John Rawls’ Theory of Institutionalism: The Historical Movement Toward Liberal Democracy

Author: Li, Shaomeng
This work develops institutionalism into a normative and philosophical theory with the ability to explain the historical development of institutions. It contributes to Rawlsian scholarship by arguing that Rawls’ theory of justice is an institutionalist justification of liberal democracy from the internal perspective of a democratic citizen.


“. . . provides a relatively coherent account of some claims in Rawls’s later work that others have found perplexing, and it suggests a way of coherently integrating that later work with Rawls’s earlier work into a more or less unified whole. But apart from whether Li has Rawls right as a matter of textual exegesis, he develops here both the content and some implications of an approach to theorizing justice and political development that merits and rewards attention in its own right.” – Prof. David A. Reidy, University of Tennessee

“In this stunningly ambitious and original book, Shaomeng Li presents a philosophy of history — institutionalism — that supports liberal democratic institutions as the most advanced form of social organization. Such institutions are destined to prevail because they can be maintained indefinitely whereas alternative forms of social organization, when exposed to increasing scope or complexity, become fragile and must eventually break down. Such break-down is inevitable because large, complex social systems require a heavy concentration of political power which, if not checked through effective liberal rights and periodic elections, corrupts the political elite and thereby causes rebellion or stagnation.” – Prof. Thomas Pogge, Yale University

“What is illuminating about Li’s approach is that it provides for a unified picture of Rawis’s development without abandoning the universalistic perspective. The key idea lies in the notion of “well-ordered” states. Both liberal democracies and at least some non-liberal or non-democratic states may be “well-ordered” in terms of principles of justice such that, even in the latter case, institutional development is a public process responsive to the agency of the citizenry.” – Prof. Richard E. Aquila, University of Tennessee

Table of Contents

Foreword by David Reidy
Abbreviations for Rawls’s Works
1 Rationalism and Institutionalism Defined Rationalism in the Traditional Sense
The Application and Limitations of Rationalism in Politics
Institutionalism in the Social Sciences
Practical Actions and Institutions
2 A Positive Theory of Institutionalism
Agency Formation as a Process of Alienation
Institution Building as Externalization and Internalization
The Role of Religion in Agency Formation and Politics
Summary Remarks
3 An Institutionalist View of Political Development
Liberty and Responsibility
Freedom and Power
Agency Formation and Institutional Development
The Ideal of Political Development toward Liberal Democracy
4 Reconciling Rawls with Institutionalism Rawls’s Institutionalist Project
Public Justification in Rawlsian Institutionalism
The Perfectionist Challenge to Rawls
The Problem of Normativity in Institutionalism
The Libertarian Challenge and the Problem of Liberty
Institutionalism vs. Mere Indoctrination of Institutions
Rawls’s Conception of the Person
Rationality as a Moral Power, Not Inherent Human Nature
Is Rawls’s System Institutionalism or Constructivism?
Rawls’s Pursuit of a Well-Ordered Society
Democracy as Power Balance and as Political Autonomy
The Rawlsian Justification for Political Development toward Liberal Democracy