by Jeremy Young | 6/12/2009 09:01:00 PM
If you want to understand President Obama's soul, read his books. But if you want to understand his beliefs, read John Rawls. The Harvard academic, who died in 2002, was the most important philosopher of liberalism in the twentieth century, mostly because, in so many ways, Rawls' ideas describe the world we live in. That has never been more true than today, when our President has, consciously or unconsciously, exalted Rawlsian ideas to the position of the greatest possible good.

Care to hear more about this explanatory model that is so central to Obama's thought, whether he acknowledges the influence or not? Read on.

* * * * * * * * *

The big question that confronted liberal theorists in Rawls' heyday was the problem of pluralism. The old liberal theories -- those by Locke, Kant, J.S. Mill, and others -- were based on the idea that one set of values was "right" and others were "wrong." For Locke, an atheist or someone who didn't believe in the afterlife couldn't be trusted to hold to the social contract (because they wouldn't be afraid of divine retribution), so such people were cut out of his philosophy. Mill was okay with nonbelievers but considered non-Western peoples to be "barbarians" who had to be educated in rationality before they could enjoy the fruits of liberalism. In the modern, post-colonial world, such assumptions simply didn't hold water. So could liberalism be made to encompass the immense variety of peoples and beliefs in the world -- without either losing its punch or discriminating against vast numbers of people?

Rawls' first attempt to solve this problem, A Theory of Justice (1971), was fairly well-received. Rawls imagined a bunch of reasonable people deciding to form a society from scratch -- what he called the "original position". Given that these reasonable people disagreed on many things, what kind of society would they make that could accommodate all of them? Rawls thought they would agree on two principles. The first principle was that all of them would have as much freedom as they possibly could without infringing on the freedom of others. This wasn't a new idea; in fact, it came straight from Mill's writings a century earlier. The second principle was more interesting. Rawls said that there would be equality of opportunity with regard to positions of power. He also said that inequalities, which were necessary in a non-Marxist society, would "be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society." This last bit became known as the "difference principle." What Rawls was getting at, put simply, was that if someone was going to get a leg up from the system, it should be the least fortunate, not the most. A perfect example of this idea is affirmative action: since we can't make hiring and college admissions completely fair, they should be biased toward those who need them most.

A Theory of Justice was a good system, and it took into account a lot of the problems with earlier liberal theories. But soon critics, most prominently Michael Sandel, began to pick it apart. Rawls, they said, hadn't solved the problem of pluralism because he hadn't offered a theory that could supersede all other possible theories. Some people in the original position might choose Rawls' system, but other people would make other, equally valid systems. What made Rawls' ideas any better than anyone else's?

Rawls was stung by these criticisms, and he significantly reformulated his theory. The result was Political Liberalism (1993), a much more innovative and significant philosophy.

Rawls began Political Liberalism by acknowledging that his earlier theory was only one of many competing philosophies -- what he called "comprehensive doctrines" -- held by participants in liberal governments across the world. However, he noted that most liberals, whatever comprehensive doctrine they held, wanted at least some of the same things other liberals wanted. For instance, President Bush and President Obama (both "liberals" under the political theory definition) have strikingly different views on American politics, but they both supported the federal bailouts and stimulus packages. Bush's comprehensive doctrine is pro-business, and Obama's is pro-big government, but it didn't matter that they had different reasons for supporting the same legislation -- the bills got passed anyway, and both presidents were happy about it.

According to Rawls, a large majority of people with different views are able to form what he called an "overlapping consensus" -- a core set of policies and governing principles that are contained within all their comprehensive doctrines. So long as those people are "reasonable" -- that is, so long as they are rational and willing to work with other reasonable people -- there's no need for them to share the same comprehensive doctrine or agree on fundamental principles. They can govern just fine without any such philosophical agreement, just by passing laws that all or most of them can agree on for their own different reasons.

This is, of course, exactly how our government works: a bunch of people who disagree on ideas come together and agree on policies. But Rawls was the first to elevate this practical political solution to the level of a philosophy. Rawls' great insight was that our political system works precisely because of, not in spite of, the fact that we lack universal philosophical standards of right and wrong. The reason all previous liberal theories had run afoul of pluralism was that they had divided the world into right (those who agreed with the theory) and wrong (those who disagreed with it). Rawls replaced this dichotomy with another one: he divided the world into the reasonable (those who were willing to work within the overlapping consensus) and the unreasonable (those who weren't). Rawls' overlapping consensus was much more inclusive than previous theories, since only people with extreme positions would be unwilling to work with others in the overlapping consensus -- and it also meant that people could only be excluded from the consensus by choice, not for any other reason (deep-seated religious belief for Locke, incorrect beliefs for Kant, ethnic/racial/national origin for Mill). Anyone was welcome within the overlapping consensus unless they voluntarily absented themselves from it. And anyone who worked within the overlapping consensus had a voice in shaping what that consensus turned out to be.

* * * * * * * * *

I've given Rawls a lot of credit here, because I think Political Liberalism is one of the most innovative ideas ever formulated. But I also believe the Rawlsian system is fatally flawed. To understand why, we need to look at what it means to be "unreasonable" in a Rawlsian sense.

By definition, an unreasonable person is someone who's unwilling to work within the overlapping consensus. There are several reasons a person might choose not to work within this consensus. S/he may want to overthrow the system entirely, as Marx did from the left or Turner Diaries author William Pierce did from the right. S/he may object to some of the people working within the system and feel that she shouldn't have to work with such individuals. Or s/he may feel that the overlapping consensus is incapable of solving important problems within society. Let's take each of these cases separately to see the problems they pose for the Rawlsian model.

People who want to overthrow the system, like Marx and Pierce, are generally pretty extreme. And there aren't many people who are going to cry over the exclusion of either of these guys from the halls of power. But the problem with Rawls' theory is that it excludes them without providing any logical or moral reason for doing so. Rather, they are excluded precisely because their view differs from the mainstream (the overlapping consensus). Rawls' innovation was to eliminate the concept of a "wrong" political view, but in doing so he removed the justifications previous liberal theories had devised for excluding extremists from power. It's one thing to be told your opinions don't matter because they're morally and logically wrong; it's another to be told they don't matter because, regardless of their merits, most people think they're extreme. The latter option is familiar as mob rule, as the law of the street -- but no liberal philosophy has ever viewed this as a good thing, until Rawls.

Looking at the second case, we can quickly see that populism is not permitted in the Rawlsian world. "Throw the bums out," as Ross Perot put it, is a distinctly un-Rawlsian sentiment. You can't throw the bums out, because the bums want to be there and are willing to work with you. The only way to get rid of political figures you don't like -- not just to remove them from office, but to prevent them from exercising substantive political influence -- is to wait for them to retire. Rawls' overlapping consensus is so welcoming, so all-encompassing, that it denies the voting public the right to choose who influences their government. This is particularly problematic when it comes to powerful corporations and special interests. Corporate fat cats always want influence and are willing to work with anyone in power, so they can't be removed from a Rawlsian government, even though they usually don't represent the best interests of the people. Sure, you can vote the party in power out of office, but the corporations will just cosy up to the new party in power, and nothing will change. There's something profoundly undemocratic about a system where the people have to play Whack-A-Mole with nefarious characters who refuse to stay out of power no matter how many times they're sent packing.

As troubling as these cases are, it's the third case that poses the most problems. By doing away with the concepts of right and wrong, Rawls has ensured that the de facto "right" is what most people in power think at any one time. A government based on overlapping consensus operates within the Overton window -- the range of generally acceptable alternatives on any given issue. The problem isn't just that alternatives outside the Overton window are automatically devalued; it's that for some issues the objective truth lies outside the Overton window. Global warming is an excellent example. Most reasonable people (by the Rawlsian definition) agree that the range of possible alternatives ranges from no action (the Bush administration's choice) to the 5-7% carbon emissions reductions proposed by the Kyoto Protocol (at least theoretically Obama's choice). But the science clearly shows that only a 50% or greater reduction can stave off environmental holocaust. In the Rawlsian bizarro-world, the science is wrong because it disagrees with the overlapping consensus. Rawls gives us no way to move beyond the practical in order to achieve the necessary.

* * * * * * * * *

Sadly, we live in that Rawlsian bizarro-world. There have been plenty of presidents in our history who have elevated the overlapping consensus to a high art through the ideas of "bipartisanship" and "getting things done" -- think of Bill Clinton's "triangulation" or Eisenhower's inveterate moderacy. But few (perhaps only John F. Kennedy) have venerated the overlapping consensus as itself the supreme good of the nation in the way Barack Obama does. Few have failed to spend political capital on expansive policies, not because they feared losing reelection, but because they believed doing so would be breaking a sacred trust -- but Obama is one of those few.

Read his books and you'll see that, despite the fact that Obama holds strikingly liberal views on a variety of issues, his anger at the Bush administration is directed not at its policies, but at its politics. For Obama, Bush's supreme betrayal was in breaking the Rawlsian consensus. Bush's extreme partisanship, his utter disregard of the Democratic members of his government, turned Americans against each other and polarized the electorate. For Obama, that was Bush's greatest crime -- because to the President, we are a nation of consensus before we are a nation of laws or dreams or anything else.

It's the only interpretation that explains Obama's baffling and infuriating rejection of progressives and his embrace of the moderate wing of the Republican party. It's the only interpretation that explains his choice to elevate people like Judd Gregg, Ray LaHood, and John McHugh, who committed the unforgivable sin of voting to impeach a President because they didn't like him, to high posts in his administration. It's the only interpretation that explains his active support of Republican Arlen Specter against Democrat Joe Sestak. It's the only interpretation that explains his unwillingness to proceed in passing legislation without Republican support, or to pressure his party's Majority Leader to eliminate the Senate's pernicious filibuster rule and strip Republicans of their last vestiges of power. Obama does these things not because Mr. 68% in the polls needs the additional support, but because he truly believes that Republicans within the overlapping consensus are more important than Democrats outside it. The consensus, for Obama, is more important than the outcome.

John Rawls was a great thinker, and Barack Obama is a great man. But by excluding the unreasonable from meaningful political participation, they have ensured that only mediocrity can emerge from the political system they both venerate. And in these troubling times, mediocrity just isn't good enough. So I'm proud to declare myself a member of the unreasonable. It's the only place where great change happens, where democracy succeeds fully, and where populism reigns. In the Rawlsian world, where the practical defines the realm of possibility, the necessary simply cannot triumph.



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Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/12/2009 11:49 PM:

Cross-posted at the following places:

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/13/2009 10:35 AM:

I admit that I haven't read Rawls, because I've never read a discussion of him that went beyond the "veil of ignorance" issue and sounded worthwhile, but if your summary is fair, then Political Liberalism may well be one of the dumbest books ever written.

I'm not convinced, though, that Obama is behaving in an orthodox Rawlsian way (and if he is, your description of him as "a great man" is deeply questionable) because it assumes that he might have acted differently, but he campaigned as a moderate Democrat (we talked about how Obama and Clinton were more or less indistinguishable on policy matters) and is, in the absence of a strongly organized progressive pressure from below, governing like one.


Blogger mark on 6/13/2009 11:03 AM:

"For Locke, an atheist or someone who didn't believe in the afterlife couldn't be trusted to hold to the social contract (because they wouldn't be afraid of divine retribution), so such people were cut out of his philosophy."

Are we sure about that? Not that Locke did not write something of that nature, but Locke lived in an era when religious tests of various kind were imposed by the Crown and the Church of England and had real penalties on Catholics and dissenting Protestants, never mind atheists. It was common for intellectuals in this period to innoculate themselves from charges of heresy or other violations by tacking on some statement of orthodoxy to largely subversive writings. Isaac Newton, for example, was a Professor of the Holy Trinity yet privately held anti-Trinitarian beliefs and experimented with alchemy, but held his sinecure after signing some paper attesting to being a good Christian or some such empty declaration.

I've never read a bio of Locke, maybe somebody can shed some light on his personal religious convictions


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/13/2009 3:16 PM:

Ahist, my question is why Obama campaigned and is governing like a moderate Democrat when his books clearly show that his personal views are liberal. I think Rawlsian theory explains it, though I disagree with you that it's dumb -- I just think it's wrong.

Mark, I think Locke was pretty out of step with Enlightenment thinkers on this one, in a way he didn't need to be. For instance, James Madison, who was personally religious, was disgusted with Locke for precisely this reason -- he felt the exclusion of atheists was an idiotic and tradition-bound move.


Blogger nickname on 6/13/2009 6:30 PM:

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/14/2009 3:48 AM:

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/14/2009 9:50 AM:

I'm surprised that so many people whom I assume are intellectually inclined, would react so emotionally to a simple question.

Then you need to read more. In my experience, and in the experience of Orac who's been dealing with these issues longer and in more detail, the kind of "basic questions" you raise are only raised by people who are trying to prove that the Holocaust as we understand it did not happen, and the only people who do that seriously are people who are hostile to Jews as a race.

Or, as Orac put it once, the only people who seriously argue that the Holocaust didn't happen are the ones who believe that it should happen again.

You think we're being emotional about this? You're lucky you picked such a civil and fairly small forum.

If you want a "definitional response" you need to stop messing around with stupid questions that have been answered by hundreds of historians, thousands of books, millions of surviving witnesses and documents and actually ask the questions you want answers to.


Anonymous Ralph Brauer on 6/14/2009 12:29 PM:

May it please the court. My family are political refugees from the Nazis, my grandfather being a prominent German leader who called Hitler "mad." My uncle was Jewish and lost his entire family at Dachau.I recently returned from a trip to the National Archives where I was doing research for a contracted book on my grandfather's years in exile. I spent most of that time examining formerly top secret OSS files.

During his exile in this country my grandfather worked closely with Rabbi Stephen Wise to try to get Americans to understand the extent of the Nazi terror. That there are still those who for whatever reason refuse to acknowledge reality is appalling to me.

I have to say I am surprised that someone was allowed to hijack a thread on this blog with such trash. You can say you are anyone you want to be on the net, especially if you sign it anonymous.

Jeremy I see in this a relationship to your recent--and BTW eloquent and right on--postings about anti-Semitism on MLW. PLEASE don't let this blog be highjacked the way MLW has been.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/14/2009 7:28 PM:

Ralph, I don't want to step in on this one because Andrew's the editor and I trust his judgment. But I thought Andrew articulated an excellent policy in the previous thread. Please feel free to e-mail him if you think anything in this thread qualifies for deletion.


Blogger AndrewMc on 6/15/2009 6:26 AM:

I've deleted that comment. Sorry I missed it when it was posted. I was, ironically, just getting back from Washington DC where a few days before I had been on my way to the Holocaust museum when the shooting occurred. Missed it by an hour.

Jeremy, I've deleted your followup where you quoted the poster not because of anything you said, but I didn't want search engines zeroing in on the line you quoted.


Blogger nickname on 6/15/2009 8:57 AM:

You folks are very reluctant to

demonstrate tolerance for those

who merely want to ask a question.

To the self-styled clairvoyents;

you are very, very wrong about

me and my motivation for asking

the question I posed.

If Mr. Young would like to confirm

my bona fides, I'll be happy to

provide him with as much proof

as his heart desires. I have

absolutely nothing to hide.


Blogger AndrewMc on 6/15/2009 9:51 AM:

I'm not sure what your purpose is here, nickname, but if it helps you sleep at night to imagine that I'm intolerant, then by all means, go with it.

I'm not interested in what your bona fides are with regard to banned topics. If Jesus Christ, Muhammed, and Siddhartha Themselves began posting that sort of drivel to this blog, Their posts would be removed.

Pretty simple. Other than that there's a wide range of topics about which you can post to your heart's content. We welcome your views on all of them.


Anonymous Anonymous on 6/15/2009 10:00 AM:

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man." GB Shaw in "Man and Superman"


Anonymous Ralph Brauer on 6/16/2009 12:25 AM:

Just do an IP ID and that should solve your problem.

What started out as an intersting thread has been hijacked ala MLW.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/16/2009 11:57 AM:

Ahist, my question is why Obama campaigned and is governing like a moderate Democrat when his books clearly show that his personal views are liberal. I think Rawlsian theory explains it, though I disagree with you that it's dumb -- I just think it's wrong.

The null hypothesis in this case shouldn't be that Obama would govern from his personal beliefs -- in our recent history only GWBush, perhaps, has actually attempted that -- but that he would follow the age-old practice of "the art of the possible." Presidential bipartisanship in appointments seems to go back a fairly long way; "Running to the middle" in general elections is conventional wisdom; in this particular case, the previous administration left enough landmines -- regulations, personell, rhetoric, issues -- that a strong consensus approach has to be the only way through.

In other words, I'm not convinced that we can tell the difference at this point between a faith in Rawlsian ideals and the use of Rawlsian tactics to achieve non-Rawlsian change.


Blogger mark on 6/16/2009 12:42 PM:

"the only people who seriously argue that the Holocaust didn't happen are the ones who believe that it should happen again."

Very true. Well said Ahistoricality.

Right to free speech is also a right of listeners to reject arguments that are, on their face, purely nonsensical without granting them the standing of a rational argument.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/17/2009 4:11 AM:

I have zero respect for a politician who doesn't seek to govern from his or her personal beliefs. Anything else is inauthentic and cowardly.

I don't think Bush governed from his personal beliefs at all, because I don't think he has any. Jimmy Carter attempted to govern foreign policy based on his personal beliefs, which is why I like and respect him. Among previous presidents, the last ones who did so were probably Woodrow Wilson and maybe Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. I have trouble respecting Coolidge, but like and respect Wilson and Hoover. And of course Grover Cleveland was the master at governing based on personal beliefs. That's why he's one of my favorite presidents.

The art of the possible is code-speak for the art of cowardice.


Blogger nickname on 6/17/2009 8:59 AM:


As a conservative, would you mind

listing the topics which are

forbidden to be discussed here.

I wouldn't want to offend any

liberals, if there are any who

visit this site.



Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/17/2009 10:57 AM:

Anything else is inauthentic and cowardly.

"Authenticity" is one of the great curses of the post-modern age. I'm reminded, actually, of the comments I made on this discussion of pseudonymity.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/17/2009 1:42 PM:

It's not just the post-modern age -- if you read Jackson Lears' books, authenticity was a huge issue in the Progressive Era as well.

I'm doing quite a lot of work with Lears' material these days.


Anonymous afmarch on 6/18/2009 10:01 AM:

Jeremy: are you sure you are not confusing Rawls's views about the basic structure of a just, well-ordered society and the proper moral attitude towards justifying coercive laws with a more ordinary political attitude within a historically situated context?

It is quite obvious to Rawls that is preeminently reasonable to act "unreasonably" in unjust, unreasonable circumstances. Attitudes towards political competition and political adversaries is a matter of prudence and temperament, not necessarily grounded in a theoretical conception of justice.

Also, it is not so clear at all that Marxism is excluded from an overlapping consensus.

Thus, why do you assume that you are one of the "unreasonable" ones excluded by Rawls and Obama?


Blogger Robert Ellman on 6/23/2009 3:11 PM:

"John Rawls was a great thinker, and Barack Obama is a great man. But by excluding the unreasonable from meaningful political participation, they have ensured that only mediocrity can emerge from the political system they both venerate. And in these troubling times, mediocrity just isn't good enough. So I'm proud to declare myself a member of the unreasonable. It's the only place where great change happens, where democracy succeeds fully, and where populism reigns. In the Rawlsian world, where the practical defines the realm of possibility, the necessary simply cannot triumph."

This is a great close to a terrific essay Jeremy. I first read this post on Booman Tribune and I've been pondering it for days. It seems that frequently I'm in the unreasonable camp but then I'll selectively become "reasonable" again.

I'll readily admit that while I admire Obama he's been too reasonable on too many things. And of course so are the Democrats. There most certainly is a place for uncompromising stubborness to push the barriers of progress and shift the center of political gravity.