Another note on Rawls

Disputes are always with us, so it is not surprising that John Rawls says that a society with liberal democratic institutions always has a plurality of views on fundamental issues. According to Rawls, the consequence is that we have to accept his principles of government, because the alternative is oppression and violence, and because (apparently) everyone reasonable agrees with his views so the problem of pluralistic disagreement does not apply. In fact, of course, the consequence is that a society that claims to be liberal and democratic in any very strong sense will be neither, but will rather be based on obfuscation that passes off dissent and sullen practical acquiescence as universal agreement among the sane and well-intentioned.

The self-representation of the current public order as democratic and tolerant is the opposite of its reality. Popular government is not the principle of any system that believes in dissolving the people through open borders and multiculturalism and so making it unable to define itself and act. Nor can tolerance be the principle of any system whatever, since all government is based on forbidding some things and suppressing some attitudes and purposes. The “pluralism” our present society favors regards only views the dominant powers want to neutralize and drive out of public life. It’s legitimate to be either Catholic or Protestant, since the authorities don’t want religion to have any public influence, but not to claim that the distinction between the sexes is legitimately relevant to social order.

The claim that advanced liberalism is uniquely free, rational and transparent is therefore an inversion of the facts. In reality, the Rawlsian view depends for its stability not on actual possession of the ideal qualities it claims but on hiding the ball and on practical acceptance in varying degrees by four classes of citizens:

  1. Experts—academics, social scientists, lawyers, jurists and whatnot—are the key class in the Rawlsian state. Rawls himself was an expert, his theory puts experts firmly in control of everything, and the “reflective equilibrium” that validates the Rawlsian theory is a sort of idealization of the dominant outlook of of experts as a class.
  2. The rule of expertise is in practice the rule of bureaucrats and managers, since the latter put expertise into effect, and since bureaucrats and managers draw their power from claims of neutral expertise. Whatever pleases the experts will therefore please the the bureaucrats and managers.
  3. The influence of wealth is often exaggerated, since the separation of ownership and control means that the rich as such rarely exercise personal power. Experts, bureaucrats and managers have an intrinsic functional connection to power and its exercise that the wealthy lack, and wealth is a target for predators as well as a source of influence. Nonetheless, it promotes stability to line up all major social powers in support of the established order, and the difference principle gives the rich, especially the new and therefore aggressive rich, the cover they need to justify their holdings. The rich can therefore live quite happily with the advanced liberal order.
  4. The views of the people don’t much matter as such, but must be neutered so they don’t cause trouble. The people therefore get rhetorical deference (the system is called “democracy” and is said to be based on their will), but in practice their views are treated as a problem to be managed and minimized to the extent they are at odds with what the other classes want to do.

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