Book Review: The Law Of Peoples

The Law Of Peoples With “The Idea Of Public Reason Revisited,” by John Rawls

I liked this book a lot more than I expected to, and the author deserves a lot of credit for that.  To be sure, I knew going into this book that the author and I had very different political worldviews, but in reading this book I found that the author was far more savvy than he let on, even if some of his arguments were more than a little bit inconsistent [1].  It is worthwhile to state at the outset that I am not the target audience for this book.  This is an author who is an avowed liberal who is writing largely to leftists in order to encourage them to treat principled and “decent” people who are nonetheless not “liberal” with respect and friendliness in order to preserve the aims of decency and human rights.  Reading between the lines, a reader can infer that a great deal of the trouble in our own republic springs from the refusal of Progressives to show their political opposition and religious people in general respect and civility, and that this lack of civility on the part of leftists makes the goal of peace between civilized nations and self-defense against evildoers more fragile.

For the most part, this book is made up of various rather dry points and subpoints that is written in as legalistic a way as possible.  It appears, from my vantage point, as if the author wants to make his own personal opinions appear to have the validity of something approaching international law, and so he avoids the sort of passionate personal advocacy one would expect and writes this as if he was writing a commentary on Grotius.  This is a shrewd and canny decision, as the author perhaps accurately suspects that this is the sort of writing that could inflame fellow leftists and so it needs to be handled in as understated a manner as possible.  Particularly daring is the author’s reframing of the question of international law to be a law between peoples and not between states in recognition of the way that states tend to act in defense of their own interests and behave contrary to the wishes of their often far more peace-loving people, and that states can be roguish without their people being so, as has frequently been the case with the United States over the past few decades.  This is also a shrewd decision in that it seeks to reframe the question of international law and legitimacy by freeing people of the blame of bad regimes, a theme that arises at several points in this discussion.  Particularly brilliant is the author’s division of regimes into five types:  liberal regimes (which are not personally appealing given the assumptions the author makes for them), decent nonliberal peoples (where I would consider myself), outlaw states, peoples operating under historical burdens that make it difficult for them to be sufficiently free and equal, and hierarchical states that fail to offer sufficient consultation to their peoples but honor human rights.  There is a lot in this book I would disagree with, but the book as a whole is one that I would treat respectfully and debate with in a civil fashion.  Even though the book is made up of two somewhat independent essays, the last third of it taken up by an essay called “The Idea Of Public Reason Revisited,” the book holds together well.

There is a great deal in this book that is particularly relevant to our contemporary political situation, although the book itself was written in the late 1990’s and the edition I read came out in 2002.  Of particular relevance is the way that the author strongly urges fellow leftists and self-professed liberals to show a greater degree of civility and graciousness towards less egalitarian but nonaggressive foreign regimes and even competing political coalitions within Western societies.  In general, this has not been done, and the lack of civility from the left has been a major influence in the radicalization of conservative elements within societies across the West, including the United States, which has for many people (including myself personally) made it impossible to support any left of center regime under any circumstances whatsoever, despite my considerable ambivalence with populism of any kind.  The author, moreover, shows some degree of internal contradiction because of the tension between his avowed principles and his political worldview, stating that any liberal regime must respect the right to life but not seeing how abortion is a fundamental denial of this right, and thus illegitimate by the author’s own standards regarding human rights.  To be sure, these are not minor quibbles, but at the same time this book is a reminder that if more political discourse was conducted in this fashion our society would be far better off.  For that this book deserves considerable praise.

[1] For example, the author and I have the same view of immorality of Southern rebellion during the Civil War:

And, surprisingly enough, we have similar reviews about the importance of consent and consensus:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: The Law Of Peoples

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Law & Liberty | Edge Induced Cohesion

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