What Would a Fair Society Look Like?

by Jeroen Bouterse at 3 Quarks Daily: In 2015, political scientist Larry Diamond warned against defeatism in the face of what he called the democratic recession. “It is vital that democrats in the established democracies not lose faith. […] If the current modest recession of democracy spirals into a depression, it will be because those of us in the established democracies were our own worst enemies.” A few years later, as the world’s most powerful democracy had decided to play out that darker option, Diamond wrote with more urgency about how to protect liberal democracy worldwide. In Ill winds, he emphasized the need to provide not only a rejection of alternatives, but a positive vision. “Democracy must demonstrate that it is a just and fair political system that advances humane values and the common good.”

Daniel Chandler places his book Free and Equal (2023) in this same context: for fifteen years in a row, more countries have experienced democratic backsliding than improvement, and the threatened state of democracy worldwide makes it “tempting to go on the defensive”. However, just playing defense is not enough; an ambitious vision for improvement is necessary. “In a moment that calls for creativity and boldness, all too often we find timidity or, worse, scepticism and cynicism”. Chandler believes he has found a recipe for combining the values of liberalism with the spirit of progress and reform.

This combination is crucial. One of the most dangerous narratives taking root in the collective subconscious is that liberalism has had its day; that history is moving on, that liberal democracy belonged to a geopolitical era that is coming to an end, something we tried and that we know the limits of; a system that has already given all it will ever be able to give. Well, not if Chandler has anything to say about it. “There are plenty of exciting and workable ideas about how we could do things differently”, he announces. As our guide to these ideas he has selected John Rawls, and this is quite plainly an excellent decision: Rawls is at the center of 20th-century liberal political thought, but also utopian and principled to an extent that he can hardly be accused of rationalizing an already-existing situation. It makes complete sense to use him as a rallying point for a forward-looking form of liberalism.

In the theoretical part of his book, Chandler takes two fundamental principles straight from Rawls. The first principle guarantees equal protection of basic personal and political liberties above all else. These are liberties that are necessary to exercising our moral capacities: our ability to form views about what is a good life for ourselves and about what is a good society, and to act according to those views. Freedom of speech, for instance, is a basic right because (and to the extent that) without it, these moral capacities are frustrated. The second principle insists that inequality in income, wealth, power, and opportunities for self-respect in a society is only acceptable if there is fair equality of opportunity, and if such inequality is integral to an arrangement that benefits the least well off compared to other arrangements. This last condition is called the difference principle…

More here.