Obama, John Rawls, and a Defense of the Unreasonable

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Cross-posted from ProgressiveHistorians

 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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  1. Or flames, or what-have-you…

    • ANKOSS on June 13, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    When dishonesty becomes endemic in a society, talk of philosophical and political principles loses relevance. The same lobbyists who were hooked up with Karl Rove are now hooked up with Rahm Emanuel. American politics is now dominated by the cunning manipulation of the electorate and the stealthy bribery of their representatives. Nothing further is required to explain Obama’s policies. The winners in any political policy dispute in America today will be the highest bidders and the most cunning propagandists.

    For example, America’s now permanent war on “terror” has little to do with the bellicose sentiments of the populace and everything to do with a bloated military-industrial complex that needed a new pretext for unlimited “defense” spending after the Cold War ended. There is no natural political constituency for spending more on our military than the rest of the world combined. People have been expertly manipulated into supporting this grossly excessive expenditure by the propaganda of the MIC.

    Similarly, there is no genuine popular resistance to government-sponsored health care in the USA. The resistance comes from the propaganda campaigns of the insurance companies who stand to lose revenue from government involvement in health care, and thus deliberately spread disinformation and negative propaganda to manipulate public opinion.

    The mistake many political analysts make is to dismiss calculated dishonesty as “noise” that has always been present in politics. They fail to recognize that decades of refinement of mass communications propaganda have “weaponized” bad faith discourse and severely damaged American democracy. The arts of deceit are now the primary instruments of political power in our society.

    The emerging global network society and the new political institutions it enables may be able to reverse this profoundly corrupted political system, but America is likely to experience significant decline before the culture of dishonesty is driven out of our political life.

  2. … reality based policies out of this Administration, we have to be dogged about the process of “throwing the bums out” in order to shift the membership of the “overlapping consensus”.

    Indeed, it suggests that the way forward is through building a progressive change coalition that offers a competing overlapping consensus that, while it excludes some of the current participants, includes many now excluded.

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