In this book Kok-Chor Tan puts the case for "comprehensive liberalism" against the "political liberalism" of John Rawls. It's a dispute between two varieties of liberalism.
Rawls's liberalism appears to be the less radical of the two options. As Kok-Chor Tan describes it, Rawls wants to establish a "law of peoples" - one which would govern the way nations act toward each other. Rawls doesn't seek to impose the full liberal programme in establishing his international protocols. He is willing to tolerate the existence of hierarchcial, non-liberal societies (on certain conditions) and he doesn't insist on the same "distributive justice" (equal distribution of resources) on a global level that he wants to establish within the Western liberal nations.
Kok-Chor Tan believes Rawls is selling out in making these concessions. His key argument is significant. He rejects the idea that liberals should tolerate non-liberal understandings of distributive justice, as toleration is only a value inasmuch as it serves the cause of autonomy. Given that autonomy is undermined by social or economic inequality, liberals should therefore opt not for tolerance but for egalitarian redistribution:
For the comprehensive liberal, on the other hand, the toleration principle is derived from the more fundamental liberal commitment to individual autonomy, and inasmuch as autonomy is a posteriori underminable by social or economic inequalities, he or she will insist on some principle of distributive justice, disagreements over the content of this notwithstanding.
That might seem drily academic, but it is significant in a number of ways. First, it helps to explain why liberals are so committed to the principle of equality. If you believe that the highest good is autonomy, then it will seem unjust if some people have more resources (money, power, status) to exercise autonomy than others. So you might well then be committed to "distributive justice" (taking resources from some people to give them to others).
But there is no stopping the logic of this principle. Consider what it leads to when it comes to foreign aid. Rawls believes that wealthier nations have a humanitarian duty to use some of their resources to assist poorer nations. Kok-Chor Tan is strongly opposed to this view. He believes that the resources of wealthier nations belong to the poorer nations as a matter of justice and therefore as a right:
it makes an immense difference whether wealth redistribution between countries is conceived as a matter of humanity or justice...treating duties between countries as a matter of justice...reminds us that the crucial issue is ultimately that of rightful ownership rather than that of humanitarian contribution.
He quotes another liberal (Barry) to underline this point:
...if some share of resources is justly owed to a country, then it is (even before it has been actually transferred) as much that country's as it is now normally thought that what a country normally produces belongs to that country.
Kok-Chor Tan is serious about this. He argues that even though this is a liberal principle, the non-liberal countries are likely to accept it, as most of them are non-Western nations who would benefit materially:
Accordingly, because non-liberal societies tend to be in reality the less well-off societies compared to liberal ones, they stand to gain from an egalitarian global theory and therefore...will readily endorse this ideal.
And the Western nations? Kok-Chor Tan believes that they will have the intellectual compensation of seeing their beloved liberal ideology put in place globally. Liberal states, he writes,
are to accept global institutional arrangements that will call on them to transfer resources, which they have taken for granted as rightfully theirs, to less endowed countries.
...liberal states sacrifice some of their GNP, but get a global system of rights consistent with their moral philosophy.
These proposals would have a particularly deep effect on Australia. One of the specific suggestions made by the comprehensive liberals is this:
Pogge, for instance, proposes a global resources tax (GRT) that will tax better endowed countries for extracting natural resources in their own countries.
Another idea is that there should be "technology transfers": that technology produced in one country belongs by right to a less well-endowed country.
All of this goes to show that there is always a more radical liberalism. There will always be those who want to implement the theory more consistently.
It's not difficult to see how Kok-Chor Tan's own version of liberalism could be trumped. If the moral course of action really is to level social and economic conditions between individuals, so that no-one is privileged in their autonomy; and if this means that the resources of one individual belong by right to someone less well-endowed; then why bother at all with property rights?
Why should the guy up the road end up with more money because his dad worked hard and left him and his family a big inheritance? Under Kok-Chor Tan's approach, part of that inheritance belongs by right to me as a matter of justice. I have a claim to it, even though neither I nor anyone in my family did anything to produce that wealth.
I would much rather live in a society with a degree of inequality, but in which people were able to set about producing wealth for themselves, their own families and their own communities, rather than one which insisted on redistribution as a right.
It's true that absolute poverty in some countries is a serious issue to be tackled, and one which unduly diminishes the quality of life for those experiencing it, but that needs to be addressed by carefully targeting aid (so as not to make things worse) rather than handing resources over as a right to be used for whatever purposes, useful or not, the rulers of that society have for it.