What Liberalism Isn’t

Social Justice in the Liberal State

by Bruce A. Ackerman
Yale University Press, 392 pp., $25.00; $6.95 (paper)

Liberalism has two aspects, and they are both under powerful attack. Liberals believe, first, that government must be neutral in matters of personal morality, that it must leave people free to live as they think best so long as they do not harm others. But the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and other politicians who claim to speak for some “moral majority,” want to enforce their own personal morality with the steel of the criminal law. They know what kind of sex is bad, which books are fit for public libraries, what place religion should have in education and family life, when human life begins, that contraception is sin, and that abortion is capital sin. They think the rest of us should be forced to practice what they preach. The old issue of political theory—whether the law should enforce a state morality—is once again an important issue of practical politics.

The second side of liberalism is economic. Liberals insist that government has a responsibility to reduce economic inequality, both through its management of the economy and through welfare programs that redistribute wealth to soften the impact of poverty. But the “New Right” rejects the idea that these are responsibilities of government, and Reagan’s administration believes it has a mandate to curtail longstanding liberal programs, like food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, low-income housing, and legal services to the poor.

What is the connection between these two aspects of liberalism—its opposition to moralism in the social sphere and to inequality in the economic sphere? That is hardly an academic question. Liberalism has often been said to be incoherent as well as outmoded, just a ragbag of positions developed by different politicians who chose to call themselves liberals. It plainly requires a fresh statement of its fundamental principles and consequent policies. How the two aspects of liberalism are related has become an important practical question, because both the appeal and the content of liberalism will depend upon the answer.

Philosophers have debated two competing pictures of the foundations of liberalism. The first—liberalism based on neutrality—supposes that the fundamental structuring principle of liberalism is the principle that the government should be neutral in matters of personal morality, and that the liberal’s concern for economic equality is simply the consequence of applying that foundational principle to economic discussions. On this account, liberals believe in equality because—and only to the extent that—neutrality requires it. The second picture—liberalism based on equality—is very different because it supposes that the liberal’s emphasis on neutrality in personal morality is not the source but rather one consequence of a prior and more general commitment to equality, a commitment that already includes the ideal of economic equality. The social and economic programs of liberalism are therefore, on this second view, two sides of the same coin.

Liberalism based on neutrality has one immediate appeal: it does not take equality for granted, but rather proposes to show how some form …

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