Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? is not a beach or poolside read. But it is also too important a book to be left languishing on dusty bookshelves, untouched by the general reader. It is a shining example of how a lucid writer can make complex arguments clearer and develop practical proposals to improve society. This is a rare combination that demonstrates how political philosophy subtly but decisively shapes our societies and economies.
The author, Daniel Chandler, is a philosopher who has also worked as a policy adviser to the office of the British prime minister. Ideas pulse for him, forming the answers to our most vital questions.
He introduces us to a seminal modern political philosopher: John Rawls. Experience of intense combat in the second World War inspired Rawls to a life of thinking about and tackling the hardest, and most important, political questions. Rawls asked what the basis of a just society might be, what the nature of such a society would be and whether progress towards justice was possible.
These questions were answered in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice (1971), widely acknowledged to be a philosophical work of the highest importance. In this book he examined the nature of social justice and advocated principles to better design our political and economic institutions and, by extension, society.
‘I miss breakfast rolls and the sense of humour but our life in the US has been as normal as anyone else’s with young kids’
The opening two chapters of Free and Equal are a clear and accessible summary of these concepts. They recognise that “In a modern society, where citizens hold different views about religion and morality, there is no external standard that we can appeal to”. To describe how agreement on a common political framework can be achieved, Chandler explains a famous thought experiment.
Imagine an environment where each individual possessed the same levels of influence and was unaware of their own particular circumstances, including their wealth, gender or race. We are then asked to reach agreement on common political rules as if behind a “veil of ignorance”. Rawls was clear on what we should strive for, which is that “laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust”.
Two principles are vital to this endeavour. The first is the basic liberties principle that certain freedoms and fundamental rights exist that must be protected. These rights include freedom of conscience and association, bodily integrity, and political liberties such as the right to vote.
A narrow set of economic freedoms is included, such as the right to own personal possessions. Broader freedoms such as freedom of economic exchange and trade are excluded.
This is philosophy that is demanding and asks hard questions of society and policy makers. It questions whether true equality of opportunity is really possible
The second principle focuses on issues of equality. The most influential element of this framework is the “difference principle”. Chandler summarises this as “the idea that inequalities in society are justified only if they benefit everyone” but that economies must be structured to maximise the life chances and prospects of the least advantaged.
This aims to increase the precision of thinking about how to allocate resources and prosperity. It is not to take the place of the values of solidarity and empathy but to recognise that there are inherent trade-offs that necessitate complex decisions. Intellectual tools are required.
This is a demanding philosophy that asks hard questions of society and policymakers. It questions whether true equality of opportunity is really possible. Equally, Rawls demands absolute focus on social justice and our duties to the disadvantaged.
Conducting work in a public arena that is dominated by loud claims, short tweets and raised voices is very demanding. That is why a “duty of civility” is paramount.
It is rare that works of political philosophy develop beyond concepts into the realm of detailed policy recommendations. Chandler does not live in an ivory tower. This is a further distinctive quality of Free and Equal.
The second half of this books deals with the “bread and butter” of political life. Free speech, cancel culture, education policy and the funding of political parties are just some of the issues analysed.
By interrogating the detail of specific political decisions, this book tries to provide the basis for a shared understanding of social progress and of the means of achieving such progress. Consensus is possible through the exercise of rationality.
The challenges to the common ground of British politics, and the searing absence of consensus, are the subjects of Rafael Behr’s Politics: a Survivor’s Guide. The author is one of the finest modern political journalists, now writing a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper.
A New Year’s Eve jog comes to a terrifying end in a cardiac emergency hospital ward, where Behr is treated for a heart attack. The stress of politics has a near terminal impact on the health of the author
It begins with a very personal reflection on family history and on the forces that forged his political outlook. The life of his grandfather, growing up in a rural community in Lithuania, introduces his Jewish heritage
Democracy should “connect people to each other and to the place they call home”. The weakening of this impulse has the most serious of consequences, not least for Behr’s health. His book, therefore, is “about failures at the heart of democracy, written on a journey of cardiac rehabilitation”.
It begins with a very personal reflection on family history and on the forces that forged his political outlook. The life of his grandfather, growing up in a rural community in Lithuania, introduces his Jewish heritage.
The persecution of Jewish communities in the Baltic region by Stalin and in the Holocaust by the Nazis reverberate throughout Behr’s conception of politics as the mediation between competing interests or “the resolution of conflict without recourse to war”. The absence of strife and violence marks the presence of politics.
This is a different sense of democracy to that articulated by Rawls. It is less about how social forces can be ordered to achieve progress and more about how they can be managed to avoid conflict.
Such tension is evident in Behr’s descriptions of growing up in Finchley, north London, as he observes his local MP, Margaret Thatcher, become prime minister. The premiership of Tony Blair offers a brief respite before the fracturing forces of Brexit take hold.
Unsurprisingly, the first part of this book is titled Exile, as it warns of a political tone that can trigger “flights of inner emigration” where citizens disengage from normal democratic processes.
This is why the need to rebuild engagement is so high. But, for Behr, politics is intrinsically fractious and personally corrosive. A balance needs to be found; enragement must be subdued.
Risks are not eased by his experience of reporting on Russian politics. During the most difficult days of Brexit, the author worries about a similarity of tone in Moscow and London. This is how “people were being denounced not for the content of their arguments but for the sinister motive presumed to lie beneath the surface”.
‘Hypercynicism’ reaches, for the author, a searing climax in Brexit. Complexities and trade-offs are inherent in the exercise of sovereignty in an interdependent world
The book contends that the assumption of good intentions between political opponents has been eroded. Causes of disaffection include inequality, social media, conspiracy theories and disinformation championed by malicious states.
This leads to a “state of jaundiced, nihilistic contempt for politics that passes all the way through scepticism and cynicism, full circle back into a kind of credulity”. It results in support for showmen and fraudsters because they are explicit in acknowledging the power of deception and performance.
“Hypercynicism” reaches, for the author, a searing climax in Brexit. Complexities and trade-offs are inherent in the exercise of sovereignty in an interdependent world. But they were all swept away by the power of a simple claim.
Failure of centrism
This experience, the rise of Trump and the war in Ukraine all combine to trigger deep anxiety about the future of liberal democracy.
This leads to the most interesting elements of the book as it grapples with the failure of political centrism – how did it all come to this? The most cynical interpretation of the politics of the middle ground is that “it looks like a recipe for jettisoning any principle for its opposite if that is the more efficient route to power”. A more sophisticated analysis is that in a “peak period of liberal complacency, the argument for moderation as a moral choice went unrehearsed”.
Such arguments are typical of this book, which is packed with insight. However, the concluding chapters that make the case for optimism feel weak and uncertain in contrast to the torrent of negative emotions that course through this book.
The epilogue, charting the author’s physical recovery, hints at a difficult truth. Balance and a distance from politics are vital to success in it, allowing the politician and the writer to recognise the value in competing claims “without surrendering to the post-truth relativism that defines a fact as whichever proposition gets the loudest cheer from the biggest mob”.
The lure of hopelessness undermines the prospects for democratic politics. Behr makes the difficult but vital argument that the possibility of progress at a time of war, climate crisis and social fracture is fundamental to the likelihood of a democratic future.
Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum (Penguin, 2020) is a personal and prophetic reflection on the rise of autocracies and the lure of populism. This is not an abstract reflection. Applebaum asks why former colleagues and friends have baited anxious and frustrated electorates with easy promises and cheap claims.
Our Malady by Timothy Snyder (Bodley Head, 2020) is a reflection on the links between political freedom and personal health. The author nearly dies while receiving treatment in the American health system. It is a passionate polemic on the real value that a society places on health and life.
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (Penguin Classics, 1951) analyses the rise of Hitler and Stalin. It makes the link between personal loneliness and the appetite for immersive and all-consuming political movements. This is a classic book, reminding us that freedom is fragile and that political choices matter.
Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Public Expenditure and president of the Eurogroup