Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition

By Machan, Tibor R. | Freeman, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition


Machan, Tibor R., Freeman


Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition by David Lewis Schaefer University of Missouri Press * 2007 * 367 pages * $49.95 cloth; $24.95 paperback

Reviewed by Tibor R. Machan

Illiberal Justice is a book that administers a philosophical drubbing to the late Harvard political theorist John Rawls. Rawls's egalitarian ideas, especially that inequalities can only be justified if they can be shown to help the poorest people, have been cited as justification for much of the redistributionism of the American left. For that reason, an attack on his thinking is interesting.

David Lewis Schaefer, professor of political science at Holy Cross, gives us a serious but flawed critique of Rawls. It essentially offers up political theorist Harry Jaffa's version of the American political tradition against the intuitionist house of cards that Rawls built in his career of defending his highly abstract idea of egalitarian justice.

Schaefer deploys a powerful array of serious, indeed fatal, objections to Rawls's project (and by implication against the egalitarian ethos it sustains). He demonstrates inconsistencies in Rawls's position, as when he shows that the educational policies Rawls favored could just as easily retard the well-being of millions as benefit them. Schaefer observes that "there is no way of knowing in advance whether the genetically least advantaged ('the less intelligent') will profit most by having more spent on their education rather than on the training of the more talented whose professional and economic success can ultimately enhance the wellbeing of their less able peers."

That's a point well taken, and if one wishes to see Rawls's justice-as-fairness thesis torn to shreds good and hard, one could do much worse than read Illiberal Justice. But one must be on guard throughout not to become lured into the opposite line of thinking -only here and there made explicit by Schaeferone that makes the American political tradition into a vehicle for cntsecutive "soulcraft" (to use George Will's phrase).

Underneath all the complaints about Rawls's bad arguments and ideas we find a stern, even angry, insistence that governments need to keep us on the straight and narrow and that we must not succumb to the appeal of a strict reading of the Founders. Schaefer means a libertarian reading-one that denies that it is the task of government to deal with whatever moral problems exist in society. While he often contrasts Rawls's highly abstract contractual analysis of justice and what kind of polity it suggests with the Founders' Lockean natural-rights approach, Schaefer doesn't give us a good idea of how he reads Locke or the Declaration of Independence. …

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