Jan Bentz: ‘Neoliberal Social Justice: Rawls Unveiled’, by Nick Cowen

In Neoliberal Justice, Nick Cowen considers the policy implications of Rawls’s theory of ‘justice as fairness’ when realistic assumptions about human behavior and social theory are introduced, arguing in favor of classical liberal or neoliberal democratic policies, albeit without abandoning central aspects of the Rawlsian framework.

Cowen argues in favor of classical liberal or neoliberal democratic policies, which entail constitutional safeguards for commercial activities. He views these policies as commendable, asserting that alternatives like liberal socialism and property-owning democracy would be less effective in achieving justice in practical situations. Embracing this perspective does not require abandoning key aspects of the Rawlsian framework.

Instead, Cowen contends that support for liberal democracy and capitalism arises from a careful extension of Rawls’s principles, taking into account a contemporary understanding of political economy based on recent historical experiences. His approach is prompted by the decisive distinction between civil and economic liberty, as well as Rawls’s ambivalence between private-property and socialist regimes. Cowen claims that this ambivalence is rooted in an unrealistic conceptualization of an economy as a complete ‘system’ and the economic problem being primarily the allocation of scarce resources between alternative ends.

In Rawls’ treatment, an economic system is considered as a single unit. Cowen suggests considering Rawls’s theory alongside an alternative ‘catallactic’ understanding of economic activity, which would more suitably align with the understanding of a political community composed of individual free and equal citizens engaging in an exchange of rights and duties in the form of a social contract, as Rawls envisioned. Thus, Cowen proposes viewing the Rawlsian framework through the lens of robust political economy (RPE). The present book contributes to this perspective by considering significant features of human political and social life, such as imperfect knowledge, bounded rationality, and opportunistic behavior. The book delves into various aspects of distributive justice, constitutional theorizing, and public policy through the lens of Rawlsian Political Economy. It progresses through different levels of analysis: ideal theory, constitutional theorizing, and practical policy-making, all while considering the implications of imperfect knowledge and self-interested behavior within the Rawlsian framework.

In Part I, the author argues for the importance of institutions in ideal theory, defending Rawlsian emphasis on the basic structure as a site of justice. They highlight scenarios where even individuals with extraordinary goodwill can produce detrimental social outcomes, emphasizing the necessity of effective institutions in translating goodwill into cooperation.

Part II explores the epistemic characteristics of institutions necessary for widespread social cooperation. The author contends that certain private-property market institutions are essential due to problems of calculation, discovery, and subjectivity, which non-market alternatives fail to address adequately.

In Part III, the focus shifts to constitutional theorizing, discussing how economic institutions should integrate into a wider political framework. The author proposes a constitutional perspective to evaluate rules necessary for achieving justice as fairness, advocating for commendable constraints on both bureaucratic and democratic interventions in economic activity.

Part IV examines whether economic liberties should be considered basic liberties prioritized in public decision-making, as they contribute to the development of citizens’ essential moral powers. The author argues for the inclusion of economic liberties as preconditions for justice, advocating for their regulation to ensure fair value while maintaining their essential role.

In Part V, the implications of RPE for establishing a Property-Owning Democracy (POD) are outlined, comparing it to Welfare State Capitalism (WSC). The author evaluates the feasibility of a high liberal approach to POD and proposes a robust POD regime aimed at increasing wealth dispersion through alternative mechanisms.

The conclusion emphasizes that the proposals for neoliberal social justice align with Rawls’ conception of justice as fairness, extending rather than critiquing his theory. It acknowledges the need for further theoretical development, particularly regarding global justice and ensuring compliance, while asserting the attractiveness and realism of the novel proposals presented.

The book stands out for its meticulous writing and compelling arguments, offering a comprehensive exploration of Rawlsian economic theory. The author provides a thorough bibliography after each chapter and effectively elucidates the Rawlsian thesis, demonstrating a deep understanding of the subject matter. Throughout the text, the author’s efforts to contribute positively to the Rawlsian economic context and framework are evident, as they engage rigorously with the complexities of distributive justice and institutional design. By synthesizing theoretical insights with practical policy implications, the book not only enriches scholarly discourse but also offers valuable insights for policymakers and practitioners seeking to navigate economic challenges within a Rawlsian framework.

While the author presents a comprehensive argument for his approach to neoliberal social justice based on Rawlsian commitments, several potential shortcomings could be: (1) A limited scope and applicability of Rawlsian theory. The author acknowledges the restricted domain of Rawlsian theory, which primarily applies to an idealized political community under conditions of moderate scarcity and reasonable pluralism. However, by attempting to evaluate real-world regimes through this lens, there’s a risk of overlooking the complexities and nuances of actual social and economic systems. This restricted application might not adequately capture the multifaceted challenges and dynamics present in non-ideal societies, potentially leading to misguided policy recommendations or unrealistic expectations. (2) The assumption of symmetry in knowledge and incentive problems. While the author’s emphasis on analyzing institutions through the lens of Robust Political Economy (RPE) offers valuable insights, the assumption of symmetry in knowledge and incentive problems across political and economic spheres may oversimplify reality. Real-world institutions often face asymmetrical challenges, and the applicability of a uniform framework for evaluating diverse social and economic phenomena may overlook crucial differences. (3) Last but not least, the text shows evidence of a certain idealization of the Rawlsian framework. Despite the author’s attempt to strengthen Rawlsian theory by applying realistic conditions more systematically, the risk of idealizing the framework itself remains. By aligning closely with Rawls’s liberal commitments and assumptions, the author may overlook alternative perspectives and approaches to distributive justice and other types of realistic politics.

While the author’s approach offers valuable insights into the challenges of achieving distributive justice within real-world contexts, it’s important to critically evaluate the scope, assumptions, and applicability of Rawlsian theory to ensure a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of social and economic dynamics. Based on what is said above, the book is recommended particularly for those with a scholarly interest in political economy, questions of justice, and Rawlsian thought. However, for a general audience without such background, caution may be advised, as its complexity and academic content might make it less accessible and gratifying.

 

‘Neoliberal Social Justice: Rawls Unveiled’ by Nick Cowen was published in 2021 by Edward Elgar (ISBN: 9781800374539). 231pp.


Jan C. Bentz is a lecturer and tutor at Blackfriars in Oxford, with interests in how medieval metaphysics shaped modern thought. He also works as a freelance journalist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Godden: “The World Made Otherwise” by Timothy J. Gorringe

The sub-title of The World Made Otherwise is “Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World” and climate change or other environmental issues form the book’s starting point and backdrop. Gorringe sees climate change as creating a burning platform that makes thorough-going political, economic and social change imperative.

His prognosis is dire. He opines that “civilisational collapse is likely” (page 19) and that, together, environmental issues and current socio-political trends “could suggest the ‘new dark ages’ of which MacIntyre spoke nearly 40 years ago” (page 153). He asserts that the resulting problems are primarily moral and political and that “neither technological fixes nor tweaking of the present economic system are sufficient to address them” (page 117). Instead, he thinks that the heart of the problem lies in false values.

Much of Gorringe’s discussion relating to values will be widely applauded: he rejects the post-modern relativism that reduces discussions of values to discussions of psychology or sociology, confusing values with either societal norms or preferences linked to self-realisation; he defends the idea of universal values against those who would deny their existence (including those on the left who suggest that the very idea of human rights is a form of Western cultural imperialism); he also rejects “the claim of the neoliberal market to provide the fundamental standard for everything whatsoever” (page 57) and instead seeks to establish a value system based on the ultimate end or object of human life, which he suggests is, in essence, the creative fulfilment of human potential, “a fulfilment that is both individual and social” (page 85).

His discussion of the problems within the existing political, economic and social order also contains much that will command wide acceptance, albeit not much that is new. In particular, the history of the twentieth century supports the wisdom of his call for “a critical watchfulness” with regards to our political practices and his warning that “all claims for absolute allegiance on the part of the state are idolatrous” (pages 133/134). Likewise, his warning about making an idol of the market will be accepted by all but the most extreme free marketeers and his criticisms of the workings of modern democracies (including the basis on which people cast their vote, the role of the media and lobbying) ring true.

Unfortunately, however, time and again Gorringe gravely overstates his case and, whilst some parts of the book are closely argued, much of what he asserts is not backed up by detailed analysis or engagement with different views. For example, he asserts that “equality must mean equality of outcome” (page 163) on the basis of five lines of argument and he makes no effort to comprehend the practical and moral arguments for the market economy or recognise the different conceptions of justice that underly much current socio-political debate (as to which, see Capitalism and Democracy by Thomas Spragens). Furthermore, the version of the market economy that he attacks is extreme and he fails to acknowledge that one can be in favour of a market economy yet at the same time recognise the need for guiding values outside it. Instead, he makes a number of unsupported ex cathedra assertions that, on occasions, descend into mere left-wing jibes (e.g. his side swipe at “austerity” measures, which he defines as “making sure the bankers do not have to pay for their mistakes”, page 198, and his distinction between “genuine science” and “the spurious corporate-financed variety”, page 290).

The least satisfactory part of the book is its suggestions for change: they are almost totally lacking in specificity and are absurdly Utopian. Gorringe says that he is putting forward what he calls “rights cosmopolitanism”, which he describes as “a vision of a cosmopolitan world of federated states where all people enjoy basic rights and freedoms simply in view of their humanity” (page 147). However, the vision is vague and Gorringe gives no clue as to how it might be realised. He envisages the break-up of current nation states and talks of “a world of small and devolved, but often federated states, where economic and environmental rules would be worked out together and held to be binding by the United Nations and its agencies” (page 152); he suggests that “local economies will have shorter supply chains and keep real wealth within the community” and that they “will not import products they can produce for themselves or export local products until local needs have been met”, citing apparently with approval, Molly Scott Cato’s suggestion that there might be perhaps 20 bioregions forming the basis for a reformed economy with each bioregion having “the task of provisioning its inhabitants” (pages 233/234); and he advocates monetary reform. Yet his political proposals amount to little more than a vague idea relating to the creation of local deliberative assemblies; leaving aside a few specific proposals (e.g. to mutualise utilities and provide a basic citizen’s income), his economic ideas are packed into a bewildering four page section in which he advocates the localisation of economic life; and, apart from discussing a few examples of what are, in essence, local or restricted use currencies, he gives us no clear idea of what monetary reforms he is seeking.

Gorringe defends himself against the charge of being Utopian by suggesting, first, “that nothing is so wildly Utopian as to try and build a sustainable world on the basis of greed and competition” and, secondly, that his proposals “are actually being modelled on the ground the world over” (page 236) but this defence fails. The first of these points has no bearing on the realism of his proposals and the second fails to recognise that the only examples he gives of anything remotely resembling the kind of localised system that he advocates are very small scale and, as he himself recognises, have many problems.

It is difficult to know precisely who the book is aimed at. It is not an academic work yet it is overloaded with quotations from and references to the views of different authors (e.g. the main text in the first five pages of the chapter relating to values includes references to the views of no less than 15 different authors). These come so thick and fast that parts of the book are heavy-going and they are likely to render it inaccessible to many potential readers. Furthermore, Gorringe is a liberal Christian who is heavily influenced by Marxist thinking and these starting points pervade The World Made Otherwise. Gorringe makes no attempt to justify them, with the result is that the book is unlikely to prove persuasive to those who do not share his assumptions. Thus, whilst most Christians will welcome his reminder that God ultimately owns all things (a fact which necessarily relativizes property rights), his approach to Scriptural interpretation will baffle and alarm many. For example, his suggestion that “The Eucharist (when not fetishized) adumbrates as a sign the view that the world is gifted to all creatures and is to be shared equally between them” (page 224) is, to put it mildly, difficult to extract from the biblical text, whilst his assertion that Hebrews 13:14 (“Here we have no abiding city”) “promises us that Rome (which for us is neoliberalism) will not last forever” (page 66) is extraordinary.

Gorringe has, for a long time, passionately believed in the need for radical, political, economic and social change and environmental issues have added to the imperative tone of his appeals for such change. However, passion and urgency do not of themselves make up a viable political programme. Gorringe’s theological villain is clearly St. Augustine of Hippo, who he feels is responsible for generations of Christians believing that “the possibility of a truly different society… belongs only to the next life” (page 67). On this basis, one might expect him to show us the way to an earthly paradise but, despite its title, The World Made Otherwise fails to provide one and, whatever one’s political views, Gorringe’s diagnosis and prognosis are simply depressing.

 

The World Made Otherwise by Timothy J. Gorringe was published in 2018 by Cascade Books (ISBN: 978-1-5326-4867-0). 348 pp


Richard Godden is a Lawyer and has been a Partner with Linklaters for over 25 years during which time he has advised on a wide range of transactions and issues in various parts of the world. 

Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.

 

 

 

 

 

Andrei Rogobete: “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” by Richard Heinberg

 

Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and author that has dedicated most of his writing career to environmental causes. His most notable works include publications such as, The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003), and Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (2004).

Just from the book titles alone, an astute reader can gain a sense of Richard Heinberg’s environment angle. Indeed, there is a common thread that flows throughout his body of work and which is probably best exemplified in the book we are reviewing here: The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (2011).

In a nutshell, Heinberg’s thesis is this: Global economic growth as we have become accustomed to over the past century or so is “…over and done with” (page 1). When talking about “growth”, Heinberg is referring here to the overall size and expansion of the economy, i.e. an increase in both consumption and production (ibid.).

So how come? Why will there be no more economic growth? Throughout the book Richard Heinberg builds his argument on three main assumptions. First, the depletion of natural resources (fossil fuels & minerals). Secondly, the negative environmental impact of exploiting resources (e.g. Deepwater Horizon, the BP oil spill disaster). And thirdly, the ‘financial disruptions’ caused by our defective banking and regulatory system and its inability to deal with both “resource scarcity and soaring environmental costs” (page 2). For these three main reasons, historical records of economic growth are no longer sustainable in the future.

Let’s turn slightly to the structure and content of the book. “The End of Growth” is well-written and thoroughly researched. From the onset, it becomes apparent that the author has a wealth of experience and knowledge of the subject. Indeed, Heinberg spent over two decades examining and writing about environmental issues and this clearly shows throughout the book.

The book is structured around seven main chapters. The first two open the discussion with a more generalised debate on historical economics and the influences of both Marxist and capitalist ideology in shaping the current state of global macroeconomics. Heinberg also talks about the financial crisis of 2007/8 and how the actions of the Federal Reserve (like Quantitative Easing) are akin to a “Ponzi Scheme” that could ultimately lead to rising interest costs and even currency failure (page 75).

Chapters three and four turn towards the environment and the limitations of earth’s natural resources. Economists and experts in the field have largely ignored the obvious: natural resources are finite. As they become increasingly scarce, the race and exploitation in finding them will have dire consequences on the environment. The BP Oil Spill is given as a clear example of how petroleum companies need to search in deeper and more dangerous areas to find oil. Heinberg goes through all the major natural resources and explains their limitations, including, Oil, water, food, and metals. In chapter four Heinberg remains sceptical that new technologies and innovations will be sufficient to promote growth and stop climate change. He asserts that, “Civilisations advance human knowledge and technical ability, but they also tend to generate levels of complexity they cannot support beyond a certain point. When that point is reached, civilisations decline or collapse” (page 187).

Chapters five and six move the discussion toward a more international dimension. Heinberg effectively sees China’s recent economic growth as a “bubble” (page 190). A bubble that is overwhelmingly dependent on favourable age demographics and a reliance on coal as a primary energy source. Chapter 6 talks about how ill-equipped our current geopolitical system is to both adapt and succeed in a post-growth, contracting economic climate.

Finally, chapter seven concludes with an explorative study in how society (especially civil society) can adapt and grow in a post-growth world. In short, Heinberg believes that organising and local community initiatives will have a crucial role to play. He speaks about “Transition Towns” and “Common Security Clubs” where “The work of local groups should include the sharing of practical skills such as food production and storage, home insulation, and the development and use of energy conserving technologies.” (page 270).

At the end of the day, Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” remains something of a paradox. On one hand, the core of his message rings true: we are consuming and in some cases, abusing resources that are by definition, finite. On the other hand, it feels like the book is too pessimistic and sceptical – it underestimates the power of new and innovative technologies and overemphasises the negative impact of consumerism. For instance, his analysis on electric cars in Chapter four (page 159) is superficial at best. Heinberg fails to consider the rapid advancement in battery technology and their ability to store power.

Readers in search of a gloomy, sceptical analysis on the future of the environment and economic growth should pick up this book. Those seeking a more balanced account should look elsewhere.

 

 “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” was published in 2011 by Clairview Books (ISBN-10: 1905570333). 231pp.


Andrei Rogobete

Andrei Rogobete is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.