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The Egalitarian ConscienceEssays in Honour of G. A. Cohen$

Christine Sypnowich

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199281688

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199281688.001.0001

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Left‐Liberalism Revisited

Left‐Liberalism Revisited

(p.9) 1 Left‐Liberalism Revisited
The Egalitarian Conscience

Will Kymlicka (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This essay considers how the left’s traditionally uneasy relationship with liberalism has been challenged by recent left-wing engagements with liberal conceptions of equality, of which Cohen’s work is the pre-eminent example. It argues that the liberal concern for individual responsibility has proved a necessary corrective to traditional left-wing ideas of egalitarianism that endorse the unconditional redistribution of wealth.

Keywords:   left, liberalism, justice, desert, need, equality, welfare, respect, responsibility

In recent publications, G. A. Cohen has engagingly described his upbringing in the Jewish Communist community of Montreal, with its Party schools, summer camps, and anthems (Cohen 2000). I was raised in a more moderate left‐wing family, supporters of Canada's social democratic party, without much ideological or partisan fervour. But we too had our protest songs. And I suspect that, in both repertoires, the word ‘liberal’ was a term of abuse. One of our favourite family songs was Phil Ochs’s ‘Love Me, I’m A Liberal’, a caustic attack on the moral vacuity of many self‐declared liberals:

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers

Tears ran down my spine

I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy

As though I'd lost a father of mine

But Malcolm X got what was coming

He got what he asked for this time

So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I go to civil rights rallies

And I put down the old D.A.R.

I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy

I hope every colored boy becomes a star

But don't talk about revolution

That's going a little bit too far

So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I cheered when Humphrey was chosen

My faith in the system restored

I'm glad the commies were thrown out

Of the A.F.L. C.I.O. board

I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes

As long as they don't move next door

So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

(p.10) The people of old Mississippi

Should all hang their heads in shame

I can't understand how their minds work

What's the matter don't they watch Les Crain?

But if you ask me to bus my children

I hope the cops take down your name

So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I read New Republic and Nation

I've learned to take every view

You know, I've memorized Lerner and Golden

I feel like I'm almost a Jew

But when it comes to times like Korea

There's no one more red, white and blue

So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I vote for the Democratic Party

They want the U.N. to be strong

I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts

He sure gets me singing those songs

I'll send all the money you ask for

But don't ask me to come on along

So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

Once I was young and impulsive

I wore every conceivable pin

Even went to the socialist meetings

Learned all the old union hymns

But I've grown older and wiser

And that's why I'm turning you in

So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

It still packs a punch forty years after it was written. We all recognize the type (and perhaps the tendencies within ourselves), even if the incidental details have changed. The lyrics could easily be updated to cover today's generation of self‐declared liberals (replace Harry and Sidney with Denzel; Humphrey with Clinton; Korea with Iraq). Indeed, the Internet is full of such updated versions.

For those of us raised on such songs, the term ‘liberal’ sticks in the throat. And yet today it often seems that there is no way of thinking and talking outside the framework of liberalism. This is partly a result of its sheer dominance in public culture and academic debate. The hegemony of liberal political theory is so complete that it provides ‘the only political language that can sound a convincing moral note in our public realms’ (Grant 1974: 5). If that were true in 1974, it is even more true today, post 1989. Anyone on the left who wants to be heard, or at least to be taken seriously, has to use the language of liberalism.

(p.11) But the left's embrace of liberal discourse is not just strategic or instrumental. Liberalism has proven to have surprising intellectual power and depth. One could have anticipated liberals developing refined theories of property rights, or of the virtues of a constitutional bill of rights, that is, of bourgeois freedoms. What was more surprising is the intellectual power of liberal writings on the issues of central concern to the left: namely, distributive justice, and egalitarian distribution in particular. From 1970 to 1985, liberal authors developed a level of theoretical sophistication in discussing ideas of egalitarianism and distributive justice that was embarrassingly absent in both the social democratic and communist traditions. And, as a result, many (though not all) recent left theorists of justice, including Cohen himself, have situated their own work within a broadly liberal framework.

In this Chapter, I discuss how liberal conceptions of equality have been embraced by the left, and some of the objections this has raised.1 I begin by exploring why the traditional left approach to justice was inadequate, and how recent liberal theories of justice helped to fill the gap. I then discuss some powerful critiques of this marriage between the left and liberalism, and proposed alternatives to it, before concluding with a (qualified) defence of left‐liberalism.

Why the Left Needed A New Theory of Justice

Left‐wing defenders of egalitarianism have always provoked a range of objections, to which they have developed a variety of responses. One of the most familiar and important critiques is that state policies to achieve (or impose) equality would lead to a kind of drab uniformity. Everyone would be allocated an identical package of goods and services, regardless of their individual preferences or projects. In response, social democrats have long argued that they seek to reduce social inequality precisely in order to allow genuinely individual diversity to flower. The great British socialists like Crosland or Tawney argued that the depth and omnipresence of class stratification artificially limited people's contacts and cultural repertoires, socializing people into a constraining set of class identities, expectations, and prejudices (Crosland 1964: 77). In class‐divided societies, people's preferences and projects are heavily class‐determined: people of different classes attend different sporting events, listen to different music, read different magazines, wear different styles (p.12) of clothes, and so on.2 In an egalitarian society, these variations would no longer reflect one's unchosen and inherited social position, but rather genuine differences in individual talents and temperament. In that sense, a socialist society would be a more truly individualized society than our current society.

I have always found this argument a powerful and compelling one. At any rate, it temporarily stumped my right‐wing friends at school. But it raises more questions than it answers. It is fine to say that reducing inequalities due to inherited social positions does not require erasing the diversity of individual talents and temperament. But how do we deal with the distributive implications of these individual variations? In what ways, if any, should the allocation of resources be influenced by these differences in individual talents and temperaments?

This is not an easy question for the left. There are really two separate questions here. First, how should society deal with the fact that people are born into different locations in the ‘natural lottery’? People are born with different sets of natural capacities and disabilities. Some have natural talents that, with training, are in high demand, and for which others would happily pay a great deal of money to watch or to hire. Others are born with natural disabilities that make it difficult for them to engage in economically productive work, and which may require expensive medicine or care. Even if they start with the same class background and the same initial bundle of goods or money, people with such different natural endowments will quickly come to have vastly unequal holdings, and the latter group may indeed be unable to meet their own needs.

Second, how should society deal with the fact that people have different preferences about when and how to engage in economic activity? Some people prefer part‐time work (or no work at all) so as to have more time for hobbies, travel, or spiritual pursuits, while others are workaholics, and are willing to sacrifice their leisure for extra income. Some prefer to spend their income immediately, while others defer consumption and put aside money in long‐term savings. Some are willing to take chances with their money, engaging in high‐risk investments or gambles, whereas others are more cautious. Here again, even if they start with the same class background and the same initial bundle of goods or money, people with such differing preferences will quickly come to have unequal holdings.

In short, differences in natural talents and in preferences regarding work and consumption can generate inequalities in resources that are every bit as large, and as significant for people's lives, as those due to class position. These inequalities are the predictable result of diversity in individual talents and temperaments, at least if individuals are free to decide when and where to (p.13) spend their money. If we say that an egalitarian society will not attempt to suppress or erase these sorts of individual variations, how then should society respond to the economic inequalities that they predictably generate?

Neither Marxists nor social democrats have addressed these questions adequately. As Cohen has noted, many Marxists have avoided both questions by invoking the fantasy of abundance. Under communism, the forces of production will develop to such a point that there will be no scarcity: people can simply take what they like from the pool of resources, even if they have contributed little to it (Cohen 1990).

The social democratic left has had a more indirect way of avoiding these questions. There has been a tendency to assume that variations in talents and preferences are not as large as commonly supposed, and/or that these variations would be smaller under socialism. Social democrats have typically assumed that differences in income are not primarily due to differential natural endowments or differences in people's preferences and choices, but rather due to inequalities in people's upbringing and opportunities. It may seem that some high‐income earners are more ‘talented’ than others, or that some poor people show less ‘prudence’ or ‘initiative’ than others, but if we look carefully, we will discover that these differences in marketable skills and economic behaviour are the result of some prior social inequality. In a world where class stratification has been removed, so that everyone has the same access to decent education and health care, and the same opportunity and encouragement to develop their talents and ambitions, differences in people's marketable skills and work‐related choices will diminish.

In short, social democrats have typically assumed that the economic inequalities generated by variations in individual talents and choices are simply not a major issue, at least in comparison with the overriding concern to reduce the pernicious effects of class stratification. As Crosland put it, the goal of social justice is to ‘weaken the existing deep‐seated stratification, with its concomitant feelings of envy and inferiority, and its barriers to uninhibited mingling between the classes’ (1964: 77). Even more explicitly, Tawney argued:

What is repulsive is not that one man should earn more than others, for where community of environment, and a common education and habit of life, have bred a common tradition of respect and consideration, these details of the countinghouse are forgotten or ignored. It is that some classes should be excluded from the heritage of civilization which others enjoy, and that the fact of human fellowship, which is ultimate and profound, should be obscured by economic contrasts, which are trivial and superficial. (1964: 113)

On this view, once we have abolished inherited class stratification, any inequalities that result from individual talents or choices are simply ‘details of the countinghouse’ to be ‘forgotten or ignored’.

(p.14) Thus, the social democratic left has combined a passionate commitment to fighting the injustice of inherited social inequalities with an indifference to questions of the justice or injustice of individual inequalities. It is worth noting that Tawney does not say that inequalities rooted in individual talents or choices are to be considered ‘fair’ or ‘just’; that once class stratification has been ended, those who earn more than others deserve their extra income, in virtue of their special talents, higher productivity, wise choices, or lucky gambles; that people ought to be rewarded for their talents, or held responsible for their choices. He just says that such individual inequalities are not ‘repulsive’. They may or may not be fair, they may or may not be deserved, but this is not a matter that we need to worry about, at least not until we have tackled the more serious issues of class stratification.

At one level, this strategy—highlighting the injustice of social inequalities while leaving the injustice of individualized inequalities unexamined—makes political sense. After all, the left has a clear argument for reducing social inequality, and a powerful working‐class constituency for this issue. By contrast, there is no clear agreement, even within the working class, on the fairness of inequalities due to individual choices and talents. Studies suggest that citizens generally, including the working class, have ambivalent views about the fairness of rewarding natural talents, or the extent to which people should be held responsible for the costs of their choices (Miller 1992; Swift et al. 1995).

Unfortunately, this strategy seems to have failed. The obvious problem is that virtually any real‐world political programme for reducing social inequalities will inevitably become entangled with issues of the fairness of individualized inequalities. This is true at both ends of the welfare state—in terms of who pays for redistributive programmes, and who benefits from them. There are some redistributive taxes that exclusively target the intergenerational transmission of class privileges: an inheritance tax or estate tax is an example. But a modern welfare state cannot be funded solely by such measures. Instead, the funding of redistributive policies typically relies on schemes of progressive income taxation. However, some high‐flyers believe that their extra income is an individualized inequality, that is, the result of their special talents and/or their hard work, not their inherited class position. They may have attended the same state schools, played in the same public parks, and watched the same television shows as other kids. If they now earn more money, it is because they were simply more talented (and/or made better decisions about how to develop their talents and deploy their resources). And so they may think that their unequal income should fall under Tawney's ‘forgotten or ignored’ category, since it is not the result of invidious class stratification. They may feel that they deserve their extra income, and have rightfully earned it, and (p.15) that the government has provided no valid justification for taking away ‘their’ money.

A similar issue arises in terms of the beneficiaries of redistribution. Some welfare state policies focus exclusively on people born into disadvantaged social circumstances—the US ‘Head Start’ programme for children in inner‐city neighbourhoods is an example. These policies are targeted specifically at groups that lack Tawney's ‘community of environment, and a common education’, and who have been ‘excluded from the heritage of civilization’. But many other welfare state policies—income assistance; unemployment insurance; public housing—provide benefits to people based on their current economic status rather than inherited social position. And in some cases, this current economic status may be the result, at least in part, of their own lack of marketable skills or previous choices. Imagine that someone drops out of college, takes on a series of temporary jobs as he or she travels across the country, has minimal savings, and now can only get seasonal employment. Should the others in the class, who stayed in school, have full‐time employment, and growing savings, be expected to fund a generous unemployment scheme or income supplement plan that would reduce the income inequality between them? Why shouldn't this inequality too fall under the ‘forgotten or ignored’ category, since it is not rooted in some prior class stratification? Indeed, insofar as the inequality is the result of the person's own voluntary choice to drop out of school and travel, can we not say that this inequality is deserved, and that it would be unfair to force more diligent students and workers to subsidize his or her way of life?

The sustainability of the welfare state depends on providing plausible answers to these questions. The social democratic strategy of defending the welfare state as a tool for reducing social inequality while remaining agnostic on the fairness of individualized inequalities has simply failed in this regard. This might have been a sufficient approach in the nineteenth century, when resources were being redistributed from a rich but non‐working capitalist rentier class, which inherited its lands or stocks, to a poor but full‐time employed working class. But in today's economy, redistribution is often perceived to flow from hard‐working and talented high earners to unemployed or underemployed people with fewer marketable skills, some of whom are assumed to prefer public benefits to job training or full‐time work.3 And in this context, there is no way to avoid issues of the fairness (p.16) of individualized inequalities. We need to tackle head on whether the talented high earners really are entitled to all their market earnings, and when it is appropriate (or not) to assist those whose lack of marketable talents or previous lifestyle choices have put them in a position of economic inequality.

Without any clear answer to these questions, the social democratic left was ill‐prepared to defend the welfare state against the New Right backlash. Social democrats argued that the complex normative issues relating to the fairness of individualized inequalities can be set aside, in order to focus on the more urgent and unambiguous injustices of class stratification. This was a humane sentiment, but it has come to be seen by many people as a sign of moral flabbiness, an unwillingness to take a stand on fundamental questions of fairness and responsibility. Even worse, in practice, it was seen as institutionalizing a fundamental unfairness, that is, as penalizing ‘decent’ hard‐working and productive citizens in order to reward and subsidize lazy or irresponsible citizens who are unable or unwilling to do an honest day's work. Nor was it simply New Right ideologues who were making this objection. Evidence shows that large numbers of the working class were also distressed at what they perceived as the tendency of the welfare state to penalize hard‐working citizens and to reward indolent or irresponsible citizens (Bowles and Gintis 1998; 1999; Gilens 1999).4

This of course was not Tawney's intention. He did not affirm that the talented are entitled to their extra rewards, or that the indolent or imprudent have a claim to public subsidies. He simply avoided these ‘details of the countinghouse’. But citizens look to their public institutions and policies to announce and enact appropriate moral norms, including norms of individual responsibility and fairness. And the social democratic welfare state was found wanting in this respect. It was perceived as vague, and perhaps even perverse, in the moral messages it was sending and enacting with respect to the fair treatment of the diversity of individual choices and talents.

The social democratic strategy was not only politically weak but it was also philosophically suspect. After all, how can we be so confident that social inequalities are unjust if we are so uncertain about the fairness of individualized inequalities? What is it about social inequalities that puts them on a different moral plane from individualized inequalities? If individualized inequalities should be ‘ignored or forgotten’, even where they are large and unchosen, why shouldn't large and unchosen social inequalities similarly be ignored? Without further argument, the left's preoccupation with reducing a particular kind of social inequality became perceived as a form of ‘special (p.17) interest’ or ‘special pleading’, serving the self‐interest of a particular constituency, disconnected from any deeper account of the principles of justice.

Given these deficiencies of the traditional social democratic strategy, it became clear that the left needed a new account of distributive justice, one that tackled, rather than evaded, issues of individualized fairness and responsibility.

The Liberal Contribution

This is where liberal theory came to the left's rescue. Starting in the 1970s, liberal egalitarians developed a new theory of distributive justice that integrated issues of social inequality and individualized inequality. More specifically, liberal egalitarians subsumed both types of inequality under the broader distinction between ‘choices’ and ‘circumstances’. For liberal egalitarians, the fundamental question to be asked of any inequality is not whether it is due to class position or more individualized factors, but whether it is due to people's choices or their circumstances.

The underlying idea here is that people's fate should be determined by their choices—by the decisions they make about how to lead their lives—not by the circumstances that they happen to find themselves in. In more technical language, a distributive scheme should be ‘endowment‐insensitive’ and ‘ambition‐sensitive’ (Dworkin 1981: 311). People's fate should depend on their ambitions (in the broad sense of goals and projects about life), but should not depend on their natural and social endowment (the circumstances in which they pursue their ambitions). As Dworkin puts it, a just distribution must identify ‘which aspects of any person's economic position flow from his choices and which from advantages and disadvantages that were not matters of choice’ (1985: 208).

These ‘circumstances’ include the class inequality that social democrats have always emphasized, and so this liberal commitment to neutralize the effects of unequal circumstances supports the traditional left commitment to reduce class stratification. But ‘circumstances’ also include people's natural endowments, that is, their place in the natural lottery. These too are unchosen and undeserved: no one chooses or deserves to be born with a particularly high IQ, or with particular physical or mental infirmities. On the liberal egalitarian model, inequalities in resources that are the result of one's place in the natural lottery are as undeserved as inequalities in resources that are the result of one's place in the class structure. As a result, this model provides a justification for taxing the talented high‐flyers, even if they were not born into a privileged class position.

(p.18) Conversely, inequalities that are the result of people's own choices about how to lead their lives—such as the choice to save rather than consume, or to give up leisure for higher income—are legitimate. People should be free to make different choices about how to lead their lives—including different choices about the trade‐off between work and leisure, or caution and risk, or consumption and savings—and people should accept responsibility for the costs of these choices. If someone chooses to work fewer hours in order to pursue his or her passion for surfing, he or she should not expect those who work longer hours to subsidize the same lifestyle. As a result, this model provides a justification for expecting people to exercise a degree of prudence and self‐discipline in their individual behaviour.

This is the view that Dworkin calls ‘equality of resources’, and which others call ‘luck egalitarianism’ (Anderson 1999), ‘choice egalitarianism’ (Smilansky 2003), or ‘equality of fortune’ (Rakowski 1992). These are all different ways of highlighting the central role of the distinction between choices and circumstances. This is just the briefest outline of the approach, and a fuller presentation would require addressing many complications.5 But enough has been said, I hope, to show why many people on the left have seen this approach as a helpful addition to the egalitarian tool kit. It not only supports the original social democratic commitment to redressing class stratification but also grounds this commitment in a broader moral principle of remedying unequal circumstances, while providing normative guidance for dealing with the hard issues of individualized inequalities. It avoids, in particular, the unintended and perverse consequence of penalizing prudent behaviour and rewarding irresponsible behaviour. As Cohen puts it: ‘Dworkin has, in effect, performed for egalitarianism the considerable service of incorporating within it the most powerful idea in the arsenal of the anti‐egalitarian right: the idea of choice and responsibility’ (1989: 933).

As a result, many theorists on the left have accepted that this sort of liberal egalitarianism provides the most promising starting point for socialist theorizing about distributive justice, including Arneson (1993), Van Parijs (1995), Roemer (1994), and Cohen himself.6 For all these theorists, a central virtue of this sort of liberal egalitarianism is that it adds substance to the familiar socialist claim that an egalitarian society would respect the diversity of individual projects and preferences. Socialists had long argued that an egalitarian society would enable genuine differences in individual temperament (p.19) and ambitions to flourish, but had never addressed the distributive consequences of these individual variations. This gap exposed the left to the charge that it was either insincere in its commitment to individual diversity, and/or unable to respond in a morally responsible way to it. Liberal egalitarianism helps fill this gap.

Of course, this marriage of the social democratic left and liberal egalitarianism is not without cost. While liberal egalitarianism provides a principled basis for responding to individualized inequalities, some people on the left are likely to see that these principles are unduly rigid, even simplistic. The principle that distribution should be endowment‐insensitive, for example, contradicts at least some strands of traditional socialist thought. As Miller has shown, the socialist tradition has often accepted that those who contribute more should earn more, even if this greater contribution is due solely to inherited natural talents, rather than any extra effort or training. (Indeed, they have supported higher rewards for the more productive even when the most productive people actually make less effort, because their natural talents make it so easy for them to produce more.) Of course, few social democrats would accept that the talented are entitled to all of their extra income, but they may feel uncomfortable with the idea that no extra income is justified in virtue of greater natural talents.

Similarly, many social democrats may feel that the principle that distribution should be ambition‐sensitive is too harsh in its insistence that people pay for the costs of their sometimes ill‐advised choices. Many people on the left are more forgiving of people's choices, more willing to give people a second chance. They are more attracted to some version of the prodigal son principle—that even if people squander their initially equal share of resources, they should be able to return and get their share topped up, at least once (or twice, or…). Of course, few social democrats would accept that the indolent or imprudent should have all of the costs of their choices covered by society, no matter how often they squander their opportunities and resources, but they may feel uncomfortable with the idea that no subsidy should be available to offset the costs of people's expensive tastes or imprudent choices.

In short, many people on the left would like more wiggle room for rewarding talents and subsidizing costly lifestyles than the liberal egalitarian framework seems to allow. This can be seen as a sensible recognition of the moral complexity of the issues, and a wise refusal to draw sharp lines where none exist. On the other hand, it's precisely this desire for wiggle room that gave social democrats a reputation for moral flabbiness. Rightly or wrongly, this hesitation to endorse clear standards of responsibility has been interpreted as evidence of a lack of moral compass, or even of moral perversity. While social democrats are always happy to tax the prudent and hard‐working, they (p.20) seem unwilling or unable to judge or criticize the behaviour of anyone who receives public benefits. This perception of a moral vacuum has been ruthlessly exploited by the New Right to delegitimize the very idea of egalitarianism and the welfare state.

In one sense, this debate about whether liberal egalitarian principles are too rigid is quite misleading. There is no way in practice to implement these principles in a rigorous way. Public institutions cannot effectively track the choices/circumstances distinction, and it would be a gross violation of privacy even to try. As Arneson puts it, it would be ‘preposterous’ to try to measure the extent to which inequalities are due to choices or circumstances:

The idea that we might adjust our distributive justice system based on our estimation of persons’ overall deservingness or responsibility seems entirely chimerical. Individuals do not display responsibility scores on their foreheads, and the attempt by institutions or individuals to guess at the scores of people they are dealing with would surely dissolve in practice into giving vent to one's prejudices and piques. (2000b: 97)

Hence any real‐world policies of (re)distribution will inevitably end up allowing the talented to keep some of their undeserved high income, while also subsidizing some expensive tastes and voluntary inequalities (Dworkin 1981: 312–14, 327–8, 333–4). In this sense, a certain amount of wiggle room is institutionally inevitable.7

The real‐world effect of these principles is further diluted when we understand that justice is not the only factor to be considered when designing public policies. For example, there may be reasons of efficiency to provide (p.21) financial incentives to those with scarce natural talents, if they would not otherwise agree to exercise those talents. It may be rational for society to provide such incentives, even if the talented have no claim of justice to them.

There may also be paternalistic reasons to limit the extent to which individuals can squander their resources. For example, before the prodigal son risks his inheritance, society may insist that he set aside some of his share for mandatory health and social insurance plans, so that he can land on his feet if things go wrong. We may also provide support to the voluntarily disadvantaged for reasons of public order and the common good (to reduce the likelihood of crime, disease, social conflict, etc.), or simply as an expression of mercy and compassion. It may be rational for society to provide such support, even if the indolent or imprudent have no claim of justice to it.

All of this means that there will be considerable room within public institutions for some people to extract financial advantages from their scarce talents, and for others to gain public subsidies for their expensive tastes. Liberal egalitarianism, in practice, will not be nearly as rigid as its abstract principles might suggest. Yet it may nonetheless be important for institutions to assert and defend these principles, no matter how imperfect their implementation. Where public institutions articulate these principles, they convey an important message to citizens about what they can rightfully claim from society.

For example, these principles tell the talented that they have no claim of justice to any extra income that they can extract based on their natural talents, and that they should not object to the taxing of this income. There may be no feasible way, institutionally, to prevent the talented from extracting such extra income. Where certain socially valuable talents are in scarce supply, those who possess these talents can effectively blackmail society into paying them more, or taxing them less. But institutions can make clear that these inequalities are not fair, and that any citizen with a sense of justice would not attempt to extract extra benefits from the accident of their natural talents.

Similarly, liberal egalitarian principles tell citizens that they have no claim of justice to subsidies for their expensive tastes, and that they should not ask others to pay for the costs of their choices. There may be no feasible way, institutionally, to prevent people from extracting such subsidies, since we often cannot distinguish the voluntarily and involuntarily disadvantaged. But institutions can make clear that such subsidies are unfair, and that any citizen with a sense of justice should not attempt to externalize the costs of their choices on others.

In these ways, as Cohen (1997, 2000) has emphasized in his recent work, institutions can and should promote a certain ethos of justice, encouraging citizens to critically examine their own claims on society, whether it is to (p.22) higher income or subsidized lifestyles. Institutions inevitably shape citizens’ sense of what it is to which they are rightfully entitled. Where institutions are explicitly grounded on liberal egalitarian principles, people are told they are entitled to remedies for unequal circumstances, but not to rewards for undeserved natural talents or to subsidies for expensive ways of life. Inevitably some selfish people will violate these principles, and will try to work the system to gain more than their rightful entitlement. But those with a sense of justice will operate within these norms, and will forego any opportunities that arise to exploit their scarce natural talents or externalize the costs of their choices on others.

Viewed this way, liberal egalitarianism is first and foremost a theory about how people understand and formulate their moral claims, not about institutional design.8 It is a theory about what sorts of claims individuals can rightfully make against the state, not a proposal about how public institutions should seek to test the validity of these claims. In fact, institutions will often be unable to test the moral validity of these claims, since they cannot identify the respective roles of choices and circumstances. In this sense, liberal egalitarianism depends heavily on people internalizing its principles, which in turn depends on the development of a social ethos of justice, based in part on the articulation of these principles by public institutions. We might even say that liberal egalitarianism is fundamentally a theory of civic virtue: it is a theory about what a morally serious citizen would consider when judging his or her rightful entitlements, and when framing his or her claims against the state. While public institutions are often unable to prevent selfish citizens from claiming more than their rightful entitlement, they can promote a social ethos that encourages citizens to internalize and act upon a sense of justice.

(p.23) Doubts About the Left‐Liberal Marriage

This, then, is the broad outline of the new left‐liberal position, in which the original social democratic commitment to reduce social inequality has been integrated into a broader liberal egalitarian commitment to a choice‐sensitive, circumstance‐insensitive distribution. However, this marriage between the left and liberalism has recently come under strong attack. Critics argue that it is a betrayal, rather than a broadening, of the left's true mission. According to these critics, the liberal conception of equality, with its preoccupation with the choices/circumstances distinction, is actually antithetical to certain basic left values, such as fraternity, respect, or democratic citizenship.

Interestingly, these critics often suggest that the problem lies precisely in the social ethos that liberal egalitarianism engenders. I have just stated that the ethos of liberal egalitarian is one that teaches each of us to look critically at the claims for resources we make, and to ask ourselves whether we are trying to gain economic privileges from our undeserved natural talents, and/or to externalize the costs of our choices on others. Stated this way—as a guide for reflecting on the moral defensibility of our own claims to resources—I think the ethos of liberal egalitarianism is an attractive one. But of course it can also be turned outward, and invoked as a way of critically evaluating the claims to resources by our co‐citizens—and viewed this way, the ethos of liberal egalitarianism is less attractive.

As Wolff notes, the ethos of liberal egalitarianism, once it is turned outward, encourages people to view disadvantaged citizens with distrust, as potential cheaters. In order to overcome this distrust, the disadvantaged must engage in what Wolff calls ‘shameful revelation’, that is, they have to prove they do indeed suffer from some involuntary disadvantage, whether in their natural talents or childhood upbringing. The inevitable result, he argues, is to erode, rather than to strengthen, the bonds of solidarity and mutual concern between citizens.

Wolff (1998) suggests that this creates a tension between fairness and respect. He argues that while liberal egalitarianism may indeed be the best theory of justice, from a purely philosophical point of view, it promotes the wrong ethos of equality. Philosophically, it may be true that the fairest scheme of distribution would distinguish voluntary from involuntary inequalities, but any attempt to implement this distinction in practice creates distrust, shame, and stigmatization. It may identify who has the fairest claims, but only through a process that undermines the civility and solidarity that leads people to care about justice in the first place.

(p.24) Anderson has raised a similar objection to liberal egalitarians (or what she calls ‘luck egalitarians’). She argues that liberal egalitarianism's emphasis on distinguishing voluntary from involuntary inequality leads to a disrespectful pity towards the ‘deserving’ poor, and paternalistic hectoring of the ‘undeserving’ poor (Anderson 1999).

These are powerful objections, further elaborated in a recent article by Scheffler (2003). However, they all depend on the assumption that the ethos of liberal egalitarianism cannot be solely self‐directed, but will inevitably turn outward, and lead to disrespectful scrutiny of our co‐citizens. This is quite explicit in Scheffler's summary:

For this reason, luck egalitarianism encourages her to look inward in deciding whether she has a legitimate claim on fellow citizens, and, as Anderson and Wolff have emphasized, it encourages those fellow citizens to scrutinize the deepest aspects of her self and to arrive at heavily moralized judgements about the degree of responsibility she bears for her own misfortune. (ibid. 21; italics added)

The question is whether the latter part of the sentence follows from the former. If liberal egalitarianism encourages individuals to scrutinize their own claims to resources, does it follow that it must also encourage individuals to demand shameful revelation of others, or to engage in paternalistic hectoring of them? Is it possible for us to engage in serious moral scrutiny of our own claims, while trusting that other citizens will do the same for themselves without the need for our oversight or verification? Can we develop a model of good citizenship in which people make a conscientious attempt to apply the choices/circumstances distinction to their own claims, while not prying into the (ir)responsibility of others?

It seems to me that such a model is a plausible and indeed logical way of interpreting our underlying norms of equal respect. Part of what it means to respect others involves not exploiting our undeserved natural talents for financial advantage, and not externalizing the costs of our choices on others. Refusing to apply these considerations to our own claims would be disrespectful to others. Another part of what it means to respect others is not to insist that they engage in shameful or demeaning activities as a condition of claiming their fair share of resources. Norms of equal respect underlie both the inward application of liberal egalitarian principles and the restraint in their other‐directed application.

If we interpret the liberal egalitarian model in this way, I think that some of the concerns raised by Wolff, Anderson, and Scheffler can be assuaged. Of course, our trust may be abused by some of our less scrupulous co‐citizens. But if we are successful in inculcating an ethos of good citizenship that emphasizes the importance of voluntarily accepting personal responsibility (p.25) for our own choices, there may be few such abuses. This may seem naive or inconsistent, and I will return to this question later. But let me first consider what is the alternative for the left.

What is the Alternative?

Some commentators insist that social democrats should embrace a more ‘social’ conception of justice, unlike the ‘individualistic’ conception found in Rawls or Dworkin. Miller, for example, distinguishes ‘distributive equality’, which he describes as individualistic and rooted in the liberal tradition, from ‘social equality’, which is more holistic or communitarian and rooted in the socialist tradition. The former is concerned with the claims of individuals to their equal share of resources; the latter with constructing the right sort of egalitarian social relationships. The former deals with ensuring greater equality in people's private share of resources, the latter with ensuring people's equal standing in public life (Miller 1993, 1997).

Similar distinctions have been made by other recent left‐wing critics of liberal egalitarianism. In place of the liberal focus on individual distributive equality, Anderson suggests we focus on social relations of ‘democratic equality’; Scheffler suggests we focus on a ‘social and political ideal of equality’ (2003: 22); and Hinton suggests we focus on ‘equality of status’ (2001). All these authors seek to shift our focus from fairness in the distribution of individual holdings to the quality and texture of social relations.

Michael Walzer captures this ‘social’ aspect of equality with his image of a ‘society of misters’. In a social democracy, people meet and greet each other on equal terms. We address each other as ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’, rather than addressing upper‐class people as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, and lower‐class people as ‘Jones’. This has also historically been phrased as the ideal of a ‘classless’ society, not in the Marxist sense of abolishing wage labour, but rather in the sense that class position should not determine one's social relationships. As Miller puts it, a society of social equals is ‘a community in which people's dealings with and emotional attachment to others are not inhibited by the barriers of class’ (1993: 302).

This idea of a more social conception of equality is often connected to the idea that there are different ‘spheres’ of justice. According to Walzer, for example, one sphere of justice concerns money and commodities, exchanged in the market. Goods and services available in the market should be distributed according to people's ability to pay, and Walzer thinks it is both impossible and unnecessary to try to eliminate involuntary inequalities in (p.26) people's ability to pay for such goods. What matters is that these inevitable market‐based inequalities do not cross the boundary and contaminate other spheres of justice, such as democratic citizenship, education, health care, or public honour, whose goods should be distributed without reference to one's ability to pay. Involuntary inequalities in people's ability to earn money and to buy private commodities, like boats or fancy stereos, are permissible, but these market inequalities must not enable people to buy political influence, basic public services, or public recognition, and thereby undermine equality in the public sphere (Walzer 1983).

These conceptions of social equality have obvious resonances with the views of Tawney and Crosland discussed in the first section of this chapter, with their strong emphasis on the evils of class stratification and their comparative indifference to the ‘details of the countinghouse’. In fact, several recent authors explicitly describe themselves as reviving this earlier social democratic tradition, which they believe has been wrongly displaced by contemporary liberal egalitarian dogma.

This idea of developing a more social conception of equality, focused on the texture of people's social relationships rather than the ‘details of the counting house’, has obvious attractions.9 Defenders of social equality rightly stress the importance of people's social status or public standing. It is surely correct that the harm of poverty is not just the shortage of particular goods or services but also the shame, pity, condescension, or invisibility that poisons relations between the poor and other members of society.

For many readers, these recent re‐articulations of the social democratic ideal will come as a healthy antidote to the seemingly sterile and arcane debates within the liberal egalitarian camp. Since Rawls's 1971 book, liberal egalitarians have engaged in increasingly refined (and rarefied) discussions of how best to conceptualize the distinction between choices and circumstances, including debates about the proper classification of different types of handicaps, medical needs, talents, social positions, risks and gambles, gifts, tastes, obsessions and addictions, mental dispositions and temperaments, religious (p.27) commitments, and so on.10 These debates may have their intellectual interest for fans of a particular sort of analytic philosophy. But for many people on the left they are a distraction from the real task—which is to contest the more basic injustices of oppression, exploitation, and ‘heritable hierarchies of social status’ (Scheffler 2003: 22)—and they regret the fact that so many erstwhile socialists have been sucked into this liberal vortex. Viewed in this light, the social democratic critique of liberal egalitarianism's preoccupation with individual distributive equality can be seen as a timely reminder of the left's true moral priorities.

On the other hand, one could argue that defenders of social equality are remarkably blasé about the importance of material resources in people's personal or private lives. There is a tendency to suggest that the ‘details of the countinghouse’ are of no real consequence for people's lives, so long as they do not erode people's public standing in the ‘society of misters’. But is it really unimportant that some people live in spacious houses while others are in cramped apartments; or that some people can afford month‐long vacations overseas while others cannot afford to eat out at a local restaurant; or that some people have rewarding and fulfilling ‘careers’ while others have mind‐numbing ‘jobs’, if they have a job at all? Why should we accept such large disparities in people's life chances and standards of living when they are unchosen and undeserved? Why should people's ability to pursue their conception of the good life depend on such morally arbitrary factors?

In this sense, the social conception of equality is arguably a stunted idea of justice, compared with the broader attack on involuntary disadvantage implicit in the liberal egalitarian model. But why should these be viewed as competing, rather than complementary, views of justice? One might think that the pernicious social consequences of material inequalities simply give us a further strong reason for wanting to achieve distributive justice. After all, one way to ensure that social relationships are egalitarian is to ensure that individuals have roughly equal shares of resources, and hence enter society on a roughly equal footing. If so, then liberal egalitarianism will help achieve both a just distribution to individuals and egalitarian social relations between individuals.

Why then do some people think that social equality is an alternative, rather than a supplement, to liberal equality? Why think that the only or best way to achieve social equality is to abandon individual distributive equality? There are at least three different views, I think, about the relationship between social equality and liberal egalitarian distributive justice.

(p.28) First, some social democrats, like Miller and Walzer, simply do not accept the liberal egalitarian argument that undeserved inequalities are unfair. In their view, it is not unjust that the gifted have substantially more resources than the less talented. The fact that natural talents are morally arbitrary is not, for Miller (1999: ch. 7) and Walzer (1983: ch. 4), a reason to say that people do not deserve their market income. So we cannot justify redistributing resources on the grounds that the talented affluent have more than their fair share, or that the less well off have less than their fair share. In Miller's view, inequalities in market income may well be fair if they are broadly proportionate to people's contributions. However, these inequalities, while fair in and of themselves, may undermine the desired sense of ‘fellowship’ underlying a society of equals if they become excessive, and so must be limited and contained. A classless society is not necessarily more just, in the sense of distributing resources more fairly, but is attractive for reasons other than distributive justice, such as community.

Second, there are other social democrats who agree with liberal egalitarians that undeserved inequalities are unfair, but do not believe that the state is capable of identifying or remedying the growing inequalities in market income. Trying to fight these inequalities directly is a futile exercise. What the state can do, however, is to try to minimize the social consequences of these unjust inequalities. It can try to ensure that these unjust inequalities only affect people's private lives—that is, people's private consumption or leisure—without undermining social equality (Kaus 1992). According to this view, social democratic equality is a kind of fallback position. If we cannot achieve distributive justice, we should at least protect social equality.11

Third, most defenders of social equality are simply agnostic on the fairness of individualized inequalities. Theorists like Anderson, Scheffler, and Hinton reject the liberal egalitarian principle that distribution should be endowment‐insensitive. But they offer no guidelines on how variations in natural talents should affect distribution. Unlike Miller and Walzer, they do not assert that people who produce more in virtue of their talents are thereby entitled to greater rewards. They are simply silent on the moral legitimacy of rewards to talents. Similarly, they reject the liberal egalitarian principle that distributions should be ambition‐sensitive, and that people should pay for the costs of their choices. But they give no suggestions on how to allocate responsibility for the costs of people's choices. Unlike some welfare egalitarians and utilitarians, they do not assert that expensive tastes should be accorded the same weight in public decision‐making as all other preferences. They are simply (p.29) silent on the criteria for morally assigning responsibility for the costs of people's choices.

In short, they provide no criteria for evaluating individualized inequalities—that is, no criteria for deciding which inequalities rooted in individuals’ varying talents and preferences should be accepted and which reduced—except where these inequalities threaten to erode equal public standing of citizens. This equal social standing is typically interpreted to require on the one hand, a minimum social safety net to meet ‘basic needs’ and on the other, an upper limit on the size of inequalities to prevent the emergence of class stratification (e.g. Scheffler 2003: 23). However, they offer no instructions for assessing the fairness of inequalities in the distribution of resources that fall in between this ceiling and floor; for judging when or whether it is appropriate for the talented to extract higher income as a condition of using their natural gifts; and for deciding when or whether it is appropriate for those with expensive tastes to seek public subsidies for their lifestyle. So long as people's shares of resources do not fall below the minimum floor or rise above the ceiling, it seems that struggles over distribution and redistribution are a moral free‐for‐all. A conscientious citizen who wants to know what criteria he or she should apply when evaluating his or her own claims on resources would be at a loss. It is clear that, for Anderson and the others in this camp, citizens should not assess the fairness of their own claims by asking whether they are endowment‐insensitive or ambition‐sensitive. They should not think they have a rightful claim to compensation for involuntary disadvantage, or that they have a rightful obligation to pay for the costs of their choices. But it is not clear what alternative criteria, if any, citizens should use in judging the justice of their claims.

In a sense, this third group is being quite faithful to the earlier social democratic tradition, which manifested the same agnosticism. They share Tawney's hope that where social hierarchies have been dismantled, inequalities due to individual talents or preferences will simply be ‘forgotten or ignored’. They also share his strategy of defending the welfare state solely by focusing on the evils of social hierarchy, without having to grapple with the complexities of the moral evaluation of individualized inequalities.

The problem, of course, is that this strategy did not work for the earlier social democrats, and it is difficult to see why it would work today. As I discussed earlier, any real‐world welfare state will inevitably impinge on issues of individualized inequality, both in terms of who pays and who benefits. Citizens will want to know the principles underlying these policy choices, and will want to see that their institutions articulate defensible moral norms of fairness and responsibility. In the absence of such clearly articulated principles, citizens may come to see the tax/transfer patterns of the welfare state as, (p.30) at best, simply a pay‐off to whatever special interests happen to be in power, and at worst, as a morally perverse way of penalizing hard‐working contributors to subsidize the indolent or imprudent.

This is the problem that the earlier social democratic project ran into, and this is the reason why the left turned to liberal egalitarianism in the first place. Recent authors offer the social conception of equality as an alternative to the perceived deficiencies of the liberal egalitarian model that now dominates the left, but they ignore the fact that liberal egalitarianism became dominant because it helped rescue the left from the deficiencies of the previously dominant social conception of equality. Defences of the welfare state that are agnostic or indifferent to issues of individualized inequality have proven unsustainable.

So I am not persuaded that the social conception of equality offers a viable alternative to the liberal egalitarian project, for both philosophical and strategic reasons. From a philosophical point of view, the social conception of equality is too narrow in its focus on public status, ignoring the importance of material inequalities for people's capacities to pursue their personal projects and conceptions of the good. Of course, given today's inhospitable climate, we might well accept such a limited goal as the best we can realistically achieve. But even this narrow goal may be strategically unattainable if it is divorced from a broader account of individual fairness and responsibility. Even if our aim is simply to protect social equality, we may still need to integrate considerations of individual fairness and responsibility in order to sustain public support for the sorts of taxes and transfers that any welfare state requires.


One of the most striking intellectual developments over the past thirty years is the extent to which the left has made its peace with liberalism. In my view, this has generally been a positive development, for both sides. Leftists have made important contributions to the development of liberal theories of justice, of which Cohen's own writings on the ‘currency’ and ‘site’ of egalitarian justice are a prime example. And liberalism has provided important intellectual support to the social democratic welfare state at a time when the latter was under a powerful attack.12

(p.31) However, not everyone is happy with this marriage of the left and liberalism. There are lingering worries that adopting liberal concepts has had a distorting effect on the left. In particular, the liberal egalitarian conception of distributive justice is said to distract us away from urgent issues of social hierarchy and oppression into metaphysically obscure and politically marginal issues about the distinction between choices and circumstances. Moreover, this liberal discourse is said to generate an ethos of disrespect and distrust, by requiring shameful revelation, pity, and paternalistic moralizing.

In this chapter, I have offered a qualified defence of the left–liberal marriage. I have suggested that liberal egalitarianism, far from distracting us from the social democratic project, actually helped rescue it by remedying deficiencies in the traditional social democratic conception of equality. The vulnerability of the welfare state to the New Right's critique showed clearly that any viable project of social equality must be integrated into a larger framework of justice that includes principles for assessing individualized inequalities.

This larger liberal framework does pose the risk of creating an ethos of disrespect and distrust. But I have suggested that we can reduce this risk by viewing liberal egalitarian principles as primarily self‐directed rather than other‐directed. According to this view, morally conscientious citizens apply these principles to the evaluation of their own claims on resources—and institutions nurture a public ethos in which citizens accept a civic duty to engage in this sort of self‐reflection and self‐moderation—but we refrain from trying to intrusively scrutinize or verify whether other people's claims are consistent with these norms.

Needless to say, this may be sociologically naive. Perhaps the more institutions encourage citizens to critically reflect on the moral legitimacy of their own claims, the more this will incite citizens to engage in invasive scrutiny and heavily moralized judgements of others’ claims, thereby eroding the feelings of solidarity and trust that sustained the practice of justice in the first place. I confess that I am unsure how to judge the plausibility of these different predictions about how an ethos of liberal egalitarianism would function.

However, if the liberal egalitarian view I have described is naive, I think the social democratic alternative is even more unrealistic. Critics of liberal egalitarianism suggest that if we reverted to a more traditional social democratic conception of equality, in which issues of individual responsibility are less central, citizens would be less likely to engage in invasive and moralized judgements of other people's claims. I think this is almost certainly false. I suspect that citizens are more likely to engage in such judgements if they think that public institutions are not encouraging people to make these judgements (p.32) on their own. If public institutions do not instruct individuals critically to reflect on the legitimacy of their own claims, fellow citizens may feel compelled to make these judgements for them. Indeed, it seems to me that this is precisely what occurred in response to the perceived flaws of the original social democratic welfare state.

This suggests that left‐wing critics of liberal egalitarianism have misread recent history. There has undoubtedly been a pronounced tendency in recent years for citizens to make invasive and moralized judgements about the deservingness of other people. Critics argue that this distressing phenomenon is the result of the rise of liberal egalitarianism, and its preoccupation with distinguishing voluntary from involuntary disadvantages, which they view as encouraging a distrustful and disrespectful attitude to our co‐citizens. They suggest that reverting to a more traditional social democratic conception that focuses solely on social inequalities, rather than responsibility for individualized inequalities, would reverse this unattractive trend in our public culture.

I would argue, however, that it was precisely the perceived moral flabbiness of the traditional social democratic welfare state, with its indifference to individual responsibility, that helped generate the trend towards a public culture of distrust and disrespect. Citizens took it upon themselves to aggressively assert norms of individual responsibility because social democratic institutions were seen as indifferent to these norms.13 If this analysis is correct, reverting to a traditional social democratic conception of equality that is agnostic or indifferent to questions of individual responsibility is likely to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the public culture of disrespect and distrust. Put another way, reverting to the traditional social democratic conception of equality cannot be the solution to a public culture of distrust, since that public culture arose (in part) as a response to the perceived flaws of that very conception.

In this sense, I think that the left has no choice but to take on board liberal concerns about individual responsibility. The difficult question is how left‐liberals can promote norms of individual responsibility in a way that is effective but non‐intrusive and non‐demeaning. I have no clear answer to that question, but I suspect that the long‐term prospects of both liberal egalitarianism and social democracy depend on finding an answer. I also believe that, as Cohen has argued, the answer requires greater attention to questions of public culture and social ethos than either liberals or socialists have typically paid.


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(1) See Sypnowich (2003) for a related discussion of liberalism's contribution to the left's theorizing about equality.

(2) See Bourdieu (1987) for the persistence of these class distinctions.

(3) Note that this perception is likely to grow, not diminish, as the basic framework of the welfare state is established. For example, as universal free and compulsory education is established, and as non‐discrimination laws are enforced, it becomes more plausible to think that economic inequalities are due to individual talents or choices rather than inherited social position.

(4) Much of this evidence is American, and may not be as prevalent in the European context.

(5) Kymlicka (2002: ch. 3) gives a fuller presentation.

(6) ‘My root belief is that there is injustice in distribution when inequality of goods reflects not such things as differences in the arduousness of different people's labors, or people's different preferences and choices with respect to income and leisure, but myriad forms of lucky and unlucky circumstance’ (Cohen 1997: 12).

(7) The question of which institutions would best implement liberal egalitarianism is contested. Dworkin's own proposal involves a complex mixture of markets and insurance schemes, which he describes as a ‘third way’ between traditional socialist equality and free‐market libertarianism (Dworkin 2000: 7). For example, he argues that his theory explains why we need both a system of public health care and also the option to buy private health insurance: the former is needed to equalize circumstances and the latter to be choice‐sensitive. Similarly, he says that his theory shows the necessity of combining generous welfare provisions (to equalize circumstances for those with lesser natural talents) with certain workfare requirements (to ensure that talented but lazy people pay for the costs of their choices) (ibid., chs. 8–9). Critics, however, have described these institutional proposals as ‘surprisingly conservative’ (Macleod 1998: 151). They are primarily focused on ex post corrections to the inequalities generated by the market—that is, they take the existing level of inequality in market income as a given, and ask how best to tax some of the unequal income of the advantaged and transfer it to the disadvantaged. But these proposals leave unaddressed an important plank in his theory—namely, that people should have equal ex ante endowments when they enter the market. Others have attempted to develop more thorough‐going proposals for achieving equality of resources. Indeed, many of the most creative suggestions for refining and implementing such a theory have come from erstwhile Marxists and socialists like Van Parijs (1991, 1995, 2000); Roemer (1993, 1994, 1995, 1999); and of course Cohen himself. I discuss some of these proposals in Kymlicka (2002: ch. 3).

(8) As Cohen notes, the centrality of social ethos to the liberal egalitarian project has been occluded by Rawls's famous claim that principles of justice apply to the ‘basic structure of society’. On one reading of this claim, Rawls is saying that while public institutions must operate on the basis of principles of justice, individuals in their own economic decisions need not, and may instead act solely on the basis of their individual self‐interest. Cohen has carefully dissected the multiple ambiguities in this position, and shown why a consistent reading of Rawls's underlying moral premises requires that individuals as well as public institutions act from a sense of justice (Cohen 1992, 1997; Murphy 1999). I won't repeat his argument here, or the debate it has generated (Estlund 1998; Smith 1998; Williams 1998; Pogge 2000). The debate is complicated by the fact that certain features of Rawls's theory of justice, particularly his ‘difference principle’, have informational and publicity conditions that can only be satisfied by institutions. But in a more general sense, the idea that Rawls's and Dworkin's arguments have implications for how individuals conceptualize and formulate their rightful claims is surely undeniable. Several of their central premises concern how individuals should understand the moral basis of their claims to resources.

(9) Its attractiveness is reflected in the fact that we find similar attempts to develop a more social model of equality, not only in the social democratic tradition but also within utilitarianism (Broome 1991: ch. 9; Temkin 1993: chs. 9 and 10), communitarianism (Sandel 1996), and feminism (Young 1990; Tronto 1993). Even some liberals and Marxists have argued for a more ‘social’ conception of justice. For example, Kaus argues that liberals should abandon what he calls ‘money liberalism’ (or distributive equality) for what he calls ‘civic liberalism’ (or social equality) (1992). Similarly, Reiman believes that Marxism should ‘take as its ideal not some distribution of things but a certain social relation among persons’ (1989). Scheffler (2003) feels that Rawls himself is best seen as advancing such a social conception of equality. On all of these views, we should abandon the attempt to distinguish voluntary from involuntary inequalities, and instead focus on the question of which material inequalities undermine social equality.

(10) In this sense, as Ian Shapiro once noted, much contemporary writing on justice is arguing within three decimal points of Rawls.

(11) This raises questions about whether or how the limited capacity of the state should influence our theorizing about justice (Rothstein 1992).

(12) The rapprochement with liberalism has also had the benefit of delegitimizing leftist tendencies towards vanguardist politics, in which party cadres and intellectuals view themselves as the vanguard of ‘the people’, and seize power in their name, regardless of their actual level of popular support. See Lilla (2003) for a discussion on the European left's tendency to indulge in such illiberal and undemocratic fantasies.

(13) This sentiment was obviously fanned by right‐wing politicians and journalists, often in reckless and dishonest ways, but the strategy worked because it resonated with pre‐existing popular worries about the welfare state.