LHRU Book Review: 'Free and Equal'

Book cover of Free and Equal by Daniel Chandler

Daniel Chandler, Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? (London: Allen Lane, 2023)

Reviewed by Professor Rohan McWilliam

Surveying the political landscape in 2023, it is easy to feel that the British left in its post-Corbynite moment has given up on ideas or any kind of intellectual underpinning. The current talk is of pragmatism and preparations for running a post-Covid economy with the consequent tough choices that constitute the bleak face of modern politics. For that reason, we should welcome Daniel Chandler’s Free and Equal which is an attempt to produce an optimistic framework which could shape the 2020s left in the age of Keir Starmer.

Chandler is an economist and philosopher who has worked for the Resolution Foundation and is now at the London School of Economics. Whilst this book may not have the kind of impact that Tony Crosland’s Future of Socialism did in the 1950s and 1960s, it sketches out in a lively and attractive form some options for a modern left. Chandler has a breezy way with ideas which make this a thoughtful book which could be a starting point for political discussions.

His starting point is the work of American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), especially his treatise, A Theory of Justice (1971). This is not the first time a figure on the left has attempted to engage with Rawls. Roy Hattersley’s Choose Freedom (1987) reflected seriously on the philosopher at various points. But, as Chandler shows, Rawls has never been the driver of leftwing thought that he promised to be because the way he frames his argument is difficult to apply. Chandler’s mission here is to offer practical uses of Rawls in a way that is accessible and does not require a prior reading of the philosopher or indeed much previous political thought.

What did Rawls argue? His work, like much philosophy, was based around a thought experiment. If we were in the situation of devising a society where we did not know how we would all end up, what form would it take given that we cannot know if we will find ourselves rich or poor, on top or subordinate? Rawls argued that we would therefore devise a society that was fair with people being treated equally. If this is the conclusion of the thought experiment, should we not try to apply this to society as it is? This is what progressive political thought is all about.

But what would a fair society look like? ‘Fairness’ is a slightly slippery category. Rawls argues that his thought experiment would lead us, first, to protect basic liberties (such as freedom of speech and voting) and, secondly, to ensure that there was equality of opportunity so that all can have the chance to succeed. The first point is clearly liberal; the second is more social democratic. Rawls was ready to tolerate inequality (if it could be justified by, say, promoting innovation which would then benefit everyone) but he argued that his thought experiment would lead us to shape a society whose purpose is to ‘maximise the life opportunities of the less well off’.

This is all open to the objection that we are not in a thought experiment but Chandler deduces from it an approach to issues that are very much rooted in the 2020s. Here are just a few points culled from the varied menu that makes up the book.

He makes the case for creating equality of opportunity both through the traditional route (education) but also through a war on poverty. For genuine equality of opportunity there needs to be a universal entitlement to high-quality early years education and care so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not held back. We should regard education as something more than ‘preparing citizens for economic life’ but about building their skills, character and capabilities, enabling them to communicate and understand while setting free their creativity (129). Private education is ruled out so as to create genuine equality of opportunity. An attack on poverty would in addition take us some way to achieving genuine racial justice (though on the question of slavery reparations, Chandler admits Rawls’s theory is simply not equipped to provide an answer). Action on climate change is vital not least because it is a key part of intergenerational justice. The book ultimately ends with endorsing Universal Basic Income.

The political system needs to be made fairer, Chandler argues, so that it is not rigged towards the interests of the rich. Practical proposals include restricting political donations and ‘democracy vouchers’: instead of the current form of party funding, people would be given, say, £50 by the state which they can then contribute to the party of their choice. When it comes to the toxicity of current political debate, Chandler argues we should deploy ‘reasonable pluralism’ (accepting there will always be different views about religion and morality), a stance even more necessary in an age characterised by the rise of right-wing populism whose rationale is a rejection of pluralist approaches. By and large, the book favours forms of participatory democracy, including participatory budgeting where communities themselves participate in discussions about the allocation of resources. Chandler explicitly endorses employee share ownership (an idea that Bryan Gould toyed with in the `1980s) and workers cooperatives.

Chandler touches on some difficult issues of our time, not always with conviction. Immigration receives just three pages which are rather inconclusive. He advocates things like helping immigrants learn the dominant language but there is not much here to help progressives combat the kind of prejudice against immigrants that is notable not just in Britain but elsewhere. For a book that focuses a lot on equality of opportunity, Chandler has little to say about the other driver of left wing thought: equality of outcome. Whilst there is much to commend in these proposals I was left wondering if they are specifically Rawlsian or whether Chandler is merely articulating what has been the common sense of the left. Maybe we have all been anonymous Rawlsians all along? We just did not know it.

How much of this will happen? In Britain, we are some way away from a Universal Basic Income—although the furlough scheme during the pandemic might be seen as a dress rehearsal for it. On participatory budgeting, Chandler points to the example of Porto Alegre in Brazil where local government spending since 1988 has been shaped by a series of citizens’s assemblies. Democracy vouchers might be a better option than state funding of political parties though it would break the link between the Labour Party and trade unions (one of several reasons why I can’t see Starmer backing it). This is not a utopian book but at the end I found myself asking what it might be like to live in a Rawlsian society and was usure of the answer.

This book does not purport to have all the answers but nor is it totally abstract. There are provocations here and the sketching out of a framework which the progressive left might want to employ. It is worth reading alongside recent work by Michael Sandel and Amartya Sen. Chandler reminds us why political thought continues to be exciting: he has produced an empowering book that can guide the left in the twenty first century.

Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and co-director of the Labour History Research Unit. If you have any comments on this review, email [email protected].