An article in today’s Guardian argues that the philosophy of John Rawls offers “a “realistic utopia” that provides the basis for a broad-based and genuinely transformative progressive politics.” I don’t share that view. Rawls makes a case for some of the key values dominant in American liberal politics, but falls far short of encapsulating progressive values.
The first weak point in Rawls’ approach rests in his appeal to the idea of a social contract – that what reasonable, moral people will agree to offers us a model of fairness and justice. Reasonable people may well agree to lots of things. Sometimes they will opt for things that have good consequences – what is good. Sometimes they will choose what is right. He thinks they will agree to principles of individual freedom and a degree of useful inequality. Perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t; but whatever they do agree to, ‘justice’ is not the same thing.
This might come over as a quibble about language, but it’s been fatal to most attempts to form a picture of a ‘just’ society. Consider, for example, the fate of the Commission on Social Justice in the 1990s. They ended up with a political manifesto covering everything they could. If justice means everything, it means nothing.
The second weak point concerns Rawls’ ‘difference principle’: that people should accept a degree of inequality on the basis that it leads to more for everyone. This reflects the influence of the ‘Pareto principle’ adopted by many economists. That approach fails to understand that inequality is intrinsically exclusive: that where inequalities occur, people with resources are able to outbid and so to exclude others from the benefits that they claim with those resources.
The third weakness lies in the construction of ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’. These are not end-states, and cannot be understood in those terms: they are principles, and the pursuit of either is a continuing process. The point, I have argued in other work, is ‘not to eliminate every conceivable injustice at one blow, but to ensure that each step makes the situation more just than it was before.’
That leads me to one of the strongest objections to Rawls’ vision: that there is no route from where we are to where he wants us to be. The plea for a ‘realistic utopia’ is not just an oxymoron: it is an impossibility. In The future of socialism, Tony Crosland made a devastating critique of utopian politics. Every change we make alters the picture; it means, it must mean, that the conditions which have to be addressed will no longer be the same as they were before.