If You Like Democracy, You Should Oppose Capitalism

Liberal democracy gives us essential rights like free speech and civil liberties. But without challenging the domination of capital, liberal rights will always be curtailed by the power of the rich.

In his 2001 book, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Rawls argued that competitive capitalism, and even an extensive Nordic-style welfare state, didn’t meet the requirements of a just society. “Welfare state capitalism,” he wrote, “permits a small class to have a near monopoly of the means of production,” which undermines two of the core principles of justice: that political liberties are held equally by all and that the social order works to the greatest advantage of the least well-off.

Rawls’s preferred alternative was a social order — either a “property-owning democracy” or “liberal socialist regime” — that would “set up a constitutional framework for democratic politics, guarantee the basic liberties with the fair value of liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and regulate economic and social inequalities by a principle of mutuality.” Firms would be democratically managed, but would still “carry on their activities within a system of free and workably competitive markets” with “free choice of occupation” also guaranteed. Unfortunately, he passed away without providing much more in the way of details.

In his great book John Rawls: Reticent Socialist (2017), the philosopher William Edmundson took Rawls’s positions seriously and worked out his radical egalitarianism in far greater depth. Now Edmundson has released a new book, Socialism for Soloists, which builds on his earlier work to contend that “justice requires socialism,” and of a liberal-democratic kind. Most innovatively, Edmundson questions the popular notion that socialists must have the bloodiest of bleeding hearts by insisting that even the staunchest individualists should be socialists.

Much of Edmundson argument is technical and scholarly. But it nevertheless arms us with extremely useful intellectual arguments in the battle of ideas.

Socialism and Equality

Edmundson’s aim is to demonstrate how an individualist commitment to liberal principles should lead to a further commitment to democratic socialism. This kind of enterprise will disappoint some leftists for its lack of political economy, and it leaves Edmundson open to the objection that his abstract moral theorizing is ahistorical and insufficiently materialist.

But to my mind, a socialism that doesn’t ground itself in a morally defensible conception of justice is one that will prove unappealing in the long run. Without a substantive, persuasive vision of the principles of justice that underpin socialism — and an account of how they cash themselves out practically — anti-capitalist critique becomes an exercise in trashing the status quo without offering any meaningful alternative. Edmundson provides us with a plausible philosophical basis for democratic socialism that doesn’t ask us all to suddenly become angels — and for that he deserves a lot of praise.

The basic principles Edmundson develops are clearly modeled on Rawls’s famous principles of justice, asking what kind of society “soloists” — self-interested and rational individualists who “recognize the pressing need for social rules and a common power to enforce them” — would choose to create through a social contract. Edmundson argues that a just society would respect a “principle of political equality: citizens who are equally able and equally motivated should have an equal chance to influence political decisions, regardless of wealth and income” and a “principle of reciprocity: economic inequality is allowed so long as it can be seen to benefit all representative social classes.”

Of the two principles he gives the second considerably shorter shrift, which is disappointing given its importance. Edmundson simply argues that individuals “contracting into” society would be willing to tolerate some forms of economic inequality if they would make everyone better off.

This is partly Edmundson’s response to the well-worn charge that socialists are motivated less by a concern for the poor than by envy of the well-off. And he is correct that any argument which says the poor can be poorer so long as the gap between rich and destitute is narrower will appeal to no one. As Edmundson points out, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves weren’t strict egalitarians. In the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx lampooned strict egalitarians, arguing that the unequal needs of equal individuals would require them to receive unequal shares to ensure the flourishing of all.

Yet Edmundson provides little sense of how much economic inequality is too much, arguing that “empirical research” may point us to the sweet spot in the future. We’re fortunate that scholars like Thomas Piketty and David Harvey are helping us fill this gap in knowledge. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Edmundson could have provided more immediate guidance on this important point.

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