Sandel: Liberalism and the Limits of Justice

PXL_20240103_204600160~2Welcome to 2024. We start with a light post, on the topic of Michael "Meritocratic" Sandel's early work, indeed his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. The book is misnamed; it should be called "A commentary on Rawl's A Theory of Justice". The introduction claims "This is an essay about liberalism" but this is a lie, too. I have the first edition, from 1982. Sandel got his doctorate from Oxford in 1985, so technically we overlapped. 

I wasn't happy with Rawls (see here and following) finding it a mixture of wrong and incoherent. Sandel doesn't make me any happier, though he does illuminate one key incoherence, for which I'm grateful.

There's some initial discussion about the "Primacy of Justice". What it doesn't discuss, and I was expecting at least a nod in this direction, was whether we can a priori know that some system of justice is going to feature as an organising principle of society. It is hard to see how it couldn't, but that doesn't usually stop people from talking about things. So, we start off assuming that some principles of justice are required, and there's some discussion - which I'll skip - about whether justice is "prior" or not.

Chapter 2 hastens to make the same mistake that Sandel repeats in his Tyranny of Merit. We start by quoting Rawls:
Even if it works to perfection in eliminating the influence of social contingencies, it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents. Within the limits allowed by the background arrangements, distributive shares are decided by the outcome of the natural lottery; and this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective. There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune (73-4).
But this isn't true. There is such a reason, and Sandel knows it full well, since footnote 1 on p 72 is "I leave aside those versions of meritocracy that would allocate distributive share in sake of creating incentives and attracting the relevant talents alone, without referm the moral worthiness of the recipients". Sandel is embarassed by this and follows up on his promise of leaving this aside; but it does make all his discussion, which is based on "desert" or "worth", worthless. But I guess I know now why he did the same, but less honestly, in TToM: having tried this trick early on and found it worked, why not do the same again?

I'm not pretending to a full review, so I don't have much more to say. I should pull out the one item wherein Sandel clarifies Rawls views, which is helpful, but at the cost of making me think much worse of Rawls (the first two paras are quotes from Rawls, with section numbers; the third is Sandel):
The difference principle represents, in effect, an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be (101).

The two principles are equivalent, as I have remarked, to an undertaking to regard the distribution of natural abilities as a collective asset so that the more fortunate are to benefit only in ways that help those who have lost out (179).

Rawls believes the notion of common assets as embodied in the difference principle expresses the ideal of mutual respect deontological liberalism seeks to affirm.
As Gimli put it, The words of this wizard stand on their heads. In the language of Rawls help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain. But Rawls needs this, to justify his idea that things-shall-be-distributed. "You" don't own your talents; you only "own" yourself, and in the magic realism world Rawls inhabits (it isn't quite clear if Sandel lives there too, he seems uneasy) your talents are separable from you and can be regarded as common assets. Talking about that as "mutual respect" is Orwellian; these ideas would be disastrous if implemented. Note also that bastard Rawls doesn't put this stuff up front where it should be. Instead, he talks us through the veil-of-ignorance without mentioning it. I reiterate my previous criticism of Rawls: that he endlessly reworks stuff, and never tells you when he is finished.

One more point: chapter 3 wurbles about the fairness of contract. It isn't enough for him that contracts should be freely entered into on both sides, they must also be "fair". This, too, is a terrible idea, though one increasingly popular in practice in our debased society. Sandel of course has no clear definition of "fair" to give, and so in practice this means unpicking voluntary agreements if you feel like it. Which is part of the awful modern reluctance of people to live with their choices; to always want to find a way to back out, if their choices turn out to have been poor.


the left wins culture war battles because they care more. Conservatives have their families and religion, centrists are mostly apathetic, but, for leftists, winning these battles is their religion (and often their “family”) - i/o.
Unfettered: Fishback 25 Years Later - Bryan Caplan, 1900's labour markets in the USA.

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