Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? by Daniel Chandler - review by Alan Ryan

Alan Ryan

Beyond the Veil of Ignorance

Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like?


Allen Lane 416pp £25

The writing of utopias has fallen out of fashion, whether because we are jaded, pessimistic about the chances of realising even a fraction of proposals that might be considered utopian, or for some other reason. Free and Equal is a breath of fresh air, therefore. It is unabashedly utopian in its proposals for social, economic, political and educational change. It is nonetheless perfectly realistic in the sense that few or none of Daniel Chandler’s proposals for a better world would be impossible to bring about if we had the gumption to try to do so. 

But we should follow the plot as the author unfolds it. Chandler has fallen in love with a slightly unlikely object, the philosopher John Rawls’s path-breaking treatise A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Much as generations of left-wing students turned to The Communist Manifesto for inspiration, Chandler finds his guide to a better world in A Theory of Justice. One might think there is nothing unusual in this. For a pretty austere work of political philosophy, Rawls’s book has been astonishingly widely read; as of a few years ago, it had sold more than 300,000 copies, spawned more than 3,300 articles of commentary and critique and given rise to upwards of a hundred books. 

Rawls himself, however, eschewed any attempt to draw practical political conclusions from his work. In part, this was out of respect for the division of labour: he was a philosopher, not a political scientist or an economist. In part, it was an aspect of his extraordinary diffidence. Everyone but him thought he was a genius who had written one of the very few works of philosophy guaranteed to be read in a hundred years’ time. He was acutely aware of this but flinched at what he regarded as excessive praise, or indeed any praise at all. He rejected the roles of guru and prophet and happily spent almost forty years teaching philosophy at Harvard. 

Chandler is the first person to write what amounts to a prospectus for a society embodying the principles expounded in A Theory of Justice. Free and Equal is laid out as one might expect. Part one is an account of A Theory of Justice and its critics, while part two is a series of five chapters spelling out the implications of Rawls’s thought for such things as freedom, democracy, equality of opportunity and shared prosperity. Readers who spent their undergraduate years grappling with Rawls and his critics will find it easy going. Anyone else ought to find it as clear and persuasive a consideration of A Theory of Justice as they will come across anywhere.

Rawls’s book introduces several ideas that have become very familiar. One is the idea of an ‘original position’, a sort of ground zero for the generation of a fair society; a related idea is the ‘veil of ignorance’, the notion that in order to think about what such a fair society would look like, we should reason as though we do not know our sex, ethnicity, social position, abilities or when in history we were born. The task is to think of fair terms of cooperation in creating and running a society. Crucially, the theory of justice that is to emerge from thinking about fair terms of cooperation is political. Rawls contrasts his approach with what he calls ‘comprehensive’ theories that spell out how individuals should live in all aspects of their lives. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is such a comprehensive theory. Rawls does not take sides on the good life, the truth or otherwise of the major religions and so on. He argues that in a modern society, ‘where citizens hold different views about personal morality and religion, there is no external standard that we can appeal to’. The result is what he calls ‘the fact of reasonable pluralism’, or a variety of views about the good life that are reasonable in the sense of not inhibiting their holders from accepting the precepts of democracy.

The first principle of justice is that everyone is entitled to the maximum freedom compatible with a like freedom for everyone else. This includes, for Rawls, freedom of religion, freedom of occupational choice, the right to personal property (but not the right to own the means of production) and personal freedoms such as the right to marry whomever we choose. The second principle comes in two parts. The first part is that we are entitled to fair equality of opportunity; the second is that inequalities can only be justified if they are arranged so that the worst-off are as well off as possible. This ‘worst off best off’ principle has sparked a very substantial literature, with free-marketeers either complaining that it infringes the freedom of the better-off or, more subtly, claiming that laissez-faire capitalism is what makes the worst-off as well off as possible.

So, we have the basic principles of egalitarian liberalism. What practical steps might we take to realise them? Consider democracy as an example. We profess to believe that countries such as the UK and USA are liberal democracies. In Chandler’s view, these are plutocracies, based on government by the better-off for the better-off. He is much taken with some astonishing research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who analysed several thousand pieces of legislation that went through Congress and found that where the best-off 10 per cent wanted something different from the less-well-off majority, the best-off invariably prevailed. 

In the UK, legislators do not spend as much time raising money for the next round of elections as they do in the USA, but they are amenable to the blandishments of those who provide them with second jobs or lobbyists who pay well for a friendly word in the right ear. What is to be done? One really radical proposal is to institute Athenian-style democracy – to choose parliaments through some form of random selection, creating a high probability that these assemblies will be truly representative. Chandler is less bold. He thinks, perhaps optimistically, that political parties are indispensable to democracy, formulating policy and championing their preferred causes. To avoid their capture by the folk with money and jobs to offer, he would forbid the private financing of parties and place the burden on the taxpayer instead. 

Critics of capitalism, however, have not confined themselves to assailing the impact of the well-off on politics. They have also complained about the absence both of an equitable distribution of income and wealth and of workplace democracy. Chandler shares their frustrations. His views on what might be done to remedy the more grotesque inequalities are modest enough, though they will appal libertarians and most Conservative voters. Given his enthusiasm for Rawls’s ‘worst off best off’ principle, it is unsurprising that his focus is heavily on improving the lot of the people at the bottom of the income and wealth scale. Slightly more surprising is the warm welcome Chandler gives to the idea of a universal basic income, paid to all adults at a rate of something like 60 per cent of the median income. 

So long as workers do not control their own lives at work, Karl Marx and his followers would argue, all this would amount only to making them well-off slaves. So Chandler ends with an engaging chapter on workplace democracy. He is unfazed by the evidence that when British workers have been offered a choice between higher pay and more workplace democracy they have usually plumped for higher pay. The solution, he says, is to devise forms of participation that are cost-free to workers. That seems right. Evidence suggests that German workplaces, where a higher degree of democracy prevails than in British ones, are happier and more productive than their counterparts in the UK.

Those of us who are fans of Mill, Bertrand Russell and other egalitarian liberals will find much to like in Free and Equal. It does, however, raise a familiar question. How are we to get from here to there? It requires MPs who benefit from the present system to vote to make themselves poorer; it requires shareholders to relinquish some of their prerogatives; it requires all but the worst-off third to happily pay much higher taxes, and so on. It is a familiar objection to utopian thinking that to reach utopia we need to be almost there already – to be more imaginative, to be more willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, to have given up the satisfactions of class snobbery and racial prejudice, to have ways of making decisions that are genuinely democratic. It is unkind to mention it, but it is perhaps telling that only the final half-dozen pages of this engaging book raise the question ‘Now what?’

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