Can a 50-Year-Old Idea Save Democracy?

FREE AND EQUAL: A Manifesto for a Just Society, by Daniel Chandler

The American political theorist John Rawls may be known for abstractions like “the original position” and “the difference principle,” but any mention of his name puts me in mind of something decidedly more tangible: cake. Consider the potentially combustible situation of two children who have been given a cake to share between them. How do you ensure that the division of the cake is fair and will elicit the least complaint?

The key is to involve both children in the process and to enforce a separation of powers: Assuming they’re old enough to handle a knife, one child can cut the cake and the other can get first pick of the slice. The child tasked with cutting will therefore be extremely motivated to divide the cake as evenly as possible.

Rawls included a version of the cake-cutting scenario in “A Theory of Justice,” his landmark 1971 book that the economist and philosopher Daniel Chandler wants to resurrect for a new era. In “Free and Equal,” Chandler argues that Rawls’s approach, which combines a liberal respect for individual rights and differences with an egalitarian emphasis on fairness, could be “the basis for a progressive politics that is genuinely transformative.”

If this is an opportune moment for Chandler’s book, it’s also a difficult one. At a time when political rancor and mistrust reign supreme, Chandler seeks to present an inspiring case for liberalism that distinguishes it from tepid complacency on the one hand and neoliberal domination on the other. Yet in doing the hard work of spelling out what a Rawlsian program might look like in practice, Chandler ends up illustrating why liberalism has elicited such frustration from its many critics in the first place.

Rawls’s theory was premised on the thought experiment of the “original position,” in which individuals would design a just society from behind a “veil of ignorance.” People couldn’t know whether they would be born rich or poor, gay or straight, Black or white — and so, like the child cutting the cake who doesn’t get to choose the first slice, each would be motivated to realize a society that would be accepted as fair even by the most vulnerable. This is liberalism grounded in reciprocity rather than selfishness or altruism. According to Rawls’s “difference principle,” inequalities would be permitted only as long as they promoted the interests of the least advantaged.

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