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The idea of a 'property-owning democracy' became central to John Rawls's re-evaluation of his theory of justice. This article traces the origins of Rawls's concept of ‘property-owning democracy’ first to the writings of the economist James Meade and then to those of early twentieth-century British conservatives, focusing on the question of how the meaning of democracy was defined and re-defined throughout this history. I argue that Rawls inherited a discursive matrix from the British conservatives in which the notion of 'property-owning democracy' refers to the limits that should be set on democratic practices to make democracy compatible with the needs and interests of property-owners. In addition to tracing the genealogy of the idea of a 'property-owning democracy', the article points toward more recent attempts, partially inspired by Rawls's 'political turn', to re-examine the distribution of property-ownership from the perspective of what is required for viable democratic deliberations. The article ends with an addendum lamenting the fact that when George W. Bush’s administration adopted the British ideas and policies associated with 'property-owning democracy' it chose to omit 'democracy' altogether and to describe its initiative as 'ownership society'.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Toronto, Centre for Ethics, 6 Hoskin Avenue, Toronto ON, M5S 1H8, Canada, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: January 1, 2008

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