According to this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article...

Given that liberalism fractures on so many issues — the nature of liberty, the place of property and democracy in a just society, the comprehensiveness and the reach of the liberal ideal — one might wonder whether there is any point in talking of ‘liberalism’ at all. It is not, though, an unimportant or trivial thing that all these theories take liberty to be the grounding political value. Radical democrats assert the overriding value of equality, communitarians maintain that the demands of belongingness trump freedom, and conservatives complain that the liberal devotion to freedom undermines traditional values and virtues and so social order itself. Intramural disputes aside, liberals join in rejecting these conceptions of political right.

Yet from the same article...

Since the 1960s when Rawls began to publish the elements of his emerging theory, liberal political philosophers have analyzed, and disputed, his famous ‘difference principle’ according to which a just basic structure of society arranges social and economic inequalities such that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off representative group (1999b:266). For Rawls, the default is not liberty but rather an equal distribution of (basically) income and wealth; only inequalities that best enhance the long-term prospects of the least advantaged are just. As Rawls sees it, the difference principle constitutes a public recognition of the principle of reciprocity: the basic structure is to be arranged such that no social group advances at the cost of another (2001: 122–24).

This version of "liberalism" appears willing to make any and all trade-offs between liberty and outcome-equality in favor of the latter, which is supposed to be the definition of the radical democrats' conception of political right liberals join in rejecting. This apparent contradiction should hold independently of explicating a precise liberty concept; a positive liberty cooked to be identical to outcome-equality reduces the entire trade-off to rhetoric, and any other liberty concept creates this apparent misclassification of Rawlsian "liberalism." The article also says...

One stark difference that emerges from this is that Rawlsian liberalism’s theory of justice is a theory about how to distribute the pie while old liberalism’s theory of justice is a theory about how to treat bakers (Schmidtz, 2022).

However, it then goes on to say...

Nozick, recalling the focus on connecting property rights to liberty that animated liberalism in its classical form, notes that if there is anything at all people can do, even if the only thing they are free to do is give a coin to an entertainer, then even that tiniest of liberties will, over time, disturb the favored pattern. Nozick is right that if we focus on time slices, we focus on isolated moments, and take moments too seriously, when what matters is not the pattern of holdings at a moment but the pattern of how people treat each other over time. Even tiny liberties must upset the pattern of a static moment. By the same token, however, there is no reason why liberty must upset an ongoing pattern of fair treatment. A moral principle forbidding racial discrimination, for example, prescribes no particular end-state. Such a principle is what Nozick calls weakly patterned, sensitive to history as well as to pattern, and prescribing an ideal of how people should be treated without prescribing an end-state distribution. It affects the pattern without prescribing a pattern.

This seems hard to distinguish from both old liberal and radical democrat simultaneously. It sound a lot like a theory about how to treat bakers (old liberal), but if it's a tactic for how to treat bakers only as a means of reverse engineering the implementation of a theory about how to distribute the pie, then the overriding value is just outcome-equality (radical democrat) and treating bakers well, or fairly, or as agents with liberty, are only political maneuvers to be adorned or discarded as fits the circumstances.

How can sense be made of this view as a new form of liberalism?

  • Because the difference principle is tertiary to the overarching second principle of justice, which is secondary to the first principle of justice, the principle of equal liberty. To be fair(!), though, Rawls prefers the democratic to the liberal interpretation of the second principle's equality proviso. Oct 3 at 17:43
  • All forms of equalitarianism and managed economy are directly opposed to any plausible theory of liberty. The whole point of liberty is that people can make their own choices rather than having those choices forced on them by people with guns, and it is impossible to manage an economy or guarantee any sort of equality of outcome without sending men with guns to force certain behaviors on people. Oct 3 at 17:57
  • "For Rawls, the default is not liberty but rather an equal distribution of (basically) income and wealth..." A few paragraphs later:"the pattern Rawls meant to endorse was a pattern of equal status, applying not so much to a distribution as to an ongoing relationship." The author does not seem to be able to make up his mind, but the second version seems more correct to me. And it does distinguish Rawls from "radical democrats". Liberty is not cooked to be identical to outcome-equality, status-equality is cooked to make liberty realistically possible given skepticism about property and markets.
    – Conifold
    Oct 3 at 20:27
  • After all the extensive quotes, what exactly do you mean by "this view"? Oct 3 at 22:05

1 Answer 1


Perhaps the concept of "liberty per se" is not very stable, or is even self-defeating. The freedom-to-lose-freedom, for example, seems (A) wrong to use or (B) wrong to even have. So one might focus instead on different kinds of more specific liberty/freedom, such as political-vs.-private (debate/voting rights or more "personal" bills-of-rights), or positive-vs.-negative, or whatever other such distinctions might come to mind.

Rawls addresses these issues variously throughout A Theory of Justice. He mentions, for example, Condorcet's discourse on the liberty-of-the-ancients compared to that of-the-moderns as an example of the political-vs.-private-freedom dialectic. Or he brings up Sidgwick's lament about Kantian freedom, that it seems to allow for noumenal scoundrels who both have, and use, the freedom-to-lose-freedom, except without actually losing it. In terms of the generic sense of words like "liberty" and "freedom," then, Rawls both situates his theory in the liberal tradition (although again, when it comes to the difference principle, which is not the first principle of justice, he favors a democratic over a merely-liberal interpretation) and defends this tradition ably well.

Now, as for why the SEP article agrees with this situation, it was written by three different authors together, one with only an email listed, the next linked to from a personal website, and the third whose link is also to a personal website but vividly affiliated with the University of Arizona. With respect to the second listed author, Gerald Gaus, we have a link on his page to a journal named Cato Unbound, and an article "For a New Liberalism," except this article itself then appears to have four authors, three besides Gaus. At any rate, the opening paragraph of the abstract(?) for Gaus' contribution reads:

In recent years, political philosophy has faced an embarrassment of riches. More and more, a range of plausible theories all compete with one another, and no one theory commands a consensus. Each of them is at least roughly liberal, yet there is no accord. [emphasis added]

So again, how stable is liberalism per se? What grounds do we have for complaining so much about how one SEP article decides to classify Rawls' theory?

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