“Liberals and Libertarians: Kissing Cousins or Distant Relatives?” That question was debated at a January 13 event sponsored by Stanford University’s Program in Ethics in Society and the Cato Institute. Boston Review co-editor Joshua Cohen gave these comments.

In his book Political Liberalism, John Rawls offers a general description of a liberal political outlook. He intends the description to cover views ranging from the classical liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, arguably in the tradition of Locke and Adam Smith, to the more egalitarian liberalism of his own Theory of Justice. Rawls writes, “the content of a liberal political conception of justice is given by three main features:

1. a specification of basic rights, liberties and opportunities (of a kind familiar from constitutional democratic regimes);

2. an assignment of special priority to those rights, liberties and opportunities, especially with respect of claims of the general good and perfectionist values; and

3. measures assuring to all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use of their liberties and opportunities.

These [three] elements can be understood in different ways, so that there are many variant liberalisms.”

Aren’t these just the typically vacuous abstractions that only a philosopher could love? No. Quite to the contrary, Rawls here identifies the common ground shared by classical and egalitarian liberals. And, I think, the common ground occupied by the participants in this discussion.

The abstract description of shared ground is located at the level of principle, not policy, but it is not vacuous at all, and in two important ways.

First, to believe in the equality and priority of basic personal and political liberties; to be skeptical as a corollary about paternalism, moralism, and perfectionism; to embrace an ideal of equality of opportunity and an assurance of adequate resources for all: these mark out a distinctive family of political views. Those three points are not common ground that we political liberals share with fascists; communitarians; traditionalists of various kinds; Stalinists; suffocating, oxygen-depleting moralists; believers in a confessional state (whatever the confession); or adherents to anti-state, anarchist libertarianism. We may be dull, but we are dull from our own distinctive principles.

Second, I think it is common ground among the variant liberalisms that expressing shared principles of this kind is an important part of politics. That is because we all think, anyway I think we all think, that there is something to the ideal of public reason: I mean the idea that politics is not simply about the use of power in pursuit of group interests, but also about drawing on basic principles and ideas of justice and fairness in guiding the exercise of collective power. For us, I think, there is some continuity between political philosophy and politics. And while we all know that politics is not a seminar and a movement is not a counterexample, we think that things have gone badly wrong in a democracy when politics degenerates into endless angling for personal and group advantage, and political “argument” is just another phase in that unprincipled struggle.

That said, we also disagree. And what we disagree about is, among other things, how best to understand those core elements of a liberal political outlook. And to provoke discussion I want to mention four points of disagreement: about democracy, equal opportunity, an adequate level of resources, and the use of collective power to advance political purposes. I am not sure whether our disagreements on these four broad issues are more philosophical or more empirical, or how, as a practical matter, to draw the line. One of the hopes I have for this discussion is that we can make some headway in thinking about why we disagree, despite our shared ground.

First, then, we are all democrats: we think competitive elections are important both for representativeness and accountability of government, and we favor universal suffrage and associated political rights of speech and association. But egalitarian liberals have a stronger ideal of political equality: we object when chances for political influence depend on positions in the distribution of income and wealth. We know that Obama dropped public finance, and are not happy that he did. And our unhappiness goes to something basic in our understanding of democracy. We think of democracy as more than an instrument for good policy. Democracy is also a way that equal citizens use their political rights to bring their sense of justice to bear on collective decisions: “The great glory of American Democracy,” King said, “is the right to protest for right.” Of course people attach different importance to political engagement. But we think that chances for influence should not depend so much on resources, and that means regulating campaign finance.

We see a basic political value at stake here—equality of opportunity—and think it is an appropriate use of powers to tax and spend to make policies in service of this value.

Now, we know (and share) the concerns about intrusive regulations, official distortions of speech, people spending on fancy cars instead of politics, and the troubles with drawing lines between regulable and non-regulable speech, especially in our political culture. But we see all of these concerns as conversation starters, not stoppers. The issue is whether we can figure out a system of electoral finance that would not simply dismiss the value of political equality. That is the question. But when we hear the idea of regulating the flow of money, we don’t assume that it will be perverse, or futile, or ruinous of all that is good (here, and later, I borrow from Albert O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy).

Second, I think there is a similar story about equal opportunity. Common ground is that we like the idea of people being able to do something with their talents, not being held back by artificial barriers as they are under racial apartheid or with rigid gender rules. And we don’t believe the unbelievable idea that everyone is the same—the ridiculous idea that we egalitarians are sometimes said to embrace. So we know that when people are not held back, they will end up in different places.

But we think that people are held back by lack of resources, and not only by legal restraints on social mobility. We think it is unfair when people of comparable ability, prepared to make comparable efforts fare differently because of their social-class origins. We know that this cannot be completely remedied. Having spent time on earth, we know that much better schools and training, better health care, and less solicitude for intergenerational transfers will not create the world of perfect equality of opportunity. But we see a basic political value at stake here—equality of opportunity—and think it is an appropriate use of powers to tax and spend to make policies in service of this value. And, once more, we don’t suppose that efforts to use political means to further this value will, as is said, be pointless, or hurt “the very people we are trying to help,” or send us down the road to some bureaucratic, rent-seeking swamp of feudal corruption. It might: markets fail, public policy fails. But experience on earth with addressing these issues in democracies is not a record of unbroken failure.

Third, there is the issue of adequate means: the idea that a protection of liberties and opportunities needs to be accompanied by some attention to the distribution of the resources we need to make use of our equal liberties. Assume that law and policy have a large impact on the life chances of members of society, that the distribution of resources is a function of the laws and policies we have adopted, not simply the choices that people make about what to do with their talents. We think that changes in laws and policies—including market-constituting laws about patent and copyright— would yield a different distribution of wealth. We know that some people will always fare less well than others. One response is to remind people that life is unfair. We think, instead, that a democratic society—dedicated to the proposition that we are all equals—must be prepared to explain to those whose prospects are worse why it has not chosen different rules that would make their prospects better.

Fourth: two threads run through all of this. One is about political philosophy. We egalitarian liberals are concerned about equality—political equality, equality of opportunity, equality of resources—in ways that classical liberals are not. But the disagreement also sounds in our positive views about politics, society, and markets: we don’t think that politics is a disaster waiting to happen. Friedman says “equality comes sharply into conflict with freedom; one must choose. One cannot be both an egalitarian . . . and a liberal.” We disagree. We think it is right to be both, and that it is possible to be both, without being naïve.

And that is partly because we have a different picture of politics. We think that politics is more than an unfortunate necessity required by our inability to live together without killing each other. We think it is, can be anyway, an arena in which we work out and pursue, sometimes with notable success, large and constructive purposes. When I think about the history of democracy in the past century, and think about its greatest achievements of domestic policy, the areas of real moral progress, I think of civil rights, women’s equality, and the halting fight against a class society. With respect, classical liberals were in the rearguard in every one of these struggles. And for a simple reason: in each case, the struggle depended on a willingness to fight against inequality, subordination, exclusion through political means, through the dread state. And if you mix your classical liberal values with the classically conservative predisposition to think that politics is at best futile, at bad perverse, at worst risks what is most fundamental, then you will always celebrate these gains when the fight is over: always at the after party, inconspicuous at the main event, and never on the planning committee.