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.