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Don't Blame Rawls For Obama

Monday, June 15, 2009
In a recent piece highlighted by Paul Rosenberg of OpenLeft, a blogger historian named "Nonpartisan" attributed Obama's failure to confront the forces of institutionalized conservatism to the philosophy of John Rawls. According to Nonpartisan, Rawls' theory copes with the problem of pluralism through the use of an overlapping consensus in which "a core set of policies and governing principles" is the object of overlapping comprehensive doctrines. Nonpartisan thinks that by doing so, "extreme" positions outside of the political consensus, whether on the left or right, are effectively marginalized, shifting the Overton window decisively to right. Apparently Obama doesn't pay attention to the left and caters to the center-right because Rawls said that "extremists" should be ignored in favor of a bipartisan (and implicitly center-right, pro-establishment) consensus.

Now Obama may be caving into the right because he wants to stay in the middle of the American ideological spectrum. But if Obama is doing so because he thinks John Rawls said he should, then the President clearly has no better understanding of Rawlsian theory than Nonpartisan does.

Nonpartisan's account of Rawlsian theory makes a number of gross errors, and his interpretation of Rawlsian justice is nearly the opposite of what Rawls wrote. First, the object of the overlapping consensus is not government policies, but the principles of justice as embodied by justice as fairness. Contrary to what Nonpartisan implies, Rawls does not abandon his commitment to the difference principle or fair equality of opportunity in Political Liberalism, but only alters their grounding from one based on a metaphysical Kantian conception of the person to a political theory based on an overlapping consensus. Nonpartisan isn't describing Rawlsian theory - he's characterizing a modus vivendi in which the current balance of political forces is used as the basis of consensus, an approach Rawls explicitly rejects. Nonpartisan's example of debates about tax policy or war are not subject to the overlapping consensus, because all the overlapping consensus deals with are constitutional essentials and the common sense of justice. Rewarding billionaires because they're greedy has nothing to do with justice and would fall afoul of any reasonable comprehensive doctrine AND the difference principle.

Which brings me to Nonpartisan's other major mistake. He asserts that "unreasonables" are exiled from the political debate because they are extreme, and that Rawls has no clear justification for who is unreasonable. This claim is precisely wrong. Rawls defines unreasonability as not accepting the principle of reciprocity and not accepting the fact that people will disagree about things. Contemporary right-wing authoritarianism runs afoul of both of these provisions, and contemporary social democracy doesn't. In fact, Rawls identifies social democracy (which would be at the extreme left of American ideological debates) as one of the few acceptable political regimes. I have no idea where Nonpartisan got the idea that Rawls didn't think we could call these "right" and "wrong" and thereby enable the right. In fact, one of the big difficulties Rawls leaves open at the end of his career is what to do with unreasonable comprehensive doctrines - almost all of which are right wing or religious in character.

Nonpartisan is wrong to blame Obama's political cowardice on poor John Rawls. We don't live in a Rawlsian world - I wish that we did. In a Rawlsian world, the pro-life position would be banished as an unreasonable political position, we'd have national health insurance and public financing of campaigns, and we'd have nearly draconian inheritance laws to prevent the concentration of political and economic power in a few hands. Obama and other D.C. Democrats should be reading more Rawls, not less.

cross-posted at Open Left
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:55 AM
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