Liberals and Socialists



Philosophers of liberalism and socialism actually have very different visions for the world. They don’t disagree at all on the idea that spreading the wealth around is good for everybody. In fact, this idea finds one of its greatest expressions in the work of the philosopher of welfare liberalism, John Rawls. He proposed two principles of justice, one of which—the “Difference Principle”—claims that inequalities are permissible if and only if they benefit the worst-off person. Since many inequalities arising from the free market violate this principle, some wealth must be redistributed.

The difference between liberals and socialists, rather, is founded on their different answers to this question: Can the principles by which I vote differ from the principles by which I live?

Liberals say yes, they can. Rawls, for example, said that you must be guided by  principles of distributive justice, such as the Difference Principle, only when you think about the basic structure of society. Roughly, those times are when you self-consciously think of yourself as a citizen: when you vote, when you debate political ideals, when you think about those ideals in your time alone. Otherwise, you don’t need to heed principles of distributive justice.

So a liberal allows you to accept a salary that is four, ten, 100 times greater than that of the least well-off person in your society, so long as, when you step into the voting booth, you don a new hat and act so that all inequalities are arranged to benefit the least well-off.



Clearly America is not a socialist nation. That possibility is a long way away; and, the liberal might argue, there it will always remain. Inescapable human frailties make it impossible. Concern for others will not motivate enough people to work all the arduous though necessary jobs. Nor might the socialist ideal be desirable: the price of communal ties is individual liberty, and it might be better for each of us that we not have a close, and therefore demanding, relationship with each person who is to provide us with some good.

But the socialist can point to other nations, such as Sweden or Denmark, in which, supposedly, a true egalitarian ethos has taken hold, nations which have not only generous social welfare provisions, but also citizens who are shocked by accepting privileges for themselves which others do not have. And to address the desirability of such polities, we can point experience of the people who live in them. They tend to be happier.