Liberals' misplaced love of John Rawls

The year 2006 marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Bible of twentieth-century liberalism, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. During that time Rawls's work was the touchstone for liberal political philosophy. Following publication in 1971, The New Republic recommended the book "to non-philosophers, especially those holding positions of responsibility in law and government. For the topic with which it deals is central to this country's purposes, and the misunderstanding of that topic is central to its difficulties." As the conservative National Review put it in 2000, "Surely some of the considerable reverence shown to Rawls in the academic community can be traced to the timing of the publication of his first work. A Theory of Justice appeared just as George McGovern's presidential campaign was taking shape, and the book seemed to confer philosophical legitimacy on the hopes that motivated his supporters on university campuses across the country. In over 500 densely argued pages, Rawls claimed that politics had to be conceived in fundamentally moral terms." President Clinton awarded Rawls the National Humanities Medal. A year before his death in 2002, philosopher Martha Nussbaum called him "the most distinguished moral and political philosopher of our age," one who gave "new specificity and vigor to one of the most valuable legacies of the liberal political tradition."

Rawls's appeal is that he created a justification for the liberal state that did not require a lot of apparatus. No appeals to history, no metaphysics about how people differ from animals, no lists of virtuous political values to constrain the process. 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.

It didn't happen for a lot of reasons, including the Civil Rights Act and the Democratic Convention of 1968. But as an intellectual matter, Rawlsian liberalism was, as they say, both a snare and a delusion. It was a snare, because smart people love games, and showing how they could beat Rawls at eliminating human characteristics from their political theories outshouted any other academic effort to generate an effective liberal politics. Even now, years later, when the important philosopher Richard Rorty died, much of the eulogizing centered around his fidelity to Rawls! It was a delusion, because Rawls's political actors, such as they were, looked a lot like brains in vats--theoretical beings completely disconnected from real-world politics. Yet, since you can't make something from nothing, there were still some political and metaphysical assumptions about people--of the monopoly of reason, physical equality, the primacy of the public square--built into his system.

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. John Gray, the wandering Brit of contemporary philosophy, correctly called Rawls's hegemony "the legal disestablishment of morality." 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.

As intellectuals have struggled to get the basic Rawlsian framework to work in the real world, none have made the argument for the metaphysical assumptions that must be a part of their political prescriptions. Even now, liberal thinkers like Paul Starr and Michael Tomasky, who are trying to generate richer visions for liberalism, cannot completely free themselves from Rawls's legacy.

This failure is but the sorry hangover of the years of Rawls. Make a public, political argument for classical political virtues of courage, philanthropy, and temperance, and armies of philosophy professors and various amateurs emerge from the blogosphere to remind you that Aristotle's metaphysics supported slavery. What is then left? But such insistence on purity is a victory only for those for those who would rather the Right be President. It is time for the thinkers of the Democratic revival to leave the senior common room.

By Linda Hirshman