Equal Opportunity and the Limits of Liberalism

The last two decades have seen a remarkable revival in academic political philosophy, particularly in the English-speaking world. A subject which was widely pronounced dead in the 1950's has recently produced thousands of articles and numerous books of real importance. One indicator of the scale of this revival is the length of a recently published annotated bibliography about just one of those books (John Rawls's A Theory of Justice). It runs to nearly 700 pages, and all the books and articles listed concern a book that was only published in 1971.

This resurgence has been fueled by a single-minded quest for an adequate theory of the just society—a picture of the ideal liberal society which would place all the untidy fragments of the liberal tradition in their appropriate priority relations. Such a theory would give us a clear picture of how we ought to value liberty compared to equal opportunity, compared to individual property rights and other familiar principles. Rather than merely weighing conflicting principles against each other, such an ideal solution would give us a single coherent vision of the just society—one which we should attempt to achieve, or at least approach, in our actual public policies over the long term. I believe that this quest for a single, adequate solution to the theory of justice asks too much. Any reasonable construction of the values central to liberalism will not give us...

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