Rawls against libertarianism Notes for April 16

Main points

We talked about Rawls’s arguments against libertarianism. I said that I did not think that Rawls’s rejection of what he calls “natural aristocracy” makes sense.

Strictly speaking, these arguments are not part of the theory of A Theory of Justice. That theory is concerned with what the parties in what Rawls calls the original position. The parties in the original position are supposed to choose principles of justice for their society from a list of alternatives. Libertarianism is not on the list. The arguments we discussed today give Rawls’s reasons for not including libertarianism.

The four systems

There are two phrases that each have two possible interpretations. Combining them, we get four systems.

The first system is the System of Natural Liberty. In this system, the state does not enforce caste or guild restrictions on employment. So anyone can seek any job. Because it allows free exchanges, it will result in a distribution of goods that meets the “principle of efficiency.” That means that when all trades have been made, there will be no way of giving anyone more of what they want without taking something away from someone else. This is pretty close to Nozick’s minimal state.

This system is perfectly consistent. But, Rawls thinks, it is morally defective. It allows the distribution of economic goods and opportunities to be influenced by “morally arbitrary” facts, such as people’s natural and social advantages. In other words, if your parents are rich or you were born with unusual talents, you’ll probably wind up rich in the System of Natural Liberty and vice versa. Rawls thinks that’s unfair.

Two of the other systems try to address social and natural causes of economic inequality.

Liberal Equality seeks to nullify the influence of economic class. It will have an educational system and other social policies that aim to meet the following goal. Everyone will have the same economic opportunities as people who have the same natural talents and motivation to use them (p. 73).

Natural Aristocracy seeks to compensate for natural and social inequalities.** Rawls only identifies the natural ones, for what it’s worth (p. 74). The idea is that some of the economic gains reaped by the naturally talented (or socially fortunate) will be diverted to those who are less talented (or fortunate). Specifically, a natural aristocracy will seek to arrange inequalities so that they make the worst off members as well off as they can possibly be. In other words, Natural Aristocracy incorporates what Rawls calls the Difference Principle.

Rawls argues that Liberal Equality and Natural Aristocracy are inconsistent. Liberal Equality tries to eliminate the social causes of inequality. Natural Aristocracy tries to compensate for the natural ones (and the social ones too). But if you think social causes of inequality are unfair, you should think that natural causes are unfair too. So the reasoning in favor of both of these systems is inconsistent.

Democratic Equality is the fourth system. Like Natural Liberty, and unlike the other two systems, it is internally consistent. Unlike Natural Liberty, it does not allow the distribution of goods to be determined by morally arbitrary differences among people.

What about Natural Aristocracy?

Here’s my question. Why go through the trouble and expense of trying to nullify the effects of social class? What’s wrong with just using the Difference Principle to compensate people for their lousy natural and/or social luck?

Among other things, the money we save could simply be given to the poor.

Of course, we might want to try to nullify the effects of social class for other reasons. A society that develops the talents of smart poor kids will have a broader talent pool than one that does not. There are other reasons too. But I’m zeroing in on just one reason for nullifying the effects of social class: justice.

I don’t think Rawls proved his point that a class society is unjust. In fact, he gave an argument against thinking that justice requires a the nullification of social class. According to Rawls, natural talents are morally arbitrary. It’s morally arbitrary that you’re talented and I’m not. That’s true even if you’re a naturally talented poor person and I’m a talentless rich one. Why should society put all that effort into reversing our fates? You no more deserve your good natural fortune than I deserve my good social fortune. After all that expense, they will have just swapped one undeserving person for another.

You might find that line of reasoning offensive. Of course there’s a case for equal opportunity! Well, I’m with you. But whatever that case is, it can’t sit easily with the one that Rawls made. As far as I can tell, he’s cut the legs out of any argument for equal opportunity.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted April 26, 2008.
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