Neoliberal Social Justice

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What sort of social institutions best represent Rawlsian commitments to free and equal citizenship and distributive justice? Many philosophers believe that the answer must be either liberal socialism or a property-owning democracy based on the radical redistribution of wealth. However, the Rawlsian case for socialism is generally made without considering two key realistic challenges to human sociability: the knowledge problem and the incentive problem. 

In Neoliberal Social Justice, I apply the framework of robust political economy to this question. It allows us to compare potential solutions to the problem of social justice under realistic conditions. In such scenarios, the more familiar institutions of capitalism and constitutional liberal democracy are better aligned with Rawlsian commitments than socialism. This reveals unexpected common ground between the liberalisms of the left and right.

Critical Acclaim for Neoliberal Social Justice

‘The problem any political group faces is how to generate morally binding political choice that somehow reconciles the conflicting plans and purposes of many citizens. The “first-wave” Rawlsians argued that consensus necessarily emerges from the reasoned consideration of shared goals. The “second-wave”, including Tom Christiano, Gerald Gaus, and others, used Rawlsian methods but amended Rawls’s conclusions, suggesting concrete procedures by which a binding consensus could be generated. In this book, Cowen proposes a novel third approach: expand Rawls’s approach to incorporate the limitations of real political arrangements to solve the problem of discovery and incentives. Cowen’s conclusion, that even – and perhaps especially – doctrinaire Rawlsians should support liberal institutions such as market systems and capitalist profit and loss, is sure to generate controversy. But the book is well-argued, and the argument is firmly situated in substantive arguments in political philosophy. Cowen’s work is a landmark in our understanding of the relationship between ethical theories and practical politics.’

– Michael C. Munger, Duke University, US

‘Neoliberal Social Justice is a remarkable book. Nick Cowen shows that John Rawls’s normative commitments, if complemented by institutional and market-process economics, actually support classical liberal public policies. This is a unique and extremely valuable achievement.’

– Mario Rizzo, New York University, US

‘From Rousseau and Smith to John Rawls and Milton Friedman, liberalism has wished humans to be equal. In his closely argued yet lucid book, Nick Cowen melds the left and right of liberalism. Such an equality requires a plausible theory of what’s economically and politically possible. This Cowen elegantly supplies.’

– Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, author of Why Liberalism Works