Rawls, Economic Liberty, and Lack Thereof
April 13, 2012

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.


Free Market Fairness
April 2, 2012

Yesterday, Big Think‘s Peter Lawler extolled the virtues of political theorist John Tomasi’s new book, Free Market Fairness. Tomasi’s project is to massage away any underlying tension he sees between the twin virtues of social justice and individual (specifically economic) liberty. Regular readers of the blog know that I have a particular interest in theories that can accommodate both notions of fairness and notions of individual liberty — it’s one of the primary reasons I’m such a big proponent of republicanism. A satisfying libertarian-leaning treatment of some of the same issues would be a great boon to the, uh, marketplace of ideas.

After Googling around a bit, I found a more comprehensive summary of Tomasi’s argument, from the man himself, over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. In the post, he sketches out a blue print of his project that involves grounding a libertarian conception of economic freedom in Rawlsian liberalism’s “moral ideas of personhood and society.” All well and good, if those two ideas are reconcilable. And if the political implications hang together at all coherently.

So what are the political implications? Maybe Tomasi held all of that material for the book, because his answer on BHL is deeply underwhelming:

A game of Monopoly in which players start with substantially unequal amounts of money would be unfair. The stain of that unfairness would not be lifted merely by the requirement that, once that game had begun, those differently endowed players must all abide by the same set of formal rules. High liberals have long claimed that inequalities in people’s talent endowments and family situations raise issues of public morality. Free Market Fairness agrees: undeserved inequalities can generate moral claims within politics. This does not require that society seek somehow to prevent those inequalities from arising or being expressed in the first place (as in the Kurt Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron”). Nor, I hasten to add, need this require that society somehow attempt to equalize the material holdings of all citizens. But this recognition does require a specific institutional response. In a just society, institutions and rules should be crafted so that whatever broad patterns of inequality emerge reflect our commitment to respecting all citizens as valued members of a cooperative whole.


If we are concerned about fairness, what kind of framework best honors that (now common) concern? For example, is the best way to improve “the position of the least well-off class” to enact government programs designed to transfer wealth (whether within generations or between them)? Might we better express a concern for the least advantaged by creating a society focused not so much on issues concerning the transfer of wealth but on its creation?

There are two questions that are absolutely key to understanding what this would look like in practice, and Tomasi leaves them both unanswered. They are: What patterns of inequality would “reflect our commitment to respecting citizens as valued members of a cooperative whole?” And: Does wealth creation alone satisfy our moral responsibilities in this framework, or do we still need to talk about who captures the newly created wealth? Sidebar: How do we talk about that? A couple of concrete examples probably could have clarified the issue.

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New Salon Column
October 2, 2010

This went up yesterday. It’s basically an attack on arguments for public policy—but specifically taxation—that put a high premium on notions of what people earn and deserve as central to justice. I do this adapting certain arguments from John Rawls and Peter Unger, the latter of whom originally presented what I turned into the kayak thought experiment in his book Living High, and Letting Die. You should read that book! And also my column!

Just for kicks, you could also check out this weird and confusing rebuttal from Roberty Stacy McCain’s sidekick, Smitty. In it, Smitty:

  • Makes several claims about my beliefs that are either irrelevant (I’m pro-choice), flatly untrue (I don’t believe that it’s immoral for rich people to be rich, nor do I think that “equality of opportunity is meaningless”), or both.
  • Condemns abortion (a legal procedure) and then turns around and adopts a baffling sort of legal-realism-on-crack, in which someone deserves something as long as they didn’t violate the law to acquire it.
  • Implies that my entire argument was dictated to me by my parents and, weirdly enough, Rousseau. (Evidently, Smitty believes that people in Rousseau’s state of nature are subject to a progressive income tax.)
  • And, lastly, gives this as the moral case against progressive taxation: “The moral case for tax cuts is that honest people don’t spend money they lack.” Which I’ll admit I found more than a little mystifying.

Smitty’s post was actually kind of a bummer, because I’m interested in hearing some more sober, coherent rebuttals. I know I’m taking a minority view here, and that a lot of really smart people disagree. But to the extent that Smitty provided anything useful or instructive, I think it was a lesson in the perils of adopting an attitude in which anyone who presents a competing conception of justice is evil or stupid, and just wants to confuse you with his lies. It blinds you to the actual arguments they’re making, and your withering contempt for them obstructs your own ability to persuade. So in the end, nobody really learns anything.

In conclusion: “Smitty” is a fun name to say out loud. Smitty.

The Root of Value
May 26, 2010

While we’re on the subject of Rawls, I might as well pose the obvious question that follows from the argument I presented: it’s all well and good to say Rawls’ thought experiment leads to the best understanding of how to create a fair society, but who says fair is so great in the first place?

This is similar to the challenge posed by Thrasymachus: who says your metrics for goodness are objectively good? This is the question that led me to metaethics, because I realized that I didn’t have a very good response. I couldn’t bring myself to argue that ethical claims were natural properties, but I was uncomfortable with moral relativism, for obvious reasons.

But before I get into some possible answers, I want to solicit your opinions: what are ethical claims rooted in? Anything? When you say “Murder is wrong,” are you actually expressing an objective fact?

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Prescriptive Constructivism
May 26, 2010

Apropos of my last post, I should add that Rawls’ constructivism is distinct for being prescriptive, rather than descriptive—Sharon Street’s metaethical constructivism (as in, constructivism regarding the entire field of ethics, not just a certain subset) is descriptive in that she seeks to explain how we make ethical decisions right now where as Rawls is offering a vision of how he thinks we should make ethical decisions, at least with regards to governance. Obviously there will never be an original position or a veil of ignorance, but he uses this thought experiment as the foundation for an entire philosophy of governance that follows.

Substantive Constructivism and Rights
May 26, 2010

John Rawls
Image via Wikipedia

Clearly I didn’t do an adequate job of explaining my position on rights in this post, leading one commenter to suggest that my view came down to suggesting that rights and laws regarding rights are basically identical. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do think that the way governments respect human rights can be evaluated by an independent standard; I just think that evaluation needs to be done without reference to supposed natural laws of which we have no evidence.

In that post I referred to constructivism as “the metaethical view that certain ethical claims can be true or false, but that they’re true or false on terms constructed by human society.” What I left unsaid is what those terms are. And while there are a lot of different forms of constructivism, the one I tend to favor when it comes to political philosophy is the Rawlsian concept of the original position.

This is the view that John Rawls (pictured)—the founder of modern political liberalism (which is to say philosophical political liberalism, which is not the same thing as what we normally understand to be liberalism)—outlines in his landmark work A Theory of Justice. He writes that the ideally fair society is one in which all the laws and structure of government are decided and mutually agreed upon by its citizenry while this citizenry is in the original position. To be in the original position is to be behind something called the veil of ignorance; it means that while you are capable of rational reflection, you have no idea where you will fit into this society. You have no idea what your race, social class, income, religion, gender, sexual orientation (which I don’t think Rawls mentions, but I’m going to throw it in there anyway), etc. will be. Any rational individual in this position, Rawls argues, will advocate for laws and policies that are fair to even the worst off in the society, because they know that could be them.

I’m not completely onboard with everything Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice, but I think the concept of the original position is a good starting point for thinking about what an ideally fair society, one that respects human rights, would look like.

Incidentally, Rawls’ original position is what Sharon Street—an NYU professor, and, I think, one of the leading explicators of constructivism—would call restricted substantive constructivism. In other words, it is a theory of ethics that applies to a restricted field (politics), and is substantive in that you can’t rationally try to construct ethics within this system without (or at least Rawls would argue) ultimately deciding that universal fairness and respect for everyone’s rights are good things.

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