Neither liberals nor their critics disentangle liberalism from capitalism (though some historians have begun to). Most liberals even emphasise the happy marriage between the two. Among those liberal egalitarians who stress the redistributive New Deal as liberalism’s moral core, few seriously grapple with big issues of political economy. Liberals advance institutional and procedural solutions – ‘structural change’ to representative processes, expanding voting access, etc – but rarely question the basics of political economy like who owns what and lords it over whom.
That makes it all the more surprising that liberalism’s greatest philosophical exponent, John Rawls, developed a sustained, systematic and principled argument that even the most humane, welfarist form of capitalism is incompatible with the possibility of achieving liberalism’s deepest aim: free people living together in a society of equals. These arguments should be much better known.
Contrary to a common caricature of his views, Rawls does not reduce politics to technocratic nudges and tinkering with marginal tax rates. Liberalism is a philosophy of the ‘basic structure’ of society. The basic structure includes a society’s fundamental institutions: not only political structures like constitutions (where they exist), but also markets and property rights. Everything is up for moral assessment, not just considered abstractly, but with respect to how different institutions interact with one another and with ordinary human behaviour, over the course of generations.
‘Everything’ here includes the basics of political economy like who makes what and who owns what, and who decides. Crucially, for Rawls, this includes the way society organises the production of goods and services. Focusing on the inequalities and domination that arise from the way capitalism empowers a small group to control how we produce society’s wealth, Rawls argues that no form of capitalism can ever cohere with the liberal ideal of a society of equals. Social equality and basic liberties will always be thwarted by it. [Continue reading…]