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"Egalitarian" and "libertarian" are frequently seen as opposing political labels. These two views and their oppositions are the topic of this collection of important essays by an exceptionally distinguished group of thinkers.
This collection of essays can be read as a critique of libertarianism. A libertarian, in contemporary discussion, is one who supports no more than a minimal state--a government that protects individuals from assault, murder, theft, and other invasions of their "Lockean" rights, but otherwise does not interfere with voluntary economic or personal activity. "Egalitarian," on the other hand, generally refers to someone who is prepared to favor such interference if it is necessary to reduce substantial inequalities of certain kinds and if, perhaps, it is democratically authorized.
Several of the essays, those of John Rawls, T. M. Scanlon, G. A. Cohen, and Ronald Dworkin, advance different versions of this liberal egalitarian line of argument. Each maintains that the ideas of freedom and equality enter into moral and political philosophy at a more fundamental level than the substantive, rights-determining norms on which libertarianism makes its stand. Each proposes a distinctive vision of this fundamental role. And each argues, on this basis, for egalitarian moral or political principles. Amartya Sen's essay can also be placed within a broadly liberal egalitarian tradition, although it is less an argument for substantive equality (and against libertarianism) than a discussion of what form a reasonable egalitarianism might take. Finally, Quentin Skinner directly criticizes libertarianism in ways that arguably tend to support egalitarianism, although this is not his primary aim.
This book offers deep thinking across one of the main fissures of current political debate. It will thus be of interest to all with a serious interest in the fundamentals of political beliefs and action.
Stephen L. Darwall is Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan.