Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The House Jack Couldn't Build. (Liberalism (US Definition))

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The House Jack Couldn't Build. (Liberalism (US Definition))

Article excerpt

Senior presidential advisers are turning for support for their tax plans to the late political philosopher John Rawls. Unfortunately for American liberals , they are the advisers to President Josiah Bartlett, in the latest episode of TV's The West Wing.

And that is the paradox of Rawls, honoured at a Harvard University memorial service on 27 February. Published in 1971, his A Theory of Justice, translated into 27 languages, is probably the most renowned book of political philosophy of the 20th century. It led to a renaissance of intellectual liberalism. As Ronald Dworkin, the distinguished political philosopher and legal theorist, told the 300 students and academics who attended the memorial service, scholars across the world now work in "the intellectual world that Jack [Rawls] built". In Europe, as the Dutch political theorist Percy Lehning reminded the gathering, Rawls's ideas have profound resonance for social democratic politicians because they combine a commitment to individual rights with the need for collective action.

Yet as Rawlsian liberalism rose intellectually, political liberalism in the US, his homeland, declined into oblivion. "Liberalism" as a term for activist government has gone from one of pride, in the era from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, to one of abuse (remember George Bush Sr's 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis) and now to one of irrelevance. No serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination would now openly claim the mantle of liberalism.

Why so? Rawls argued for equal basic liberties for all and equal opportunity for all. And inequalities, he said, were justified only if they helped the least advantaged. This was just, he argued, because it was what citizens would choose if they designed society under "a veil of ignorance", with no knowledge of their own abilities or circumstances.

The results of his veil of ignorance can be emulated in reality only if there is a high degree of altruism, which in turn depends on a strong and cohesive political community. …

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