common good" for some time before that.

But more generally: I can't understand the relationship between ideas and political life that Linda seems to be implying. Has any work of political philosophy ever caused the realization of its ideas in the society of its writer's birth, to say nothing of doing so within a generation of publication? About as long after the publication of Leviathan, the government of England broke even more decisively from Hobbes' recommendations than it had already done. Germany remained non-communist a generation after Marx; Victorian England remained Victorian in the decades after On Liberty, and Locke's Second Treatise was only published after the revolution its doctrines seemed to justify. America never became Rawls' "realistic utopia," but neither did it become Hayek's or Nozick's or MacIntyre's or Walzer's vision of a just social order. I can't see the relevance of any of that to our evaluation of the arguments within those works, or to whether the works were important, influential, or powerful.

In short: Theory of Justice, like most works of political philosophy, failed to be self-realizing; and American elections since 1971, like most political activity in most societies, went on their way without perceptible causal influences from works of political theory. This is unexceptional as regards either politics or political theory, and doesn't require any special failings of Theory of Justice.

In saying this I don't contradict Keynes' dictum that

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

I think this largely holds at the level of the public official, not at the level of the mass election. In "West Wing", Democratic staffers might invoke the difference principle; and for all I know White House staffers have occasionally done so in real life. But they have not done so very much, or in ways that would, or did, cost them elections.

Now: the fact that Rawls and Democratic electoral fortunes merely coincided without causation doesn't mean there's nothing to say about the co-incidence. Rawls was relatively appealing in a non-perfectionist intellectual climate that Aristotleans find objectionable, and that intellectual climate had its effects on the shape of liberal political practice. In the wake of the 1960s, appeals to some unitary set of virtues were going to be hard to sustain as foundations for public life, Rawls or no Rawls; the sexual revolution, women's and gay liberation, and the suspicion of courageous military service as a virtue after Vietnam all helped make virtue-language relatively unattractive for a while. And Warren Court liberalism, in pushing hard against some traditional state practices that had been justified in moralistic, paternalistic, or overtly Christian ways, made "neutrality" a kind of liberal watchword. Rawls' critique of perfectionism and embrace of state neutrality among conceptions of the good at the level of basic justice were a good fit with this intellectual climate. But Rawls didn't cause it. The underlying cultural shifts that made perfectionism unavailable to the left until it was married to pluralism by Galston were underway before 1971, and Rawls did no more than offer some inadvertent post-hoc justification for them.

Those cultural shifts are still with us, though the pendulum has swung a good ways back from the extremes of the 1970s. If Linda wants to revitalize Aristotelean virtue-talk for the left, she's right that Rawls offers a kind of obstacle to the project--but those shifts offer a bigger one. And if she wants to overcome the Rawlsian obstacle, pointing to the electoral failure of Walter Mondale isn't an intellectually successful way to go about it.

A final note: I feel quite sure that Linda as a philosopher already knows everything I've said here, and so I'm embarrassed to have written in a way that must sound condescending. But the essay itself seemed committed to denying or ignoring all these commonplace objections, and so I've replied as best as I could to the essay itself.

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