Linda Hirshman contends that the success of John Rawls’s philosophy has a lot to do with the failure of liberal politics. The portion of her argument she has shared with the public so far is neither complete nor compelling. Her primary complaint is that The Theory of Justice is bloodless: “Rawls’s political actors, such as they were, looked a lot like brains in vats – theoretical beings completely disconnected from real-world politics.”
Hirshman is no conservative, and certainly no Straussian, but her critique of Rawls resembles Allan Bloom’s. Rawls makes an argument for redistribution based on his “Original Position,” where humans design a society behind a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing whether they’ll be smart or dumb, beautiful or ugly, in the ethnic majority or minority, etc. Rawls argues that people would be utterly risk-averse in the Original Position, designing a society with extensive income redistribution to make sure the least-advantaged are always as well off as possible.
Bloom’s central problem with this framework is that Rawls doesn’t adequately explain why human beings should adhere to the arrangements they devised in the Original Position once the veil of ignorance has been removed. When the strong know they are strong, not weak, they may not regard the protection of the weak as the highest priority. All Rawls can offer to urge people to maintain the deal he imagines they would have made is, according to Bloom, “sermonizing.”
This is one of the stronger criticisms of John Rawls. The trouble for Hirshman’s position is that it’s difficult to see: 1) how the “brains in vats” quality of Rawls’s philosophy became an attribute of political liberalism generally because of the publication of A Theory of Justice; and 2) how, even if this quality did affect what liberals said and did after 1971, voters noticed or cared.
It is not difficult to identify a less abstract and more obviously unpopular aspect of Rawlsianism. A Theory of Justice is an unyielding argument for a strikingly unrugged individualism. Each person must have everything he thinks he needs to pursue his “life plan,” including self-esteem. The individual whose life plan consists of counting blades of grass deserves not only the wherewithal to do so, but the assurance that he’ll be treated with no less respect than a Harvard professor. As Bloom says, Rawls insists government must be laisser faire about the ends people pursue, but beaucoup faire about providing the means to pursue them.
Hirshman may or may not choose to take issue with this aspect of A Theory of Justice. She would have a hard time, again, arguing that Rawls talked liberals into a position they would not otherwise have taken. The sentiment that people had virtually unconditional welfare rights had pervaded liberalism long before Rawls had any disciples. The prominent sociologist, Christopher Jencks, offered this rebuttal to the “Moynihan Report” in 1965: “If [poor black families] are matriarchal by choice (i.e., if lower-class men, women, and children truly prefer a family consisting of a mother, children, and a series of transient males) then it is hardly the federal government’s proper business to try to alter this choice. Instead, the government ought to invent ways of providing such families with the same physical and psychic necessities of life available to other kinds of families.”