The Left and THE LEFT: Responding to the crisis of soft neoliberalism

by John Q on June 3, 2024

Brad DeLong (in a recent post summarising a joint podcast with Noah Smith) walks back his previous suggestion that it was time for neoliberals, among whom he had numbered himself, to pass the baton to “the Left”.

The political basis for this is that 20 or so Senate Republicans have been willing to pass legislation from time to time, rather than shutting down the government altogether. I don’t find this compelling, but I also don’t want to debate the issue.

Rather, I’m interested in the following remark, which crystallized a bunch of thoughts I’ve been having for some time

”How has the left been doing with its baton? Not well at all, for anyone who defines “THE LEFT” to consist of former Bernie staffers who regard Elizabeth Warren as a neoliberal sellout.”

This is a classic, indeed brazen, motte-and-bailey[1], in which the hard-to-defend bailey “the Left of the Democratic party (of which Elizabeth Warren is a prominent member) is doing badly” is replaced by the motte “THE LEFT (as represented, in this case, by disgruntled former Bernie staffers) is doing badly”.

It’s one which I’m seeing increasingly from the group I’ve called “soft neoliberals”, and who are increasingly reclaiming the term “liberal”, though usually in less blatant forms. Over the fold, I’ll put some thoughts on what’s happening here.

The motte-and-bailey here works in part because the the term “left” can be understood both in terms of a symmetrical representation of political systems with roughly equal sized groups on the left and right and a more-or-less indeterminate centre, and in historical terms to the revolutionary tradition associated with Marx and Lenin, and before them with the Jacobins in France (whose position on the left of the speaker in the National Convention gave rise to the synecdoche in the first place).

At least as far as the political class was concerned, the two understandings matched up pretty well during the period of neoliberal ascendancy. Virtually everyone who mattered politically could be classed as “centre-right” (what I’ve called hard neoliberal), “centre-left” (soft neoliberal), or just plain centrist. So, the term “left” could be equated with “LEFT” and used to refer to a small group on the fringes. Similarly, the far-right could safely be ignored as a historical relic.

The failures of neoliberalism since the turn of the century have broken down this equivalence. We have seen the emergence, or resurfacing, of a substantial political grouping which is neither centre-left, in the neoliberal sense, nor LEFT in the Marxist-Leninist sense. In the US setting that group typically uses the self-description “progressive” and includes environmentalists, feminists, democratic socialists and unreconstructed New Dealers. I will just use the term “the left” to describe this group.

The left poses two problems for soft neoliberals. First, it represents a plausible political alternative to the market-friendly policies of soft neoliberalism (deregulated finance, charter schools, a Grand Bargain on deficit reduction). These policies have clearly failed to deliver on their promises.

More fundamentally, perhaps, the left poses a challenge to interpretations of liberalism in which the political right (unlike THE LEFT) is treated as a legitimate interlocutor, rather than an enemy to be struggled against, and, if possible, driven from the field of political discourse. In the context of academic political philosophy, this version of liberalism takes as canonical a range of legitimate opinion from Rawls (or maybe Dworkin) on the left to Nozick on the right.

Unsurprisingly, the easiest response for soft neoliberals is to ignore the left and to focus on some version of THE LEFT which can be characterised as authoritarian and illiberal. The implicit assumption (somewhat undermined by reactions to recent protests) is that only liberals, as interpreted above, are reliable defenders of freedom.

That’s as far as I’ve got, so I’ll throw it open to discussion.

fn1.Both John Holbo (here at Crooked Timber) and I (in a review of Pinker’s Blank Slate) talked about the rhetorical manoeuvre avant le nom. John’s suggestion of the Two-Step of Terrific Triviality was fun, but “Motte and Bailey” is much better.



Chris Bertram 06.03.24 at 6:59 am

I’m slightly puzzled about some of the divisions here, John, but particularly when we get to your ante-ante-penultimate paragraph referring to Rawls and Nozick, since what these liberals have in common in political philosophy is a strong defence of individual rights, which in Rawls’s case include basic liberties and political freedoms. The neoliberal centre and its adjacent parts to its left and right in real-world politics have been uninterested to downright hostile to those liberties, since their focus is on market-driven growth to provide jobs and to generate resources for limited redistribution. In today’s real-world politics, the only people standing up for those liberties in any numbers are the progressive left.


Moz in Oz 06.03.24 at 7:07 am

How is this different from strawmanning? “you vaguely left people are just like Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot”.

You’ve also got the fallacy of the excluded middle a lot of the time. Politics is not a choice between left and right with no other possibility. Even the left/right analysis often ends up grouping democratic socialists with fascists in order to pretend that both Finland and Italy have the same political axis (singular!), where the respective lefts are slightly more socialist democratic socialists and actual communists. But then there’s the cliche anarchist/authoritarian split that puts Stalin next to Franco, as well as the green/brown split that matters a lot today, where Sunak sits next to Putin with both in opposition to Xi (on green/brown issues!)


MisterMr 06.03.24 at 8:06 am

IMHO, the “left neoliberals” exist because there was for a period a dominance of “new dealers” and, further to the left, “marxists”, both ideologies that require a strong influence of the state on the market.
But when this “big government” kind of politics began to wobble, there was a strong turn to the market and the only kind of left that could survive were the left neoliberals, who did more or less the same things the right neoliberals did, but with more control and more care for social issues.

But in this sense, “left neoliberals” can only exist in a period where there is some dismantling of “big government”, otherways their theory doesn’t make sense.

The farther we go from the new deal compromise, the less the “left neoliberals” make sense, but for people whose political opinions were formed in the 70s this is not obvious.


engels 06.03.24 at 10:20 am

We have seen the emergence, or resurfacing, of a substantial political grouping which is neither centre-left, in the neoliberal sense, nor LEFT in the Marxist-Leninist sense.

A “third way”, you could call it…

IanaYank but Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy seemed a bit like Starmer’s before the mask slipped: some clear left-wing positions but about the most PMC person you could pick (without flying in Macron or Sunak on air miles). Fool me once…


Tm 06.03.24 at 10:59 am

“the market-friendly policies of soft neoliberalism (deregulated finance, charter schools, a Grand Bargain on deficit reduction)”

These positions are nowadays marginal to non-existent within the US Democratic Party, especially in the House (there are remnants in the Senate, and of course there’s still Sinemanchin). And Biden himself (who governs far to the left of Obama, Clinton and Carter) doesn’t care shit about any of this nonsense.

Could it be that “soft neoliberalism” in the US is only kept alive by pundits?


engels 06.03.24 at 12:00 pm

left neoliberals, who did more or less the same things the right neoliberals did, but with more control and more care for social issues

Kind of but in many ways they were worse: eg in Britain New Labour brought in tuition fees, work capability assessments and led the country into imperialist war. The important difference seems to me how they talked, not what they did: doing the right deed for the left reason (to adapt TS Eliot).


politicalfootball 06.03.24 at 1:32 pm

Haven’t listened to the podcast, but I distrust the summary of DeLong’s view, regardless of the fact that DeLong seems to endorse it.

DeLong’s argument, as I understood it, was not that neoliberals couldn’t get legislation passed after 2009, but that neoliberalism failed in its actual Clinton-era ascendancy because it relied on Republicans to be acting in good faith to carry out common goals such as reducing poverty.

If DeLong really is saying that there is a new cooperation with Republicans that has revived neoliberalism, well, that’s just making the same mistake he made in the past with considerably less excuse.


Sean 06.03.24 at 3:26 pm

“the left poses a challenge to interpretations of liberalism in which the political right (unlike THE LEFT) is treated as a legitimate interlocutor, rather than an enemy to be struggled against, and, if possible, driven from the field of political discourse.”

A big “if possible”; is anyone aware of an argument that driving the right out is possible – say a place where it has happened (in a society that respects civil liberties), or a feasible strategy for doing it, etc.? More realistic, perhaps, to expand the window, admitting those elements of the “left” and “LEFT” that are willing to accept something close enough the presuppositions of liberal democracy to be responsible democratic interlocutors.


J, not that one 06.03.24 at 5:44 pm

I also am puzzled by this choice of groupings and whom they’re supposed to represent; for that matter I’m puzzled by Brad DeLong, who seems to be at the far right end of Democratic Party preferences, distinguished from those only because he’s an expert in economics and therefore knows what those preferences actually mean, and secondarily because he’s willing to read and learn (something unspecified) from Karl Marx. Noah Smith is even farther to the right from what I can tell: maybe a bit more socially progressive but I don’t remember why I think that.

None of this has any connection with actual legislative politics (the ostensible topic of the linked post). It’s just more of the usual context-free exhortation to “the Democratic Party” to “do more progressive stuff.” It’s pretty much entirely disconnected from political and electoral realities.

The only possibilities are (1) these people live in a fantasy world, either entirely wrong about how the world worlds, or at best (ironically) where their peer-reviewed articles have a magical effect on the world, or (2) they know what they’re saying has no connection to reality and have some other purpose in mind. Either way, this raises the question Chris Bertram poses in the other post, why I should grant them extreme charity in deciding to use my time to interpret their words.

I have my own beliefs about what the political divisions in the US really are, but those are based on the self-representations of people who are probably liars, aren’t they?


somebody who remembers the 2020 democratic primary 06.03.24 at 5:54 pm

”How has the left been doing with its baton? Not well at all, for anyone who defines “THE LEFT” to consist of former Bernie staffers who regard Elizabeth Warren as a neoliberal sellout.”

in what universe has this group received a “baton”? they got obliterated in 2020. they hold no positions in biden’s executive. biden is ruling from the center even on centrist positions that are extremely unpopular (his stance on gaza is opposed by around 80 percent of americans, not just “the left” by any definition). this can’t be referring to actual legislators (they weren’t bernard staffers, typically, and see no problem working with warren). is this a whole post about “if u think about it, sometimes people are annoying on twitter”? if so, i agree. but the baton absolutely did not get passed, not even close. the centrists (said in the same tone as “the aristocrats!”) won the internal party struggles every time they were waged between 2008 and the present.


Alex SL 06.03.24 at 11:10 pm

Yes, this motte-and-bailey is a tactic, and it often comes with the claim of the existence of a slippery slope where health care or anti-trust regulations are the first step on the path towards the gulag. Not sure what to say, because this is so silly but also so predictable: When presented with the choice between higher taxes and strengthening the far-right, centrists neoliberals (and libertarians, and their equivalents before those words even existed) will pretty much always side with the far right, because, well, money!, but rationalise it as having to defend freedom from the left. Because when neoliberals say freedom, they mean the freedom of a rich person to spend their money as they see fit, and the freedom of a business owner or CEO to act as a totalitarian dictator in their company, and that’s the sum and end of freedom. Worker’s rights or the freedom that comes from not having to worry where the next meal is coming from don’t even register on their radar, because they don’t count people who aren’t rich enough to be above those things as real people.

If Elizabeth Warren is a prominent representative of the US left, then there really isn’t much to that left. Her topic is stronger consumer protection, which isn’t nothing, it’s great and badly needed, but it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what is needed to share prosperity justly and to address the global crises that are starting to stack up. Also, if Elizabeth Warren et al. are the left, in what sense did they ever have a baton? It rests currently with Biden and his advisors, meaning that the leftest policy that appears to have been enacted is an investment program, i.e., something that a functional right-wing party would also do.

(Which is what the Democratic party overall is. Even in the early 1990s, my English teacher at the time said that the problem with the US political system is that voters have what amounts to the choice between the CDU and the CSU, the two conservative sister parties of Germany. He was conservative himself and still recognised that as a problem for any country claiming to have a healthy democracy. And these days, since Trump, the choice is between fascists and conservatives.)

I know that “it hasn’t really been tried” is a tired old trope, but in the USA of the last generation and a half, no left wing policies have actually ever been tried. Even ObamaCare, the greatest improvement that was enacted, was a watered-down variant of an originally Republican plan, and it still got the red scare treatment. The Western World, and the USA in particular, currently have their Overton Window so far to the right that it is difficult to speak of a left at all. What actually deserves that label is restricted to a handful of young activists and academics with zero political power. It is therefore very puzzling to me what DeLong is talking about, at least in economic and tax terms. Or has he joined those who thinks that the left is in power because universities have diversity and inclusion programs?


Harry 06.03.24 at 11:44 pm

UK: new Labour invested massively in public services and reducing child poverty, successfully so. They were able to do so thanks to the economy, but the idea that the Tories would have halved child poverty or raised education spending to unprecedented levels between 1997 and 2010 is absurd. The idea that a left wing led Labour Party would have done much better on the domestic front seems unlikely. Of course, many Labour leaders, left and right to be honest, might have avoided the Iraq war (eg it’s hard to imagine Wilson making that error) which blots their copybook to say the least.


Cranky Observer 06.04.24 at 2:04 am

“in what universe has this group received a “baton”? they got obliterated in 2020. they hold no positions in biden’s executive. biden is ruling from the center even on centrist positions that are extremely unpopular “

DeLong’s original post, which I am sad to see him walking back as it seemed like a beacon of integrity in a sea of right-leaning classical economists, was that what you say may be have been true as of that date, but (1) the neoliberal [fn1] policies have not delivered their promise to the ordinary citizen [fn2] (2) the neoliberals and those who declare themselves centerists to further neoliberal policies are aged, probably half a generation past where traditionally they would have given up office, and aren’t going to be around much longer. Someone will, as you say, take the baton, and DeLong thought at that time that the rational left progressives such as AOC were the people who should do so.

What no one counted on was (I) the hard Radical Right and their Republican party clinging with a literal cliffhanging death grip to policies of hatred and actual physical brutality to their “enemies” (which is to say, ~58% of their fellow citizens) and their continued support of a criminal fascist as their leader and (II) the aged and worn-out centerists, nominally Democrats, clinging equally hard to their perquisites and badges of office as their policies continued to fail and Mitch McConnell outmaneuvered them at every turn.

[fn1] modern US definition thereof

[fn2] DeLong has served as a professor at UC Berkeley and an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. I cannot accept that he is naive enough to believe that the US neoliberals, all the way back to Charles Peters, had any thought or intention that the policies they advocated would help the ordinary bel0w-the-median citizen of the United States or the world, but he has written consistently for 20 years as if he does believe that so…


nastywoman 06.04.24 at 5:02 am

this is very confusing –
the official definition of ‘neo-liberal’ is:
‘favouring policies that promote free-market capitalism, deregulation, and reduction in government spending’ -and a pretty accurate definition of ‘left’
(aka:’left wing politics’) is the following from wikipedia:
‘Left-wing politics describes the range of political ideologies that support and seek to achieve social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy as a whole[1][2][3][4] or certain social hierarchies.[5] Left-wing politics typically involve a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished[1] and the point that in Australia
– or America
or the UK completely confuse these definitions with something completely different
(as Monty Python perhaps would say) –
doesn’t change the fact that ‘if somebody follows the party program of a ‘left’ Party –
he -(or she) can’t follow any… ‘stuff’ with actually is in the program of NOT ‘left’ (or ‘neo-liberal) Parties –
(and is that why US Republicans don’t have any real Party Program – as their program is actually whatever comes FIRST in a ‘trump mind’?)
AND THEN – there are (suddenly) all of these Americans and Brits (and even Australians) who like to define anything in politics in any which way they like and which actually makes any ‘political’ discussion as confused as Monty Python talking about ‘Archaeology’
(while actually discussing the size of the participants of the discussion)

This is NOT:
(or as Trump would say: Belgium is a beautiful city)


Alex SL 06.04.24 at 5:36 am

Cranky Observer,

It is sometimes puzzling how people get high on their own supply. What you write in your last paragraph brings to my mind the social democratic chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schroeder, who appeared to me to be a cynical neoliberal simply serving the interests of business when he cut and deregulated unemployment benefits and set-benefit pensions. And then, after losing his final election, I saw he gave a speech or interview (memory fails me on that detail) where he bitterly complained, apparently in earnest, that business leaders had told him that they would hire a lot more people, driving down unemployment, if he just cut and deregulated unemployment benefits.

If he really was earnest on this, the stupidity is mind-boggling. Why would any company hire more people just because they get lower unemployment benefits and for a shorter time and are constantly harassed by their case manager to turn in twenty pointless applications per month that will be binned anyway? Maybe it drives salaries down a bit? But then again, why would a company that needs 200 staff hire 210 when they are a bit cheaper? No, they would still hire only 200, because they only need 200, and hiring another ten is a waste of money. It is really a case of “he can’t be that stupid, can he?”

So, maybe Brad DeLong is too, maybe he actually thought that making the rich richer and even more rich and then even more rich would somehow lead to trickle-down… somehow. Mechanism of action is unclear, but, well, somehow.


MisterMr 06.04.24 at 10:38 am

From the linked summary:

“The principal business of “Leftist” activists over the past five years really has been and continues to be to try to grease the skids for the return of neofascism”


I’m not going to follow 1h+ of podcast to discover the reasoning behind this though.
I’ll just assume that they have to blame someone for Trump.


Tm 06.04.24 at 10:52 am

Which Biden policies are neoliberal? Asking for a friend.


David in Tokyo 06.04.24 at 12:26 pm

Someone nasty writes:
the official definition of ‘neo-liberal’ is:

Yes. There is not now, nor has there ever been, anything “liberal” about the “neoliberals”.

Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Zero. NIL. Nihil ex nihilis. Don’t SETQ NIL*.

Basically, it’s more of the Randian, libertarian, effective altruist, etc. etc. etc. BS that’s is exactly and only the very rich deperately and frantically trying to find a way of not feeling so bad about themselves. (One especially obnoxious example was when the EU screwed over Greece (insisting they pay back their loans in Euros out of their retirees pension funds, when any non-EU country would have simply devalued their currency)). It’s not just bad people being cutesy, it’s bad people being really bad.

*: This last one’s an error message from the MIT 1970s Lisp implementation…


engels 06.04.24 at 1:14 pm

It’s true: New Labour sugared the pill of their market agenda with a technocratic apparatus of targeted transfers to “deserving” groups (which the Tories swiftly dismantled) and splashed money on the NHS and some extraordinarily ugly buildings via their management consultant and financier friends. All the while they did nothing to reverse Thatcher’s privatizations and attacks on unions and further deregulated banking in the run up to the crash. Whether that makes them more or less neoliberal is for others to judge.


bekabot 06.04.24 at 2:38 pm

“So, maybe Brad DeLong is too, maybe he actually thought that making the rich richer and even more rich and then even more rich would somehow lead to trickle-down… somehow. Mechanism of action is unclear, but, well, somehow.”

“Although men are fascinated by frailty in women, there’s a balancing quality they appreciate. A man needs the assurance that, for all your helpless dependence on him to take care of you, protect, and wait on you, that somewhere hidden within is your ability to meet an emergency. He needs to know that in times of urgent need, you would have the womanly courage, strength, endurance, and ability to solve difficult problems, that you would not, in this case, be helpless. This is known as the sweet promise. It should be somewhere within your character, and he must perceive it is there. Many women show forth this promise when put to the test. Take for example a young widow left with several small children to support. She sets out single-handed to battle against all odds. She slaves and struggles, dares and suffers in her effort to provide for her children. When defeat stares her in the face, she doesn’t whimper. Taking her lot as a matter of course, she grits her teeth and braves the struggle again. No matter what pain she suffers from overwork, she has a smile of comfort for her little ones; no matter how weary, she forgets her own weariness at the slightest hint of danger to her children. Look to the widows of this earth and you’ll find many compare to the angels of heaven. This sweet promise arises from a noble character which includes love, faith, endurance, and determination.”

— Helen Andelin, Fascinating Womanhood

That’s from 1963. It’s amazing how these hallucinations persist over the years, and it’s astounding how consistent they are. The sets of bogus rules get applied to different groups of people, but the rules themselves stay the same (which is too bad).


LFC 06.04.24 at 7:14 pm

Cranky Observer @13
I’m reasonably sure that a review of Charles Peters’s writing would show that he did think the policies he advocated “would help the ordinary below-the-median citizen of the United States or the world….” Whether Peters was right to think so is, of course, a separate question.


engels 06.04.24 at 8:25 pm

Not to mention academy schools, NHS foundation trusts, the National Lottery, ASBOs, cutting benefits, being intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, building fewer council houses than Thatcher, the millennium dome, Peter Mandelson, Rupert Murdoch, Prevent, PFI, immigration fees, detention without trial, part-privatisation of the tube, “Cool Britannia”, hoody bans, “ornamental medievalists”, I could go on.


Harry 06.04.24 at 9:20 pm

“Whether that makes them more or less neoliberal is for others to judge.”

This makes me want to ask JQ for a definition of neoliberal, so I can judge which policies are and aren’t (in the post he links to, which has over 1000 comments!, it doesn’t sound like he thinks New Labour is neoliberal — but maybe some of their policies are). Since hardly anyone (Brad DeLong is an exception) calls themselves neoliberal its not Among policies you don’t like some seem to me neoliberal (banking deregulation, non-reversal of privatisations and union law), while others (detention without trial, hoody bans, ASBOs) don’t.

Halving child poverty rates so that they were closer to European levels than American levels doesn’t strike me as neoliberal even if done the way Brown did it, but maybe that’s because I’m used to people using ‘neoliberal’ as a value judgment rather than a description.


awgcooper 06.04.24 at 10:13 pm

engels @20: you forgot to mention Tony Blair.


engels 06.04.24 at 11:55 pm

The second comment was a list of things I thought were awful, not neoliberal.

If “left neoliberal” is a non-empty concept I’d have thought reducing child poverty via tax credits was one of the most obvious candidates for it (after stakeholder grants, which Brown also liked). It’s consistent with a punitive attitude to working age poverty, with investing in human capital, and avoiding regulating employment or housing.


Alex SL 06.05.24 at 5:52 am

How to define neoliberalism as a movement of economic policy runs into the usual demarcation problems that plague any such conversation (what defines a Christian, a socialist, a conservative, a fascist, an effective altruist?). Often there is a core cluster of tenets with gradients radiating out from it, rather than sharp boundaries, so that it is easy to assign the label to person A but difficult to decide for persons B, C, and D.

But what is not difficult, in my eyes, is to diagnose what is sometimes called the neoliberal turn of the Labour, socialist, social democratic, and Democratic centre-left parties of the ‘Western world’ in the late 1980s to 1990s. The key switch was to give up on reversing the radical political changes made by the Thatchers and Reagans of the world. It was to make to voters not the case that arrangements would change in any significant way for the better, but merely that one would be more competent and less corrupt managers of the current arrangements.

Perhaps we put more money into health care, but we won’t strengthen union power again to the where it guaranteed the broadly shared prosperity of the 1950s-1970s. Perhaps we put more money into education, but student fees are here to stay, ensuring that the working class are disincentivised from getting into higher education or suffer crippling debt if they have the gall to try. We won’t privatise quite as many public services as the other lot, but we will privatise and outsource some of them, and the billionaires will continue to pay 35% tax instead of the 70-90% that used to fund those services. We may invest into upgrading some infrastructure, but you won’t get back the secure career path your parents had, instead it is short-term contracts all around, and also, forget about being able to afford a house, we won’t touch that can of worms, oh no. We will bail companies out if things go really pear-shaped so that the economy doesn’t crash, but re-introducing the regulations that avoided such crashes for several decades after 1929 is out of the question. We ourselves won’t be as racist as the other lot, but far-right billionaires get to own nearly all the newspapers, radio and TV stations, and social media networks that you rely on for news and spout racist hatred and populist lies without consequence, because regulating that is too hard.

Most fundamentally, there is no vision of societal progress anymore towards greater equality and freedom from want, as the labour movement used to promote, there is only managing society as it is. Nor is there any plan to head off systemic crises we can see looming ahead, because if we tweak a little bit here or there the free market will solve everything… somehow… and planning ahead would lead directly to the Gulag… somehow.

This is why I would not call any of these Blairs, Schroeders, Bidens, Albaneses, or Starmers ‘left’ or ‘LEFT’. When put in charge of a logging camp on a mountain, the extent of their political vision would be to ask if we need to buy a few better saws, but they would not even think to reorganise the camp’s management structure, much less ask if it is actually wise to cut down the forest that keeps half the mountain from becoming an avalanche on top of the town under it. And I have seen people argue that this unwillingness to consider systemic change as being even an option is central to neoliberalism, even if perhaps only part of the complex of tenets.


wacko 06.05.24 at 8:21 am

How about this: there are two ways, two approaches, for a government to handle and stabilize a capitalist economy.
The first is corporatism (sort of a ‘fascism, in a good sense’), where the government controls the economy, serves as an arbiter in disputes between interests groups (business, labor, etc.), while making sure the economy benefits the country and its citizens in general. That’s Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia.
The second is liberalism (or ‘neo-liberalism’), where the economy runs by itself (by ‘market forces’), and the government redistributes the excesses by the tax-transfer mechanism. Taxing the winners, transferring to the losers. That’s the US, UK.
The idea behind the neoliberal approach is that the economy running wild, uncontrolled, will generate more wealth, and the final result will turn out to be more beneficial for everyone. How it turns out in reality is a different question.
They are both “the Right”, of course. Just two ways, theoretical ways, to run a capitalist economy.


Trader Joe 06.05.24 at 10:43 am

I’ve always viewed neo-liberalism as the settle-for.

I want universal healthcare, but I’ll settle for ObamaCare as a step in the right direction.

I want to reduce/eliminate poverty, but I’ll settle for a bump in minimum wages.

I want universal free college, but I’ll settle for writing off already accrued debt.

Even when a party has a fairly strong mandate the opposition will get some things across the plate. In the US anyway, there hasn’t been an even slightly strong mandate since the first 2 years under Obama and the same first 2 under Clinton.

Its not that any of the settle-for policies are entirely bad its that that they aren’t near as good as what a stronger government, stronger leadership and a more functional congress might achieve. From a US perspective, my knock on so-called liberal leadership is an unwillingness to actually lead and try to achieve strong policy rather they settle for incrementalist policy from the outset and conservatives (as they would/should) chip that away further from there.


marcel proust 06.05.24 at 2:58 pm

Combining the requests and references to the correct definition of new-liberalism with motte-and-bailey arguments, perhaps we can rule out some possibilities with a list along the lines of No true neo-liberal would … . In an ideal world, having made the suggestion, I would start this; or rather, no true good-faith commenter would neglect to provide an example. But there you are.


William Berry 06.05.24 at 7:43 pm

@Trader Joe:

I think your Overton Window might be shifted a little too far to the right.

The “neoliberal” policies you describe are about as “left” liberal as one could reasonably expect, given the present political situation in this truly fucked up Great Land of Ourz.


Lee A. Arnold 06.05.24 at 8:51 pm

Deregulated finance is a policy of “soft” neoliberalism? I should think it a quintessence of “hard.” John what is your example of a hard neoliberal financial policy?


John Q 06.06.24 at 3:10 am

Lee @31 Deregulated finance is central to neoliberalism, in both hard and soft varieties.
The “Grand Bargain” (balancing the budget with a combination of benefit reductions and tax increases) is an example of a specifically soft neoliberal policy: hard neoliberals want tax cuts and even bigger reductions in spending.


John Q 06.06.24 at 3:30 am

Chris @1 “I’m slightly puzzled about some of the divisions here, John, but particularly when we get to your ante-ante-penultimate paragraph referring to Rawls and Nozick, since what these liberals have in common in political philosophy is a strong defence of individual rights, which in Rawls’s case include basic liberties and political freedoms.”

But not in Nozick’s case and even more clearly not in Hayek, whom I could have added. Hayek is very clear that property rights (freedom of action) trump freedom of speech and thought, and carried this through into his political activity. Hayek and Nozick are hard neoliberals in my terminology. My point is then that a spectrum of thought seen as running from soft neoliberals like Rawls to hard neoliberals like Hayek and Nozick implicitly excludes from the debate people who don’t share their individualist framing of the issues.


John Q 06.06.24 at 3:35 am

Harry, here’s a definition of neoliberalism from 2002. I wrote at the time that the Blair government was shifting from neoliberalism to a fairly dilute version of social democracy. In retrospect this has been overshadowed by Iraq and the failure to respond adequately to the GFC, but it’s what I thought at the time


Chris Bertram 06.06.24 at 7:00 am


I really don’t think it makes sense to think of Rawls as a “soft neoliberal”. Insofar as he has institutional commitments they are inspired by those of James Meade.


engels 06.06.24 at 9:44 am

Raymond Geuss:

Rawls did in fact eventually establish a well-functioning academic industry which was quickly routinized and which preempted much of the space that might have been used for original political thinking. He was one of the forerunners of the great countermovement [to the post-war social order], proleptically outlining a philosophical version of what came to be known as the “trickle-down” theory. Crudely speaking, this theory eventually takes this form: “Value” is overwhelmingly produced by especially gifted individuals, and the creation of such value benefits society as a whole. Those who are now rich are well-off because they have contributed to the creation of “value” in the past. For the well-off to continue to benefit society, however, they need to be motivated, to be given an incentive. Full egalitarianism will destroy the necessary incentive structure and thus close the taps from which prosperity flows. So inequality can actually be in the interest of the poor because only if the rich are differentially better-off than others will they create value at all—some of which will then “trickle down” or be redistributed to the less well-off. Rawls allows people who observe great inequality in their societies to continue to feel good about themselves, provided that they support some cosmetic forms of redistribution of the crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich and powerful. The apparent gap which many people think exists between the views of Rawls and, say, Ayn Rand is less important than the deep similarity in their basic views. A prison warden may put on a benevolent smile (Rawls) or a grim scowl (Ayn Rand), but that is a mere result of temperament, mood, calculation and the demands of the immediate situation: the fact remains that he is the warden of the prison, and, more importantly, that the prison is a prison. To shift attention from the reality of the prison to the morality, the ideals and the beliefs of the warden is an archetypical instance of an ideological effect. The same holds not just for wardens, but for bankers, politicians, voters, investors, bureaucrats, factory workers, consumers, advisers, social workers, even the unemployed—and, of course, for academics.


nastywoman 06.06.24 at 10:17 am

so if we understood it –
right? – Brad DeLong (in a recent post summarising a joint podcast with Noah Smith)
‘It is therefore time to snatch the baton back, and give it to the supply-side progressivist policy-politics core, and then grab as many people to run alongside that core in the race as we possibly can’.
but otherwise? :
‘The principal business of “Leftist” activists over the past five years really has been and continues to be to try to grease the skids for the return of neofascism—just as the principal business of Ralph Nader and Naderites in 2000 was to grease the skids for upper-class tax cuts, catastrophic financial deregulation, and forever wars’.they writing about
and then
these supposedly ‘Leftist’ are former Bernie staffers who regard Elizabeth Warren as a neoliberal sellout.they podcasting about??!
the principal adversaries to good governance and a bright American future are reactionary theocrats, neofascist grifters, and true-believer right-neoliberals to the right and cost-disease socialists to the left’.

so does that mean – that there is some truth to the theory that in the US there is some kind of coalition between ‘the Left’ and ‘the Right’? which supports the silly theory of Greenwaldians that the Dems and the Repugs are – ‘just the same’?
(because some member of these two completely different parties agree on certain ‘sinks’ – as Elon would call it – like for example progressive supply side economics’ BUT on some far more important ‘sinks’ they don’t – like that the World is flat or immigrants are ‘the enemy’)

SOOO wouldn’t it much easier to NOT put ANYBODY who doesn’t believe in supply-side progressive economics int ‘the Left’ and instead call them what they are – part of the ‘reactionary theocrats, neofascist grifters, and true-believer right-neoliberals’?

AND the point that they once were part of ‘the Left’ (just like Glenn Greenwald) has become irrelevant – or should we just say… ‘completely confused’?


engels 06.06.24 at 11:36 am

Iirc Katrina Forrester’s “In the Shadow of Justice” has a lot of interesting detail on the anti-statist sympathies of the early Rawls (which had disappeared from the global brand I later encountered). Hayek once famously said he had “no basic quarrel” with him.


politicalfootball 06.06.24 at 1:35 pm

Here’s Delong recently on whether he would call himself a neoliberal:

I would not grab “neoliberal” unless prodded on the Internet. If it were possible to be a social democrat in left-neoliberal sheep’s clothing and be effective, I would be eager to be one. But my judgment is that joining and strengthening the neoliberal current is in the end not going to lead to a good place, because it’s already too strong. And you shouldn’t make social democratic arguments in neoliberal language. You should make social democratic arguments in social democratic language.

Delong promotes fools like Noah Smith and Larry Summers, but I don’t think he’s one himself. (Come to think of it, I think I’d make the same defense/critique of Yglesias and the racists that he amplifies.)

I take Delong to be saying that the left neoliberals were hoodwinked by the right neoliberals. Delong doesn’t say this, but I think that this con job is most obviously seen in the neoliberal consensus, left and right, about unions.

Unions should be sacred to left Neoliberals. Unions employ market mechanisms to achieve just social results. If neoliberalism ever made any sense from a left point of view, unions would be at the center of it.

An actual leftist neoliberal program could include, for example, cap-and-trade (which I am skeptical of) or congestion pricing (which makes a lot of sense to me).


Harry 06.06.24 at 2:04 pm

Thanks John.

engels– Geuss has been saying that sort of thing over and over again for decades, without betraying much evidence of having read Rawls. I keep meaning to read In The Shadow of Justice, but was rather put off by the piece she did in Boston Review which, again, suggested that she’d not paid much attention to what Rawls’s theory (and to be fair didn’t seem that interested in it).


J, not that one 06.06.24 at 2:44 pm

Rawls’s argument seems to be “since we know redistribution is wrong, but we also know keeping people in poverty is wrong, how can we justify both a system that helps the poor and a system that produces inequality?” Most people slide past the first part without explaining why it doesn’t matter, and assume the right wing attacks from the 70s were accurate. Forrester helped me see how the initial public reaction to ToJ turned into the current ways he’s used in economics departments. But she doesn’t explain how he overcomes the contradiction between real egalitarianism and the “egalitarianism” that says “we’re all free, white, and 21 here so I’m as good as you are!” I also wish she’d spent more than a couple of lines on Bernard Williams and Quentin Skinner, or even Taylor, and maybe not so much on Walzer.


Chris Bertram 06.06.24 at 3:27 pm

It doesn’t seem right to turn John’s thread into a Rawls discussion, so I apologise. But what I would say to engels is that taking Raymond Geuss as a reliable source on what Rawls thought is (in terms of accuracy) a bit like trying to get an idea of Marx from Daily Telegraph opinion columns. Hayek’s statement that he had no basic quarrel with Rawls comes in The Mirage of Social Justice and responds to Rawls’s hostility to ex post facto redistribution. What you don’t get from that is that Rawls wanted to build distribution into the regular functioning of society and economy so that redistribution would be largely unnecessary (although some post facto adjustment would be necessary in order to preserve political equality and to prevent the system reproducing itself in ways that favoured inequality and monopoly). I have many disagreements with Rawls (particularly with his idea that the principles of justice apply mainly to the internal life of “peoples”) but the idea that what’s going on is just neo-liberal trickle-down is laughable.


J, not that one 06.06.24 at 3:50 pm

To say Rawls is the same as Rand is silly, otoh Forrester’s claim that Walzer is the same as MacIntyre ia equally silly. (She puts Lasch on the left too, a not uncommon mistake but one that shouldn’t still be being made in the 2010s when the book came out.)

A lot of Kantian liberals seem to confuse “you disagree with me” with “you’re completely irrational” and “I believe in universal values” with “everyone who disagrees with me is an irrationalist who puts community and tradition higher than reason.” In return, a lot of leftists shrug and walk away. We might get a progressive, intersectional social democracy out of their decision to focus on other things than trying to persuade economists. Or we might get a white supremacist populism that gives lip service to Poli Sci 101. It’s hard to say.


J, not that one 06.06.24 at 3:55 pm

Sorry, I didn’t refresh and didn’t see Chris Bertram’s comment. Surely though the issue is that Rawls – and more importantly most Rawlsians, excepting only a very recent fringe – limit what can be done to what academics economics says is OK, which means what neoliberalism would accept. Rawls probably didn’t foresee economics closing up like that, but he didn’t allow for it being by his lights just wrong and ignorable. Forrester shows how difficult it has been for people committed to Rawls to accommodate anything more than “the welfare state as it existed in 1963 is good.”


bekabot 06.06.24 at 4:09 pm

“Unions should be sacred to left Neoliberals. Unions employ market mechanisms to achieve just social results. If neoliberalism ever made any sense from a left point of view, unions would be at the center of it.”

But they’re not, because left neoliberals are a mere fraction of the greater neoliberal body, and because ‘just’ means different things to different people. To most leftists a just society is one in which anybody who plays by the rules (more or less, give or take) can get ahead and lead a decent life, but to right-wingers a just society is one in which the deserving are rewarded, full stop. (The official position of most of them up till now has been that once the deserving have been rewarded the undeserving are welcome to scrounge up whatever they can wrestle out of the residue, but that’s starting to change, as one can gather when one notices that in their circles market language is beginning to go out of style, and that ecclesiastical language is beginning to supplant it.) And neoliberals, including left-wing neoliberals, are philosophically and temperamentally right of center. They may concede a degree of success to the undeserving person, but they’re never really happy about it. The aim of a society, in their view, should never be to make second-rate people too comfortable. In their book, the undeserving man is at his best when kept on the qui vive. If an undeserving man manages to make himself comfortable, well and good — it would be counterproductive to shoot him down at high noon in front of a crowd on 5th Avenue — but there’s still no reason to welcome him into the camp of the righteous. Hasn’t he just demonstrated that he’s doing fine exactly where he is?

IOW, the reason neoliberals (including neoliberals who are perceived by themselves and others as left-wing) are fond of market mechanisms is that market mechanisms do not reduce inequality. Market mechanisms sideline and marginalize the undeserving, which is what they’re supposed to do. ‘Undeserving’, like ‘just’, is a word which means different things to different people, which can make the question of who is or is not undeserving into a tricky one, especially when the stakes are high. The excellence of a reliance on market mechanisms resides in the fact that market mechanisms can put an end to the debate, or can seem to. They can separate the wheat from the chaff very effectively — on their own.

But what, OTOH, do unions do? What effect do unions have? Well, the effect of unions is to throw a spanner into the works. Unions gum up and debilitate the system sketched above. They interpose a great big bourgie bulge into the middle of an elegant two-tier plan. So (rationally) neoliberals don’t like them — and (rationally) neoliberals never will.


Harry 06.06.24 at 4:24 pm

This does seem to be taking a Rawlsian turn but:

” Rawls – and more importantly most Rawlsians, excepting only a very recent fringe – limit what can be done to what academics economics says is OK.”

That seems false to me, but I’m curious why you believe it is true. I was perplexed by some reading of Rawls on CT a month or so ago, and from googling found plenty of handouts, lecture notes, etc, saying things about Rawls’s theory confirming that (wildly wrong) reading so I’m aware not everyone reads Rawls the same way. I haven’t seen anyone saying this before.

“Forrester shows how difficult it has been for people committed to Rawls to accommodate anything more than “the welfare state as it existed in 1963 is good.”

For what it’s worth Rawls himself doesn’t say anything like this, and although his institutional discussions are (appropriately, given his purposes) abstract and vague its hard to come away from what he actually says in, say, his last book, believing that he thinks his theory is compatible with capitalism, at least in any form that we have known it.


LFC 06.06.24 at 5:21 pm

engels @37 wrote:

Iirc Katrina Forrester’s “In the Shadow of Justice” has a lot of interesting detail on the anti-statist sympathies of the early Rawls

What Forrester says is that the early Rawls had some anti-statist sympathies, and then Rawls spent a year at Oxford, where he came in contact with some of the Labour Party “revisionists” (who, while they might have been skeptical about nationalization, were not anti-statist) and Rawls’s perspective changed. More specifically, Forrester writes that Rawls “grafted their [i.e. the Labour revisionists’] commitment to equality onto his early barebones liberalism,” thereby giving the notion of “a property-owning democracy” a “new ideological valence” (Forrester, p. 29).

[I read the Forrester book and reviewed it, though not for an academic journal.]


MisterMr 06.06.24 at 5:41 pm

I don’t know much of Rawls, but on Wikipedia I read ( ):

“What, then, could justify unequal distribution? Rawls argues that inequality is acceptable only if it is to the advantage of those who are worst-off. ”

So, inequality is only acceptable if it has some trickle down effect (by the way I don’t see how this is different from normal utilitarianism).
So, since Rawls AFAIK wasn’t for total egalitarianism, the question arises about just how much inequality he assumed to be “beneficial”.

It should be noted that even soviet societies weren’t totally egalitarian, there were still significant differences in income, though lower than those in capitalist societies (and much lower than what we have today).


LFC 06.06.24 at 5:45 pm

J, not that one @40

I really have no idea where the notion that Rawls thinks “redistribution is wrong” comes from. I know J. Quiggin doesn’t like what Rawls said about taxation in ToJ, but Rawls’s theory requires some redistribution if you start with a less-than-just society (which most or all are).

Btw, Raymond Geuss’s comparison of Rawls to Ayn Rand is … hello? what planet are we on? stuff. There are plenty of serious critiques of Rawls by plenty of people and from different angles, but Geuss’s is not one of them.


Harry 06.06.24 at 5:57 pm

Thanks again John, for the post about neoliberalism, to which I will now refer people who want to understand it. That is, roughly, how I, too understand neoliberalism. And I think you’re exactly right about “New” Labour.

This is funny to see in a post from 2002, because, 22 years later, it just possibly might be true (and for very much the reasons you were I’m sure thinking of at the time): “The Conservative party is hovering on the edge of extinction”. Whether its extinction would be all things considered good is something we might get to find out…


J, not that one 06.06.24 at 6:43 pm

“That seems false to me, but I’m curious why you believe it is true”

Forrester describes several occasions where Rawls takes very seriously the criticisms made of the welfare state in the 70s and 80s, including the charges from the infant neoconservative/neoliberal movement that welfare was bad because it supposedly caused the recipients of government benefits to become “dependent.” This was behind the whole neoliberal push to cut benefits from Carter on. I think a lot of what he says only makes sense if you assume the right-leaning economists were right about most things – that in ToJ he took himself to be writing a synthesis including the current left-liberal worldview shared by most educated people, the most up-to-date findings of economists including the Austrian school, and a Kantian and Augustinian worldview that ordinarily would probably be mildly center-right.

Rawls was writing at a time when the right was still politically on the defensive. Eisenhower was anti-communist but didn’t dare reverse the New Deal. Tax rates on the highest incomes were still high. (91% until 1964, 65% after that.) The movement against welfare hadn’t begun, and the backlash against the Great Society (with its intensified racial overtones, and its invitation to socially conservative white ethnics to demonstrate their class affiliations by dunking on the morals of the Black poor) hadn’t begun either. Opposition to bureaucracy was widespread on the (especially anti-technology and youth) left and tied up with opposition to the military, to corporations, to huge impersonal universities with their punch cards. There was a left tradition in the US, both anti-communist and socialist, which I don’t believe Rawls engages with at all.

Jennifer Burns’s book on Rand shows how the almost-underground writers of the new conservative movement used Rand as a conduit for their ideas. They weren’t well known by then. Hayek was, but he was also still counter-hegemonic. It isn’t clear to me why Rawls would be taking anti-Keynesian economics so seriously at that time.

If Rawls had been writing in a vacuum and teaching people for the first time how not to be capitalists, how to understand that culture and institutions matter, and so on, that would be a different story. The problem isn’t that his theory can’t accommodate more social democratic politics. In theory, it can. In practice, the veil of ignorance is set up to permit only “abstract” considerations like the findings of scientific economics, which aren’t open to debate.


John Q 06.06.24 at 6:46 pm

Harry: As events have shown, there’s a lot of ruin in a political party. But when you look at the near-zero levels of Conservative support among young people (I saw one poll saying 2 per cent for Gen Z women), it looks like a real possibility. Sunak floating National Service might have sealed the deal, a pathetic appeal to nostalgic voters who mostly won’t be around in 10-15 years time. But who knows what will replace them: in a first-past-the-post system that’s particularly problematic.


J, not that one 06.06.24 at 6:47 pm


I understand “redistribution” to mean something more significant than taxes and benefit payments. It’s a kind of a shibboleth to divide socialism from liberalism.

In this new moment, Rawls’s theory—with its commitment to public, democratic institutions and to improving the lot of the least well off—looked less like a vision of pluralist civil society regulated by a minimally interventionist state and more like a robust defense of a welfare state committed to significant redistribution. When Michael Harrington called for a “passion to end poverty” in his The Other America (1962), he had diagnosed America’s problem as “one of vision. The nation of the well-off must be able to see through the wall of affluence and recognize the alien citizens on the other side.”8 Rawls’s theory was read by many as facilitating that vision: it showed what a society would look like if it were justifiable to a nation of equals, and what moral persons would be like if only they saw each other clearly. For a generation of philosophers, it was a justification for social democracy, aimed at reducing inequality and fostering reciprocal relations between citizens—a philosophical “gloss on the domestic programs of the 1960s” of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. “After the deed,” one critic wrote, “comes the rationalization.”

Forrester, Katrina. In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (p. 105). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

IOW, Rawls couldn’t have predicted the environment his book would be published in, and its subsequent reception was significantly influenced by Harrington.


John Q 06.06.24 at 7:07 pm

My point about Rawlsian liberals, in the current context, isn’t with the specifics of Rawls’ views as with the fact that they see themselves at the left pole of a spectrum of opinion, with Nozick and Hayek at the other end. This mapped reasonably neatly into soft and hard neoliberalism, in my terminology (Aside to Chris: I’d see Meade as a precursor to soft neoliberalism)>

But with the Hayek/Nozick crowd having gone fully Trumpist, Rawlsian liberals need to engage with the left and they are finding this very difficult, at least those I read.


LFC 06.06.24 at 7:07 pm

You probably shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia here. At least go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which, I assume, has to be better).

On the question of how much inequality R. tolerates, I would suggest that the answer is “less than many people suppose.”


Harry 06.06.24 at 9:28 pm

Yes, it really is hard to see how they come back from this. Even if they end up with upwards of 150 seats any new leader will have to appease the Reform-Uk voters, and doing so is bound to alienate the kind of voters they have traditionally relied on, and who are leaving them in droves (relatively affluent, broadly socially liberal types concentrated in the south). The voting system might allow the LibDems to replace them as the main party of opposition, or it might generate a further-right Reform-ish opposition that is able to get a foothold in the north and east of the country.

J not that one — thanks. I really will read Forrester, but as I said above I was very put off by her not seeming to have a basic understanding of Rawls’s theory in that BR piece, or even much interest in it (intellectual historians who look at philosophers often don’t seem that interested in the theories of their subjects). I don’t have time to write about this, but I think you (maybe influenced by KF) have got the wrong end of the stick about what the Original Position is doing.


LFC 06.06.24 at 10:59 pm

One of the themes — not saying it’s a main theme but it’s there — in ToJ is that people not only have to cooperate in certain ways to exist as social (i.e., not completely isolated) beings but also that they in some way “appreciate” each other’s activities, presumably whether mundane and supposedly “lowly” or, on the other hand, “elevated” (fill in these descriptions however you want). Hence the “members of a community participate in one another’s nature” and “the self is realized in the activities of many selves….” (p. 565, 1st ed.)

I suppose one could dismiss this as quasi-mystical bloviating or simply false or whatever, but it would seem to have little to do with economic theorems, nor would the argument that self-respect is the most important “primary good.” If I recall correctly, the parties to the original position are assumed to know some basic facts about human psychology and that’s pretty much it.

Btw, would Ayn Rand or Hayek have written “the self is realized in the activities of many selves”? Rawls says in the preface that he wrote the third version of ToJ in 1969-1970. Is it reasonable to assume that Rawls was completely unaware of the youth “counterculture,” celebrated most notoriously in Reich’s The Greening of America (1970)? As the kids say, asking for a friend.


LFC 06.07.24 at 12:22 am

J, not that one @53

Forrester implies or states (on p. 105, in the passage you quote) that ToJ was intended to be “a vision of pluralist civil society regulated by a minimally interventionist state” but, because of the political climate and events of the late ’60s, it was taken as “a robust defense of a welfare state committed to significant redistribution.”

There are problems with this passage, imo. First, Forrester has already written, in the first chapter, that Rawls had abandoned the “barebones” anti-statist liberalism he started with. Second, Rawls argued in ToJ that “fair equality of political opportunity” means that the wealthy shouldn’t be permitted to dominate politics and policy-making; it’s hard to see how you can prevent that domination with only a “minimally interventionist state.” Third, with a “minimally interventionist state” you’re likely to end up with inequalities that don’t satisfy the difference principle (however exactly you interpret what “benefiting the worst off” means).

On p. 106, Forrester writes: “The internal coherence of A Theory of Justice masked its tensions. It also underplayed the consensual vision of society Rawls had to assume was possible in order to secure that coherence.” I think this is one of her main themes: that Rawls assumes a “consensual vision of society” or that such a vision “is possible.” I think she overemphasizes this. Rawls does think that people under certain conditions can agree on basic principles of justice, but that’s not exactly the same thing.

Her argument — although not stated this baldly — seems to be that ToJ mainly reflects the optimism and (however superficial) “consensus” of the 50s and early 60s, but by the time it was published the changed environment meant that it was read differently than Rawls intended. (Though she acknowledges that ToJ “meant different things to different people” — p. 105.)

Is that persuasive? Rawls was writing the last version in 1969-70. He knew the environment the book was going to be published in, he had been writing on civil disobedience after all, and he had been arguing (though not in print, afaik) against college student deferments from the draft on the grounds that that was not fair. Forrester, as I recall, pretty much says all this. So this is hard to square, istm, with the suggestion that Rawls didn’t know what kind of environment his book was going to be published in.

Sorry for the length of this comment, but I’m just going to let it stand and get off the computer for a while.


Alex SL 06.07.24 at 7:09 am


Unions employ market mechanisms to achieve just social results. If neoliberalism ever made any sense from a left point of view, unions would be at the center of it.

That’s not what market mechanisms are. Market mechanism would be if every worker was by themselves, negotiating a salary while the boss points out that five others are outside the door waiting to take the job instead. Unions employ collective action to achieve just social results. Collective action is anathema to both free markets and to neoliberalism, which works to turn every human activity into a low-regulation, for-profit market structure, and that is why neoliberalism never made sense from a left point of view. (And why in an earlier comment I wrote that parties that adopt neoliberalism shouldn’t be called left.)

John Q @54,

Why do Rawlsian liberals need to engage with the left, and with what left? If this is about political action, the problem is that the left in most countries doesn’t break single digit vote percentages or is a marginalised minority inside a nominally centre-left but actually centre-right party, so engaging with them would be nice IMO but may not exactly feel like a need to an academic philosopher. Why talk to somebody who can’t achieve anything anyway? If, on the other hand, it is about academic discourse, then I don’t see what keeps a philosophical school from happily remaining in its bubble. What is the worst that can happen – being cited by a few less colleagues? Sorry if I misunderstand; not my field, more used to controversies in biology than in economic policy.


nastywoman 06.07.24 at 7:25 am

on the other hand Prof. DeLong said:
‘You should make social democratic arguments in social democratic language’.
so why doesn’t anybody here making ‘social democratic arguments in social democratic language’?
Is it because Americans, Australians and Brits have forgotten that ‘Social democracy’ is kind of a German thing – ‘originated as an ideology within the labour whose goals have been a social revolution to move away from purely laissez-faire capitalism to a social capitalism model sometimes called a social market economy. In a nonviolent revolution as in the case of evolutionary socialism,[1] or the establishment and support of a welfare state.[2] Its origins lie in the 1860s as a revolutionary socialism associated with orthodox Marxism.[3] Starting in the 1890s, there was a dispute between committed revolutionary social democrats such as Rosa Luxemburg[4] and reformist social democrats’.
AND if one tries to find out the difference between (German) ‘Sozialdemokraten’ and US social democrats one get’s answers like:
‘The left-most third of the Democratic Party is roughly equivalent to Social Democratic parties in Western Europe. Some people in this third might be better suited for center-left Green parties though.
The middle third is more aligned with social liberal parties in Western Europe.
The rightmost third are more aligned with conservative liberal parties in Western Europe.
So the Democratic Party roughly spans the Western European center-right to center-left.
The Republican Party spans the Western European solid right to far-right.
What would constitute left or far-left in Western Europe doesn’t exist in American electoral politics at the national level, but there are some leftists and far-leftists active in extra-electoral and local electoral politics.
Between 1990 and 2008, the Democratic Party was mostly a center-right conservative liberal party, but it has shifted leftward over the last decade to be a slightly left of center mostly social liberal party’.
The Left of the US would still be considered the Right by European standards. They just don’t come off that way in American politics because the Right Republicans have been at least flirting with Theocracy and Fascism for decades. They just don’t come off that way in American politics because the Right Republicans have been at least flirting with Theocracy and Fascism for decades.
It’s easy to give off a vaguely left vibe when your main competition is “we should be allowed to hunt homeless minorities for sport” level rightwing, even when you don’t deserve it’.

That’s why any discussion about Social Democracy in any Anglolands is soooo confused right now…


MFB 06.07.24 at 9:07 am

One of the things which interests me about all this is the way in which shrieking reactionaries operating within right-wing ex-social-democratic parties love to brand themselves as liberals in some sense of the word (invariably a sense which makes no sense). They then describe the (latterly) shrieking reactionary parties which they adore as “centrist”, which is rather like redefining missing the dartboard completely as hitting the bullseye.

They then redefine anybody mildly liberal (cf. Sanders, Warren) as leftist, segueing this into marxist and communist where available.

Ironically, they themselves, by the same techniques, are treated in the same way by the openly right-wing parties, so that Biden and Starmer are denounced as Marxists by their opponents.

If intellectuals had not decided to abrogate all responsibility for promoting some connection between political language and political reality — a task which is now in the hands of the dwindling number of actual political satirists out there — this might not have happened, at least not so grotesquely.


notGoodenough 06.07.24 at 9:20 am

If I were to be somewhat cynical, I might suggest that (simplistically) neoliberalism accepts inequality, with the significant divider between hard and soft neoliberalism being the degree to which inequality within class is good/acceptable/to be avoided – thus neoliberalism is already more aligned with “the right” (which tends to accept, or actively promote, class inequality) than “the left” (which tends to reject inequality both between and within class – though admittedly to varying extents).


Chris Bertram 06.07.24 at 9:51 am

Rawls is very explicit in rejecting a society that comprises laissez faire capitalism + redistributive welfare state. See. eg Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, pp. 135-6.


engels 06.07.24 at 10:12 am

LFC, the “revisionists” were the right wing of the Labour Party in the 50s, you could call them the New Labour of their time. Crosland in particular continued to be a reference point for later “modernisers” like the SDP, Kinnock and… you guessed it… New Labour. Their main focus was dethroning nationalisation as a Labour goal (sound familiar?) and they did that by distinguishing between institutional means and normative ends, which involved a lot of discussions about fairness etc.

Rawls grafted that Oxford SCR chatter onto his native anti-gubmint liberalism before sleeping through the 60s (and the social progress neoliberals disliked) and popping out his magnum opus in 1971. Which was then received and canonised as the swan song of Great Society America (and even in more excitable quarters as a muted plea for socialism). D’oh!


MisterMr 06.07.24 at 10:33 am

So I actually went to the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” on rawls and skimmed it, and there are various points that leave me cold, however I will cite this about Rawls ideas of an ideal society:

Rawls explicitly rejects the welfare state (JF, 137–40). Welfare-state capitalism leaves control of the economy in the hands of a group of rich private actors. It therefore fails to ensure for all citizens enough resources to have roughly equal chances of influencing politics, or to have sufficiently equal opportunities in education and employment. The welfare state therefore tends to generate a demoralized under-class.

Laissez-faire capitalism is even worse for equality than the welfare state along these dimensions. And a socialist command economy would put too much power in the hands of the state, again endangering political equality and also threatening basic liberties such as free choice of employment.

Justice as fairness, Rawls says, favors either a property-owning democracy or liberal (democratic) socialism. The government of a property-owning democracy takes steps to encourage widespread ownership of productive assets and broad access to education and training. Liberal socialism is similar, but features worker-managed firms. The aim of both systems of political economy is to enable all citizens, even the least advantaged, to manage their own affairs within a context of significant social and economic equality. “The least advantaged are not, if all goes well, the unfortunate and unlucky—objects of our charity and compassion, much less our pity—but those to whom reciprocity is owed as a matter of basic justice” (JF, 139).

It is evident from this that Rawls, in his own head, was for a rather egalitarian society, but IMHO the concept of a “property-owning democracy” means that he really doesn’t understand how a capitalist market works: I take it as to mean a capitalist society where more or less everyone has the same amount of capital stock, but how can this work if factories are private? Is everyone supposed to own a small, personal-sized factory? Are all businesses supposed to be listed on the stock exchange, and then everyone owns a more or less equal amount of stocks? How do we get to that point and how would id be differnt from the soviet system (with stock managers instead of politicians)?

So from this I think that rawls was basically a social democrat, he tried to develop a theoretical basis for social democracy, he didn’t understand the limits of social democracy (that is, that if you want to reach the level of equality that social democrats say they want, it becomes almost indistinguishable from socialism, and with the same problems).


engels 06.07.24 at 10:38 am

(I posted #61 before I saw #57-8 but don’t have time to respond further now.)


Chris Bertram 06.07.24 at 10:49 am

@MisterMr as it happens, I’ve been editing a piece I wrote for a conference a few years ago, which is essentially a commentary on ch.11 of Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History. In that chapter, Cohen explores two forms of society that fall short of socialist central planning but which are more egalitarian than capitalism: one is market socialism and the other is something that rather closely resembles Rawls’s POD. He rejects both of these on the grounds that market dynamics will eventually generate inequality and domination. The trouble is, later in his career, he rejected socialist central planning too …. I’ll try to post the piece here in a few days.


MisterMr 06.07.24 at 12:46 pm

@Chris Bertram 62

This sounds very interesting. Who is the “he” who rejects central planning, Cohen or Marx? (my understanding is that Marx never really spoke about central planning).


J, not that one 06.07.24 at 2:44 pm


I take Rawls to be a small-town ex-Christian who retains most of his Christian upbringing, who feels his country should be better than it is, and who thinks small-town values are great except that there has to be more care for the poor and less greed. And who is very proud of the Western academic tradition and believes it should be able to produce a grand theory of how society should work both effectively and morally. But who tends to think in terms of rules rather than people.

@LFC, Harry

My misgivings about Rawls don’t derive just from Forrester. I’d be curious what passages Harry or Chris assigns as an introduction. My own introduction, in the 80s, consisted in (1) an extract focusing on (a) the modification of the social contract concept and (b) the modification of utilitarianism, i.e. the purely numerical aspect of Rawls’s theory that seems like it would be most attractive to economists – from a pretty standard anthology, and (2) an extract focusing on the modification of Kantianism (assigned by an older professor who was I believe a Columbia Pragmatist and a socialist, as well as a Kant scholar).

Every time I look up something to read by Rawls — and I admit this is a function of coming from other books on philosophy, not on socialism or economics — I find painful, painful point-by-point arguments about how it could actually be okay to tax away some small part of some person’s wealth even though interference with others is wrong; or explanations that very much appear to be defenses of an elite with extra privileges and stuff because that will help the poor.

And absolutely Rawls seems to be used as a way of keeping discussion confined to a relatively small set of initiates, just like Marx or like today’s official economics. It’s not clear what purpose actually reading the whole book (and which one?) would serve someone like me, any more than reading the Bible from cover to cover. Nor does the label “Rawlsian” tell me anything at all what policies any particular Rawlsian would prefer except in the broadest terms.

With an overtly Kantian “socialist” like Susan Neiman at least I know where she stands.

PS I assume any economist who’s a Rawlsian is reading Gaus? Whose approach is not “philosophical” in the sense that anyone would teach it in a philosophy course. Forrester doesn’t mention him except in the notes (“For the persistence of rational choice interpretations of the original position, see”) for what that’s worth.


Chris Bertram 06.07.24 at 3:44 pm

@MisterMr “He” = Cohen


engels 06.07.24 at 4:27 pm

[Summary of missing comment] Rawls began as an anti-gubmint liberal, melded that with the Labour right moralising he encountered at Oxford (mostly the high table front of Crosland’s assault on Clause IV), slept through the 60s and belatedly birthed his big book just as neoliberalism was cranking up—because of which it was received as the swan song of Great Society America: what a mistaka to maka.


LFC 06.07.24 at 4:54 pm

J, not that one @64

It’s not clear what purpose actually reading the whole book (and which one?) would serve someone like me…

I believe Justice as Fairness: A Restatement is the last thing he published during his life (his course lectures and his undergraduate thesis were published posthumously) and it’s fairly short, so there might be a good case for reading that (I haven’t).

A Theory of Justice is long, not easy, and the writing style is, at best, an acquired taste. Plus you’d have to decide which edition to read, the first or the second. In the preface he lists the parts of the book that he thinks someone should read if that person doesn’t want to plow through all 600 (roughly) pages.

Bottom line, of course: You’re not a student (i.e., there is no assigned reading), life is short, and you can read whatever you want.


LFC 06.07.24 at 5:02 pm

P.s. Then there’s Political Liberalism and The Law of Peoples. I don’t think the latter was particularly well received.


politicalfootball 06.07.24 at 6:19 pm

That’s not what market mechanisms are. Market mechanism would be if every worker was by themselves, negotiating a salary while the boss points out that five others are outside the door waiting to take the job instead.

You point out above the difficulty defining neoliberalism, and there is a similar problem defining “markets” and “market mechanisms.”

You choose the rightwing definition, which is basically that any market transaction that favors capital is market-based. So people banding together to form a corporation is a function of the market, but people banding together to form a union is anti-market.

Any sensible definition of markets has to include the labor market, and workers’ efforts to gain leverage in that market are no different from capitalists’ efforts to do the same.

The rightwing definition — which much of the left has adopted — leads people to frivolous assertions such as: “Regulation of capitalism is anti-market.” In fact, successful markets of significant scale generally can’t exist without thorough government regulation. The corporation and other forms of business organization are themselves creations of governments — a fundamental fact that the rightwing definition of markets can’t accommodate.

The desire to have markets — actual markets — serve liberal ends isn’t at all ridiculous, and in fact the need is self-evident for liberals that accept capitalism at all. (Of course, there is no requirement that you accept capitalism at all.) The neoliberals made choices in opposition to liberal ends, and so have appropriately become disreputable in liberal circles.

But, for example, Elizabeth Warren — “a capitalist to my bones” — points in another direction.


J, not that one 06.07.24 at 6:42 pm

engels @ 64 I think that does explain an awful lot, though not how a theory about how socialist states should accommodate inequality could be used in building a plan for reforming an entirely different kind of state. There’s nothing wrong with describing ideal societies, though.

LFC How neoliberal/stereotypically Rawlsian an answer! I ask for a reason and a book recommendation and your answer is essentially “you either want to read this guy for no particular reason at all, or you don’t care.” It’s my choice.


J, not that one 06.07.24 at 7:04 pm

CB “Rawls is very explicit in rejecting a society that comprises laissez faire capitalism + redistributive welfare state. See. eg Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, pp. 135-6.”

Indeed in her epilogue Forrester states that Rawls viewed “the welfare state” as to the right of his property owning democracy. The mind boggles

But then I think of Russell Brand


Harry 06.08.24 at 9:30 am

My suggestion, actually, would be to read Samuel Freeman’s book, Rawls. It’s very long and comprehensive, but not a difficult read (unlike Rawls himself) and fairly represents and examines the theory. Better still, but not yet available, two of my undergraduates are writing comic book, about 75 pages long, explaining the theory, and exploring objections (basically Nozick and Cohen) and how it brings insight to non-ideal problems (drawing on Shelby’s book Dark Ghettos, and on Okin’s and our own Gina’s work on the gendered division of labor). I’ll promote it here once its completed and publicly available.

I get undergraduate students to read Justice as Fairness: A Briefer Restatement, but if I taught a whole semester on Rawls I’d probably do parts of Theory of Justice, parts of Political Liberalism, J as F and some essential secondary literature.

Rawls’s account of a property owning democracy is not much more than a sketch: given the sketch, yes, capitalism plus the welfare state is to its right. Not at all mind boggling if you actually read it. Doesn’t Forrester at least explain the idea? There’s a very nice essay by Richard Krause and Mike McPherson called “Capitalism, ‘Property-Owning Democracy,’ and the Welfare State,” in a volume edited by Amy Gutmann, Democracy and The Welfare State, which gives more flesh to the idea and shows its relationship to captalism and the welfare state. Everything you’ve said about Forrester’s book suggests she’s not studied political philosophy or talked with her colleagues at Harvard (eg Scanlon, Shelby, Schouten) about Rawls’s theory, but that can’t be true can it?


engels 06.08.24 at 10:30 am

Is it just an unfortunate coincidence that Thatcher also used the term “property owning democracy” for policies like Right To Buy? Did Rawls ever find the space to comment on this?


engels 06.08.24 at 10:54 am

A recent Policy Exchange pamphlet (enthusiastically blurbed by Keri Badenoch) considers:

…the origins of the idea in the political thought of Noel Skelton, the uptake of the concept by Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, and its transformation in the era of Margaret Thatcher. Attention will also be paid to alternative traditions that have endorsed the ideals that sit behind the property owning democracy, including the Labour Revisionists of the 1950s and 1960s and the British Liberal Party, the political theory of John Rawls, and the “Ownership Society” platform of George W. Bush’s Republican Party in the early 2000s.

Fun fact: Noel Skelton (an obscure Scottish conservative from the early C20th) attended the same Oxford college (Christchurch) as Rawls.


Harry 06.08.24 at 11:23 am

I’m sure Rawls took the term from James Meade (in fact I think he’s explicit about that), from whom I think the revisionists also probably took it.

I can’t think of any reference to a then-living politician in Rawls’s work (ok, maybe to King, who would have been alive while he was writing TofJ, though not when it was published). He was doing ideal theory (and if I’m right the reference to King is in one of the several passages in which he says that non-ideal theory is more urgent than ideal theory along with some cryptic comments about how the two might be related). So, no mention of Thatcher’s use of the phrase.

Lots of phrases have different meanings when used by different people. One strategy when trying to understand what someone’s theory is is to find out what they actually mean by the phrase, rather than imputing meanings without reference to what they actually say. That’s a strategy philosophers generally use; intellectual historians occasionally don’t.


engels 06.08.24 at 1:37 pm

Link to Policy Exchange:

I don’t know what Rawls meant by property-owning democracy. You said above his account was “not much more than a sketch”. It has a right-wing lineage from the 1920s to Thatcher and beyond and evidently also had currency in the Gaitskellite milieu where Rawls’s mature ideas were formed.* I would assume its function there was to park the issue of state ownership and that also seems consistent with how Rawls used it. In 2024 we need some new thinking to get us out of the shit (literally).

I seem to remember Forrester casting some doubt on Rawls’s Meade attribution but it’s a long time since I read her book and I don’t have a copy.


bekabot 06.08.24 at 2:22 pm

“property owning democracy”
“ownership society”

The thing about these phrases is that they can be interpreted in more than one way. A really suspicious person might even say that that’s their purpose. The implicit promise of the first one seems to be that under democracy most people will get the chance to become property owners and the ‘quiet part’ of the second seems to be that the people who belong to a specific type of society are also the people who own it (the way the word ‘church’ is typically taken to designate a congregation and rather than a building). But a to a person who doesn’t think democracy is the rightful due of the masses or thinks that a society naturally belongs to the people who own it rather than to the people who live in it, the gloss can be very different.

I’m not talking here about the people who originate these phrases or about what the phrases meant at the time of their invention. I’m talking about the effect they have once they’re out and traveling around.


wacko 06.08.24 at 3:55 pm

I have the impression that ideologies of “the left” don’t envision individual property owners. They are, in one form or another, collectivist ideologies. Workers’ collectives, populaces, syndicates own things, and when individuals have to be allowed to own something, it’s considered but a necessary evil.


LFC 06.08.24 at 6:27 pm

On p. 11 of In the Shadow of Justice, Forrester refers to “a pair of lectures probably delivered in 1951, where he [i.e., Rawls] developed for the first time his own substantial social and political vision.”

Two pages later, in discussing one of these lectures, “Society as a Game,” Forrester writes:

Rawls applied [Frank] Knight’s model of the good game to his vision of society. A good game, Rawls wrote, involves a certain amount of unpredictability, luck, and chance. For it to be worthwhile, it cannot depend on “pure luck” but requires effort and skill. Players need to be able to win if they play by the rules: every game must have the feature that “we think we have control over our fate.” One of the tricky things about games is that success accumulates: if someone wins all the time, the outcome can be foreseen, and “other players lose the zest for playing.” For the game to be worth playing, inequalities need to be broken down. The outcome “can only be unforeseeable, and effort can only be efficacious, if the players enter the game with roughly equal resources,” both material and spiritual. What is needed “is some kind of control over the game,” to redistribute [sic] “some of the rewards of winning.” (p. 13)

Forrester continues: “But how much control? Opposition to concentrated power here translated into a minimalist politics…. Now [Rawls] framed government as capable of enacting change, but highly limited.” (p. 13)

Thus, according to Forrester, Rawls in this 1951 lecture wanted to redistribute — that’s Forrester’s word (see quotation above) — some of the “rewards of winning,” but he didn’t want the state to do it. So how was any redistribution going to happen? It couldn’t magically happen by itself. Forrester doesn’t address this, at least not in these couple of pages.

A few pages later (p. 16), she discusses the first use by Rawls of the phrase “property-owning democracy” (in another early lecture). R. gave no source and Meade’s book that R. later cited had not yet been published, but “Rawls was already aware of Meade’s work and was reading similar sources,” she says in a parenthesis. If the phrase “had a specific provenance, it was likely drawn from the republican tradition and its commitment to property dispersion,” esp. Tocqueville and Jefferson. (pp. 16-17)

I would suggest that while Forrester’s book has its merits, it should not be taken uncritically, as engels (for one) seems to have taken it.


engels 06.09.24 at 7:58 am

Real existing property owning democracy:

Karly, a mother of three from Bideford in Devon, was made homeless in December 2020 because of a relationship breakdown. After two months in temporary accommodation, she was able to move into social rented housing, for which she pays £470 a month rent. “People on the same road who rent privately are paying anywhere between £850 and £1,100,” she said. “They’re the same council houses, but they were bought [under right to buy], so they’re now privately owned.”


John Q 06.09.24 at 10:13 am

The idea of “property-owning democracy” is central to neoliberalism, in hard and soft varieties, along with a central role for financial markets. The key idea is to keep the state away from producing goods and services. In the soft version, there’s redistribution (but not predistribution) to reduce ex post inequality. That somewhat constrains the role of property. In the hard version, there’s no redistribution beyond a minimal safety net – this may require limits on democracy. But they are variants on the same theme.


engels 06.09.24 at 12:35 pm

Property owning democracy: 40 acres and a mule (Brits get 40 square metres and budgie)

LFC: thanks for locating the passage I was referring to.


Chris Bertram 06.09.24 at 2:32 pm

@JohnQ “In the soft version, there’s redistribution (but not predistribution) to reduce ex post inequality.” As I read him, Rawls is a proponent of predistribution, and therefore not captured by this characterisation of “soft neoliberalism”. Specifically, Rawls thinks that his distributive goals (ensuring the fair value of basic liberties and, subsequent to that, the difference principle) should be met by designing institutions such that those goals are realised as a consequence of their normal procedural functioning, with redistribution seen as mopping up what can’t be or wasn’t anticipated.


J,.not that one 06.09.24 at 2:41 pm

I honestly can’t see “property owning democracy” and think of anything but Jefferson.

Also, I did think predistribution was an invention of John Quiggin. Obviously that’s something I should read about. But combined with a strong distaste for interfering with families or individuals, though, it might become a relatively minor variant on “equality of opportunity,” focused only on making that true in reality and ignoring almost everything that goes into the facts of inequality.

Forrester gives context for some things I wouldn’t expect context for in the academic debates. It’s not a surprise that insiders wouldn’t always agree with writers who attempt to apply external criteria to their fields. My own objections have to do with her tendentious characterization of anyone she’s decided has to do with “identity politics”; her ascription of communitarianism to the “Third Way” may be accurate for Blair but not for Bill Clinton.


engels 06.09.24 at 5:28 pm

What did Rawls have to say about unions?


Harry 06.09.24 at 6:49 pm

What role do you think unions would play in an ideally just society?

Predistribution is an idea with a long long history on the left. As far as I understood him Marx was in favour of it, like Rawls. And unlike Rand, funnily enough. Or Brand.

“Forrester gives context for some things I wouldn’t expect context for in the academic debates.”

I think she’s an academic herself.


J, not that one 06.09.24 at 7:30 pm

What I mean is academic articles are not a good way to learn about a field for most people. The distinction between books in a field and books on a field. All the articles say Chris Bertram posts about Gerald Cohen’s thoughts about Rawls don’t help me see the big picture.


Harry 06.09.24 at 10:11 pm

Yeah, I see that. I think my point is that Forrester’s is a book in a different field, which isn’t really on the field that Rawls was in, but about something else entirely (from your and engels’s description, and from the BR excerpt I read). As I say, the best introduction to Rawls’s thought, long as it is, is Samuel Freeman’s (long, but very accessibly written). I wrote about it when it was published:
As I also said, a far shorter and still excellent introduction is the not-yet-finished comic book my undergraduates are writing.


Matt L 06.09.24 at 10:39 pm

I’m a partisan of Freeman’s book on Rawls (he was my dissertation advisor, I read it in draft, and did a bunch of work on the bibliography for it) but if people want a shorter introduction to A Theory of Justice (but not Rawls’s other work) erstwhile blog member Jon Mandle’s Rawls’s A Theory of Justice: An Introduction is also very good and clear. It would help clear up some of the confusion seen in the comments here, too:


engels 06.10.24 at 9:27 am

I don’t believe there is an ideally just society. “Predistribution” can mean anything from decolonisation to discounted rail fares. Without workers organisations it’s more Ed Miliband than Mick Lynch.


engels 06.10.24 at 9:44 am

Speaking of Marx, does anyone remember this?

The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois Socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie. […]

Bourgeois Socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech. Free trade: for the benefit of the working class. Protective duties: for the benefit of the working class. Prison Reform: for the benefit of the working class. This is the last word and the only seriously meant word of bourgeois socialism. It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois is a bourgeois — for the benefit of the working class.


Harry 06.10.24 at 12:31 pm

“Without workers organisations it’s more Ed Miliband than Mick Lynch”.

And yet, exactly what worker’s organisations do is demand (and enact) predistribution.


engels 06.10.24 at 1:36 pm

“Predistribution” a clunky neologism of Jacob Hacker’s that was popularised (if that’s the right word) by Ed Miliband a decade ago. Hacker:

Redistribution itself is never popular. Citizens want a job and opportunities for upward mobility more than a public cheque… A predistribution formula starts, of course, with getting the macroeconomy right… Getting the macroeconomy right also means effectively harnessing financial markets… Public services open to all, and thus not seen as handouts or transfers… are essential to restoring the opportunity of the middle class and those striving to enter it… Encouraging worker empowerment must always be part of the progressive agenda, but labour unions may not always be the best strategy… Investor collectives could better police executive pay…

Maybe not neoliberal but not remotely left-wing. I don’t think this has anything to Rawls fwiw, apart from some superficial similarities in their technocratic instincts and squeamishness about “handouts”.


engels 06.10.24 at 3:01 pm

I agree with the thrust of John’s #86 but I think the anachronistic term predistribution confuses things and I don’t think it’s exclusive of neoliberalism (or Rawls). Neoliberalism aims to mould everyone into participants in a pervasive market competition, the “left” versions are concerned to make that “fair”. Sometimes that’s attempted via ameliorative transfers to (deserving) losers, more ambitiously it can be done by attempting to equalise starting places or fine-tuning the game. Predistribution can mean the latter (as can Brown’s focus on child poverty and “baby bonds” discussed above). None of these things challenge the fundamental logic of markets as Cohen and others pointed out ad infinitum.


Harry 06.10.24 at 4:29 pm

That’s fair enough — Rawls doesn’t use the term, it just nicely captures the idea that just institutions would be designed so that income and wealth directly reflected the demands of justice rather than having a market-generated distribution which the government then redistributes. (Great paper, maybe still in progress, by Suresh Naidu, about the changing Democratic coalition has resulted in a preference for redistributive policies, which highly educated and affluent voters like over predistribituve policies, which working class and poor voters like).

And of course predistribution, like redistribution, can go either way. The US distributes a lot of resources to farmers and agricultural business, and indirectly to arms manufacturers via procurement processes that aren’t competitive (or where a political decision has been made to procure X only because the maker of X is a campaign contributor)


engels 06.10.24 at 7:12 pm

redistributive policies, which highly educated and affluent voters like over predistribituve policies, which working class and poor voters like

This summary gives the examples

labor market interventions such as the minimum wage, unions, protectionism, trade policies, and public employment

which sounds nothing like “property owning democracy”. It’s about education, not class. And it doesn’t assume poor voters aren’t working class or claim that affluent voters like redistribution (I can’t even…)


engels 06.10.24 at 7:39 pm

Left-neoliberal dogma (eg on globalisation) was to go for growth and compensate the losers. And then they didn’t compensate the losers. With whom this was understandably unpopular. Predistribution in Naidu’s definition runs counter to this and so I wouldn’t be surprised that it was more popular with those groups but that’s not at all the same thing as “property owning democracy” (Rawls’s or Thatcher’s).


LFC 06.10.24 at 8:54 pm

Chris B. @88 and Harry @100 make similar points: Rawls wanted institutions to be designed so that they naturally — i.e., in Chris’s words, “as a consequence of their normal procedural functioning” — generate just distributions. Then redistribution would only be needed to take care of certain unanticipated results. The question, of course, is — assuming some rough agreement on distributional goals — how to design such institutions. This question is one that leftist economists (and leftist non-economists) have been pondering and debating for a long time. I doubt that an answer has emerged that has been validated in practice on any significant scale. This includes those answers (e.g., “participatory economics”) that reject markets.

Unions, the minimum wage, and trade policies, things mentioned by engels @101, don’t add up to a comprehensive institutional design, though they can doubtless help. Although Rawls did, as has been noted, prefer “predistribution” (as defined by C.B. @88 and Harry @100) over redistribution, his main effort, istm, was directed toward working out what a just distribution (and just society) would look like, rather than specifying how to get there. Properly functioning, reasonably competitive markets, as is well known, have virtues (e.g., efficiency, responsiveness to consumer demand) and vices (e.g., they tend, or so it seems, to generate a sizable amount of inequality). Successful predistribution would presumably have to find a way to keep the virtues of markets and eliminate their inequality-generating tendencies. That seems, though perhaps not impossible, like a tall order. Hence, letting markets operate, subject to appropriate regulation and antitrust enforcement etc., and then redistributing the results may be the most practical alternative, even though it is not one that Rawls (according to the earlier comments) favored and has (like everything else) its own problems. Btw, a measure like universal basic income could be seen as either predistribution or redistribution, depending on exactly how it’s framed, justified, and implemented.


engels 06.10.24 at 9:16 pm

Quoting this because I found it informative and because others said they were bemused by what Rawlsian POD was meant to be. Item 1 was a flagship Policy of Britain’s left-neoliberal Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and if 2 and 3 aren’t redistribution I don’t know what is.

How could Rawls’s broad vision be translated into a practical political agenda for progressives? A number of writers have developed some promising ideas. First, all children could be provided publicly financed trust funds at birth. This proposal was actually enacted, if only briefly and in a rather pale version, as the “Child Trust Fund” in the United Kingdom, which granted small capital stakes to each newborn child that he or she could access on reaching adulthood (although one of the first acts of David Cameron’s government was to cancel the scheme, which had started to operate only in 2005). Second, a universal basic income could be established. This idea would represent a scaled-up version of the Alaskan Permanent Fund, which delivers an annual income to every Alaskan. Third, the state could provide all young adults with a substantial capital stake of $80,000 with which to start their adult lives, as proposed by Bruce Ackerman and Amy Alstott. Strikingly, such large capital stakes for all young adults would not be impossible to generate under current economic conditions, if the political will existed. Under the current lopsided distribution of wealth in the United States, it would be mathematically possible, without the creation of any new money, to provide all U.S. households with capital assets of some $100,000 each, via redistribution of no more than one-third of the wealth currently held by the top one percent…


nastywoman 06.11.24 at 5:57 am

the ‘The Left and THE LEFT: Responding to the crisis of soft neoliberalism’
is so confused – that of all people Glenn Greenwald redefines the Rise of Right Wingers and Fascists at the European Election as ‘neoliberal losses’ and then he adds:
Even right-wing parties like Marie LePen’s, which Israel long hated as anti-Semitic and even full of Holocaust revisionists led by her father, have changed to become intense and loyal supporters of Israel and he posts a picture of the Deutsch Right Winger Wilders with the flag of Israel in the background?

And WE thought that it
would be possible
to thusly redefine the basic nationalistic HATE of any Right-Wingers and Neo Nazis as
Anti-Neoliberalsim or Anti-Mainstream –
and especially NOT in France or Germany
BUT somehow – some Americans DO IT
and did it by bringing
of all issues
ANTI-Semitism in play.

What a nasty NASTY game!


engels 06.11.24 at 11:18 am

Rawls wanted institutions to be designed so that they naturally — i.e., in Chris’s words, “as a consequence of their normal procedural functioning” — generate just distributions.

It seems pretty amazing to me that Rawls could get away with saying this (I didn’t know before) without giving any idea about how it was supposed to work, or reason to believe it was possible. Makes The German Ideology look like a fastidious project management spreadsheet.

Some obvious objections:


Chris Bertram 06.11.24 at 11:58 am

I’m afraid I’ve exhausted my patience for a discussion where we (me, Harry, LFC) patiently explain some aspect of Rawls to engels and others, none of whom can be bothered to do the reading themselves, and they immediately come back with objections they’ve obtained from Dr Google or have no more basis that “X sounds a bit like Y”. If you want to take part in the seminar, do the reading. Otherwise, sit quietly at the back.


Tm 06.11.24 at 2:16 pm

Politicalfootball 74:
„In fact, successful markets of significant scale generally can’t exist without thorough government regulation. The corporation and other forms of business organization are themselves creations of governments — a fundamental fact that the rightwing definition of markets can’t accommodate.“

AFAIK academically, almost any liberal (or neoliberal) economist will admit some version of this statement. Economics students are taught concepts like market failure and externalities. Economists admit the existence of market failure and the need for government to intervene in order to correct those failures as an integral part of liberal economic theory because market failures are known to reduce economic efficiency.

In the context of environmental externalities and climate change, Liberal economists like to talk about Pigouvian taxes, cap and trade and similar mechanisms, which they claim are market mechanisms superior to direct state intervention via command-and-control.

These positions are at least debatable. The problem is that in neoliberal political reality, the theory is never actually put into practice. Neoliberal politicians, whether hard or soft, left or right, should easily agree with putting a high price on carbon emissions (as recommended by scientists), and should have done so 30 years ago already. But politically, it’s near impossible and so we are still subsidizing fossil fuel burning with trillions in public subsidies.


engels 06.11.24 at 2:26 pm

Apologies for exhausting Chris’s patience.

For the record #104 was posted before I saw #103, not as an “immediate” reply to it (my reply, 12 hours later, didn’t appear). I have read Theory of Justice but not Justice as Fairness (it was a very long time ago and I cop to skipping). And if thinking property owning democracy “sounds bit like” property owning democracy is illegimate then I cop to that too. I will try to get hold of Krause and McPherson.


Tm 06.11.24 at 2:45 pm

It seems to me that most of the criticisms of soft neoliberalism, insofar as they are spelled out in the discussion above, apply equally to social democracy before neoliberalism, i. e. the postwar golden age as it is often referred to. What else did social democrats do but a bit of redistribution and a bit of equalization of opportunity (public education etc.?) I think this point is relevant if we really want to understand neoliberalism and not just vent our frustration with left of center parties being just sellouts. Remember that the social democrats of old were also criticized as sellouts from their leftist critics (because they gave up on socialism in any meaningful sense).


J, not that one 06.11.24 at 4:15 pm

I’m quite certain that no amount of reading Rawls could answer the questions I’ve been asking here, particularly because what is really at issue (going back to the OP and the post it links) is not what Rawls believed but what conclusions “Rawlsians” (in particular self-declared Rawlsian economists and policy makers forced to confront a world Rawls didn’t live to see) draw from whatever reading and discussion they were exposed to some time in the past.

I’m sure understanding Rawls’s teachings at a fundamental level is a good thing but possibly not for everybody at every moment, I’ll think about JQ’s new left taxonomy quite a bit more though.


MisterMr 06.11.24 at 4:16 pm

The differences between postwar “social democracy” and the later “soft neoliberalism” are, IMHO: (a) that social democracy started from a point of very low income and wealth differences due to the impact of interwar and war policies, (b) way higer taxes, (c) way higer worker protections, (d) less globalized economy so that it was easier for states to impose higer taxes and worker protections (since capitalists couldn’t simply move to a neighbouring country).

The (d) part is a problem because, overall, we also want poor countries to become richer, so from a leftist point of view just increasing trade barriers, apart form other practical inconveniences, is also ethically dubious.

And yes, obviously a lot of people tought that the postwar social democracies were sellout, and anyways it is arguable that the later neoliberal phase was just a natural consequence of social democracies, as many people in said democracies wanted e.g. lower taxes, or lower inflation, etc.


Harry 06.11.24 at 7:57 pm

It is odd to seem so interested in what somebody thinks but be so uninterested in reading what they say. Or listening to people who have read what they say.


Tm 06.11.24 at 8:33 pm

JQ, anything wrong with my 2 comments? I’ve been off-air. I deleted a snark, and have approved everything else -JQ


engels 06.11.24 at 11:23 pm

Except that I have read a moderate amount of Rawls, this thread wasn’t a Rawls seminar and I have mostly been discussing with Harry a book (Forrester’s) I’ve read and he hasn’t. But I get it: depreciating Rawls means you haven’t read Rawls. That’s already been said that about Geuss and Forrester and I’m honoured to be placed in such company.


Tm 06.12.24 at 9:51 am

Thanks JQ. The first comment only appeared a day later so I was wondering.
I thought my snark was valid and to the point but whatever.


Tm 06.12.24 at 10:04 am

MisterMr: you are focusing on how the political economic context was different, which I agree with. My question goes in a different direction. How is it coherent to criticize people like Rawls or Warren – to name two who have been mentioned here – as neoliberal sellouts if their political positions are rather close to bogstandard social democracy?

I’m assuming, and everybody else in this thread seems to agree, that neoliberalism is a turn away from social democracy. By that account I don’t see how Warren‘s positions count as neoliberal. Especially if Sanders, whose positions are hardly different, is presented as a „socialist“…


bekabot 06.12.24 at 3:43 pm

“It seems pretty amazing to me” {etc.}

Yes. No offense to any given thinker or to his disciples, but I hope whatever audience is out there is listening with their ears wide open.

“Institutions ought naturally to generate just distributions — except that they have to be designed to do it first.” Um…okay.


MisterMr 06.12.24 at 7:32 pm

@TM 117

I do not know Warren’s or Sanders’ policies in enough detail, but I suppose that is mostly about self presentation, that one says “capitalism sucks” and the other “capitalism is good but needs correctives”.

In my experience, it is perfectly logical to rely on these self presentation things, as politicians in reality do in the long term act based on their preferred ideologies.

By the way I spoke of free trade in my comment, but it turns out that Biden just slapped some tariffs on some Chinese exports, and clearly Trump also wanted to, so some parts of neoliberalism are already going down, for good or for bad.


J, not that one 06.12.24 at 7:43 pm


That’s a piece by the guy who has a picture of Rawls as his Twitter avatar. He’s apparently fond of the idea of a left theocracy so I guess the issues some people have had with Rawls’s engagement with pluralism are resolved to his satisfaction at least. And I’m 99% sure he doesn’t consider himself neoliberal.

I didn’t mean to pull the discussion off topic. I haven’t read much Rawls but I’ve thought about what I have read by him and to be brief I find other philosophers more congenial (for reasons having nothing to do with economics). Forrester reviews how he entered the discussion of practical economics. She doesn’t cover the recent vogue among younger dudes (and they are pretty much all dudes), most of whom don’t seem that far left of center. Daniel Chandler’s book just came out in the US – just how do the reforms he suggests really pull him farther from center than any number of other writers who are usually considered “center-left”?


John Q 06.12.24 at 7:53 pm

Unions were the biggest single agent of predistribution (changing the market distribution of income, as opposed to redistribution through the tax-welfare system). For hard neoliberals, destroying unions is a central goal. Soft neoliberals (Clinton, Blair, Obama) have mostly relied on union support, so they couldn’t be openly hostile. But they have done nothing to slow the decline of union membership and have been actively hostile to public sector unions, particularly teachers unions.

AFAICT, Rawls said very little about unions, which readers can interpret as they choose.


LFC 06.12.24 at 8:06 pm

bekabot @118

“Naturally” might have been a poor word choice on my part, but it’s not the contradiction you seem to think it is, if you go back and read Chris B.’s comment that I was paraphrasing.

Rawls was mostly doing “ideal theory,” i.e., talking in broad terms about what a just (or nearly-just) society would look like and about the principles of justice that should underpin it. He argued (in ToJ at any rate) that a consensus on principles of justice is possible, but that consensus is not rooted in a favorable view of the status quo but in a “sense of justice” that he thought everyone has and the implications of which, when drawn out and examined, yield (he argued) a set of principles that can be used to evaluate existing institutions and guide “the overall direction of social change.” (ToJ p. 263, 1st ed.)

I don’t think anyone here thinks that what Rawls wrote is holy writ or is beyond criticism. (I certainly don’t think that.) His work has been criticized, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, from numerous angles, including by those who reject the whole project of “ideal theory.” Critiques of Rawls would probably fill an entire library.

Last thing. My own take, fwiw, is that I don’t view Rawls as a “consensus theorist” in the (perhaps caricatured?) 1950s sense. He says that the principles of justice “are not contingent on existing desires or present social conditions,” that they “can serve as a standard for appraising institutions and for guiding the overall direction of social change.” (263) Whether the principles can guide the direction of social change effectively, or with enough specificity, is doubtless debatable, but it seems fairly clear that that’s one of the things Rawls intended them to do.


bekabot 06.12.24 at 8:17 pm

The power exerted by unions is something the people who join them can exercise directly (at least they can when the stars are right) for themselves and on their own behalf. They don’t have to have it given to them by academics, philosophers, bureaucrats, oligarchs, or billionaires. The idea behind unions is that they’ll be able to sit down at the table openly under their own power and won’t have to operate as crumb-catchers by proxy. (That the idea behind unions isn’t one which always works out perfectly is a point I’m willing to concede.)


engels 06.12.24 at 10:07 pm

I don’t have to agree with Bruenig about everything to think he’s 100% right that you can’t do without taxes and benefits and have anything remotely fair or humane.

It wasn’t me who said Rawls was a neoliberal but: when someone tells you they’re a member of the Mont Pelerin sociey, believe them the first time.


LFC 06.13.24 at 3:49 am

According to your link (and Forrester says this too) Rawls became a member of MPS and withdrew three years later.


Tm 06.13.24 at 8:03 am

MisterMr: There is a word of difference between him and Obama or Clinton. Biden is a strong supporter of unions – the only president ever to visit a picket line. ( He has no qualms about tariffs, no qualms about deficit spending, defends Social Security, and is a strong regulator. As far as Congress and the courts allow him to do, he tries to implement industrial policy, regulate the finance industry, and level the playing field for workers. I asked above what Biden policies were neoliberal and nobody answered. Because there are none.

Remarkably, the Democratic Party almost unanimously supports these policies, with the tiring exception of Sinemanchin. That is a really huge difference to the Obama years.

Warren’s and Sanders‘ Senate voting records are near identical. Their rhetoric may slightly differ but their policy proposals are not greatly different. Warren’s CFBP is a real thorn in the side of the finance industry. They hate it passionately and attack it relentlessly. I suspect they care more about it than about kids mistaking Sanders for a revolutionary.

Unless somebody comes up with actual evidence, I’m gonna dismiss the claim that Warren is neoliberal as bullshit.


Harry 06.13.24 at 8:58 am

“depreciating Rawls means you haven’t read Rawls”

I don’t think that criticising views someone didn’t hold really counts as depreciating them. Attributing those views to that person when others who have read that person’s work — and are pretty clearly experts — patiently explain why they are misattributions — just seems an odd combination of intellectual laziness and unwarranted self-confidence. It’s a favourite move of anti-Marxists as you know. But yes it does seem that you haven’t read Rawls.

BTW I can’t speak for LFC but neither Chris nor I are Rawlsians.


Tm 06.13.24 at 9:06 am

Engels 106: I’m not sure why you mention the Bruenig article but what the „old welfare state diagram from 1940s Switzerland“ featured in the article is the need for social insurance. Social insurance was conceived (and first implemented in Bismarckian Germany) as a solution to the problem how to care for the sick, the disabled, the old and the unemployed. Switzerland did in fact have neither universal health insurance nor a public retirement program until after the war.

Is there any suggestion that Rawls opposed social insurance or that his theory is somehow incompatible with it?


Tm 06.13.24 at 9:07 am

Engels 106: I’m not sure why you mention the Bruenig article but what the „old welfare state diagram from 1940s Switzerland“ featured in the article illustrates is the need for social insurance. Social insurance was conceived (and first implemented in Bismarckian Germany) as a solution to the problem how to care for the sick, the disabled, the old and the unemployed. Switzerland did in fact have neither universal health insurance nor a public retirement program until after the war.

Is there any suggestion that Rawls opposed social insurance or that his theory is somehow incompatible with it?


engels 06.13.24 at 10:20 am

Maybe you should set us all a test on the four-stage sequence, primary goods, maximin and Kazaniatan and put us in detention if we fail.

I don’t see what views I have misattributed to Rawls? “40 acres a mule” was a joke. I asked you (because you’re a Rawls expert, but not a Rawlsian ofc) what he thought about unions. I accepted LFC’s explanation of Rawls’s desire to avoid redistribution and said it was informative to me. I admitted I don’t understand the Rawlsian concept of POD. A lot of the discussion has not been about the Rawlsian canon but about history, politics and reception (as it should be) and neoliberalism (which was the topic of the thread) and I have cited the writings of eminent experts to support my lay impressions.

And you have been repeatedly denigrating Forrester’s book without—by your own admission—ever having bothered to read it.


engels 06.13.24 at 10:56 am

And you also appear to have wildly misattributed to Naidu’s paper ridiculous right-populist conclusions about “working class” antagonism to the poor and to social assistance.


engels 06.13.24 at 1:37 pm

(I am an expert on affluent people—I have talked to a few—and they don’t like redistribution. Pace Fox News. Amazing but true.)


J, not that one 06.13.24 at 1:50 pm

What bekabot said about unions.

I suppose I shouldn’t blame Rawls for the people who said to me “no that isn’t allowed by Rawls” when the experts here say it is. I do have to consider whether I live in the world with those people or with the ideal Rawls who’s understood perfectly by everybody all the time.

Most people only know about the original position and the gist of maximin, and have no idea about the basic structure or public discussion or legitimacy. If those lead to different conclusions it isn’t clear how fair it is to say that the obvious stuff would read differently if you knew about the rest.

When Rawls wrote, unions were strong, de-industrialization hadn’t begun, and there was every reason to believe that people with good manufacturing jobs would never be among the “worst off.” If all you know about is maximin the theory does seem to tell them their needs aren’t the object of justice.

It seems that world has disappeared very quickly and just in the past couple of decades perhaps.


engels 06.14.24 at 12:28 am

If you want to imagine the future, imagine Keir Starmer quoting from <i<A Theory of Justice forever.


John Q 06.14.24 at 1:13 am

Engels @134 I am imagining that very future, and will soon post about it.


M Caswell 06.14.24 at 2:09 am

Rawls (impliclty) on unions:

As was mentioned above, in Justice as Fairness, Rawls argues that only two of the five types of regimes he considers satisfy the principles of justice from ToJ: “liberal socialism” and the notorious “property-owning democracy.”

Under liberal socialism, there is no private ownership of the means of production. I think unions would probably be instrumental in establishing socialism. cf Norway, most of whose GDP is in state-owned enterprises, and whose workforce is extensively unionized.

Rawls proposes that the best path towards property-owning democracy would be worker-owned firms, and speculates that these would need public subsidy and regulation. Its easy to picture a unionized co-op, especially if an existing union buys the firm in the first place.

On the other hand, would either of these regimes be workable without unions? I think it’s hard for a Rawlsian to rule out that possibility in principle.


J, not that one 06.14.24 at 2:28 am

FWIW, I knew Political Liberalism came out in the mid 80s (around the time I was first assigned parts of ToJ) but I thought the second edition of ToJ came out around the same time. It only came out in 1999 and the book version of Justice as Fairness came out in 2001. That’s a big gap and depending on how much changed I imagine few outside of philosophy departments are aware of both versions.

I think I may have somehow acquired the belief that the popularity of Rawls as a provider of economic policy meant his revised theory had abandoned the social contract and the deontology. Some reading today suggests that’s wildly incorrect. I frankly still don’t grasp how a theory that concludes inequality is OK if inequality has good effects is construed as egalitarian — surely the equality is only notional as persons are construed “in the original position”. No more do I see how one is prevented from concluding that the best way to protect the least well off is to ensure the subordinate position of women in the family, or to divide communities along ethnic lines to ensure “social cohesion”. (I also wish people who say “this is entirely value-neutral” would consider whether it is in fact derived from their own now-rejected religious upbringing.) But surely the people saying “the left needs Rawls” are not saying that at least.


Harry 06.14.24 at 7:55 am

Here’s some more reading for you J not that one: Gina’s first book shows how even on extremely austere value assumptions (though obvious not neutrality, since Rawls doesn’t aspire to that, and the fee attempts to ground liberalism in neutrality predictably run aground) the liberal state has a duty to pursue policies that facilitate gender egalitarian practices. It’s brilliant.

Engels. The conclusions I’ve attributed to Naidu’s paper only look right populist if you insist on understanding predistribution the way you do rather than the way they do in the paper. You’re right that I misremembered that it about class not education which of course are not at all correlated.

Anyway. I’m looking after babies and getting ready for my dads memorial event so I’m off for a few days.


J, not that one 06.14.24 at 12:28 pm

Henry, thanks for that. Value-neutrality is probably the wrong term; I mean things like where in Political Liberalism Rawls assumes that his view equals “liberalism” pure and simple and the demands for pluralism are something else. (Also I suppose there is the view of pluralism where it calls for more acceptance of the religiosity and folkways of those whom a Kantian academic might see as the “unenlightened”, and a view where it calls for more acceptance of things like LGBT folk, Marxists, and the highest reaches of Confucian culture.)

There was a mini trend of explaining Augustine’s view of the person as a way of explaining liberalism, which . . . if your view of the secular is one you learned in religious school and is best understood only by your fellow coreligionists, maybe it’s not all that secular actually. That’s what I had in mind.


LFC 06.14.24 at 2:36 pm

@ J not that one

Two quickish points (as I’m on phone not computer).

1) In ToJ Rawls says that when the rich have an outsized or disproportionate say in politics, people are deprived of their basic right to participate as rough equals in the political system (I’m paraphrasing not quoting, obviously). When you put that together w other things he says, it’s not hard to read the theory as egalitarian. There’s a whole section in ToJ called “the tendency to equality.” It’s true some people argue the theory permits too much inequality, but one has to look at the whole thing, not just the difference principle.

2) I don’t know why anyone would say “this is entirely value neutral.” Rawls’s work falls under the general heading of moral philosophy (or normative theory). The last section of chap 1 of ToJ is called “some remarks about moral theory.” Moral theory, or moral philosophy, obviously has to do with values. Therefore anyone who says “this is entirely value neutral” is a bit confused. Admittedly the original position is set up like a kind of bargaining game, and R.P. Wolff (for one) has argued that ToJ is a failed theorem in bargaining theory, but I think that overlooks a lot of what’s going on in the book.


LFC 06.14.24 at 6:33 pm

J not that one @137 wrote:

I frankly still don’t grasp how a theory that concludes inequality is OK if inequality has good effects is construed as egalitarian — surely the equality is only notional as persons are construed “in the original position”.

Rawls never uses (afaik) the phrase “good effects,” and this is not an accurate statement of his views. Since a previous comment of mine seems not to have gone through (at least so far), I’ll leave it at that.


J, not that one 06.14.24 at 10:31 pm


Rawls’s work isn’t about personal morality or even really economics but the organization and legitimation of a good society. He makes some very strong assertions in this regard, not by any means universally held among philosophers and not obviously what most people interested in equality would agree with. You’re free to defend those if you like them.

You appear to have interpreted “what Rawls really said or believed” as “what economic and social theory Rawls is really for.”

If you’ve read Forrester’s book you probably remember that other philosophers criticized his vision of a good society (not the economic part of this) for seemingly not allowing for pluralism with respect to visions of the good, charges to which he responded. Do you see a difference between “pluralism” and “neutrality” in this sense? You’re free to defend the single idea of “the good life” that you believe Rawls promoted if you agree it should be the mandatory one.

As for “good effects” I am assuming that when politicians proclaim their adherence to egalitarianism and their desire for policies that produce greater equality, they expect to be judged by their effects.


engels 06.15.24 at 10:09 am

LP entails Rawls is a strict egalitarian and the DP is a MacGuffin is my favourite Rawls fork because who can possibly say it’s wrong?


LFC 06.15.24 at 2:26 pm

J not that one @142

We’re mostly talking past each other, so I won’t write a long response.

In the first sentence of your comment, you say that Rawls’s work is about the “organization and legitimation of a good society.” Rawls writes about a just society (sometimes a “well-ordered society”), but “a good society” is not a Rawlsian phrase (or idea). I don’t think the difference is only or simply one of semantics. Also, R. did not endorse or promote a single or singular idea of “the good life.”

Btw, The Good Society is the title of a book by Walter Lippmann, published in the 1930s (during Lippmann’s anti-New Deal phase). See also:


steven t johnson 06.15.24 at 3:51 pm

Still not sure what the OP was trying to do with devising a concept of left-neoliberalism but the extensive exchange on Rawls strongly suggests that it’s not going to work very well as an analytical tool. (My addressing DeLong directly is not acceptable.)


J, not that one 06.15.24 at 4:20 pm


Do you think Lippmann invented the idea of a good society and that it only entered the philosophical discussion with Rawls? “Talking past each other” doesn’t begin to describe it.


J, not that one 06.15.24 at 4:24 pm

PS Charles Larmore’s recent book “What Is Political Philosophy?” might be interesting. The first chapter is titled “The Relation Between Moral and Political Philosophy.”


engels 06.15.24 at 7:33 pm

Still not sure what the OP was trying to do with devising a concept of left-neoliberalism

Maybe this will help:


Matt L 06.15.24 at 9:52 pm

Larmore’s book What is Political Philosophy is indeed good – relatively short and clear. Among other things, it shows how what’s interesting and important in the “realism” of people like Williams and Geuss is seperable from their less plausible views. Larmore’s position is, as he is happy to say, very similar to Rawls’s in Political Liberalism, though there are some differences, too. (Some of those come from very different views on the value of Kant, but not all of them.) I’d recommend it.


LFC 06.15.24 at 10:25 pm

J, not that one

Do I think Lippmann invented the idea of the (or a) good society? No, I don’t think that. I never said Lippmann invented the idea; all I said is that he wrote a book with that title.

You didn’t address my other point: Rawls does not have a singular vision of the good life. There’s a passage in ToJ where he says that if the good (or rational) life for a person happens to be counting blades of grass all day, then that’s the rational life for that person (or words to that effect).

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