Is the American Dream over? Credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

January 19, 2021   6 mins

Imagine being given the power to design your ideal society, in which you will spend the rest of your days. But there’s a catch. You don’t know who you are. Male or female? Black or white? Rich or poor? Christian, Muslim or Jew? The much-loved child of a contented family, or a frightened refugee from a broken home?

Given this “veil of ignorance”, drifting unmoored from history, what would you choose? A cutthroat, greedy glorified casino? A land structured by the hierarchies of class, wealth, race and gender? An egalitarian but oppressive East German dictatorship? Or, more plausibly, some kind of Scandinavian-style social democracy, in which the strong and ambitious have room to rise, but there’s a well-provisioned welfare state for the weak and unlucky?

Such, in very simplistic terms, is the argument developed in John Rawls’s seminal book A Theory of Justice, which was published exactly fifty years ago this month. For many readers, it remains the last genuinely great work of Anglo-American philosophy, an enduring guide to the principles behind a good society. In the United States it sold an estimated 300,000 copies, though how many readers made it all the way through is an unanswerable question. And almost overnight, it turned Rawls into the leading champion of liberal democratic pluralism, apparently reconciling individual liberty and social good, freedom and fairness, aspiration and responsibility.

That was Rawls in January 1971. Half a century on, what went wrong? In the academy, Rawls retains a high position. Even though his book has been challenged, philosophy students and professors across the English-speaking world still speak his name with awe. Yet the values he came to represent – justice, fairness, decency, pluralism – have rarely seemed so embattled. Perhaps, in some parallel universe, Hillary Clinton is currently hosting a White House event to mark Rawls’s legacy. Not in our own, though. Instead, in an irony of exquisite cruelty, the anniversary of Rawls’s most famous work coincided with the gravest crisis in American democracy since the Civil War: an orgy of violence at the United States Capitol actively encouraged by President Trump.

“President Trump”. To Rawls – a shy, gentlemanly, scholarly man, who taught for four decades at Harvard and died in 2002 – those two words would surely have been utterly unimaginable, the antithesis of everything he held dear. But of course philosophy – just like history, social science, art and culture – reflects the age in which it was written. And Rawls’s world, to put it bluntly, is dead. He may be about to exit the White House, but we live in Trump’s world now.

Rawls’s life tells the wider story. He was born in Baltimore in 1921. In those days his hometown was a handsome and enormously successful port, railroad hub and manufacturing city – a far cry from the drug-scarred wasteland depicted in The Wire. The son of a well-known local lawyer, he lost two of his brothers in childhood to diphtheria and pneumonia – a reminder of the fragility of life in pre-New Deal, pre-Great Society America. And he grew up in an environment suffused with understated religious belief, studying theology at Princeton and seriously considering entering an Episcopalian seminary.

Yet the single biggest influence on Rawls was the Second World War. He served in the infantry in the Pacific and endured days under fire in the trenches in the Philippines. According to one account, the future philosopher found this particularly traumatic because he and his comrades knew it would end in torrents of blood: the Japanese would never surrender and would take no prisoners. “One soldier in a dugout close to Rawls stood up and deliberately removed his helmet to take a bullet to the head,’ it says, ‘choosing to die rather than endure the constant barrage.” That was not all. A few weeks after the war ended, Rawls was sent to Hiroshima. There he gazed upon the ruins of what had once been a thriving city, the ultimate demonstration of man’s power for destruction. Some fifty years later, he was still haunted by the sight.

For the next quarter-century, however, Rawls lived in a world that was demonstrably getting better. It is hard to think of any society, at any time, that has ever matched the dynamism, optimism and cultural confidence of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s – the years of booming suburbs and jangling jukeboxes, drive-in movies and Technicolor blockbusters, Vladimir Nabokov and Marilyn Monroe, the civil rights movement, the Apollo missions and the New Frontier. This was the world in which Rawls moved to Harvard and began work on his great work. The articles flowed: “Justice as Fairness”, “The Sense of Justice”, “Distributive Justice”, laying the foundations for the behemoth to come.

Later, critics complained that Rawls had been too kind to his own society, his own time. He was too comfortable, they said, too moderate. He assumed too much common ground; he had produced an elegant justification for the liberalism of his class. As the New Republic’s Linda Hirshman later put it: “Just close your eyes, Rawls said, and think of what kind of political society you would make if you didn’t know who you were … and you’d produce unlimited free speech and moderately redistributive capitalism.” In Hirshman’s words, “this white male Harvard professor closed his eyes and produced the government of Cambridge, Massachusetts”.

Even if that’s true, can you blame him? In the mid-1960s, if you had asked most people around the world where and when they would choose to be born, where they would take their chances behind a veil of ignorance, they would probably have chosen the United States of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In the richest, most powerful country on earth, the latter’s Great Society was transforming the lives of millions, offering a hand-out to those who needed it. Unemployment was a thing of the past, inflation not yet a pressing concern. Americans drove American cars, and they always would. Things could only get better. In this context, why wouldn’t you assume that given the right liberal principles, people would inevitably find their way to a fairer society?

But in January 1971, when A Theory of Justice reached the shelves, the wheels were coming off. This was Richard Nixon’s America now: more abrasive, more divided, more anxious about the future. The carnage in Vietnam was taking a heavy toll. The shambles of Watergate, the last time sensible people were seriously worried about a presidential coup, would deal a severe blow to the image of American democracy. The OPEC oil shock, the widening fissures of race and gender, the growing anxieties about crime and pornography, the sense of a chasm between the “elites” and the “people”, even the first glimmers of a technological revolution that would destroy millions of jobs worldwide – all these things were taking shape in Nixon’s America, at the very moment of Rawls’s intellectual triumph. Even Donald Trump was taking his first steps into the Manhattan real estate market.

The decades since then, spanning the lifetime of anybody under the age of fifty, have not been kind to the assumptions with which Rawls grew up. In 1971 it was reasonable to think that with the advances of the civil rights and feminist movements, social solidarity would become stronger, not weaker. As rising affluence closed the gap between rich and poor, people would become more aware of what they had in common. And the new gospel of court-protected human rights – of which Rawls is often seen as a champion – would ensure even the weakest were treated fairly and equally. All perfectly sensible expectations. All wrong.

Perhaps the biggest thing, though, is simply a question of style. When critics discuss Rawls today, they almost always mention that he was a middle-class, Ivy League-educated white man. In radical circles, the value that he personified above all – a quiet, reserved, urbane civility – is now treated as fake, inauthentic, a marker of privilege. Even that brilliant image of the “veil of ignorance” is now used to beat him. “Eyes Wide Shut: John Rawls’s Silence on Racial Injustice” reads the title of one blistering academic essay. “He placed many layers of muffling abstraction between his readers and real-world struggles for justice,” complains another critic. “Rawls was so deeply in the grip of white ignorance about the centrality of racism and white supremacy to the creation of the modern Western world,” the black philosopher Charles W. Mills recently explained, that black students who dream of change “will get no help from white Rawlsianism”.

So much, then, for one of the greatest philosophers the New World has ever produced. There’s plenty of time for a comeback, of course, and A Theory of Justice will surely never go out of print. But will the next fifty years be kinder to Rawls? Probably not. The next half-century is unlikely to be an age of self-confident liberal pluralism: quite apart from the strongmen in Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, American democracy itself has rarely seemed in weaker health. And the common ground, the tolerance and decency for which Rawls stood, seems vanishingly elusive.

One story says it all. Last autumn, while the staff of the New York Times were tearing themselves apart about the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing violence in America’s streets, one columnist circulated a copy of Rawls’s essay on public reason. “What we’re having is really a philosophical conversation, and it concerns the unfinished business of liberalism,” she wrote. “I think that all human beings are born philosophers, that is, that we all have an innate desire to understand what our world means and what we owe to one another and how to live good lives.”

“Philosophy schmosiphy,” one of her colleagues wrote back. “We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?”

Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982