Welcome to the NDPR discussion of Alan Thomas’s new book Republic of Equals: Predistribution and Property-Owning Democracies, recently reviewed by James Lindley Wilson at NDPR. We have invited both Alan and James to participate, and we encourage readers to comment as well on anything related to Alan’s book or James’s review. Blurbs for each below the fold.
From the OUP blurb: The first book length study of property-owning democracy, Republic of Equals argues that a society in which capital is universally accessible to all citizens is uniquely placed to meet the demands of justice. Arguing from a basis in liberal-republican principles, this expanded conception of the economic structure of society contextualizes the market to make its transactions fair. The author shows that a property-owning democracy structures economic incentives such that the domination of one agent by another in the market is structurally impossible. The result is a renovated form of capitalism in which the free market is no longer a threat to social democratic values, but is potentially convergent with them.
From Wilson’s review: Rawls’ later writings on different economic systems raise several important questions. Most obviously: what is the difference between “welfare-state capitalism” and “property-owning democracy,” and why is the latter superior? And is there any reason to prefer property-owning democracy or liberal socialism? This book provides answers to these questions, defending the superiority of property-owning democracy (POD) to liberal socialism and to revised or idealized versions of welfare-state capitalism. Sustained argument on these fronts is welcome, given the urgency of practical questions involving the aims of reform, and the relatively little attention writers have given to POD. (This has begun to change recently.) The level of policy detail, informed by Alan Thomas’s studies of historians, economists, and political scientists, is impressive. Thomas also argues that once we accept that justice as fairness requires POD, we can better respond to some major philosophical challenges to Rawls’ theory of justice, including how best to interpret the difference principle; whether, as G.A. Cohen argued, Rawls’ theory is indefensibly inegalitarian and his conception of justice adequate to protect the basic liberties.
The reader might doubt that working out the institutional implications of the principles of justice can do much to defend the principles from challenges directed at the principles themselves. But Thomas is explicit that the institutional or “background” context within which the principles will be implemented can contribute to the holistic justification of the principles and their implications (5, 44, 64, 121, 127). In Thomas’s favor is the Rawlsian method of reflective equilibrium, which, as I mentioned, holds that the complete justification of a conception of justice requires evaluation of its institutional implications. Institutional specificity also allows us to test better the stability of a conception of justice (xviii, 104, 292). Thomas’s holism is more ambitious, however, in the justificatory work that “contextual” implications are said to do for principles that are logically prior. Thomas believes that institutional context constrains the operation of principles. Given the right context, the operation of the principles will then be more defensible. Property-owning democracy is, according to him, the right context for Rawls’ principles of justice. While his arguments on behalf of POD are thorough, and will be valuable for anyone interested in the practical implications of Rawlsian principles, I remain skeptical about Thomas’s suggestion that this conclusion helps defend the principles themselves.