Wayback Machine Time: A Look at Liberalism and the Limits of Justice

In my review of Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, I briefly touched on the philosophy of Michael Sandel, whose lectures on Justice became wildly popular in China around 2010. I first became familiar with Sandel’s work when studying political theory in university. His most famous work, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, effectively critiques the work of John Rawls but does not explain how Communitarian theory would construct a just society (Sandel does this in later work, while Amitai Etzioni, always on C-Span during the 1990s, was a more direct evangelist for Communitarianism).

Osnos’ interview with Sandel led me to dig up this review of the second edition of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice I wrote way back in 2000. Sandel’s emphasis on constitutive attachments remains as important today as when he first wrote Liberalism and the Limits of Justice in 1982. In brief, we are who we know, where we came from, what we believe in, and who we are related to, as much as we are individual, rational selves.

Warning: pretentious undergraduate philosophy writing ahead.

Communitarianism and the Limits of Explanation

If one were to peruse Michael J. Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice hoping to find lucid statements of Communitarian principles, he or she would probably walk away disappointed. For although Sandel is found among the ranks of Communitarian authors, his presentation of Communitarian ideas remains elusive; he seems less an advocate for Communitarianism and more an adversary of competing ideological conceptions. While Sandel’s critique of Rawls’ deontological liberalism in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is at points compelling from the Communitarian perspective, Sandel is arguably at his best when arguing against Rawls from perspectives other than Communitarianism. As we shall see by exploring Sandel’s closing essay from Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, his critique of Rawls’ Theory of Justice does more than present arguments from a Communitarian position; Sandel invokes both Kant and Rawls himself to question the practicality of Rawls’ ideas.

At the start of Sandel’s summation, he provides a condensed restatement of what he calls “deontology’s liberating project.” He writes that only in the post-modern conception of “…a universe empty of telos” can the constructivist ideal be realized (175). The subtextual question here is whether or not we agree that the universe is empty of telos. If we agree that the telos of the universe is either nonexistent or too complicated to be understood, then we may proceed with the constructivist project; otherwise, we will likely have objections to Rawls’ procedure. Nonetheless, Sandel would not have us think that deontology is nihilistic, for he reminds us that “…this liberalism does not hold that just anything goes. It affirms justice, not nihilism” (176). Thus, liberal deontology allows that we are only teleological beings in the sense that we choose and affirm our own ends, instead of possessing ends a priori to our selves, and that an affirmation of justice is necessary to achieve this autonomy. However noble this project may be—and the implications of dignity achieved through the realization of autonomy make deontology seem quite noble—Sandel argues that the procedures and conceptions Rawls utilizes are flawed, starting with the veil of ignorance.

In contradistinction to Rawls’ depiction of the veil of ignorance as a device whereby subjects freely choose principles of justice while divorced from their own biases, Sandel presents the veil of ignorance as a device guaranteed to produce arbitrary results (177-178). According to Sandel, Rawls’ free and equal moral persons match “…pre-existing desires … to the best means available for satisfying them” (178). Because the free and equal moral persons are similarly situated and come to into the veil of ignorance possessing mutually disinterested, yet—according to Sandel—nearly identical, “thin conceptions of the good,” Sandel regards them as agents of discovery rather than choice, which means they lack the ability to actually engage in a contractual agreement or “construct” anything (178). Therefore, Sandel turns Rawls’ own words against him: Rawls’ two principles of justice cannot be “freely chosen” if the subjects behind the veil of ignorance are incapable of choice.

With regard to Rawls’ two principles of justice, Sandel finds fault with the difference principle by analyzing it from the perspective of traditional deontology. “[The difference principle] begins with the thought … that the assets I have are only accidentally mine. But it ends by assuming that these are therefore common assets and that society has a prior claim to the fruits of their exercise” (178). If this were simply a matter of the assets in question being material in nature, then Rawls’ project would be economically redistributionist, and would not necessarily provoke any deontological objections; however, for Rawls, “assets” includes natural talents, skills, and abilities, all of which would be arranged to meet preexisting societal ends. To understand the implications of this idea, we may note that such assets, no matter how we wish to abstract them, are inherently linked to specific persons. If society arranges these assets in certain desirable patterns, it must do the same to the persons the assets are attached to. However, this violates the Kantian maxim that individuals should always be treated as ends, never as means, which is central to the deontological conception of justice. As Sandel writes, “[w]e cannot be persons for whom justice is primary and also be persons for whom the difference principle is a principle of justice” (178).

If Sandel’s argument against Rawls’ procedures seems to dwell on their contradictory nature, then his critique of Rawls’ conception of the self tends to focus upon its incompleteness. For Sandel, our constitutive attachments are “inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are” and are the source of character and moral depth (179). The deontological self, because of its detachment from constitutive associations, must weigh all ends as equally valid; conversely, only a self which possesses character is actually able to choose among ends in a manner that is not morally arbitrary (180). Furthermore, the deontological self, barren of constitutive attachment, is also barren of self-knowledge; it cannot reflect upon itself, for such reflection presumes a self encumbered by awareness of its position in history and society (179). Lastly, the deontological self is incapable of achieving friendship in any real sense. Friends share and help to revise each other’s conceptions of the good, and by doing so, impart to each other their interpretations of identity and worth (180-181). But the deontological self cannot share conceptions of the good; such conceptions are a purely private manner, and any self-knowledge that would be learned through sharing is lost to it (181).

Sandel concludes this half of the critique by suggesting Rawls’ rejoinder. Rawls, we are told, argues that the necessary thinness of the deontological self only applies in public life and does not need to apply in private life (182). Against this, Sandel invokes the universalist character of deontology, noting, “…the deontological conception of the self cannot admit the distinction required [by Rawls]” (182). The nature of deontology is such that it requires duty to be categorically blind; therefore, one cannot act in private differently than he or she would act in public and still claim to be adhering to deontological principles. In this fashion, Sandel paints Rawls’ theory of the self as incomplete vis-à-vis Rawls’ own claims.

The ironic nature of Sandel’s arguments throughout Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is not that they make it impossible to embrace Rawls’ theories, but rather, that they make it difficult to embrace Rawls’ theories from a Kantian perspective. The Communitarian arguments against Rawls surface when Sandel invokes the importance of constitutive attachments, but these points are minor compared to the Kantian arguments against Rawls, because Rawls makes no claims of being a Communitarian in the first place. What is not explored, unfortunately, is how Communitarians, in the absence of a liberal political system, would establish a well-ordered society, or what methods they would use to differentiate between conceptions of the good; Sandel seems content to leave these issues philosophically opaque to us. If the object of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is to point at John Rawls, the grand old man of modern liberalism, and say that the emperor has no clothes, Sandel is at least partially successful. As for broadening his audience’s knowledge about Communitarianism, alas, we all remain behind a veil of ignorance.


Book Review: Age of Ambition

It’s hard to review a book without resorting to cliches. This goes doubly true for a China book, so I will attempt to avoid the obvious arguments about Evan Osnos’ just-released Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. In brief, it is a good book, an introduction to those in the West learning about China, and a grand summation of events for those of us who experienced the Hu Jintao years as expatriates. At 416 pages, it makes for brisk reading, and Osnos’ writing is accessible and entertaining.

To begin, Osnos is a journalist and his profession lends a humanist, storytelling perspective to covering China. In Age of Ambition, Osnos hasn’t written a polemic about China, nor has he picked apart State Council statistics, nor has he engaged in Zhongnanhaiology to predict Chinese foreign policy. Osnos covered China for eight years for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker and continues to blog about China and other topics on his New Yorker blog. His focus in the book is the people of the People’s Republic, and what they can tell us about China.

Once again, I wish to avoid the obvious cliches and say that if Osnos’ book can be compared to anything, it’s literature. Like George R.R. Martin, Osnos gathers together a cast of point of view characters, repeated interview subjects who he uses to explore the radical changes which swept through China during the last three decades. The book is subtitled “Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith,” and is divided into three parts representing each of these themes in a loosely chronological framework. Osnos uses his interviews to explore each theme, and while much of the material should be familiar to his longtime readers, he adds enough to keep us satisfied.

The first part of the book, “Fortune,” is naturally concerned with the development of China’s economy. Osnos takes us to the 1970s, but also to the 1990s, when he first visited the country. By the time the Tribune returns Osnos to the country, he was already impressed by the rapid pace of development:

The last time I had been in China, per capita income was three thousand dollars a year—equivalent to the United States in 1872. The United States too fifty-five years to get to seven thousand dollars. China did it in ten.

As most China chroniclers are apt to do, Osnos ticks all the usual boxes when describing the new realities for the Party-State and the economy. “The government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty.” “At the lowest levels, the Party felt like a professional network.” “Young people began to speak admiringly of the quality they called gexing, ‘individuality.’” We China hands—both amateur and professional—ought to forgive these kind of characterizations, since we often fail to appreciate how new this can all seem to people back home. Isn’t it simply true that, as Osnos writes, “In the age of ambition, life sped up”?

Not all of life’s velocity is in high speed trains and high-rise apartments, though. Since much of my time in China has been spent in education, I enjoyed Osnos’ look at “English fever” and at the Chinese quest for educational achievement, which are part and parcel of the Chinese quest for material security. Osnos meets the now-infamous entrepreneur Li Yang of “Crazy English” (and later, domestic violence) fame, whose teaching methods I came to know and loathe after I arrived in China in 2004.

(A sampling, from my own personal knowledge: Students were given passages and told to read them as loud as possible as many times as possible every day. This severely disrupted the study patterns of other students in classrooms and common areas, so they ostracized their Crazy English-loving classmates . Students were encouraged by Li and his imitators to literally stalk foreigners and demand English practice. In one incident, a student at the university I worked at followed German exchange students around on his bicycle for weeks, repeatedly asking them “Where are you from?” like an English-crazed version of the newspaper kid from the film Better Off Dead. A Canadian colleague of mine who taught at one of the Crazy English summer camps had a Russian coworker who was instructed to fend off questions about his accent by telling people he was Scottish.)

Accused by some of his critics of leading a cult, Li told Osnos in an interview that he, like Han Solo, was just in it for the money. (Osnos leaves it to his readers to draw the obvious parallel between con men and cult leaders.) Li Yang might not have been a cult leader but he had his share of true believers. Osnos befriended Michael Zhang, a Crazy English fan who ardently believed in the transformative power of English, becoming an educator and would-be entrepreneur. Osnos follows Michael’s story for the better part of a decade, with Michael’s obsessions, optimism, and harsh living conditions becoming a metaphor for the Chinese scramble for wealth every bit as significant as the experiences of others interviewed by Osnos, including media moguls like Hu Shuli and power brokers like the World Bank’s Justin Yifu Lin.

The second part of Osnos’ book, “Truth,” is unsurprisingly about freedom of the press and of expression, censorship, and dissidents. These are also the kinds of things we expect to hear about when reading about China, but again, Osnos has his own take on things. Journalists tend to be sympathetic to dissidents, partly because they are fascinated by David and Goliath narratives, but also because, as Osnos reminds us, journalists get to encounter dissidents directly: it is harder to dismiss someone when we see the effects of oppression with our own eyes.

In fact, if anyone deserves criticism in reporting on Chinese dissidents, it’s not China correspondents with firsthand knowledge of China. Instead, it’s Western media commentators who distort the nature of Chinese political dissent through third-, fourth-, and even fifth-hand accounts, much like a game of “Chinese whispers.” For instance, no journalist who got to interview dissident (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Liu Xiaobo or his wife Liu Xia came away thinking that Charter 08 would lead to the imminent collapse of the Communist Party, yet their stories were repeated again and again with subtle alterations that changed the scope and nature of the Lius’ activism to the point where many Western readers were asked to accept wishful thinking about a Chinese democratic revolution as a substitute for actual understanding.

Thankfully, Osnos does not present us with a single dissident voice, because such a thing does not exist in China. In addition to the Lius, we meet journalists like the aforementioned Hu Shuli, who “dance with shackles” while trying to report the news; Han Han, the novelist, race car driver, and social critic; Ai Weiwei, the avant-garde artist and activist; Chen Guangcheng, whose activism highlights failures in China’s rule of law rather than rejecting the Chinese government; and, most interestingly, China’s neoconservatives like Tang Jie, whose nationalist positions are often to the right of Beijing’s.

While liberal figures like Han Han, Chen Guangcheng, and Ai Weiwei are regularly featured in the Western press, China’s neoconservatives are either crudely stereotyped or not discussed at all. In part this is because patriotic thinkers have been treated, in the Leninist sense, as “useful idiots” by the Communist Party: allowed to thrive when they contribute to national unity or support the propaganda discourse against the Party’s foes, but shut down when they go off script or otherwise demonstrate their independence. Thus it becomes easy to characterize them as government-controlled rather than reflecting an actual (albeit niche) viewpoint among Chinese. (How many Straussians are there in China, exactly?) As with most of his interview subjects, Osnos treats the neoconservatives with respect, but is not above pointing out ironies:

“The mainstream of Chinese media is liberal; that is common knowledge,” Li said, and he ticked off a list of objectives he didn’t agree with: “independent legal system, market economy, small government. … These people who control the media say they are liberal, but they act like authoritarians. Alternative views are blocked.” For a second, I thought he was making a joke, but he wasn’t: the rising generation of Chinese nationalists was earnestly complaining about the lack of free expression.

When introducing us to Tang Jie and his allies, Osnos highlights the 2008 Olympic Torch protests and negative Chinese reactions to Western media coverage of Tibet as the crucible of their new nationalism. He notes the flurry of activity in April of that month, including Tang Jie’s viral Youtube video “2008 China Stand Up!” and boycotts of French products and the French supermarket chain Carrefour. (The largest of the Olympic Torch protests took place in France, and nationalists fabricated stories about French support for Tibetan independence.) Osnos places the Sichuan earthquake around roughly the same time as the nationalist protests, yet he doesn’t explicitly link the earthquake, which happened on May 12th, to the collapse of the protest movement by mid-May. At the time, however, the shock of the earthquake effectively disarmed Tang Jie and others of their biggest weapon: an audience that cared.

Of course, the Sichuan earthquake is not the only disaster which altered China’s political landscape in the last decade. Osnos revisits some of his phenomenal writing from The New Yorker on the Wenzhou high speed train crash and the subsequent trial of Liu Zhijun, China’s fantastically corrupt railroad minister. Much as disasters and famines threatened the rule of Chinese emperors, Sichuan and Wenzhou led to crises of confidence in the modern Chinese government, and also more broadly to crises of faith in society. This brings us to “Faith,” the third and final part of the book, which is also arguably the weakest section. While it’s true that parts one and two are not exclusively about economic growth and politics, those expecting “Faith” to focus at length on China’s turn to religion will be disappointed. In general, the theme of the third part is muddled—there are great stories here, but they don’t stitch together quite as well as the first two parts of the book. Osnos uses the last third of the book—plus a lengthy epilogue—to wrap up all of the stories he’s been leading us through. As I noted at the onset, the book is also loosely chronological, meaning many of the stories “finish” in part three.

Before he returns to Ai Weiwei, Chen Guangcheng, and others, Osnos briefly looks at Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Perhaps because he was based in Beijing, Islam gets no noteworthy discussion, which is unfortunate considering recent events in Xinjiang. Osnos is clearly interested in Chinese beliefs and how they address the spiritual crisis brought on by the dialectical materialism of the Communist Party and the moneyed materialism of Chinese capitalism, as reflected in consumer safety scandals, political scandals, natural disasters, and moral disasters. Osnos recounts the horrific death of little Yueyue in Guangdong, who was fatally wounded in a hit and run and left dying in the street while passersby in her neighborhood ignored her moans. He questions the comparisons between Yueyue and the famous American case of Kitty Genovese, noting that both incidents were turned into morality plays, and argues against drawing conclusions that Chinese in general have become amoral. Here Osnos quotes anthropologist Zhou Runan: “‘Young people are training to become fully rounded individuals, not selfish isolated people. That’s where the hope is: in the young.’”

While Osnos is optimistic, at the onset of the book he notes that China in the 1990s lacked the kind of social associations we would find in the West—clubs, sports teams, civic groups, and the like. The Party had just spent the better part of three decades demolishing all such organizations, of course, and viewed efforts to create independent social organizations with suspicion. According to sociologist Robert Putnam in his landmark work Bowling Alone, voluntary social organizations are key to developing social capital, and without them, societies have difficulty building trust between citizens and between citizens and government. Osnos doesn’t reference Putnam, but there are echoes of Putnam’s theories when Osnos interviews China’s most unlikely philosophical superstar, communitarian thinker and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel.

In America, Sandel first rose to prominence in the 1980s as a critic of John Rawls’ liberal Theory of Justice, which ordered society along rational lines through moral agents unencumbered by deep moral beliefs or social backgrounds. Sandel’s communitarianism in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice was a reaction to the unreality of Rawls’ moral agents. Like Putnam, communitarians believed in the necessity of fostering social capital and social trust. In China, on the other hand, Sandel’s target wasn’t Kantian liberalism but the raw utilitarian capitalism unleashed by Deng Xiaoping, which is about as far as one could get from Rawls. Still, thanks to videos of his Justice lectures and his guest lectures in China, Sandel’s message reached the hearts of many young Chinese. Osnos offers an anecdote of a woman named Shi Ye, who proclaimed during Sandel’s final lecture in Beijing, “‘Your class saved my soul.’”

If there’s an overarching theme throughout Age of Ambition, it’s that Osnos remains positive about China’s people even as he documents the country’s new inequalities and the struggles that many Chinese have with their government. With regard to that government, although there’s politics in almost every chapter of the book, Osnos walks a pragmatic line between criticizing corruption and authoritarianism on the one hand and acknowledging the Chinese government’s successes on the other. To Westerners who have come to imagine Beijing as the very picture of Hobbes’ Leviathan, this seems contradictory. Isn’t it all just the same government? Don’t the failures just add up until they become unacceptable to the people? More importantly, why don’t the Chinese people hate their government as much as I would?

Some readers may be disappointed, but Osnos isn’t offering us that kind of critique. Looking closely at his interviews with people like Michael Zhang, Hu Shuli, Han Han, Tang Jie, and even Chen Guangcheng, one can gain a sense about how Chinese people believe their society is, and how they feel it ought to be. We can’t leave out people like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo either, since their treatment speaks to a Chinese government which has yet to mature. Osnos repeatedly compares the China of today to the Gilded Age of American history, giving us an analytical tool we can use to understand how China is developing. Implicit in that comparison is a promise that things can improve, because we, too, have been down that road. Thus, if there seems to be complacency among most Chinese about politics today, it may be because the future remains alive with possibility.

The Limits of Abolition

Let’s take Chris Hayes’ views at face value and ask the big question he fails to ask in his Nation piece calling for the abolition of the fossil fuel industry: since the whole foundation for his argument is the existential threat posed by fossil fuels, when China, its allies, and its client states say no to his scheme, are we going to go to war to enforce it? And if we’re not going to go to war, then do we double-down on our production restrictions in order to compensate for Chinese emissions?

To begin with, when Hayes draws the parallels to ending slavery he should acknowledge that one of the drivers for the political war on slavery in the Americas was the literal war on the trans-Atlantic slave trade fought by the British. If the British had not made the global commerce of slavery prohibitively expensive, then it would’ve been much more difficult to achieve the goal of abolition. What the British and the abolitionists achieved was the banishment of slavery from Western world. However, low-level forms of slavery persisted in much of Asia and Africa well into the twentieth century.

Thus, abolition wasn’t actually total; it only seemed that way. However, the use of carbon in countries not agreeing to Hayes’ scheme would be much more significant. One possible retort to this is that the oil market would price China and others out of fossil fuel dependency by raising the price of imported fuel, but that assumes that China will be subject to the same market forces as the West. Based on the current policies of the Chinese government, this rosy scenario cannot come to pass.

Hayes notes that, in the West, sovereign wealth funds may consider divesting from oil companies so as to no longer fund exploration and production. That is within their right. In China, on the other hand, it’s not private industry doing the investing, it’s government entities and state owned enterprise who are steering the captured assets of Chinese depositors–people who have no control over where their money is going. China will not rely on foreign oil companies to do at cost what CNOOC and SINOPEC can do cheaper thanks to almost unlimited money from Chinese banks.

The bottom line is that while we could lock down the carbon wealth of the Canadian tar sands and North Sea, among other places, China would happily assume the mantle of monopsony buyer of oil from Russia and the developing world. Moreover, with Russia and China already willing to make threats of war to obtain energy resources in Crimea and the South China Sea, respectively, are we to believe that they would voluntarily agree to a scheme which would deny the use of their energy resources for the foreseeable future?

The above should not be taken to mean that a do-nothing approach to renewable resources and greener vehicles makes sense. Vehicles like the Tesla Model S are too expensive at the moment, but herald the possibilities of technology. Hopefully, BYD’s new electric bus factories in the US will spur Americans to innovate and compete against Chinese industry. Moreover, a shift away from fossil fuels has obvious benefits in terms of environmental protection and national security. For instance, Western Europe’s dependence on fuels imported from Russia has given Putin a free hand in Ukraine, while the shariazation of Brunei has proceeded with little criticism from Western governments thanks to the Sultanate’s oil wealth. Oil is a shield, and behind every shield is a weapon.

But why haven’t we made more progress internationally? Hayes focuses on the domestic level, telling us a story of the capture of the Republican Party by corporate interests, of Newt Gingrich et al retreating from science towards denialism, yet that doesn’t explain why, at the global level, China, and to a lesser extent India and Brazil, have been able to successfully monkeywrench the work of European leaders and both Democratic and Republican presidents. That doesn’t explain why even Democrats refuse to vote for legislation that would hobble the American economy and give the BRICs free reign.

For their part, the BRICs have long maintained that limits on their energy consumption are unfair so long as they remain developing countries. Consider that China, despite the PPP-based hype, is approximately half the size of the US economy but already uses more energy during production because Chinese industry is more corrupt and less efficient. It’s safe to assume that China will become more energy efficient in the future, but even then, the energy demands of China’s economy will be massive. By 2030, China alone is projected to produce 15 gigatons of carbon emissions per year, which is roughly half of the safe level forecast by climate scientists. And these emissions will come despite the fact that China is the world’s largest investor in renewables. What will happen to the world’s environment by the time China is actually a developed county?

Chris Hayes’ ideas are is well-intentioned, yet ultimately dependent on liberal democratic values to promote public goods. After all, if the people of the world are going to vote to protect the planet, don’t they need to be able to vote first? Unfortunately, according to Hayes’ apocalyptic scenario, an authoritarian China dooms us all. This doesn’t mean we do nothing, just that we acknowledge that Hayes’ argument works best at the partisan level (I’m sure my Democrat-voting friends have read it approvingly) because it is free from the complications of reality. Once we talk about how Hayes’ plan would actually be implemented globally, the abolition of fossil fuels, like Piketty’s global wealth tax–that other hot progressive idea of the moment–sinks under its own utopian weight.