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Rewriting the Rawls of the game
A new book, 'Free and Equal', reassesses how we can use the principles set out by the philosopher John Rawls to build a fairer society. It's a book whose time has come.
When we published The Fair Necessities in 2021, our aim was to develop a broad set of fairness principles that could attract support from a majority of the British public by appealing to proponents of rival political ideologies, values and moral doctrines.
These principles drew inspiration from the work of the American philosopher John Rawls, who died in 2002. He wrote about the idea of an ‘overlapping consensus’:
How supporters of different comprehensive normative doctrines - that entail apparently inconsistent conceptions of justice - can agree on particular principles of justice that underwrite a political community's basic social institutions.
Rawls is best known for three linked principles that make up his Theory of Justice:
The basic liberties principle: Everyone should enjoy fundamental personal and political liberties, such as freedom of conscience, speech and association, equal voting rights, and equal opportunities to stand for office or influence politics
The fair equality of opportunity principle: Everyone should have a truly equal chance to succeed in life, regardless of their class, race or gender (as opposed to having a theoretical chance to do so by virtue of not being discriminated against)
The difference principle: Social and economic inequalities are only justified to the extent that they benefit everyone and maximise the life chances of the least advantaged in society (for example, by incentivising entrepreneurship)
He developed these principles of justice through the use of a thought experiment that he called the ‘original position’, in which everyone decides the principles that govern a just and fair society from behind a veil of ignorance, which blinds people to all facts about themselves so they cannot design the principles to their own advantage.
It is hard to overstate the impact that Rawls’s work in the 1970s and 1980s has had on the academic world of political theory in the last five decades. But, oddly, his ideas never really made it into the mainstream public consciousness, or underpinned a political movement in the way that the work of Hayek and Friedman (among others) provided a coherent intellectual framework for neoliberalism.
One reason that Rawls’s ideas never really influenced mainstream politics is that he consciously avoided any attempt to draw practical political conclusions from his work, partly because he saw himself as a philosopher rather than a political scientist, and partly because he preferred the quiet life of an academic to being in the spotlight.
We live in an age where people are crying out for the next big idea. Daniel Chandler, an economist and philosopher based at the London School of Economics, has decided that the idea(s) in question are already out there, in the works of John Rawls; they just need to be popularised and applied to the challenges that we face today.
In his new book, Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like?, Chandler argues that by rediscovering Rawls, we can find a way out of the escalating crises that are devastating our world today. After summarising Rawls’s work and his vision for society, Chandler examines how we might apply his principles to issues such as the climate crisis, democratic decline, and socio-economic inequality. He makes the case for considering bold policy reforms such as capping political donations and introducing proportional representation, bringing in a universal basic income and reforming the taxation of wealth, in pursuit of the vision that Rawls outlined half a century ago.
This is an exciting moment for those interested in promoting a fairness agenda. As Chandler lays out in his book, Rawls’s principles give us a coherent roadmap for deciding how to make trade-offs between competing fairness principles (such as fair process vs fair opportunities or outcomes), going beyond mere ‘intuitionism’. This chimes with, and helps us to address, some of the arguments made in another recently published book, Ben Ansell’s Why Politics Fails, which lucidly examines five ‘traps’ for politics including ‘the equality trap’ (equal rights and equal outcomes undermine each other).
As outlined at the top of this post, Rawls has the potential to appeal to people from across the political divide, and to bring them together around a shared set of principles of justice. This is what we want to do at the Fairness Foundation, and the work of John Rawls, which in large part inspired the development of our own principles (The Fair Necessities), is fundamental to this project. Daniel Chandler’s important and timely book has the potential to bring Rawls’s vision to a much bigger audience.
Daniel Chandler will be speaking about Free and Equal at a range of upcoming events, including at the London Review of Books (25 April), online at the RSA (27 April), and at the London School of Economics (15 May and 17 June).