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The Good Society 13.1 (2004) 62-66

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Individualism, Community, and Distributive Justice

Ever since the publication of John Rawls' classic A Theory of Justice in 1971, liberalism and egalitarianism have been seen by many as closely related doctrines. Given that egalitarianism had, for the century preceding Rawls, been connected to liberalism's primary rival in the family of political philosophies—socialist collectivism—this is a remarkable achievement. It is testimony to the power of Rawls' argument that he was able to show not only that there is a zone of compatibility between political individualism and economic equality, but also that a commitment to the former depends on significant advances toward the latter. The three decades since have witnessed a tremendous revival of interest in both elements of the equation—interest which has not disturbed, to any significant extent, their apparent complementarity.

It is this very complementarity which Ross Zucker wishes to question in his work, Democratic Distributive Justice. Zucker does not try to argue for a deep incompatibility between the two elements of the couplet; he appreciates, I think, that there is a zone of compatibility between liberalism and egalitarianism. His concern is that, in the end, the former places clear limits on the development of the latter. If egalitarianism is to be secured on firmer foundations, and especially if it is to be developed further, it will have to be cut loose of its moorings in liberal political theory.

The particular source of liberalism's weakness, Zucker argues, is its commitment to an asocial conception of the individual. Especially in its current incarnation, this political tradition views individuals as endowed with particular rights—claims against society—and those rights in turn rest on a particular conception of the self and the weight of social influences in its formation. Zucker thinks that liberalism consistently underplays the extent to which the emergence of individual identity rests on social influences and constraints. Zucker's liberalism does not regard society as being a condition for the emergence of individual talents, needs, and abilities; his liberalism instead posits an individual "who is highly independent in the midst of social relations, because his or her nature is ultimately formed autonomously rather than by social conditioning" (p. 29).1 But if individuals stand outside society, then the range of claims which they can make on society can only be limited; in turn, the range of obligations which they owe to others also diminishes. Zucker explains:

These assumptions about the person can affect rules of distribution, because they crucially affect how much the individual is responsible for the income and wealth he or she possesses, how much credit the individual can take in demanding differential economic reward . . . and how much the individual is beholden to others as a member of an economic quasi-community.

Here, then, is the limit that liberal individualism imposes on egalitarianism: equality in capitalism can only come about through redistribution, since the unfettered market systematically generates inequalities; redistribution, however, has only feeble warrant if it does not draw upon a moral theory capable of appreciating the extent to which society underwrites the life-chances of individuals. Zucker contends that in this respect, libertarianism and liberalism should be construed as cousins, since both are premised on the same conception of the individual. Indeed, it is this common ground which makes liberalism vulnerable to the libertarian critique, which, as exemplified by Nozick's work, regards most redistributive measures as an illicit encroachment on individual rights.

The way out, Zucker contends, is to offer an altogether different ontology of the individual. If the weakness of liberalism is that it is insufficiently attentive to social bases of individuality, then the remedy is to offer a more robust account of the social self. If it can be shown that social influences go "all the way down"—into the formation of the talents, tastes, and abilities which ostensibly go into income generation2 —then the case for reciprocal obligations between individuals and their community is much stronger. And the libertarian critique is nipped in the bud, as...


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