Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

John Rawls and the Greening of Liberalism

Prof. Knippenberg has brought our attention to the dispute initiated by Linda Hirshman on the New Republic website over John Rawls. Hirshman thinks that the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 explains quite a bit of the electoral difficulties liberals have faced since then. She calls the book “the touchstone for liberal political philosophy,” whose deficiencies “simply left the country to the conservatives.”

Hirshman’s detractors think that the causal link between a turgid book of political philosophy and a series of bitter election days can’t possibly be as direct and powerful as she claims. Matthew Yglesias, for example, wrote that “it’s obviously insane to blame Rawls for Democratic Party electoral defeats.” Hirshman informs TNR readers that she is “working on a much longer piece about the role of foundational philosophical beliefs in contemporary American politics,” so any judgments about her full argument, not to mention her sanity, will have to be provisional.

Pending the appearance of her longer essay, it’s worth noting that Hirshman has employed enough qualifiers to hedge her bets. No fair reading of what she has already said can ascribe to her the opinion that liberals in 1971 were poised for several more decades of political victories until A Theory of Justice showed up in bookstores and syllabi, transformed liberal thinking and rhetoric and, the next thing you know, Ronald Reagan is giving his inaugural address.

Allan Bloom’s fierce review of A Theory of Justice argued that the book didn’t transform anything because it set out to justify everything liberals were already thinking at the time. Those who turn to Rawls, Bloom said, “will be given a platform that would appeal to the typical liberal in Anglo-Saxon countries: democracy plus the welfare state - leaving open whether capitalism or socialism is the most efficient economic form (so that one need not be a cold warrior); maximum individual freedom combined with community (just what is wanted by the New Left); defenses of civil disobedience and conscientious objection (the civil rights and antiwar movements find their satisfaction under Rawls’s tent); and even a codicil that liberty may be abrogated in those places where the economic conditions do not permit of liberal democracy (thus saving the Third World nations from being called unjust). This correspondence, unique in the history of political philosophy, between what is wanted by many for current political practice and the conclusions of abstract, rigorous political philosophy would be most remarkable if one did not suspect that Rawls began from what is wanted here and now and then looked for the principles that would rationalize it.”

In other words, the political content and the political fortunes of liberalism over the final third of the 20th century would have been exactly the same if John Rawls had been a shoe salesman instead of a philosophy professor. A Theory of Justice supplied syllogisms and footnotes for an ideology without changing its meaning. It’s the academic-press analog to The Greening of America, by Charles Reich, a book that is to political discourse what the lava lamp is to interior decorating. Reich’s book, published in 1970, captured the sensibility of the American left a little too well. The book went from being a best-selling phenomenon to a joke within the year, as liberals decided that an author who could write about the spiritually uplifting qualities of bell-bottom jeans might not be all that useful as a public intellectual.

Discussions - 10 Comments

Good post. Important stuff to be aware of - thank you for bringing it to our attention.

In addition to Bloom's wonderful diatribe, I'd highly recommend David Schaeffer's two books on Rawls. The title of the second and more recent one nicely conveys his thesis: Illiberal Justice: John Rawls versus the American Political Tradition. BTW: does Hirshman refer to Jim Ceaser's work on foundational ideas in American political life?

well, she's talking about the need for a liberal account of foundations, and pretty sure she used the term "public philosophy," so it seems pretty clear she's read Nature and History in American Political Development which contains the 80-page Ceaser essay that no NLTer can possibly do without!

Where is Bloom's review of Rawls published?

It was originally published in the American Political Science Review in 1975. It is reprinted in the collection of Bloom essays, Giants and Dwarves, that came out in 1990, 3 years after The Closing of the American Mind.

Would any of the academics - PS or WV? - care to summarize Bloom's critique of Rawls....for us non-academics? I *might* retrieve a Sports Illustrated from '75, but the APSR is a bit of a stretch. I make this appeal on behalf of legions.....

Thanks. I found it. JSTOR is great.

Thank you, David. Yet, JSTOR is fine for some of us, but might not help Gary.

I look forward to answers to Gary's question. Bloom's review was a polemical and rhetorical tour de force: for a time, it seemed enough for many students to read Bloom and not bother with Rawls.

I have sometimes wondered how to break down the mutual incomprehension between those likely to read Bloom and those likely to read Rawls. For Bloom (and later for Ceaser and Schaefer), Rawls was symptomatic of voices from "the cave beneath the cave." In turn, most "analytic" and "critical" philosophers never bothered with Strauss; for them, whatever Strauss was, he was not a philosopher, as a New School grad student once announced to me. For the most part, one finds caricatures of Straussians on the one side, and caricatures of Rawls on the other. And ideological ones at that: Strauss is portrayed as the evil genius behind "neoconservativism" while Rawls represents egalitarian liberalism run wild.

No doubt it is a sign of my unreliable and easygoing nature, but I have found intellectual value on both sides of this divide.

It is enough for me to read Steve Thomas and not bother with Rawls or Strauss. For with Steve Thomas I see "Overlapping Consensus" in a less construed fashion.

We find the foundation for reaching common ground on the grounds that all foundations speak past each other in what they believe to be reasonable.

Also I don't think Rawls is responsible for Isothymia run amok...he certainly worships at that alter...but he understands basic Microeconomics in a way that those who run Isothymia amok would rather ignore.

I don't see Rawls rejecting Daniel Bell...I also could see Rawls being used to justify the war in Iraq...

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