Via Mark Thoma:
John Rawls is arguably the most important political philosopher of the past century. His theory of justice has set the agenda for debate in mainstream political philosophy for the past forty years, and has had an important influence in economics, law, sociology, and other disciplines. However, despite the importance and popularity of Rawls’s work, there is (rather surprisingly) no clear picture of what a society that met Rawls’s principles of justice would actually look like.
Much of the confusion arises from the frequent description of Rawls as a proponent of a redistributive welfare state regime. While Rawls’s principles of justice do provide philosophical support for the redress of existing inequalities and for the substantial redistribution of resources, it is incorrect to say that he favoured welfare state regimes in anything resembling their current form. In fact, Rawls was a strong critic of what he termed “welfare state capitalism” and an advocate of an institutional alternative which he termed “property-owning democracy.” Discussion of “property-owning democracy” occupied only a very small part of his seminal A Theory of Justice (1971), and was passed over entirely in Political Liberalism (1993). But in his final statement of his view of social justice (Justice as Fairness, 2001) Rawls provided pointed and explicit (albeit rather brief) discussion of the essential contrasts between welfare state capitalism and property-owning democracy, and explained why he believed that the welfare state could not in fact realize his two principles of justice.
Nonetheless, the concept of property-owning democracy is not well understood, and is still only rarely treated as integral to Rawls’s theory of justice. The aim of this review article is threefold. First, we review how Rawls and his leading interpreters have described the concept of property-owning democracy. Second, we examine how the notion of “property-owning democracy” has recently been appropriated by non-Rawlsian political philosophers working in the republican tradition, who have developed arguments from non-Rawlsian premises which also favour the widespread dispersion of property ownership. Third, we briefly review recent work attempting to translate the general notion of a property-owning democracy into concrete institutional and policy proposals that might be adopted by advanced industrialized nations.