Republic of Equals: a year of reviews

With the anniversary of publication coming up (November 6th) there are currently five reviews of the book (in reverse chronological order):

John Wilesmith in Economics and Philosophy:

“I consider Thomas’s book to be required reading for anyone working at the intersection of normative political theory and political economy. It makes valuable contributions to a range of existing debates and also opens up new avenues of research, particularly in the final chapter on globalization. Thomas should be applauded for the sheer ambition of his project. His attempt to synthesize the most plausible normative insights from two leading traditions of political thought into a coherent theory of justice and then develop its institutional implications in close conversation with the social sciences is political theory at its most courageous.”

Paul Raekstad in the European Journal of Political Theory:

“Original and interesting.”

“Ambitious and wide-ranging.”

“An important and challenging work that will set the stage for a great deal of the discussion not only of justice and republicanism, but also of POD, market socialism and broader discussions of alternative economic institutions, to come. It develops an interesting synthesis of republican and Rawlsian liberal ideas, and uses this synthesis to contribute to one of the most important problems of our time, namely the growing inequality and oligarchy and the disastrous effects they are having on our world.”

James Lindley Wilson in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

“The level of policy detail, informed by Alan Thomas’s studies of historians, economists, and political scientists, is impressive.”

“Thomas’s book articulates and thoroughly defends several important theses … these theses are of great concern to theorists and justice and to those interested in the goals of egalitarian reform. Given the great breadth of this work, it is hard to imagine a reader who will not find much to learn from Thomas’s remarkably well-informed treatment of these pressing matters.”

Nicholas Vrousalis for The Philosophical Review:

“[A] groundbreaking new book.”

Phil Parvin for Political Theory:

“Thomas’s vision of an egalitarian property-owning democracy is powerful and compelling. In drawing on civic republicanism to highlight both the deficiencies of Rawls’s political liberalism and also the specific challenge to democracy and freedom posed by the rise of the New Inequality, Thomas arguably provides the best hope that liberal democratic states have for ensuring greater justice and also repairing what has broken in our current democratic theory and practice.”


Discussion of Republic of Equals at Pea Soup

My posts will be mirrored here:

I should begin by thanking James for the exemplary care and thoroughness of his review of my book. In his generally sympathetic discussion, he confesses that he cannot get the point of the distinction between the predistribution that I take the book to exemplify and orthodox redistribution.

I once heard Hilary Putnam tell the story of his taking to his supervisor, Hans Reichenbach, a copy of Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’. Putnam told Reichenbach: “it is an extraordinary paper; Quine argues that the difference between the analytic and the synthetic is not a difference of kind, but one of degree.” Reichenbach looked puzzled and then replied “Hilary, is the difference between a difference of kind and one of degree a difference of kind or one of degree?”.

If philosophy is about asking the right questions, this has always struck me as a very good question (and students of both post-War analytic philosophy in general and Putnam’s work on analyticity may well agree). So is the difference between pre-distributive and re-distributive egalitarianism one of kind or one of degree? One way of expressing James’s concern is that I seem to be present it as a distinction of kind when, in fact, it could only be a distinction of degree.

Even those sympathetic to the enterprise of developing a property-owning democracy concur – including my colleague Martin O’Neill who is similarly sceptical that there is a deep distinction here. Significantly, this sceptical view is typically held by those “hybrid” theorists – including Martin – who take the goals of a property-owning democracy to be that of merely adding some asset based policies to the redistributive aims of welfare state capitalism. Let me set out some of the grounds for this kind of skepticism towards the distinction  – construed as a difference in kind – before suggesting some lines of reply.

First, the most obvious reading of the prefixes “pre-“ and “re-“ are temporal, but that reading obviously has little to recommend it. Yet a temporal reading seems the interpretation most clearly implied in the original texts by Rawls such as this justification for his interest in a property-owning democracy:

“To prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy and indirectly, political life as well…. Property owning democracy avoids this, not by the redistribution of income to those with less at the end of each period…. but rather by ensuring the widespread ownership of productive assets and human capital (that is, education and trained skills) at the beginning of each period, all of this against a background of fair equality of opportunity.” (Rawls, 2001, p. 139)

Rawls here speaks of “periods” – so it looks as if the temporal reading is mandated. Unfortunately, that does not seem to yield much by way of a distinction and at best – as James implies – it yields a weak distinction of degree and not one of kind. Why is this?

Well, because predistributing and redistributing are both continual processes – they both go on all the time with intervals even if, if we implement a Tobin tax on all financial transactions, those intervals are going to be very short. Taxes of estates and assets are on-going and continual as are the various tax and transfer schemes that make up redistributive policies. If these two processes are temporally intertwined, how can there be a distinction of kind here? Furthermore, assets and income are clearly related: those with high incomes build up assets and returns on assets form part of income (loosely speaking). These two facts seem to point to a relatively shallow distinction of degree.

I think there is more to be said –  the most important rationale for the distinction between predistributive and redistributive egalitarianism takes it to be a question of how we model, or analyse, economic agency and is not, in my view, primarily concerned with a temporal distinction. The question is how we model what agents bring to the market for labour and the predistributivist argues that if we are developing a conception of a fair market, then we need to focus on the equalisation of the bargaining power of the agents represented in it.

So “pre” here means: prior to market transactions where we are not restricted to temporal priority. This is a distinction in the way in which we model initial investments in agents that are prior to the transactions that they enter into with other agents. Specifically, economic rights attaching to citizenship place agents in a market position in which we strengthen their right of exit and thereby supplement their voice (to use two of Albert Hirschman’s concepts).

I describe my view as a whole as “liberal-republican” and that includes at least the republican’s focus on institutional design. As Bob Taylor notes, recent republicans “have generally made their peace with markets, but without much enthusiasm”. (Robert S Taylor, Exit Left, OUP, 2017, p. 7) Republic of Equals departs from this usual lack of enthusiasm for markets, but like all republicans – Taylor included – it tries to develop a conception of how markets can operate in such a way to preserve their informational and resource enabling advantages while avoiding domination and exploitation. The proposal is the pre-distributive investment in agents, via economic rights attaching to citizenship as such, allow the market to operate fairly by patterning its outcomes. That is going to require (temporally continual) adjustments to the “background conditions” against which the principles of justice operate, but that temporal distinction is not the whole point of calling the view “predistributive”.

It is particularly unhelpful to run this idea together with the temporal interpretation of the prefixes “pre-“ and “re-“ distributive: this deflationary reading of predistributionism is one that I argue against throughout the book – (you could summarise the argument as “no, this is not just about baby bonds”.) On this interpretation, we are speaking of “initial investments” in the forms of baby bonds at birth, or early years intervention, or simply education before entering the workforce. All of these are important, of course, but this is hardly the full extent of what is meant by predistribution. The more ambitious goal, as noted in the book, is to so structure market transactions – by appropriately contextualising them –  as to make the domination of one agent by another structurally impossible.

There are other arguments to be made in favor of drawing a distinction between pre- and re- distributive egalitarianism, but this seems to me the most important one.

America Beyond Justice: Critical Review of Peter Temin, The Vanishing Middle Class, MIT Press 2017

Posted at:

Opening paragraph:

America Beyond Justice:

Critical Review of Peter Temin, The Vanishing Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, MIT Press, 2017


Peter Temin’s ambitious monograph on the recent political history of the USA combines economic data about inequality, a complementary theory of politics, and a consequent discussion of how those politics have produced, and sustain, various negative social effects. It is no accident that the book opens with the economic data. In Temin’s view it is America’s radical inequality, with its persistent inter-woven strand of racism, that explains much else about America’s oligarchic form of government. [Gilens & Page, 2014; Temin, 2017, pp. 71–85, p. 115] (Temin gives his reasons for preferring the term “plutocracy” to “oligarchy”. [Temin, 2017, p. 94]) He believes that the negative social effects of both inequality and oligarchic governance follow ineluctably from Thomas Ferguson’s “investment theory of politics” that Temin endorses in the second part of this book. [Ferguson, 1995]

I will divide this Critical Review as follows: the first section describes some key economic data to provide a context for Temin’s discussion; the second section describes his characterization of his “bi-sectoral” model of the US economy; the third section turns to the key problem of social mobility. The fourth section discusses Temin’s account of the Investment Theory of Politics. Section five discusses the role of private debt in Temin’s argument while while section six addresses some of the broader issues raised by the book….

Read the full review here:

‘Are Pre-distribution and Property-owning Democracy Mutually Compatible’ by Alan Thomas MANCEPT September 11–13.


Convenor: Professor Mark Reiff

New Ideas in Economic Justice


Recent egalitarianism challenges the orthodox model of welfare state capitalism to argue that our focus ought to be on fair access to capital and not redressing income inequality.[1] There are two ways of presenting this novel focus: as pre-distributive as opposed to re-distributive and as committed to the realization of a property-owning democracy. Are these two commitments mutually compatible?

The argument that they are not is this: the attraction of pre-distribution is its promise to equalize the market power of agents – effected by putting in place background institutions that capitalize such agents on an on-going basis – to exemplify that which Rawls called “pure procedural justice”. So there is a tension between this goal and the normative justification for being concerned with assets, and not income, at all. This justification contrasts productive activity with rent-seeking. Yet the most feasible scheme for realizing this goal – a property-owning democracy – can only ever approximate to a balance between the productive and “pure ownership” components in the holding of capital. This tension is latent in the critiques of asset-based egalitarianism in the work of Edmundson [2017] and Vallier [2014].

If we can only satisfice in the achievement of our policy aims, then this seems to be an instance of Rawlsian “imperfect procedural justice” – taking aim at an independent standard where one may not succeed. So these critics argue that proponents of asset based egalitarianism need to choose between their two foundational commitments. This paper responds that – on the correct understanding of both pre-distribution and a property-owning democracy – this apparent tension is, indeed, merely apparent and this critique can be resisted.


Selective Bibliography

Atkinson, Anthony B. [2015] Inequality: What is to be Done? Harvard University Press.

Edmundson, William [2017] John Rawls: Reticent Socialist, Cambridge University Press.

Kerr, Gavin [2017] The Property-Owning Democracy, Routledge.

Hockett, Robert [2017] A Society of Owners: Jeffersonian Democracy, Hamiltonian Finance, and a Program of post-Crisis Politico-Economic Renewal, Yale University Press.

O’Neill, Martin [2017] ‘Predistribution: the Very Idea’, conference paper.

Piketty, Thomas [2013] Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press.

Thomas, Alan [2017] Republic of Equals: Predistribution and Property-Owning Democracy, Oxford University Press.

Reiff, Mark R. [2013] Exploitation and Economic Justice in the Liberal Capitalist State, Oxford University Press.

Vallier, Kevin [2014] ‘A Moral and Economic Critique of the New Property-Owning Democrats: On behalf of a Rawlsian Welfare State’, Philosophical Studies, vol. 172, no. 2, pp. 283–304.

[1] Prominent examples include Atkinson [2015], Hockett [2017], Kerr [2017], Piketty [2013],Thomas [2017]. Edmundson [2017] is in some respects a dissenting voice, but requires those major productive assets that “command the heights” of an economy to be in public ownership – as a matter of constitutional fiat. He draws on a distinction between “pure ownership” and the productive use of capital which is also a leitmotif of Reiff [2013].

‘Republicanism, Liberalism and the Political Psychology of Emotion’, by Alfred Archer, Bart Engelen and Alan Thomas, University of York, Conference on Republicanism, June 26–27 2017


This paper compares and contrasts Pettit’s republican conception of justice with Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness. It does so by taking up a novel perspective on the two views: the implications of each for political psychology and the emotions that bear on political justification: shame, envy, malice and the will to dominate. The overall aim is to make headway on the complex question of the relation between the two views.

We know from Pettit’s work that a person who is dominated is craven, deferential and may resent this predicament. Positively, Pettit has endorsed Adam Smith’s conception of a just society as one in which citizens can appear in public without shame. He also adds that it is a crucial aspect of a republican view that a citizen must possess boldness, or self-confidence, in advancing their projects – an issue that he believes falls beyond the scope of state action. [Pettit, 2012, pp. 84–85]

Rawls’s political psychology is more prominently a part of his strategy of justification. The parties in the original position seek to assure the material basis of the self-respect of those whom they represent. A just distribution ought not to elicit reasonable envy and, in Justice as Fairness, the whole structure of Rawls’s justification of his principles is re-cast to take into account the role played by emotion. The two principles are first justified while bracketing the “destabilizing special attitudes”; they are then revised, as part of the theory of stability, with the malicious, anti-social attitudes of the would-be dominator taken into account.

We will draw the following conclusions from this comparison: first, Pettit’s conception of republican justice cannot, given some plausible claims about positional goods and the emotions that feature in their evaluative profile, meet Smith’s standard. Because this standard is sufficientarian it is, by Rawls’s lights, only weakly egalitarian in that Pareto improvements to the situation of the better off that do not make anyone else worse off are mandatory (if the worst off have met the sufficient standard). In light of this fact it seems that Frederick Neuhouser was correct to conclude that “more radical transformations that address asymmetries in the economic structure of society, though not ruled out, play little role in [Pettit’s] reflections on the policy implications of republicanism ”. [Neuhouser, 2013, p. 217. n.31]

Our positive proposal is that the republican ought to adopt Rawls’s strongly egalitarian conception of justice. This is for two reasons. First, it avoids the conclusion that Smith’s criterion of appearing in public without shame is unavoidable in the republican polity. Second, Rawls plausibly argues that those who lack the material basis of their self-respect will fail to value either themselves or their own projects. They will, therefore, lack the kind of confidence that Pettit recognizes as essential to the liber, but takes to be outside the scope of state action.

So our examination of the logic of positional goods leads us to conclude that only a society that guarantees the material underwriting of non-dominated status with a strong egalitarianism will allow the joint realization of adequate self-worth, the lack of stigmatizing shame, and republican “boldness”.

Two Reviews of Republic of Equals

Nicholas Vrousalis (forthcoming, The Philosophical Review):

Phil Parvin, Political Theory

Cross Posting at Pea Soup Ethics Blog