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New Book Forum: Republic of Equals (Guest Post by Alan Thomas)

[What follows is a post by Alan Thomas, presenting a central argument from his new book Republic of Equals (OUP), available here. Please feel free to join in on the discussion. Alan is from the UK, so don’t be thrown off by his alarmingly different spellings of “defense,” “characterized,” and “nationalized.”]


Republic of Equals: Pre-distribution and Property-Owning Democracy is the first book length defence of property owning democracy as part of a tradition of egalitarianism that could reasonably be called wealth, or asset, based (as opposed to income based). (Thomas, 2017) Asset based egalitarianism is not some exotic breed of egalitarianism with which we are familiar only at the level of theory: from Land Grant universities to the federal underwriting of educational loans, from the sale of nationalised industries back to the private sector at an undervalued price to spread share ownership; from the sale of public housing stock into the private sector to the current policy of quantitative easing; in all these cases, asset based policies have had a pervasive and deep impact on inequality. (Atkinson, 2015; Hockett, 2017) However, as a perusal of this list shows, these asset based policies have typically worsened, and not ameliorated, the extensive inequality that has come to characterise the affluent societies of the West in the period from 1970 to the present day. The argument of Republic of Equals is that egalitarians need to reverse this trend and formulate a normative basis for a set of policies that move beyond the orthodox resources of the redistributively funded welfare state.

What explains the comparative neglect of asset based egalitarianism? If there is one argument that has impeded acceptance of the claim that a property-owning democracy uniquely expresses the demands of justice as fair reciprocity it is this: how can a property-owning democracy represent a radical alternative to welfare state capitalism when it so closely resembles this ostensibly competing social system? This question can be fully worked up into an argument; in my view, the most notable thing about this argument is its disjunctive form.

The argument runs as follows. Suppose that we succeed in specifying a “social system” whose institutions implement the ideal of a property-owning democracy. (Bearing in mind the important point that, unlike the other social systems to which Rawls compares his ideal of justice as reciprocal fairness, this form has never actually existed.) To what extent would its institutional forms resemble those of contemporary welfare state capitalist societies? Surely, the critic argues, the resemblance would be extensive: a more than minimal administrative state with ambitious social goals, free public education and healthcare ideally operating on a “solidaristic” basis with universal “buy in”, and an emphasis on both education and state innovation to produce an efficient “knowledge economy”. In what respects, then, might a property-owning democracy differ from this egalitarian welfare state capitalist society? The critic continues: only in the existence of some “bolt on”, ad hoc, asset based policies that seem individualistic in focus. Examples might be individual demogrants, or attempts to widen the basis of home ownership, or to widen the ownership of corporate equity.

I take it that philosophers are now suspicious of arguments of this general “disjunctive” – or at least non-conjunctive – form. This is so because of the extensive discussion of this class of arguments in the philosophy of mind (notably in the theory of perception). In general, a disjunctive argument runs as follows: take two phenomena and compare them to isolate their “highest common factor”. Now differentiate them solely in terms of that which they do not share – everything that falls outside this highest common factorial base. In the political case it seems that welfare state capitalism and property owning democracies share, as their highest common factor, an extensive range of institutional forms and policies. So the only thing left to differentiate them is that which they do not share: individualistic, asset based, policies.

Interestingly, with this initial move made, the argument can be developed in two radically different directions. On the political Right, a concern with individual “responsibility sensitivity” can see the market (assumed to be a morally privileged institution in which every agent is equally powerless – forced to take whatever price he or she must take) expanded to replace core state functions while the individual is, indeed, pre-armed with a bundle of assets and then exposed to a responsibility sensitive outcome as a result of voluntary market transactions. (Perhaps with a limited “safety net” for the unlucky, or the irresponsible, in the guise of a residual welfare state.) Having identified the non-shared component that distinctively picks out a property-owning democracy, this component is then used to “reconstruct” the base. This reflects the ambivalent history of the ideal of a property-owning democracy that can, indeed, come in egalitarian and inegalitarian forms.

The inegalitarian form is a mirror image of the conception of a property-owning democracy on the political Left. The Left identify a property-owning democracy as constituted wholly by a set of individualistic, asset based, ad hoc policy proposals. On that basis it is dismissed as either minimal and uninteresting compared to the ambitious goals of socialism, or as encouraging workers to “think like the bosses” in precisely the way that the Right envisages. It is either, then, to be accommodated in the form of some limited policies added on to the agenda of orthodox welfare state capitalism, or it is to be resisted as potentially corrosive of social solidarity.

At this point in the argument a cross-cutting issue intrudes: proponents of a property-owning democracy sometimes describe their view as a “pre-distributive” as opposed to a “re-distributive” form of egalitarianism. With this disjunctive interpretation of a property-owning democracy to hand this distinction can be interpreted in a certain way. It is interpreted wholly literally as taking the prefix “pre-“ in predistribution to mean temporally prior; perhaps temporally prior to entering the labour market. Combine the disjunctive argument with this temporal understanding of “predistribution” and we end up with this thesis: proponents of a property-owning democracy want to add to orthodox egalitarianism a concern with early life stage interventions by the state. Now, given that welfare state societies already take education seriously, all that we can distinctively mean by this is asset (pre-) distribution in the form of so-called “baby bonds” or perhaps a demogrant targeted at young people.

I do not deny that a property-owning democracy may well involve “baby bonds” or individual demogrants. In Republic of Equals I do deny that this is all that can be meant by a predistributive, asset based, egalitarianism that combines a concern for justice with a concern for the ideal of democracy. This disjunctive comparison between a property-owning democracy and welfare state capitalism significantly underestimates the radicalism of the former. Influenced by Cambridge economist James Meade, Rawls’s later concern with a property-owning democracy in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement aims at nothing less than a restructuring of a society’s fundamental wage setting institutions. I argue that highlighting the significant points of overlap between Rawls’s late views and those of the superficially competing tradition of republicanism illuminates a goal shared by both Rawls and the republican: a conception of an expanded basic structure for society, extending to its fundamental wage setting institutions, that seeks to make the domination of one citizen by another structurally impossible. (Bohman, 2010; Thomas, 2017)

A pre-distributive egalitarianism of this kind certainly includes free, high quality, public education and healthcare, but also taxation of wealth and property, republican rights of worker contestation, democracy in many workplaces alongside a strengthened right of worker exit, and fair and universal access to ownership of the means of production (either equity or debt). Civil society is renovated by judicious nudging, by the state, of the countervailing power of free associations – within the overall context of that which Mark Warren has called a  balanced “associational ecology” of groups. (Some good for democracy, some bad, some indifferent.) Markets are made fair in the only way in which they feasibly can be made fair, namely, by placing them in a context of fair and universal access to capital. Two and a half centuries of capitalism have made it clear the tendency to oligarchic governance correlates with the long-run accumulation of capital that is not a defect in the operation of markets, but only to expected when they are working as they should. (Piketty, 2014; Farrell, 2015)

The lesson of our recent history is that if the pact between a liberal democratic state and capitalist forms of economic organisation is to endure, then its terms have to be re-negotiated. It is the distinctive claim of asset based egalitarianism that it is the only form of egalitarianism that can achieve the goals of justice as reciprocity, non-domination and democracy in a mutually compossible way. In the eyes of many insightful commentators democracy has fallen on hard times and maybe, indeed, we should be trying to break the spell that it holds over us. (Dunn, 2014) Republic of Equals makes the case that, on the contrary, the option of jointly honoring all our ideals is still available to us.

Alan Thomas
University of York
List of Works Cited

Atkinson, Anthony (2015) Inequality: What Can Be Done? Harvard University Press.

Bohman, James (2010) ‘Is Hegel a Republican?: Pippin, Recognition and Domination in the Philosophy of Right.’ Inquiry, 53:5 435–449.

Dunn, John (2014) Breaking Democracy’s Spell, Yale University Press.

Farrell, Henry (2015) ‘Piketty, in Three Parts’, Crooked Timber, December 15.

Hockett, Robert (2017) A Republic of Owners: Jeffersonian Democracy, Hamiltonian Finance, and a Program of Post-Crisis Politico-Economic Renewal, Yale University Press.

Meade, James (1993) Liberty, Equality and Efficiency, Macmillan.

Piketty Thomas (2014) Capital in the Twenty First Century, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press.

Rawls, John (1971/1999) A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press.

Rawls, John (2001) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Harvard University Press.

Thomas, Alan (2017) Republic of Equals: Pre-distribution and Property-Owning Democracy, Oxford University Press.

Warren, Mark E. (2004) ‘What Kind of Civil Society is Best for Democracy?’, Portuguese Journal of Social Science, 3:1 683–701.

White, Stuart (2003) The Civic Minimum: On the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship, Oxford University Press.

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