It seems like there was some sort of competition earlier this week to pen the most idiotic editorial about the late John Rawls, and it’s a photo finish between Linda Hirshman at The New Republic and David Lewis Schaefer in The Wall Street Journal. Read them, then tremble in contemplation the terrifying fact that these people have both been entrusted with teaching political philosophy to undergraduates.
Schaefer blames Rawls for the fashionable focus on the relative, rather than absolute, position of the worst off. But at the core of Rawls’ difference principle was the notion that inequality was objectionable only when and because it represented a foregone opportunity to improve the lot of the badly off in absolute terms. As Schaefer himself notes, it explicitly allows and draws attention to the fact that inequality may indeed be in the interests of the worst-off groups. Both seem upset by the discovery that Rawls was, in fact, a philosopher, as opposed to an economist or social scientist, and Schaefer rather bizarrely wants to hold up Locke and Rousseau as paragons of empiricism by contrast.
Hirshman’s piece is largely a slapdash articulation of the familiar objection that Rawls’ hope of constructing a “freestanding” theory of political justice—unmoored from any particular contestable metaphysical premises—could not be realized. This is an interesting line of attack in principle, but Hirshman can’t actually defend it in the available space, so she proceeds largely by offering characterizations of Rawls’ positions that range from crude caricature…
Just close your eyes, Rawls said, and think of what kind of political society you would make if you didn’t know who you were.
…to simple falsehood…
Rawls said if you did this, you’d produce unlimited free speech and moderately redistributive capitalism.
… to the frankly bizarre …
Perversely, Rawlsian liberalism also produced a slippery slope into its opposite, complete selfishness…. The game that Rawls set in motion, designed to eliminate common preexisting political values, could also produce the result that everybody simply advocated for himself.
In the latter case, it’s hard to know what to say by way of response, because I can’t easily determine what Hirshman thinks she means by this, let alone which orifice she pulled it from. Possibly it originated from the parallel universe in which the political misfortunes of the Democratic Party are somehow attributable to the pernicious influence of Rawlsian Political Liberalism.
Addendum: Jacob Levy is more patient than I am.