It is a tour de force of philosophical excellence. It may well be the best book of political philosophy published in 2017. I certainly haven’t read anything this year that comes close to competing with it.
Imagine a person said, “I have a solution to the problem of drunk driving. However, my solution works only in a world where alcohol hadn’t been invented.” There’s something deeply silly and incoherent about that.
Well, it turns out that the mainstream of political philosophy over the past 50 years has precisely this problem. The mainline of political philosophy, when it tries to defend or critique various institutions, has largely been a joke, Freiman shows us, though he’s too polite to put it that bluntly.
What Freiman shows is that Rawls, Freeman, Ackerman, Dworkin, and a number of other left-liberal philosophers are making this kind of mistake over and over. His critique is so devastating that you might as well take Rawls’s writings about institutions and throw them in the trash; they are now, thanks to Chris, nothing more than artifacts of historical interest.
Chris starts by saying,
A perfect state is a pointless state.
The point of a state is to mitigate injustice. If Rich would donate his 40% to the poor, the state wouldn’t need to tax his income. If Mimi would buy a hybrid instead of a Hummer, the state wouldn’t need to cap her emissions. But since virtue alone won’t do the job, the state needs to redistribute equitably and regulate efficiently.
…But here’s the problem: the very reasons why the state is needed are reasons why the state won’t work.
Rawls writes mostly at the level of ideal theory. But, Freiman shows, an ideal theory of the state is incoherent. (Yes, he responds to Kavka’s argument otherwise.) Under ideal conditions–in which people are stipulated to comply fully with the requirements of morality and justice–there simply is no need for a state, period. There is no need to create an institution which claims a monopoly on violence and which enforces rules through threats of violence. Ideal theory must be anarchist.
Coercion is needed to defend justice only when society is less than fully just. But when society is less than fully just, we cannot stipulate the ideal justness of the state itself. So we arrive at the dilemma for ideal theories of the state: either (i) society is fully just, in which case there is no need for a state, or (ii) society is not fully just, in which we case we may not stipulate the state itself is just.
In order to create a need for a state, Rawls (and his followers) equivocate. They posit bad behavior in the private sector. But then, in order to defend their favored regime and in order to avoid the criticism that the regime itself might be corrupt and make things worse, they imagine away all bad behavior in the public sphere.
For example, Rawls claims that we need to equalize incomes in order to prevent the rich from buying power for themselves. (Freiman thinks that’s a weird argument to begin with; in order to stop people from polluting, we don’t equalize income; rather we regulate pollution.) But here’s the dilemma.
…The only way to ground both (i) the need for regulation and (ii) the stipulation of the regulation’s success is to equivocate in precisely the way Rawls does.
So, to restore consistency, Rawls needs to resolve a dilemma: Either (i) the rich aren’t buying up state power, in which case equalization isn’t necessary, or (ii) the rich are buying up state power, in which case they can subvert equalization by buying up the state power unleashed to do the equalizing. Neither option justifies an a priori demand for equalization.
A few other philosophers, including G. A. Cohen and me, have pointed out that Rawls makes cartoonishly bad arguments like this here and there. But Freiman methodically goes through Rawls and a few others, and finds they make such arguments constantly. Rawls’s version of the public goods argument, his argument for redistribution taxation, his argument for the existence of the state, and so on, all have the same form: He’s giving us a theory about how to solve drunk driving, but his solution can only be stipulated to work in a world where alcohol had never been invented.
In the end, the mistake is that Rawls is trying to make a priori arguments for institutions, regime-types, and rules. These arguments all fail. They are no substitute for doing careful PPE-style empirical institutional analysis. Freiman closes by warning left-liberals not just to presume that empirical analysis will vindicate the exact institutions they were defending on entirely a priori grounds.
Again, the book is a tour-de-force. You should read it. It will make you a better thinker.
Here’s my blurb for the book:
Unequivocal Justice, with its delightful and engaging prose, is a devastating critique of the dominant arguments and methods in political philosophy. It shows that almost everything Rawls and other left-liberals have said about institutions over the past 50 years is not merely wrong, but incoherent. It should–if philosophers have an intellectual integrity–change the field forever.
Strong words, but entirely deserved.