Rawls, Economic Liberty, and Lack Thereof

John Rawls

Gary Oldman as George Smiley -- I mean, John Rawls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent-ish post at Understanding Society leads back to this old Will Wilkinson post suggesting that the great philosopher of liberalism John Rawls was more radical than anyone gives him credit for. That’s because everyone treats Rawls’ difference principle — that a just society is only unequal when those inequalities benefit the worst off — as his most radical claim when, according to Wilkinson, what precedes it is actually far more radical. Here’s Wilkinson:

Rawls theory of justice has two principles. According to Rawls, the requirements of the first principle absolutely must be satisfied before moving on to the second principle. The difference principle is the last half of the second principle. By the time Rawls gets to the difference principle, most of the important work has already been done.

Rawls’ first principle of justice is a principle of maximum equal liberty that doesn’t sound that much different from Herbert Spencer’s. According to Rawls “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” The principle of equal liberty, and its absolute priority over matters of distribution, is what makes Rawls theory of justice liberal.

One might sensibly imagine that if all liberties matter, and that if citizens are to enjoy the most extensive liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others, then economic liberty must matter, and citizens ought to have as much of it as possible. However, Rawls specifically denies that robust economic rights and liberties are in any way implied by his first principle of justice. Economic liberties are not among our basic liberties. This is Rawls’ boldest claim.

So far so good. But when Wilkinson says that Rawls must have excluded economic liberties from his first principle because “if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get the answer he was looking for,” I can’t help but wonder if that’s being a bit overly glib. To be sure, Wilkinson is more well-versed in Rawls than I am, but I can still think up one or two plausible justifications for keeping economic liberties off the list of foundational political freedoms in Rawls’ system.

Here are the basic liberties as Rawls lists them:

The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law.

If we’ve to fairly evaluated Rawls’ decision to include all of those rights while excluding things like (in Wilkinson’s words) “[t]he freedom to buy and sell, to enter into contracts, to start a business, to hire and be hired, to save and invest, to trade freely across borders,” etc., then we need to consider what all of Rawls’ basic freedoms have in common that those economic freedoms do not. The answer, I think, is this: the economic freedoms that Wilkinson mentions are all tied up in the concept of the market — most of them (except maybe the right to private property) become more or less unintelligible unless we assume a market exists.

Rawls seems to be assuming that the state exists prior to the market, and so we must consider what sort of rights are built into the fabric of the former before we can even talk about the latter. In order to challenge this view, you might argue that markets mimic a sort of state of nature that exists prior to the state, and that the state then exists to protect or curate this environment. And while I won’t deal with that here — I just wanted to demonstrate a present a plausible justification for Rawls’ position– I will note that the recent work of Dean Baker and David Graeber, among others, would seem to point very far in the other direction.

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting how the the theorists of social liberalism construct ideal and uniform “societies” that bear little or no relation to actually existing societies, just as economic liberals like to imagine perfectly functioning self-regulating markets similarly detached from history, environment, biology, etc. Together they’d (fail to) make for very nice impossible places for totally non- and never-existent people to spend their never-occurring non-lives.

    • Surely there’s a difference between offering up ideal models as a normative guide to what constitutes “justice,” and offering up ideal models that we should take be an accurate representation of how markets really work.

      • Certainly there’s a difference, at least from the point of view of the social liberals, who don’t apparently presume that market relations must be among the primary considerations or even necessarily appear at all in a just society. Still, social liberal model-building seems criticizeable along parallel lines: The relationship between “equality” and “justice” could turn out to be as complex and contradictory as the relationship between “free markets” and “real freedom.”

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