Rawls and His Radical Critics: The Problem of Equality

Rawls and His Radical Critics: The Problem of Equality

Few books in the history of political theory have made so strong an impression as A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls. Rawls’s book, published in 1971, is an effort to deal with a question of enormous importance: how will a just society distribute wealth and income, liberties, opportunities, and positions of authority? In trying to answer this question, Rawls draws upon several disciplines and a variety of philosophical traditions. The final product is a rich, difficult, and complicated book that has rightly been described as the most important contribution to Anglo-American political philosophy since World War II. And it is arguably the most radical: at any rate, conservatives have treated A Theory of Justice as a revolutionary document, dangerously egalitarian in its implications. Writing in Commentary in 1972, Irving Kristol summarized Rawls’s position: “a social order is just and legitimate only to the degree that it is directed to the redress of inequality.” “To the best of my knowledge,” Kristol added, “no serious political philosopher has even offered such a proposition before. “1 John Cobbs, in an essay in Business Week, described Rawls as one of the principal “gurus” of the new movement for equality. According to Cobbs, Rawls had committed himself not just to equal rights of equal opportunity, but also to equality of condition: “Equal opportunity is a delusion unless it produces equality of results.”2 Robert Nisbet offered a similar interpretation in a long, vitriolic review essay in the Public Interest. Summing up, he suggested that Rawls’s book “is consecrated to as radical a form of egalitarianism as may be found anywhere outside the pages of the Social Contract.”3

After reading these comments, one might expect to discover that Rawls’s book was received enthusiastically on the left. To some extent it was: a few socialists had high praise for A Theory of Justice. In general, however, radical writers were highly critical—expecting no favors from the philosophical establishment to which Rawls obviously belongs. Hence the view put forward by the philosopher Norman Daniels in his introduction to Reading Rawls, a collection of critical essays. While denying that Rawls was “merely a polemicist for the status quo,” Daniels insisted that A Theory of Justice was essentially an ideological work—a defense of liberal political and economic institutions, written “on the heels of a period many thought proved the ideological bankruptcy of liberalism.” Daniels went on to argue that “the need for a systematic Marxist response is especially great, since Rawls’s work . . . has such ideological importance.”4


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