Fair play or liberation?

Inequality, political cheating, and liberatory thought in the 21st century

By Christian Matheis


In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Joseph E. Stiglitz addressed the dismal condition of U.S. domestic policies and political machinations. Rebuking the regressive view that with democratic liberties we must also live fated to the dominance of capitalist industries, Stiglitz rightly takes on the underlying assertion that market forces and laws of economics result in certain kinds of inevitable inequalities. Despite the claims of injustice, oppression, and harm that progressives and even centrists wield against social inequalities, regressives hold the line that the functions of a healthy free-market system — the best we can expect, they say — require some individuals and groups (i.e. the poor) to endure more burden than others with the river of capital flowing upward from the laborers below. How has this come about throughout the alleged prosperity of the 20th and early 21st centuries?



As post-World War II solidarity waned, Stiglitz suggests, Americans embarked on a decades-long process of adopting “inequality-enhancing policies” in which welfare for wealthy private corporations expanded at the cost of diminishing social welfare for the poor and least well-off. We have , he goes on to say, ideologically committed to a contemporary version of the ancient “natural right” in which those with the economic, political, and cultural power to rule believe in an inherent entitlement to their grandiose comfort and influences. Stiglitz remarks, “The American political system is overrun by money. Economic inequality translates into political inequality, and political inequality yields increasing economic inequality. [This] rests on the ability of wealth-holders to keep their after-tax rate of return high relative to economic growth. How do they do this? By designing the rules of the game to ensure this outcome; that is, through politics.”


It may make sense to name Stiglitz’s concern as the problem of “political cheating” versus “fair play.” Let’s give this a bit of a closer look.


Political philosopher John Rawls wrote in the 1950’s of the need for a commitment to a “duty of fair play” if democratic societies pose any hope for social justice.[1] As Rawls explained it, a socially just society requires that we acknowledge the pain and suffering one another endure and, when possible, seek to ameliorate the undue burdening of some for the pleasures of others. Without a duty of fair play based in acknowledgment of suffering, a society would inequitably distribute benefits to some and burdens to others. We would, in this way, consider one another only as “citizen” objects in a grand economic scheme. Rawls makes the point more poignantly:


“[…] the acceptance of the duty of fair play by participants in a common practice is a reflection in each person of the recognition of the aspirations and interests of the others to be realized by their joint activity. Failing a special explanation, their acceptance of it is a necessary part of the criterion for their recognizing one another as persons with similar interests and capacities, as the conception of their relations in the general position supposes them to be. Otherwise they would show no recognition of one another as persons with similar capacities and interests, and indeed, in some cases perhaps hypothetical, they would not recognize one another as persons at all, but as complicated objects involved in a complicated activity. To recognize another as a person one must respond to him and act towards him in certain ways; and these ways are intimately connected with the various prima facie duties.”[2]



Stiglitz argues, simpatico with Rawls, that a socially just liberal democracy requires a basis of fair play. Where Rawls considers fair play a particular kind of moral duty to consider one another as persons on the basis of fair play, Stiglitz critiques the political cheating of banks, corporations, lobbyists, and those who have used their ill-begotten economic influence to beget even greater economic influence — all increasingly at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. For Stiglitz, the economic inequality has resulted in political inequalities.


In spirit, I think this makes sense. However, Stiglitz seems to think that liberal democracy somehow has the inherent ideological and conceptual framework to work against inequalities and political cheating, but that people with certain economic interests corrupt it. For Rawls and Stiglitz, liberal social policies can regulate capitalist economies in such a way that prevents and when necessary ameliorates unjust inequalities.


Consider, somewhat to the contrary, that the liberal social contract that sifted up over the last 600 years functions to “legitimize” those very economic interests who then cheat through political means (e.g. law, legislation, policy, agency actions, etc.). The moral norms and political justifications built into the liberal constitution do not forestall unjust inequalities since what counts as “unjust” remains adjustable to the interests of a minority of regressive economic elites.


Part of the deficiency of Stiglitz’s analysis rests in his commitment, too narrowly I think, to fields of conventional moral and political thought at the expense of a liberatory conception of economics. Another problem rests in his background notion of persons as citizen objects, or what Rawls referred to as “complicated objects involved in a complicated activity.”


First, the matter of moral, political, and liberatory thought. Suppose that our contemporary liberal democracy fails to prevent cruel, arbitrary inequalities precisely because it does not have liberatory conceptions at its base. By “liberatory,” I refer to the kinds of activities and philosophical insights intended to, one, challenge the power relations of a society’s dominant moral and political schemes and, two, to put dominant moral traditions and political institutions in the service of the weak, vulnerable, and disenfranchised. We can call these the two objective of liberation, consistent with the broader philosophy of liberation outlined by Enrique Dussel.[3]


As Dussel’s historical and philosophical investigations suggest, liberatory thought differs from and complements moral and political reasoning as a necessary check. As an imbalanced stool with only two legs, moral and political reasoning devoid of the third balancing leg of liberation will tend to go off kilter.


Moreover, progressive revolutions have historically begun in liberatory thought as liberationists generated social movements on the basis of the need to challenge moral and political norms in defense of the weak and poor. However, as Dussel’s work also suggests, movements dominated by conventional political justifications and moral reasoning likely fail to achieve liberatory outcomes without consistent, committed attention also to the liberatory objectives that generated those movements in the first place.


Returning to Stiglitz’s arguments, even though our moral and political, normative and regulatory conceptions, have afforded certain kinds of gains for millions of people they may not count as liberatory. Moreover, even though the experiment of our democracy may have started with liberation in mind, respite from monarchies perhaps, what reason do with have to think that our institutions can materially and ideologically regulate robber-baron economics? Perhaps because industrialized societies have never designed moral traditions and political institutions with a complementary commitment to liberatory objectives, and anyone who started down this path felt the prison sentence, guillotine, noose, bullet, etc.


To the second problem, Stiglitz errs to evaluate the success of an economy by using an imaginary common citizen, suggesting that “The true test of an economy is not how much wealth its princes can accumulate in tax havens, but how well off the typical citizen is — even more so in America where our self-image is rooted in our claim to be the great middle-class society.” In fact, we may have no way to setup a liberatory conception of economics or civil society on the basis of a so-called “typical citizen.” Along with the two aforementioned liberatory objectives I will add Dussel’s notion of respect for “alterity” as the priority of liberation. This idea refers to the simple fact that no moral or political system can function well if it requires erasing or ignoring distinctions, differences, idiosyncrasies of individuals — by homogenizing people according to common, typical, or over-simplified terms. To respect alterity involves acknowledging that with whatever persons may share in common, some aspects of our lives remain incommensurably distinct and, necessarily, unknowable to one another. Liberatory thought aims to place a check on the tendency of dominant moral and political norms to subordinate distinctive features in favor of similarities.


Throughout modern and contemporary legal cases we can find a similar concern with the so-called “reasonable man” [sic] or “reasonable person standard.” To imagine this hypothetical person ostensibly allows those adjudicating criminal and civil cases to attain some measure of objectivity in that, “the standard requires one to act with the same degree of care, knowledge, experience, fair-mindedness, and awareness of the law that the community would expect of a hypothetical reasonable person.”[4] As it turns out, many people in a given society may similarly imagine the standard for this hypothetical figure but this provides little objectivity since their hypothetical image also tends to reflect the socially arbitrary biases informed by widespread, institutionalized cruelties such as classist, racist, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth.


Stiglitz rightly points out that “justice has become a commodity, affordable to only a few.” However, it matters to think more carefully about the hypothetical figures he has in mind when he asserts, “It is only engaged citizens who can fight to restore a fairer America, and they can do so only if they understand the depths and dimensions of the challenge.” Indeed, something about the version of “citizens” has has in mind as objects in a moral and political scheme may leave out all sorts of people who bear exactly the kind of burdens of poverty he calls into question. From a liberatory perspective, to make respect for alterity a priority would involve imagining more than trying to “restore our position in the world and recapture our sense of who we are as a nation,” a goal he proposes in conclusion.


To imagine oneself and others from a liberatory perspective seems to require finding ways to respect you, and me, and people we do not understand well in our alterity, and not merely as citizen objects in an idealized nation-state. Nor will it suffice, I think, to imagine one another as merely consumer-producers in a complicated economic scheme. To leave our understanding of one another as such will tend toward fearing and suspecting one another as individualistically selfish and socially opportunistic, or what some call economic “free riders.” As Rawls puts it, “Thus one might say of the tax-dodger that he violates the duty of fair play: he accepts the benefits of government but will not do his part in releasing resources to it; and members of labor unions often say that fellow workers who refuse to join are being unfair: they refer to them as ‘free riders,’ as persons who enjoy what are the supposed benefits of unionism, higher wages, shorter hours, job security, and the like, but who refuse to share in its burdens in the form of paying dues, and so on.”[5] For the sake of liberation we have to think better of one another, or else forfeit even the relatively simplistic liberal versions of moral and political fair play. I wonder what we think of one another if we do not imagine in the context of liberation.


While an elite collective of private, wealthy, special interests prepared throughout the 20th century for economic, political, and cultural war, did progressives fail to prepare for liberation? Have we yet to imagine liberatory moral traditions and political institutions, some sort of collective social devices responsible for serving the poor and weak if and when we acknowledge suffering?


Do we intend only moral good, and merely social and political justice, or do we intend liberation as well?





[1] Rawls, John. “I. Justice as Fairness.” The Journal of Philosophy 54.22 (1957): 653-662.

[2] Ibid. 659.

[3] Dussel, Enrique D. Philosophy of Liberation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985. §,, 2.6.8, and

[4] http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/ethics/n679.xml

[5] Rawls.

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