The politics of John Rawls

This is a political summary of the defects of John Rawls' contractarian liberalism. Rawls Theory of Justice (1971) is the most influential normative work of political philosophy of the last two generations. In 1993 it was followed by a broader work on Political Liberalism. Rawls later work claims that his concerns are not metaphysical, but political: a stable and workable society in the western liberal tradition. In reality, all his work is a justification of liberal societies against others. Worse, it is a justification of the inequality and injustice in those societies, and a model for a conservative future.

Rawls died on 24 November 2002. Last update 11 January 2003.

Objections to the Theory of Justice

The form of social contract described by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice can be called the 'fictive assembly' type. In another 1970's version, by Bruce Ackerman, the assembly is more explicit - the inhabitants of a planet draw up a social contract on a spaceship (Social justice in the Liberal State New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980). In both cases, the social contract is the contract which would be confirmed by the entire population, under ideal conditions, after perfect and complete consideration.

All contractarian theory rests on the principle of "as if", the contract is never real. Each contractarian theorist has a different "as if", and a different claimed contract. Rawls does not use the word 'assembly', but it is implicit in his model. Natural persons are removed from their real physical existence, and converted into rational beings who can debate, discuss, agree and contract. (Rawls ultimately choose heads of households as the 'persons', a choice criticised by feminists). The non-physical beings agree a social contract - for Rawls that is essentially his minimum principles of justice. Then they 'go back to earth', become real persons, and live in a society where these principles apply. Rawls' innovation in the fictive assembly model is that the participants don't know who they will be, when they come back to earth. They might be a powerful emperor, they might be a slave, so the debate should take account of both possibilities. This is the 'veil of ignorance', which apparently no contractarian had thought of before. Rawls assumes it will improve his model.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Original Position
John Rawls resource page

This whole approach is flawed, even if you accept the idea of a fictive social contract, entered into by fictive rational agents. To be exact, it includes morally arbitrary choices, which are concealed by Rawls style.

First, there is only one assembly. Why only one?

There is only one social contract. Why not different (multiple) versions?

There is an assumption of non-migration: if there were multiple social contracts, then some people could live under different versions, in the course of their lives. If there were multiple contracts and migration, then the migration can be voluntary. This introduces the element of real-life voluntarism into contractarianism. Rawls simply prohibits voluntarism - by means of the specific construction he has chosen. But he does not make that choice explicit, and makes no attempt to justify it. Probably, because it makes the contract itself impossible to ground in rational choice...

No rational being would enter into a social contract without an opt-out clause, and a social contract with an opt-out clause is not a social contract, in the standard meaning of the word. Therefore, no rational being would ever enter into any social contract at all, and contractarianism can not be justified by an appeal to rationality.

Finally, Rawls model is permanent: there is no provision for review, or any innovation in the minimum principles. Why not? Again the permanence is simply an arbitrary choice.

The logical error in all contractarian theory, when a specific contract is used to justify a specific society, is that other possible 'social contracts' will justify other possible societies. The choice of one particular contract is morally arbitrary, and can not justify anything. Yet contractarians behave as if simply waving a fictional contract, was a comprehensive answer to all social criticism. Rawls book is no less absurd than the other contracts which are 'waved around' in this context.

So why are such absurd constructions taken seriously? Because Rawls model is an approximation of the nation state, that's why. Individuals are born into a nation - a nation state usually - and most people remain there. Only a minority migrate across borders. The rest, the majority, live under a set of values and political principles, which existed before they were born. And of course you can not choose the nation you are born into.

Contractarianism is allegedly an attempt to avoid 'foundationalism'. It claims not to be an '-ism' at all - but it is suspiciously similar to nationalism. The constraints, which Rawls built into his fictive assembly model, correspond to the claims of nationalism. Those claims are generally that humanity consists of nations; that all humans belong to a nation; that membership is essentially hereditary and permanent; that the nation is the standard form of human society and the basic unit of global order; and that no non-nation may form a state, not now and not ever. None of these nationalist assertions, however, are absolute truths. They are ideology imposed by military force, at a cost of millions of deaths. For more on the core ideology of nationalism, see the introduction to Nation Planet

Rawls background no doubt influenced his commitment to the liberal-democratic nation state. He came from a rich family, and fought in the US Army (in the Pacific, during World War II). It is a background more typical of the oppressor, than of the oppressed. Rawls was culturally very far removed from the weakest victims of the liberal-democratic world order: he wrote from an almost genetic contempt for them. The moral order which he defended is - not coincidentally - the moral order from which he, his family, and his class have profited. Rawls' life was like a caricature in a Soviet propaganda film: the American rich kid grows up to write the philosophical defence of western liberal-democratic society.

Alternative 'social contracts'

The Original Position used by John Rawls is a philosophical device. It is not intended as a model for a real assembly, or as a historical description of something that happened in the past. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about alternatives. Partly because they indicate errors in the logic: social contract theories claim that the participants would 'logically' agree to the social contract. More important politically, thinking about alternatives emphasises the similarity between such social contracts, and the real existing nation states. That applies especially to the fictive assembly model of a social contract, such as Rawls' Original Position. The assembly is designed by the philosopher, and of course it is designed to produce an apparently plausible outcome. The trick is to make people forget that - to forget the 'design features', to forget that other designs might produce equally plausible results.

A general objection to any fictional assembly is its inherent unreality and impossibility. If the participants are removed from physical existence as a human being, to facilitate reasoning and deliberation, then they will no longer be sick or hungry. (For Rawls, strictly speaking, they are agents of the humans, rather than some ethereal form of human). Presumably they participants are also immortal, since the deliberations might take a very long time. So why should anyone leave the assembly? Why should they return to their human lives, as the philosopher-designer insists? It would not be rational or self-interested: the rational thing to do, in such circumstances, is to refuse to leave. For the model to be logical, there must be a more powerful force, to throw them out of the 'paradise'. The fictive assembly model parallels - even in its hypothetical and abstract form - the real historical coercion into nation states.

In any case, all fictional assembly models - in fact all social contract theories - are open to alternative outcomes. Rawls derives his two principles of justice from his fictive assembly - but only by saying they would be accepted. That's all. He does not explain exactly why the participants in the Original Position would choose these principles. He can not explain why: social contract theories never explain exactly why the social contract takes a particular form. Few include a list of possible alternatives, let alone reasons for rejecting these alternatives. The reader of the theory is simply asked to assume, that the social contract would take this form. Nevertheless, even starting from the type of fictional assembly proposed by Rawls, with the 'veil of ignorance' it is possible to give alternatives which are at least equally plausible. The participants might choose these options, rather than Rawls liberalism. They might choose them even under Rawls' assumptions - to minimise the harm that they might suffer, if they were transported back to a real historical human society, without knowing what their position in that society would be.

The first, most obvious, option is simply to have no society - to agree to live as hermits, or to create a 'society' approximating that ideal. A hermit culture is an extreme form of contact-minimising arrangement, not even a 'society' in the standard sense, but other less extreme forms of contact minimalisation are possible. The point is, that present liberal societies have no such goal of contact minimalisation: introducing it would in itself create a different form of society, with very few historical precedents.

A second option concerns removal or withdrawal. A hypothetical assembly of rational agents might decide, that any person may be removed, on their request, from the circumstances they experience, by an agency established for that purpose. You could say this socially institutionalises the science fiction device of teleportation. You could call it a 'mutual rescue contract' instead of a social contract. It might be difficult to implement - but no more difficult than, for instance, human rights. It is as rational, and historically as viable, as Rawls two principles of justice (which include basic equal rights and liberties). Unlike liberalism, it suggests a powerful, rather than a minimal, state. An agency which can rescue any citizens, at any time, will approximate to The State.

Perhaps no effective rescue agency is possible. In that case, a third option is to structure society, so as to facilitate withdrawal from society. This does not mean it is any less of a society: it simply means that the implied social contract has different priorities - not the rights and liberties suggested by liberals. Instead, the constitutional, legal, and social structures would give 'exit from society' priority over its own internal structures. Emigration has always been a real-world answer to injustice, oppression and inequality. However, apart from the work of Albert Hirschman, it has not been taken seriously, in political and social theory. A real constitutional priority for emigration is the institutionalisation of a hypothetical opt-out clause, in a hypothetical social contract.

A fourth option which also alters the structure of the hypothetical social contract, is to allow for 'recall' of the hypothetical assembly which formulated it. In the real world, this would be operationalised by a constitutional priority for revision of the constitution on demand - without any civil obligation to accept this revision. Remember, the hypothetical fictional assembly is supposed to act rationally: that is the whole point of liberal social contract theory. It is certainly rational to allow for revision of any contract, under changed circumstances. It is the infinite-duration social contract, proposed by contractarian theorists, which is irrational.

In the real world the 'recall option' would require a political culture, which emphasised its own temporary nature. It would include generous provisions for the recall of assemblies, review of their decisions, recall of representatives, and revision of laws and constitution, all at short notice and with minimum procedural requirements. There are few real-world examples. The nation state, by definition, is the expression of a transgenerational entity: it does not expect to suddenly disappear. The DDR (East Germany), in the year before its dissolution, did have a political culture based on the assumption that the state itself would soon disappear. However, there was no open-ended future: everyone knew that the dissolution would take the form of incorporation into the BRD (West Germany). A limited-term social contract implies that the future options are open - not that it wil be replaced on schedule by a known replacement. It implies a general recognition, that the bond between members of a society is tenuous, that it may soon dissolve, and that consequently the state may also dissolve. To have full effect, the 'recall option' should be available to all members of society. Those who suffer injustice today could, in principle, call for a referendum on the states's existence tomorrow. Again this is just as 'rational' a response to injustice, as John Rawls two principles of justice, or any other contractarian proposal.

Ernest Rénan, a 19th-century theorist of nationalism, once defined the nation as a 'daily plebiscite'. It is true that nation states will collapse, if citizens cease to identify with the titular nation, but there is no formal equivalent of Rénan's metaphor. In reality there is no recurring plebiscite: many nation states never held any plebiscite on their existence, values, or constitutional structure. In reality, most citizens of nation states will never even vote on a complete constitution, in their lifetime. Citizens of some former colonies had a chance to vote on independence - although by the time the referendum was held, the colonial power had already decided to leave. Certainly, only a small minority of the global population have ever freely decided to change their citizenship, and deliberately swear allegiance to a new Constitution. Consent to the state is almost always implied, and not real. States, and their constitutional structure, are indeed assumed to be quasi-infinite in duration. They have a political culture opposite to the culture of impermanence suggested by the 'recall option'. The Constitution especially is a dead weight on most societies: it can only be changed by slow and expensive procedures. This is not a good political climate for the quick rectification of structural injustice.

A related fifth option is the use of the veto. That implies that society should be structured, so that those who suffer from the actions of others can generally veto those actions. In political theory, there is a general hostility to the use of the veto, even on a limited scale. The liberum veto in the Polish Sejm (the assembly of nobles) is considered an notorious example of ineffective government, even though its use was limited to the aristocracy. Every member had an absolute veto over any decision of the whole assembly: the results were widely known in Europe. (In German, the expression polnische Landtag still refers to a chaotic meeting or organisation). However, the theorists' hostility to the veto is suspect. They write for the privileged and the powerful, while the veto is an effective defence for the weak - if the veto is extended to them.

A 'veto society' could have a full veto - of any person over any act of any other person. More likely, the veto would be limited: one form of limit is territorial. The force of the veto could be greatest at the local scale, weaker at intermediate scales, and weakest at the highest territorial level - a mirror image of the principle of subsidiarity. In effect, the force of the veto would diminish with distance. On the assumption that most harm is done in proximity, this would allow individuals to defend themselves against harm, but prevent them using the veto as an instrument of conservatism. (Note that all liberal systems incorporate some form of conservative veto anyway. In a market society, for instance, no innovation can occur in contradiction of market forces: in a democracy no innovation can occur against the expressed will of the people. However, liberals do not erect as many barriers for injustice, as they do for innovation). In combination with high rates of internal migration, a spatially limited liberum veto would probably lead to a segregation of the population into conservative and innovative zones. At the same time it would reduce injustice, especially the oppression of minorities. I think that is a not a bad arrangement.

A sixth option does not differ so radically from existing societies, but adds a specific characteristic to them. Society could be structured to facilitate the recognition, and avoidance of injustice by the victims, and self-defence against it, by labelling the unjust. In other words, they would be compelled to carry some form of 'mark of injustice'. This would make injustice more transparent. Liberals generally value 'transparency' in democratic and market processes, so why should it not be a part of justice theory? The tagging or labelling could apply to geographical locations, or specific institutions, and warnings against injustice could be institutionalised. However it would be primarily a labelling of individuals - and that is the root of the liberal distrust. Most liberals would be horrified at the idea, that unjust people have the word UNJUST tattooed on their forehead. They would be only slightly less horrified at more advanced methods, such as electronic tagging of the unjust, or implants. Almost certainly liberal propagandists would compare this to the yellow star worn by Jews in Nazi Germany. But that would be hypocrisy. It is the liberal democracies, which lead the world in the electronic tagging of criminals, in the collection of personal data on citizens, and in registration of biometric data. Liberal-democratic America - not a dictatorship - reintroduced the old-fashioned prison uniform, and installed webcams in cells, so that the public can permanently observe prisoners. Why is it then unacceptable to compel, for instance, racist employers to wear a uniform - with the words RACIST EMPLOYER in large fluorescent letters?

The labelling of the unjust could be conditional: it is not necessary to wait until they commit an injustice. Certain persons could be conditionally defined as injustice risks. Again this is an existing feature of liberal societies with respect to criminals. The traditional publication of verdicts in criminal cases is intended to warn possible future victims. Computers and the internet have facilitated an expansion of this principle, so that the registration of possible criminals is almost as comprehensive as the registration of past criminals. This applies especially to terrorism and sex offences. In Britain there are serious proposals to imprison potential child sex offenders, without trial, purely on the grounds of future risk to others, even if they have no criminal record. Already, personal data of convicted sex offenders is registered, including their DNA profile, and they are subject to police surveillance. If this is acceptable for a liberal democracy, why not apply the same standards and procedures to - for instance - importers of clothing from low-income countries? Other people are certainly at risk from their behaviour: risk of starvation wages, risk of child labour. Identifying the importers, registering them, placing them under police surveillance, monitoring their travel patterns: all this can all help to minimise the risk.

There are often more specific indicators of injustice risk. In countries with oligarchic and aristocratic ruling elites, the people who commit injustice are usually the children of those, who committed injustices in the previous generation. Perhaps simply because few others are in a position to do the same: nevertheless they are an identifiable risk category. The group may be even more specific. In the South American military dictatorships of the 1970's, many of the military officers responsible for torture, murder, and repression, had attended the same anti-subversion courses in the United States. In retrospect they were a high-risk group for extreme injustice. If that had been widely known at the time - if General Pinochet had been publicly registered as a 'potential torturer' - history might have been different. It is possible for a state to compile such registers, it is possible for a society to have a 'culture of registration' with respect to the unjust. All of these things are rational - at least as rational as the rights and liberties proposed by liberal social contract theory. It is an option for a hypothetical assembly to decide to structure society in this way: to maximise the collection and dissemination of information on risks of injustice from, and existing unjust practices by, categories of persons.

From all these options together, a seventh option arises. Since all of them differ from the conventional idea of society, it is an option to choose between them and conventional society. All of them restrict human social cooperation in the anthropological sense. Unlike John Rawls, they do not assume that "we must all live together". The seventh option is that society be so structured, that individuals may choose for themselves whether to accept a greater injustice, or greater risk of injustice. With using too much of an economic metaphor, it is clear that some people may be prepared to accept losses in return for benefits - because they see social co-operation, in Rawls' sense, as positive. This is a graded choice, rather than a choice between two distinct alternatives. The problem is how to structure society so as to make this gradation available in the real world. Again the logical solution is territorial segregation: a plurality of zones offers a plurality of degrees of social cooperation, a plurality of models derived from the plurality of hypothetical contracts described above. This territorial arrangement, in combination with free migration, would transfer to the real world the underlying choice about the 'social contract', which is available to any hypothetical assembly. It is this choice which is concealed by Rawls' model: like all contractarian theorists, he has designed his fictive contract to produce the result he wants. In particular, he has designed it to produce single-society outcomes. Once again, the similarity between contractarianism and nationalism is apparent. The plurality of zones, the seventh option, contradicts the single-society model inherent in the nation state. It contradicts the principle of national unity, a central tenet of nationalism.

The options presented above, as alternatives to traditional social contracts, are themselves only part of a wider range of alternatives to contractarianism. It has many defects, and listing the remedies for these defects of contractarianism generates many alternatives to it. The social contract, for instance, models a non-technological society. Technology is not an issue for contractarian theorists, but it is for the real world: in the long term, technological change has altered human societies more than any social issue. Technology is not something that can be left to a small group of specialist philosophers: it should be central to all social and moral philosophy. Rawls ignores the issue, at least explicitly, but his social and political thought is so conservative, that it would obviously limit technological change. That seems to be a general defect of social contract theory. There are not only alternative social contracts, there is a complete alternative 'social-technological contract' theory, waiting to be discussed. The question of how (and why) to facilitate technological change raises issues for social philosophy, beyond the limits of social contract theory.

Rawls' two principles

In Rawlsian liberalism there are two principles of justice. The first is equal basic liberties, the sort that are compatible with the same freedom for others. This is a general principle of rights-based liberalism (now the dominant political liberalism). Rawls means primarily the basic political rights of liberal-democratic societies. The defects of this model of society are also well known: the formal equality of rights does not mean any other equality. They are certainly no guarantee of justice. Millions of people have starved to death, while enjoying basic political rights.

The second is a principle of distribution: the inequalities in society are the result of open competition of talents. They are also so arranged, that those at the bottom of the ladder have at least some benefit, given the inequality. (Rawls actually says the 'greatest benefit of the least advantaged', but he means within the context of the inequality itself. He does not mean the literal 'greatest benefit' - for instance that the poorest person gets all the money in the world).

The idea of competition among talent is another classic liberal principle. It is an example of the liberal belief that 'process justifies outcome', which I see as a core principle of all liberal ethics. Here too the defects are well known: somehow, the children of the privileged always seem to be the most gifted with talents.

The minimal-benefit requirement is the most specific to Rawls theory of justice. But it is an inherently unjust principle, because it specifies no minimum, against which the minimal benefit is measured. To put it crudely, if things can get worse, then the treatment of the worst-off is 'just'. But things can always get worse, so any treatment is just, according to this principle. Certainly, taken in isolation, this principle would allow anything to be labelled as 'justice'. A society which tortures children today would be 'just' - if it had tortured them twice yesterday. Since their position had improved, they would qualify as recipients of some 'minimal advantage' under Rawls' principle. If the society regarded some daily torture as necessary for children anyway, then people could legitimately say that limiting it, to once a day, was 'the greatest benefit'.

Of course, this principle is not used in isolation. in Rawls theory of justice. It is secondary to the principle of basic liberties, which (hopefully) include a ban on torture. But they are the only restriction. Rawls principle allows any social inequality not conflicting with the basic liberties, because there is always a thinkable worse alternative. The fact that this principle is criticised by some of Rawls colleagues as egalitarian (or even as 'socialist'), only shows how far to the right moral philosophy stands.

Rawls has derived these principles from his fictive assembly. He claims that rational beings would contract to these fundamental principles of society. But that is a claim by Rawls, no more. Even accepting Rawls model, there is no way of proving that it would produce these results. There are other obvious alternative principles, which seem just as likely to be accepted. Absolute egalitarianism, for instance: or the principle that the heaviest burdens fall on the strongest shoulders. But that is irrelevant to the purpose of Rawls' work anyway. He is not designing a future just society: he is arguing that present societies are broadly just.

Rawls' general conception of justice: the trickle-down effect

Rawls refers to his more general conception of 'justice'. Again there is nothing just about it: it is a familiar approach to legitimising injustice. One part of his conception of justice is notorious: the so-called 'trickle-down effect'. In its crudest form, this is the claim that the rich must get richer, in order that more of their wealth can 'trickle down' to the poor. It became a standard of neoliberal politics, usually in the form of policy preferences for an entrepreneurial class - the so-called generator of wealth. The 1999 Blair-Schröder manifesto, for instance, says that government exists to facilitate the entrepreneur, and that income inequality is inevitable. Most western governments promoted a similar ideology during the last 10 to 15 years.

Rawls does specifically quote the trickle-down effect, in section 13. He gives it as an illustration of the kind of argument that will be used, under his second principle.

Now those starting out as members of the entrepreneurial class in property-owning democracy, say, have a better prospect than those who begin in the class of unskilled laborers.....The inequality in expectation is permissible only if lowering it would make the working class worse off. Supposedly....the greater expectations allowed to entrepreneurs encourages them to do things which raise the long-term prospects of the laboring class. Their better prospects act as incentives so that the economic process is more efficient, innovation proceeds at a faster pace, and so on. Eventually the resulting material benefits spread throughout the system and to the least advantaged. I shall not consider how far these things are true. The point is that something of this kind must be argued if these inequalities are to be just by the difference principle.
A Theory of Justice, section 13.

But the real point is, that any principle which allows this type of blatant legitimation of inequality, is not a principle of 'justice'. All of Rawls' principles are given in their final version in section 46, including his 'general conception of justice'. It is formulated to allow 'trickle-down' justifications of existing inequality.

All social primary goods - liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect - are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored.
A Theory of Justice, section 46.

The question is, advantage compared to what? As the quoted example shows, Rawls regards trickle-down arguments as valid, even if they refer to a hypothetical future state. Any present inequality can be justified in this way, by claiming it will 'improve things in the long run'. No proof of such claims is possible: either you allow them as politically valid, or you don't. If they are accepted as valid, then they can be used - and will be used - as justifications of extreme poverty and inequality.

If hypothetical present alternatives are used, then (as mentioned above) the 'thinkable worst alternative' becomes the norm. If you take Rawls general conception of justice literally, it allows an extermination camp. In Camp A people are murdered in gas chambers. In Camp B they are tortured first, then murdered in gas chambers. Liberty and opportunity are clearly not equally distributed between guards and prisoners, but the prisoners in Camp A possess an advantage. Compared to Camp B, inequalities in Camp A are indeed distributed to the 'advantage of the least favoured', since they do have some advantage. They are not tortured before they are killed. They have less power and status than the camp commander, but this inequality is to their benefit - since he is only killing them, not torturing them first. Therefore the primary good (power) is distributed according to Rawlsian principles of justice. Rawls does not say that the least favoured should have a large advantage, or an equaladvantage, or an advantage chosen by themselves. Simply an 'advantage', compared to a worse alternative. In this way, Rawls deletes one by one, the types of justice claim in the real world - claims of equality, claims to minimum standards, claims of some hope of social improvement. Instead, Rawls allows any oppressor to perpetuate any injustice on the weak, if they can think of a variant of the trickle-down effect.

Fortunately, not everyone is totally powerless, and some resistance to injustice is successful. But the extreme injustices which are permitted by the Rawlsian logic, to the point of extermination camps, are in themselves morally offensive. The best response is to politically suppress Rawlsian liberalism, and if necessary, to imprison its proponents.

How is Rawls' theory used?

A typical structural injustice in liberal-democratic societies, is class inequality in death rates and life expectancy. A recent British study concludes:
Annually, some 7,500 deaths amongst people younger than 65 could be prevented if inequalities in wealth narrowed to their 1983 levels.
Reducing health inequalities in Britain, Rowntree Foundation.

Now what happens if people from the disadvantaged groups demand justice? In this case, the disadvantaged are those with 'below-average wealth', although the study used social class as a proxy measure. They could approach the government, and demand redistribution of wealth. A Rawlsian government advisor would however reject their claim, using Rawls' work...

First, the advisor would point out that Britain is a liberal democracy. The basic liberties are guaranteed to all. 'Fundamental rights' would now be the usual name, and although Britain has no constitution, it adheres to international rights conventions. The poor have exactly the same freedom of expression as the rich. They are free to complain that they lives are shorter, but a particular life expectancy is not a fundamental right in the liberal tradition. In this sense, shorter lives and the resulting excess mortality are not an injustice - following Rawls theory.

Secondly, the advisor would admit that there are inequalities of wealth and income in Britain. However, the advisor would say, that these are not planned by the government. They are the generally the outcome of an open education system, and a free market in labour. In Britain a talented child has access to all levels of the educational system, at government expense, on the basis of their own achievements. A person who is talented, competent, and employable, can apply for any entry-level job - after they have obtained the relevant educational qualifications. On the basis of experience, they can apply for other jobs, up to the highest-paid and highest-status jobs. Wealth accumulated by savings, or investment of those savings, remains their private property. In Britain, the advisor would say, those with more wealth have therefore acquired it justly, by the exercise of their talents. He would say that any secondary advantage of this wealth, such as a longer life expectancy, is also justly acquired. If others have less wealth, this is simply because they have less talent, in a broad sense - or they have failed to use their talent, which is their own fault. In this sense also, shorter lives are not an injustice, following Rawls' theory.

Thirdly, the advisor would compare the existing inequality, with other possible patterns of health inequality. The group with the excess mortality is clearly the 'least advantaged', in this case. However, there are 'only' 7 500 excess deaths - it could have been 75 000, or 750 000. The advisor has already established, on Rawlsian principles, that the excess mortality is not in itself unjust (see above). In a Rawlsian just society, we can expect some excess mortality. The advisor would now claim, that the excess mortality is in fact a 'reasonable score' - after all, 7 500 deaths is already a 99% reduction on a possible 750 000 deaths. Britain does have a National Health Service, but no health care system can be perfect, he would say. In any case, it can not be conclusively shown, that this is not the best possible level of excess mortality under the circumstances.

In Rawlsian logic, the disadvantaged group is not entitled to claim zero excess mortality, at least not as a claim for justice, since some degree of excess mortality is 'just'. They can claim a lessening of the degree of disadvantage, but the advisor would point out that the government already does that. It taxes the rich to pay for the National Health Service. So, at most, there is a difference about the degree of disadvantage. In a Rawlsian system, the complainants in this case can never establish that there is a clear injustice. Since no injustice is established, any forced redistribution of wealth would itself be unjust. (It would violate property rights, one of the traditional basic liberties of liberalism). Therefore the Rawlsian advisor would reject the demand for redistribution - and would claim, that this rejection itself was a just decision.

This is what ethics is about. This is why 'theories of justice' are written - to give a weapon to defenders of privilege and injustice. No theories of justice are written for the poorest and weakest on this planet. Those who can not hire an academic philosopher, will usually find no academic moral theory in support of their cause.

What is injustice?

The word 'justice' has a special meaning in social philosophy - different from its general use. The comic strip idea of justice is probably closest to the general use of the word, and it usually involves a specific injustice. Imagine: in a cell in a small town in the desert, a woman is being tortured by the secret police. Suddenly, the Galactic Avengers storm through the door. They vaporise the torturers with their ray-guns, and liberate the woman. This is the image most people have of 'justice' - that it means the ending of injustice, the ending of specific injustices. It may be a negative definition, but I find it more moral than the approach of social and moral philosophers.

What happens if, instead of the Galactic Avengers, a philosopher storms into the torture cell? Will he stop the torture? No, even if he did have a ray-gun. That is not what social philosophy is about. He will note that the woman complains, that she is being subjected to injustice. Then he will go out to buy a copy of the Constitution, and examine the structure of the society. If he is a liberal-democratic philosopher, he will look at the guarantees of civil and political rights in the Constitution, and the structure of government. Is there freedom of opinion? Is the country under the rule of law? Is there a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Is there political plurality, and can political parties compete for power? Are there free and fair elections? Non-liberal social philosophers might have different criteria, but they too will look at the structure of society.

If the liberal-democratic social philosopher is satisfied with the society he finds, he would then go back to the cell, and inform the woman that the society was just. If she complained that she was still being tortured, and that she found that unjust, the philosopher would explain that social philosophy is not about individual cases. He would point out, that she could apply to an independent judiciary to be released. If she was tortured to death first, her friends or family could file later criminal charges against the torturers, and that complaint would be assessed by a fair and independent tribunal. And after explaining to the woman that she lived in a just society, the philosopher would leave.

Social and political philosophy, in other words, is not concerned with ending a specific injustice. There is no branch of ethics which is concerned with specific injustices, although they may be used as examples. For philosophers, 'justice' is primarily a term which describes a society and its social structures. If the society possesses certain qualities, then it is 'just'. The fact that individuals in that 'just society' claim that they are victims of injustice is not seen as ethically relevant - no matter what is being done to them.

In the dominant liberal tradition in ethics, the "justice" of a society is assessed largely in procedural terms. Liberal philosophy always places great emphasis on procedure, fair procedure. The ability of citizens to present a complaint to an independent tribunal, is a typical example of a procedure, which is valued by liberals. If the judges reject the complaint, that is simply not relevant for the liberal assessment of that society or state. For them, the specific outcome of any fair process is not relevant. Indeed, the slogan "process legitimises outcome" is probably the shortest summary of liberal philosophy. When the procedures are absolutely fair and comprehensive, then for the liberal the society is just. This is certainly one of the underlying principles in the work of John Rawls, although he is rarely concerned with procedural details. Nevertheless it is also probably true, that for every injustice, a procedure can be devised of which it is the outcome.

So in the dominant liberal tradition, the existence of injustice is considered a non-relevant background factor, like the weather. People might complain that it is raining, but for the liberal philosopher, a "just society" does not mean that the rain stops. Equally, people might complain that they are being subjected to injustice, but for the liberal philosopher, a "just society" does not mean that the injustice stops.

It is easy to see, that this can be a licence for all forms of injustice. The philosopher - in stating that the society is "just" - becomes a propagandist for the regime. This is clearly the role played by liberal political philosophers, when confronted with the extreme inequalities typical of liberal market democracies. It is the philosophers who explain to the poor that poverty is not unjust, and that inequality is not tyranny. This propagandist role is a defect of liberal justice theory in general, rather than of the individual philosophers - although they bear personal guilt for having chosen to play the role.

The alternative is simple: ethics should not concern itself with 'justice', but with injustice - and how to end it. Some social philosophers have taken this approach. They try to define injustice, but this in itself carries the risk of 'defining away' other peoples claims of injustice. Iris Marion Young, for instance, listed five 'categories of oppression' - exploitation, marginalisation, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. Her book Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton University Press, 1990) was part of the communitarian critique of liberalism, and treats the ethnic minorities in the United States as a paradigm for 'the oppressed'. Any definition of injustice will probably be culturally and politically specific to the society in which it was written. So I will simply list some criteria or characteristics here, which can be used to identify injustice.

To begin with, an injustice is a harm. It is however a self-defined harm. If people say they are suffering harm, then they are. If you abandon the self-definition, you might as well abandon the word 'harm' anyway.

Secondly, injustice is the result of human action. People suffer harm from natural disasters, but they are not in themselves considered unjust. However, many so-called 'natural disasters' result when poor people are forced by economic necessity to live in zones of known high risk - volcanic slopes, flood plains, geologically unstable hillsides in cities. As I first wrote this section, mudslides killed 34 people in hillside slums in the State of Rio de Janeiro. The fact that the poor are forced to live there, while the rich are free to avoid the risk, is an injustice. It is a result of conscious human decisions, in this case a failure to take action. The rich failed to invite the hillside slum dwellers into their safe homes, the government failed to resettle them, and they can not afford to resettle themselves. The Associated Press report commented: "Mudslides in hillside shantytowns unfit for the construction of houses kill dozens of Brazilians every year. Local authorities usually are unable to persuade slum dwellers to leave danger areas as they are too cash-strapped to offer alternative housing." Neither the rich, nor the government, decided that there should be a landslide which kills slum residents - but nevertheless they act unjustly toward them. It is a characteristic of injustice, that at some point, some person consciously acted (or consciously failed to act), and that this action or inaction is a contributory cause of the subsequent harm.

A third criterion for identifying injustice is that there is no remedy. If a harm can simply be turned off like a tap by the victim, then it seems less of an injustice. If I am sitting watching TV and I don't like the programme, I can simply zap to another programme. It would not be right to claim, that the makers of the programme treated me unjustly. However, poor people have no device, which they can point at rich people, to instantly redistribute their wealth. Certainly in liberal societies there is no remedy for inequality of wealth. The behaviour of elites is often offensive: they display their wealth and status in public as if there was no moral issue involved. However there is nothing I can do about it: there is no legal procedure by which I can prevent an arrogant snob driving around in a Rolls Royce. The behaviour is acceptable for the criminal and civil law, there is no basis for any legal claim on the issue, and I can not apply to any institution for compensation. In general, these characteristics are also typical of injustice.

Injustice is usually systematic and repeated, and this is a fourth identifying characteristic. Discrimination in employment is a good example: its social effect derives from the fact that there are thousands, millions, of cases. Discriminated individuals can also expect to be discriminated repeatedly. There is no such thing as a one-racist society. If discrimination was something which only happened to one person, once in history, it could be treated as a bizarre incident, rather than as injustice.

A fifth characteristic of injustices is some form of forced inclusion. If you could run away from every harm, then you would suffer no injustice. In most cases, the inclusion is within a 'society' - and its general modern form is the nation state. The poor are not a a nation, and can never secede. However forced inclusion also occurs at a smaller scale, within a family for instance.

A sixth characteristic of injustice is that it is often visible and open. You can see that the poor are poor, and certainly you can see that they are not as well dressed as the rich. Not being 'well dressed' by the local standards can be a cause of shame, and can directly limit social contacts. Clothes confer status, and usually the more expensive the brand, the higher the status. It is not just an aspect of youth culture: the social class of individuals in most societies can be assessed by their appearance. The disadvantaged are not legally obliged to wear a sign reading "Disadvantaged" - but the effect is often the same.

A seventh related characteristic is that the victim of injustice acquires a specific status derived from the injustice. To begin with, the status of 'victim' itself. The most obvious and pervasive derivative status is a lower social class. All modern societies have social classes, and all societies group them in a vertical hierarchy. There is always an upper class and a lower class, they are not equal neighbours, in the way that friendly nations are. It is true that there are class-specific cultures - valued by the members of the class - and that not everyone seeks social mobility. Nevertheless, in general, membership of the lower class is a disadvantage maintained by injustice. The working class child in Britain will generally be refused a place at the elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge - that is the way their selection procedures work. The point is, that this kind of selection procedures help to create the lower class. Certainly, if rigorous and repeated, they can sharpen class divisions, and produce hereditary elites within a few generations.

This indicates an eighth characteristic of injustice, namely that it is cumulative. The person disadvantaged by an injustice, will probably be further disadvantaged as a result. A traumatised victim of war, displacement, rape and torture, in Britain as a refugee, will probably never be admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. These universities would not "lower their standards" simply because a candidate had suffered terribly. A meritocracy is always harsh: the weak always suffer. In suffering they become weaker, and therefore - in the logic of a meritocracy - deserving of furthering suffering. It is typical of liberal-democratic societies - which are largely meritocracies - that the people at the bottom of the social ladder are trapped in a downward spiral. The existence of such cumulative disadvantage, and downward spirals, is itself an indicator that injustice is prevalent in a society.

These eight criteria, again, are not intended to be exclusive. They help to identify injustice, particularly social injustice, but I would not deny a justice claim simply because none of them are present. Similarly there are certain processes which are associated with injustice. Again this is not an exclusive list, but they include: selection, competition (including economic competition among nations) stigmatising individuals or groups, the deliberate possession of distributable advantage, and the blocking of redress or remedy for earlier injustice. They also include political and intellectual action to propagate, advocate, defend or replicate injustice. The justice theories of philosophers such as John Rawls are themselves unjust. Certainly their application is unjust, and presumably the authors intend that they should be taken seriously by governments and policy-makers.

These lists of criteria and process also allow an answer to the question: who is unjust? The unjust are often clearly identifiable, a fact which justice theory usually ignores. Although it is not said explicitly, I think that theorists want to avoid a 'list of the unjust' - because it could become a death list. If all injustice is indeed committed by a relatively small group of people, then a quick bloodbath will produce a just world. Even the implicit suggestion of this form of 'justice' is a horror for liberal-democratic theorists.

Nevertheless the list exists: injustice does seem to be concentrated in a relatively small group of people. To start with the family: almost all abuse of children is committed by the child's own parents. A second category is employers, and in modern economies the personnel managers who act as their agents. Employers discriminate in employment, but the employee usually has no opportunity to discriminate in reverse. Another large group of unjust people in modern western societies is, without doubt, teachers: the educational system transfers inequality from one generation to the next. Research has repeatedly shown that parents education, social class, and income largely determine the educational achievement of the child.

The rich are another identifiable category of unjust people - not so much because they are rich, but because they failed to give their money to the poor. Other privileged groups, if they can renounce privilege, are also unjust - the aristocracy is the prime example. Even in a nominally egalitarian society such as the Netherlands, aristocratic birth confers enormous advantage, especially in upper-class professions such as the diplomatic service. Nevertheless, only one Dutch aristocrat has ever renounced the privileged status, since that became legally possible. It is not a fault to be born into an aristocratic family - but it is an unjust act for someone who knows it is a privilege, not to renounce the privileged status when they can.

In a more general sense, that applies to anyone who finds themselves in a closed privileged group, and certainly to those who deliberately join them. The members of the elite social and business clubs, which exist in all western societies, are unjust people. They posses privilege, which they could end simply by cancelling their membership. Another specific category of the unjust is formed by those in powerful western countries who seek to impose (or maintain) unjust conditions in foreign societies. During the Cold War, the United States regularly sustained cruel foreign regimes in power, so long as they were pro-American: it seems that this policy is again in force. Those who campaign for the infliction of political regimes on others, which they would not accept in their own country, are an unjust but clearly identifiable lobby. They are privileged in the sense of being citizens of rich and powerful states. They were perhaps born into this privilege, and it is not easy to renounce it, but they could stop using their democratic rights in this way.

The Blair government did in fact reject the suggestion made by the Rowntree study, in a traditional politicians style: it ignored it. Nevertheless it does have an explicit position on unequal mortality: the same position as its Conservative predecessors. The fact is that illiberal measures are required to end the inequality, and these governments therefore refuse to implement them. The Blair government, on principle, maintains society in a form which kills at least 7, 500 people each year. Like many other liberal-democratic governments, it is engaged in a slow mass murder of the disadvantaged. If he was pushed to make an explicit statement on the issue, Tony Blair would probably say, that it is better to live 70 years in a democracy, than 75 years in a dictatorship. As a personal choice, that is acceptable. The problem is, that Blair is not the person with the shorter life: as head of government, he enforces this value preference on others. He lets others die, to maintain the liberal democracy in which he and his family have prospered.

This is where the conservative force of Rawls contractarianism becomes evident. If the government is killing a group of its citizens, the logical answer for that group is secession. It is certainly not right to insist that they should stay in a society which treats them like this - yet social contract theory does exactly that. The whole idea of a social contract implies, that there is some moral obligation to accept the society in which you find yourself. It is a form of legitimacy claim, for that society and state.

There are many reasons why a secession is legitimate: it is not necessarily conditional on atrocities, or genocide. Difference in values is, in itself, a reason to split a political community. The willingness of liberal-democratic states to subject the poor to shorter lives, is one example of the real basic value conflicts in such societies. I think it is wrong, but most liberal-democratic political leaders consider it perfectly acceptable. So does the general public in such societies: I know of no example where excess mortality was an election issue. So we differ, on something fundamental. That is sufficient grounds for me to reject these societies entirely, and seek a new society. I want health, and I do not want a shorter life. But equally, I don't want to live among people, who think that I should have a shorter life. I don't want to live in a state, where the government thinks that I should die early. As an individual, there is not much I can do: but when many other people share this attitude, secession becomes an option.

Contractarianism, on the other hand, is by its nature anti-secessionist. It is by definition a claim, that there is an implicit moral commitment to 'society', and that 'society' is a unit bound together by that contract. In both cases, 'society' means the existing society. Social contract theory contains an implicit prohibition on the formation of a new society. As the example of excess mortality shows, that can in itself lead to great wrong - especially if the 'social contract' is interpreted as a prohibition on emigration.

If injustice is done by persons to each other, then the isolation of persons from each other ends injustice. The construction of justice is then the construction of barriers, and the absence of barriers is a general injustice. Liberals defend this general injustice by claiming, that it is necessary to have no barriers, and that under certain conditions (liberal conditions ) the absence of barriers is just. Secession is the creation of barriers, and as you would expect, it is generally unacceptable to liberals. John Rawls makes both claims: he opens A Theory of Justice with the assumption that society is necessary, and goes on to describe conditions inside society which he claims are 'just'. Although Rawls treats the 'necessity of society' as a premise, it functions as part of a normative contractarian theory. Without the premise of a single secession-free 'society' - which is unproven and historically inaccurate - the rest of Rawls' book becomes irrelevant or hypothetical. All humans do not need to live in a single global society, and humans survived for thousands of years without one. Like all humans, I need to socially co-operate to survive - but not with any specific individual or group, and certainly not with those who harm and oppress me. This kind of 'pluralism' - that oppressed and oppressor live together - is simply unnecessary. Theories that try to facilitate it anyway, should be treated with suspicion. Make no mistake: Rawls is saying that there should be general social cooperation: his 'premise' is a demand. It is a demand to accept injustice, for the unity of society. Implicitly, like all social contract theorists, he forbids secession.

Social contract theory is not the primary anti-secessionist reasoning in the modern world. It is far less important than nationalism, which promotes the ideals of national unity and territorial integrity. It is also less important than democratic theory, which effectively prohibits the break-up of a legitimate 'demos'. Political theory has many ways to keep the oppressed in the hands of the oppressor, and the victim in the hands of the unjust. Nevertheless, as a de facto legitimation of the nation state, social contract theory should also be rejected.

Political liberalism: Rawls' political goals

Rawls long-term political goals were stated in The idea of an overlapping consensus, published in 1987 (Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, VII, 1, pp. 1-25). That article is approximately the start of his later work on political liberalism. Rawls restated the goals explicitly in 1993, in the book Political Liberalism. (New York: Columbia University Press).

In The idea of an overlapping consensus, Rawls sets out the long-term aims of the liberal-democratic society which he supports. He opens the article by emphasising that he is only writing about these liberal societies, and not about others:

The aims of political philosophy depend on the society it addresses.

If he was serious about that, then as a political philosopher he would also write justifications of Stalinist regimes, or Islamist caliphates. But of course he did not. He wrote in defence of liberal systems only, and his work is used in defence of liberal systems only. So far as other non-liberal societies are concerned, he writes against them. (When later, in the 1990's, he addressed the question of cultural relativism, he choose to support 'human-rights' interventionism by western liberal states).

Rawls has a specific view of what liberalism is for: essentially, long-term stability. His work is explicitly intended to provide a basis for transgenerational stability, a goal which he restates several times. At no time does Rawls consider whether transgenerational stability is a desirable goal: apparently he finds that self-evident.

...the problem of stability has played very little role in the history of moral philosophy....the problem of stability is fundamental to political philosophy...
Political Liberalism, Introduction, p. xvii

I also think the problem of stability is central: political philosophy should be about how to overcome stability. That is a value orientation opposite to that of John Rawls, but you will find no trace of it in Rawls' work. He writes as if no-one could think such a thing. Rawls also has a clear picture of what he wants to avoid: civil strife. Again he gives no justification for making the avoidance of civil strife a primary social goal. He simply assumes it to be self-evidently necessary that societies are like this.

In other words, Rawls is presenting what he often claims to avoid: a comprehensive quasi-religious doctrine. It is politically a conservative doctrine. It has two underlying principles: that stability is good in itself, and that society should be structured to avoid civil strife, and promote stability. Ultimately, Rawls says, it may be necessary to enforce such a doctrine - which he himself does not see as a 'doctrine'. His examples are from religious belief, but they could apply to any political or social ideal...

This happens whenever someone insists, for example, that certain questions are so fundamental that to ensure their being rightly settled justifies civil strife.
The idea of an overlapping consensus, p. 14

I do insist that. Class inequality in death rates is an issue so important, that it justifies civil strife. That 14 million people die each year of treatable diseases, while western countries can afford to treat them many times over - that justifies civil strife. So do many other issues. And I am not the only person who thinks like this. Of course John Rawls disagrees, and so do many liberals. Historically, liberalism emerged in reaction to the wars of religion in early-modern Europe, as Rawls correctly comments:

Thus, the historical origin of political liberalism (and of liberalism more generally) is the Reformation and its aftermath, with the long controversies over religious toleration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Political Liberalism, Introduction, pp. xiv-xxiv

The European wars of religion are the liberal dystopia. Not just Rawls, but the liberal tradition in general, wishes to structure society, so as to avoid civil strife. But that is a political preference of liberals, not a self-evident truth.

From a political philosopher who is writing justifications, I expect some justification of his value system. Why is civil strife wrong? Rawls implies that civil strife is the greatest evil for a society. Are there no greater evils? Is inequality not a greater evil than civil strife? Is avoidable mass death not a greater evil than civil strife? Rawls says explicitly that some persons must be prevented from starting civil strife to settle fundamental questions. Is that wrong? Why is it wrong?

Rawls does not even consider the questions: he gives the impression that they never entered his head. In fact his work gives the impression of a born conservative, mindlessly dedicated to stability and public order. Although Rawls repeatedly implies that 'civil strife' refers to the European wars of religion, it also of course includes revolutions, including future revolutions. It is a typical Rawlsian trick: to win sympathy for his conservative distaste of revolutions, for his anti-revolutionary liberalism, he disguises it as opposition to ancient religious fanaticism.

It is a standard line of liberal propaganda. A typical liberal thinks that the starving poor of Africa should be prevented from looting Bill Gates mansion - that would infringe property rights. However, it makes bad propaganda to shout: "Support Bill Gates, let the Africans starve!" So instead they say something like: "Let us join together in condemning all forms of fanatical social action, as exemplified by religious zealotry." It sounds so much more reasonable, and that is how to make propaganda. The Inquisition is an easy target, but it distracts people from the political reality: that liberalism is more about bashing the poor, than about bashing the Inquisition. If the poor bash back, that is 'fanaticism'. The 'civil strife' that Rawls fears, is probably more like the Bolshevik revolution, than a repeat of the Protestant-Catholic wars of religion.

The task of political philosophy

What is political philosophy for? An indication of the answer is given by some historical issues, which are usually ignored by historians and philosophers.

There has been a great increase in the productivity of machines and equipment since the Second World War. Not just computers - computing power and memory increase tenfold every few years - but in most production technologies. However Gross National Product in western countries did not increase so fast: it doubled or tripled since the 1930's. Why can western economies, despite the spectacular advances in technology, achieve no more than 2% average growth each year? And why is it so difficult to implement any large-scale technical innovation? In the 1970's, a comprehensive plan for a European network of high-speed rail lines was approved. It should have been completed in 30 years. It was not, and they are still talking about new versions of the plan. The time-scale for completion is still 30 years, but that now means 2030, and there is no reason to expect completion then either. There are other historical examples of extremely long lead times: the idea of a 'picture telegraph' was well known by 1900, but mass television first arrived in the 1950's. The general fate of proposals for innovation is at best delay, and often abandonment.

There is evidently something in human society which is resistant to change, and it is probably the humans themselves. There are good biological grounds to conclude that. Change causes stress, and there are evolutionary avoidance reactions to change. The phenomenon is known as homeostasis, specifically, behavioural homeostasis: the organism tries to maintain itself in a constant relationship to its environment. In higher animals by deliberate behaviour: when the grass around them is eaten, grazing animals move on. If there is a drought, then they will 'automatically' move to wetter areas with more food. If this is not possible, the animal is not only hungry, it is stressed - and this can directly worsen its health. Humans adapt their own environment to maintain stability: when this fails, and they too are under threat or insecurity, they suffer stress. That is not sociobiological speculation: it is a fact backed by medical research and experience. Extreme changes can cause shock, and be directly fatal.

The biological reality is, that humans are genetically programmed to avoid innovation. Political theory should concern itself with overcoming this biological reality. For John Rawls the central issue of political philosophy is: "How can we maintain stable society in the face of reasonable pluralism?". For me it is: "How can there be change in the face of innate human conservatism?" Political philosophy is in this sense an inhuman, anti-human, or at least anti-humanist, exercise.

Innovation, when it affects individuals, is by definition an interference with their lives. It is a negation of the negative liberty so valued by liberals, especially if the state is the innovator, against the will of the people. The introduction of the Euro in Britain - where the majority is deeply suspicious of the new currency - would be a classic example of state-driven innovation, and deeply offensive to liberals. It would be an interference with their 'traditional and much-loved' currency. (In reality, the currency was imposed on Britain by force, when the Anglo-Norman kingdom of southern England conquered the rest of the island). The point is, that innovation in itself is often abhorrent to liberals.

Liberalism and innovation are usually enemies, intrinsically and inherently, but this issue is rarely even considered in assessments of liberal thought. Innovation makes unfree, in the liberal sense. It destroys the freedom of humans to live in a stable and unchanging world - which is what they innately need. When the state innovates, the state itself is inhuman. However, 'inhuman' is not necessarily a synonym for 'evil', as you would think from the general use of the word. Trees are not human, therefore they are by definition 'inhuman', but that does not make trees evil - although some radical neo-humanists might think so. These are issues which political philosophy should address: whether innovation is in fact evil, the ethics of imposed innovation, the supposed ethical primacy of humans over innovation, the claimed equivalence of 'human' and 'good', and the contra-innovative nature of much political philosophy itself.

The issues are especially relevant for liberal philosophy. Liberals often start from the premise of the innate goodness of human beings. They contrast their attitude to the mediaeval Church - which regarded humans as potential evil-doers, and justified its own power in this way. However, the inherent conservatism of human beings is not in dispute: it is a biological fact, and historically evidenced. Innovation requires social structures which take a negative view of this human nature - unpleasant but true. Liberals would see this as a return to a powerful paternalistic institution, such as the mediaeval Church in Europe - so they would resist such social structures. In their curious logic, social innovation can be presented as a return to the Middle Ages. To analyse and understand this type of belief seems a useful task for political philosophy.

Rawls describes the historical process which he wants to bring about. It is the continuation of the historical success of liberalism: the acceptance of liberal social values did apparently end the wars of religion in Europe. The principle of religious tolerance became generally accepted. But not before liberal revolutionaries had carried out substantial atrocities against the clergy - a history which Rawls ignores. There was no peaceful evolution to liberal religious tolerance: often the power of the Church was broken by force. The Inquisition did not disappear as a result of increasing tolerance: remember the end of The Pit and the Pendulum. Napoleon abolished it by decree.

So the historical analogy, an evolution to liberalism, is false - although that does not mean such an evolution is impossible in the future. Rawls suggests that acceptance of the liberal conception of justice might evolve, from acquiescence in a 'modus vivendi', to a genuine overlapping consensus. However, that logically requires the abandonment of the ideals mentioned above, the ones people are prepared to kill for, or at least those which conflict with the overlapping consensus itself. Rawls is suggesting a long-term process of abandonment of ideals. Ideals in the political sense, public ideals: the liberal system would allow them to be retained as private belief. Their status would be like, for instance, Roman Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary. Although some Catholics still seek to legally enforce their beliefs, especially on abortion, devotion to the Virgin Mary has become a purely private affair. Not even the most fundamentalist Catholics suggest that the State should erect public statues of the Virgin Mary - and compel citizens to kneel and recite the Ave Maria. In other words, Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary fits the liberal ideal of purely private religion: liberals will be satisfied with this development.

Now what would happen, if all ideals acquired that status? Take for instance the ideal of equality. What would happen, if no person in a society seriously believed in any enforcement of any kind of equality - not by the state, not by social pressures, not by education? In such a society, how would inequality then be challenged? The logical answer is, it would not be challenged, and the society would probably be characterised by great inequality.

Rawls implicitly divides ideals into two categories: those which lead to civil strife, and those which do not. But ideals which are fundamentally rejected by the power-holders in a society are (almost by definition) potential sources of civil strife. In other words, Rawls is suggesting that a large number of ideals - including many proposals for reform and innovation - should be abandoned. He has inverted the idea of historical progress: for Rawls, progress is the successive abandonment of all controversial proposals and ideals, not their implementation. The end result is a society in which there are no radicals, no innovators, no-one who can think of anything which might generate civil strife. This is the nature of the "freedom" which he proposes...

To see reasonable pluralism as a disaster is to see the exercise of reason under the conditions of freedom itself as a disaster. Indeed the success of liberal constitutionalism came as a discovery of a new social possibility: the possibility of a reasonably harmonious and stable pluralist society.
Political Liberalism, Introduction, pp. xxiv-xxv.

Again the history is false: the new society was not 'discovered', but imposed by liberal revolutionaries. Worse, it was imposed in the form of the nation state. Rawls claims that...

...the Reformation in the sixteenth century....fragmented the religious unity of the Middle Ages and led to religious pluralism, with all its consequences for later centuries. This in turn fostered pluralisms of other kinds, which were a permanent feature of culture by the end of the eighteenth century.
Political Liberalism, Introduction, p. xxii.

This is selective history, at best. Apart from the Ottoman Empire, Europe remained an overwhelmingly Christian continent during the early modern period. The so-called pluralism was only evident to Christians: to the Islamic world Europe would still have looked like a cultural monolith. (If theological disputes are an indicator of pluralism, then present-day Saudi Arabia is an intensely pluralist society). So, Europe did not become as pluralist as Rawls suggests: organised political pluralism was only a fact in the 19th century. However, the 19th-century nationalist movements promoted a contra-pluralist ideal of social, cultural, literary, emotional and political unity within each state. And they won: the nation state became the dominant form of state in Europe. This is the historical reality: not evolution to pluralism, but the enforcement of the liberal nation state - usually at gunpoint. In turn, these liberal nation states have become uniform market democracies, and market democracies - so it seems - become uniformly neoliberal market societies. All market, totally market, and nothing but the market: the fervour of liberals and neoliberals has apparently resurrected mediaeval religious unity.

Rawls' claim, that present liberal societies are free societies, is simply propaganda. Liberals secure the 'freedom' to live in a stable and harmonious society, by the suppression of threats to harmony and stability - not by the free exercise of reason. Rawls switches between two connotations of 'reasonable' - a rhetorical trick. The "free exercise of reason" sounds like a noble ideal, but Rawls' reasonable pluralism exists by suppressing 'unreasonable' ideas. His so-called pluralism is reasonable in the narrow political sense of 'moderate', 'non-extremist', in the sense of accepting liberal market society. This sense of 'reasonable' means, for instance, the Islamic clerics who come to pray at the White House - not the ones who want to crash planes on it. For Rawls, 'reasonable' means 'right-of-centre', and his sense of freedom is the freedom to be right-wing. He probably thought like this all his life: I doubt if he was culturally capable of understanding, that other people might have totally different ideas of freedom.

Total freedom for the exercise of reason would mean, that extremists could rent an office next to the White House, to hold seminars on how to bomb it. To plan violence is also an exercise of human reason (and in the White House itself they also plan bombing campaigns). Of course Rawls, and other liberals, intend no such general freedom. The precondition for his 'conditions of freedom' is the abandonment of the 'unreasonable' as he defines it. Specifically, any rejection of the overlapping consensus itself, in Rawls scheme, would be an 'attack on the system'. Logically, he is suggesting that it too, should be abandoned.

So what is, for Rawls, the ultimate goal of his political system? That it goes through the spectrum of political ideals like the Grim Reaper - eliminating all those which threaten instability or civil strife, or which conflict with the core liberal belief itself.

Political liberalism also supposes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime. Of course, a society may also contain unreasonable and irrational, and even mad, comprehensive doctrines. In their case the problem is to contain them so that they do not undermine the unity and justice of society.
Political Liberalism, Introduction, p. xvi-xvii

Rawls claims that the the overlapping consensus is minimal, and allows for differing beliefs. But he insists that they be 'reasonable' and insists that the non-reasonable doctrines disappear. In the long term, this 'cull of ideals', would lead to a conformist society, where consensus itself was one of the highest values.

Worse, the society might go to war to enforce this conformity on others. Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation deterred the United States from attempting to impose its values on the rest of the world. Since then things have changed. The idea, that the liberal democracies should conduct a global war of conquest, is now implicit in much of their foreign and military policy. Certainly the United States is now prepared for a crusade against 'extremists' in any part of the globe - an extremist policy in itself. In line with geopolitics, liberal thought is returning to a crusading and revolutionary phase. That is clearly present in the later work of John Rawls - still the American soldier at heart.

A future global order of conformist liberal societies would accord with the general pattern of liberal anti-utopianism, anti-perfectionism and anti-idealism. But all of these are conservative ideals in themselves. Liberalism is essentially a conservative toolbox, and liberal philosophers are the designers of stability. But again, it is not a self-evident truth that things should be like this. Rawls gives no other reason why there should be such a cull of ideals, other than stability and strife-avoidance. The goal of stability itself is never justified in Rawls' work. Like most conservatives, he never explains why things should stay as they are.

If you are a fundamental conservative - if you resent social innovation because it is innovation - then Rawlsian political liberalism is a political option for you. If it works according to plan, then it probably will limit innovation and preserve existing social structures. That is certainly what Rawls wanted it to do. But that does not make it right. For non-conservatives, it makes it wrong.

Change as a comprehensive doctrine

The inherent conservatism of Rawlsian liberalism is also evident from its rejection of innovation as a comprehensive doctrine. Innovation as such is not a doctrine, but if I say "There should be innovation", then I am stating a doctrine in that sense. I do say that: I propose and advocate innovation. My 'doctrine' is comprehensive: it affects all aspects of human life. It is also prohibited by John Rawls, who admits comprehensive doctrines only if they are "reasonable" and do not reject "the essentials of a democratic regime". Rawls wants all comprehensive doctrines to fit the overlapping consensus, or disappear: but the point of comprehensive innovation is to replace existing consensus, and all it supports. The Rawlsian structures can not be anything but deeply conservative.

Liberalism is an aspect of conservatism, which is more complex that generally admitted. It includes some incompatible political beliefs under the general term: there are also several different conservative strategies.

Conservative strategies

Syncretism usually has a religious form. That is especially true of pan-syncretism - the hope or desire for ultimate fusion of all entities, perhaps in the belief that this fusion is God. Syncretists believe that any fusion of entities has, in itself, a superior character. In this logic, fusion of existing entities is to be preferred to new separate entities. Syncretism is a widespread cultural phenomenon, but there are specific political uses. A political text which promotes anything prefixed by 'trans' or 'inter' is almost certainly syncretic. It is syncretic conservatism, when that 'trans' or 'inter' excludes innovation. Inter-culturalism, for instance, refers to cultures which already exist. Mixing them will produce new cultural fusions, but not a new separate culture. If that is the explicit preference and intention, then it is a case of syncretic conservatism.

Accretive conservatism is characterised by hostility to abolition: it is common in liberal-democratic societies. A good example comes from the atheist campaign in Albania under Hoxha: Dürres was proclaimed the first fully atheist city, after all religious activities there were suppressed. To most European liberal-democrats this is an example of tyranny, even if they are themselves atheists. They would rather see religion continue for a thousand years, than suppress it officially. But if nothing may be terminated, then everything will continue.The general principle of accretive conservative strategies is that nothing may be abolished: only that which does not damage or contradict the existing may be added. This is such a restriction on innovation, that it is justifiable to describe it as a conservatism.

Accretive conservatism is often associated with historicism, and linear visions of history. In a strict accretive version, history is a series of things added, but never subtracted: first A, then A+B, then A+B+C, but never A+C-B. This vision of history underlies the 'clock argument' against innovative abolitions, for instance, "It would be wrong to abolish the free market in Russia, because that would be a return to the Communist past" or "It is wrong to oppose liberalism, because then you would return to mediaeval society and the power of the Church". In the Russian case the clock argument is inconsistent, since the re-introduction of the free market was itself a return to the pre-1917 economy. But nevertheless, it is possible to argue against any social innovation in this way, since the present society did not exist for ever. There was indeed a 'time before it', and conservatives can claim that any reform or change is a 'return' to that past. Ultimately, this is a permanence ethic, and it can best be rejected on the grounds that there is no general moral obligation, to grant permanence to any entity. Historical accretion closes off future possibilities. Just as future events may be conditional on the presence of some event or entity, future events can also be conditional on their absence or abolition.

Variative conservatism is the insistence that only variants of the existing world are acceptable (morally, politically and socially). There is a good metaphor in architectural history: in Europe, tens of thousands of churches have been built in the last 18 centuries, almost all with a unique design. Yet all of them were, and are, churches - with liturgical requirements which limit the range of architectural possibilities. There is a theoretical multi-dimensional graph, which includes all possible variants of churches: it is very large, and internally diverse, and architects could 'expand into' this multi-dimensional space for many centuries more, creating many new styles and types of churches. Yet all their new churches will still be churches: even quasi-infinite diversity does not guarantee innovation.

Conservatism includes what might be called 'permanentism' - an ethic which values duration and permanence, solidity and security. That does not necessarily come from the past: an interesting example is the design of disposal facilities for nuclear waste, which must last for tens of thousands of years, longer than anything previously constructed by humans. Usually however, there is a value preference for ancient survivals: neo-classicism in architecture is a well-known cultural example.

Conservatism includes traditionalism, perhaps the easiest form to understand. Traditionalism relies on a value preference for the past, and the continuation of the past. Radical traditionalism is possible, even restorationist revolutions. (The original meaning of the word 'revolution' was that the wheel turned full circle, and society returned to a form that had existed in the past). On the other hand, the typical 'conservatism' in western politics is perhaps best described as 'continuationism' - the belief that the existing society should continue, more or less as it is. There is a strong element of self-satisfaction, risk avoidance, and complacency in this mainstream conservatism: it is strongly anti-revolutionary, and has no radical form.

None of these, however, are the pure and essential form of conservatism - an inappropriate name anyway. The central goal is the prevention of innovation: a more accurate term is 'anti-innovationism'. The anti-innovationists seek a society free of innovation, or which at least effectively suppresses innovation - a utopian project in itself. That can never be a traditionalist society, especially not a restored past society, since they obviously failed to withstand change. It can not be a continuation of the present societies either, since they are also failures in this respect. This conservatism paradoxically exists only in a radical and revolutionary form, since it seeks to create a society, which is different from any previously existing human society. That description suggests Heidegger or Hans Jonas or Arne Naess, but perhaps John Rawls is a better example.

Liberalism is a revolutionary anti-innovationist movement. It is revolutionary in historical perspective - the 'revolution' has lasted several hundred years, but nevertheless it has been global. A completely new form of society has been created, with the implicit (and often explicit) aim of freeing the planet from fanatics revolutionists, and zealots, and making it safe for stability. And so far, the liberals won, and they are on the road to control of the planet: is that not a revolutionary development in human history? Rawlsian liberalism would be, and is intended as, a further refinement of this revolutionary anti-innovationist ideology.