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  • Introduction
  • Alan Thomas and Thad Williamson

The papers in this symposium derive from a June 2011 workshop held at Tilburg University in the Netherlands (apart from Richard Dagger's paper, specially commissioned for this issue). The workshop focused on the idea of a property-owning democracy, both as a free standing ideal and on the role that it played in the work of the political philosopher John Rawls. Suppose that one were to adopt a working definition of a capitalist society as one in which a restricted group of social actors control access to capital and the means of production, while other citizens are employed and receive only income from labour. One way in which one might develop a non-capitalist alternative to such a society would be to ensure access to capital to all citizens. That this would represent an attractive and feasible way to realize the goals of egalitarianism was first suggested by Nobel prize winning Cambridge economist James Meade. Meade's "Agathopian" papers ("A Good Place to Live In") collected together under the title of Liberty, Equality and Efficiency, envision a new development of the egalitarian programmes of the social democratic ("Labour") governments with which Meade was associated during the post-war period. Concerned that traditional Keynesian demand management had failed because "in our imperfectly competitive society separate groups learned to press their monopolistic bargaining powers," Meade proposed radically to re-structure the balance between capital and labour by ensuring the widest possible re-distribution of capital (in combination with other egalitarian measures).1 [End Page 1]

Meade's ideas may not have received the attention that they merited were they not taken up and developed by John Rawls in the course of the development of his conception of social justice as fairness. The influence of Meade is marked on the first edition of A Theory of Justice and, in later expositions of his overall conception, Rawls attached increasing importance to the idea of a property-owning democracy.2 This culminated in the striking claim in his 2001 book, Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, that only two forms of political economy could implement Rawls's two principles of fairness.3 Those two forms were liberal market socialism and property-owning democracy. Given the importance of Meade's ideas to Rawls the idea of a property-owning democracy has received surprisingly little attention in the very extensive critical literature on Rawls. The only exceptions to this generalization are outstanding papers by political philosopher Dick Krouse and economist Michael MacPherson and a later paper by British philosopher Paul Smith.4 One of the aims of this symposium is, in combination with new work in political philosophy, to renew attention to this neglected aspect of Rawls's work.5

Why was Rawls drawn to Meade's ideas? It is a common misunderstanding of Rawls's overall conception of equality that if the situation of the worst off in any distribution is improved, then Rawls is not further concerned with the relative distance between the best off and the worst off. That is incorrect: Rawls is concerned to implement an ideal of democratic equality where free and equal citizens are bound together by mutual respect. Excessive distance in income and wealth between the best off and the worse off would evoke the corrosive social evil of legitimate envy that would, in turn, erode the self-respect of the worst off. It would not, therefore, be compatible with Rawls's principles of justice. Rawls is, then, interested in regulating the "top end" of any distribution. This explains another striking aspect of his view: that his later exposition made it clear that the welfare states that we are familiar with are, by Rawls's lights, structurally unjust. He claimed that such states permit large inequalities of income and wealth that they then re-distribute via progressive taxation and welfare payments that transfer income and wealth to the worst off. To understand the appeal of a property-owning democracy to Rawls one has, therefore, to appreciate his interest in the pre-emptive dispersal of the holding of concentrated income and wealth. [End Page 2]

What attracted Rawls to Meade's ideas was precisely this...


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