In Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? Daniel Chandler considers how the work of twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls could inform policymaking to build a fairer society with reduced inequality and a more democratic political system. The book expounds Rawls’ theory in admirably clear prose but begs the question whether the work of other thinkers might be more effective in mobilising citizens and policymakers to effect meaningful change, writes Aveek Bhattacharya.
Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? Daniel Chandler. Allen Lane. 2023
The picture of politics that Daniel Chandler sketches out in the opening pages of Free and Equal will be familiar to most observers – one of widespread dissatisfaction and mistrust of the system, complacency and a lack of imagination from politicians, intolerable inequality, political polarisation, democracy under threat from populism. His bold claim is that ‘the ideas we need are hiding in plain sight, in the work of the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher, John Rawls’ (3).
Rawls has dominated English-language political philosophy for the last fifty years with a theory of ‘liberal egalitarianism’ that balances basic political and personal freedoms with an insistence that inequalities are justified only if they benefit the worst-off in society. Yet as Chandler sees it, his influence on ‘real politics’ has been limited by the ascendency of neoliberalism and the challenge of translating his abstract principles into practical policy. Now, though, Chandler argues, ‘there is an urgent need and appetite’ for Rawls’ ideas, which are ‘uniquely suited to the challenges we face today’ (8).
Rawls has dominated English-language political philosophy for the last fifty years with a theory of ‘liberal egalitarianism’ that balances basic political and personal freedoms with an insistence that inequalities are justified only if they benefit the worst-off in society
It is a claim that will likely raise eyebrows even within the discipline. When I interviewed Marc Stears, a political theorist who left a post at the University of Oxford to be an adviser to the then Labour leader Ed Miliband, he listed Rawls among the thinkers he left behind in the ivory tower: ‘There was no day where a bit of Rawls helped me’. The arguments in Free and Equal suggest that statement was a little too hasty and dismissive – demonstrating how Rawls can be used to speak to modern political issues. Yet the book falls short of demonstrating Rawls’ theories are anything like necessary or essential, and that they can provide the sort of holistic vision Chandler thinks we need.
Free and Equal is a book of two halves. The first half is an admirably clear exposition of Rawls’ central ideas. It lays out his conception of a fair society: one in which basic freedoms are protected, genuinely fair equality of opportunity is secured, and, beyond that, the economic structure prioritises the needs of the most disadvantaged. It is perfectly pitched for a non-specialist audience, and I would happily assign the book as reading if I were teaching Rawls to undergraduates. Chandler highlights ideas easily missed or misunderstood in Rawls that are particularly salient today, like his emphasis on intergenerational justice and his recognition that economic inequalities are about power and status as well as wealth and income.
Chandler highlights ideas easily missed or misunderstood in Rawls that are particularly salient today, like his emphasis on intergenerational justice
The second half of the book presents a laundry list of progressive policies organised around Rawls’ principles of justice, among them a written constitution, proportional representation, investing in early years education, abolishing private schools, a universal basic income (UBI), creating a sovereign wealth fund and promoting co-operatives. Most of these ideas are familiar, and though Chandler summarises the issues around them effectively and efficiently, he covers so many so quickly that he cannot expect his arguments for them to be definitive.
The novelty and value is supposed to come from his ability to connect these proposals to Rawls’ moral framework and vision. Unfortunately, Rawls’ relevance to the second half of the book does not live up to the star billing he receives in the first. While chapters are themed around Rawls’ principles of justice, many of the policy recommendations are better described as loosely inspired by Rawls’ values rather than directly applying them.
Many of the policy recommendations are better described as loosely inspired by Rawls’ values rather than directly applying them
To be fair, in some cases Chandler’s recommendations flow naturally from Rawls’ work in ways that seem prescient given our current challenges. For example, Chandler’s call for a written constitution makes sense as a way to recognise the priority Rawls gives to basic liberties, and to make the protection of individual rights less precarious, given recent efforts to scrap the Human Rights Act. His discussion of Rawlsian ‘public reason’ – to simplify, the notion that our democratic arguments should be couched in terms of political values everyone can accept rather than controversial moral or religious worldviews – has obvious relevance to ongoing ‘culture war’ issues.
In other places, though, it seems as though Chandler fixates on Rawls when other political philosophers would be more helpful. The optimal balance between representative and direct democracy or what constitutes the best electoral system are questions many theorists have considered carefully and in depth, but I’m not convinced Rawls is one. In advocating for more democratic workplaces Chandler is clearly influenced by Elizabeth Anderson, who wrote an authoritative book on the topic. On UBI, Chandler admits Rawls’ views are ‘somewhat inconclusive’, having endorsed a similar measure in one book, but opposed it in another. So why bother arguing Rawls should have favoured a UBI when there are any number of philosophers that actually do?
Most of all, the second half of Free and Equal runs into the limitations of philosophy in addressing the problems of ‘real politics’. These limitations are somewhat painful to have to recognise for people like me and Chandler (he is a policy adviser turned philosopher; I made the journey in the other direction). Yet Chandler repeatedly adjudicates on questions that are fundamentally empirical rather than matters of conflicting values. Rawls really isn’t much use in helping us determine if taxes can be raised without undermining economic growth, whether early years or vocation education is a better social investment, or how public services can be reformed to be more efficient – those are questions for the social scientists.
Rawls’ core ideas – that we should protect basic freedoms, promote equality of opportunity and improve the lot of the disadvantaged – do not represent such a radical break from the status quo
If Rawls is the answer, what is the question? Free and Equal suggests that Rawls has a distinctive moral vision that can help shift our political priorities. But that doesn’t quite seem right. There are radical and destabilising ideas out there in philosophy that would change everything if we took them seriously: deliberative democracy, cosmopolitanism and longtermism, to name three. Rawls’ core ideas – that we should protect basic freedoms, promote equality of opportunity and improve the lot of the disadvantaged – do not represent such a radical break from the status quo. They are values most people from across the political spectrum would claim to believe in, even if they fail to put them into practice. The real challenge facing Chandler and Rawls, then, is whether the book can convince people to follow through on the things they profess to believe in. Rawls’ arguments may be cogent, but I have my doubts that they have the rhetorical force to inspire and motivate people to effect change.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.
Main Image Credit: Alisdaire Hickson on Flickr.