Rawls on libertarianism Notes for April 15

Main points

Rawls presents four systems as a way of explaining how to interpret the second of his two principles of justice. We get four systems because there are two phrases in the principle that could each have two different meanings.

The system closest to a version of libertarianism like Nozick’s, the System of Natural Liberty, is consistent but wrong. It does nothing to correct or compensate for what Rawls regards as morally arbitrary influences on the distribution of goods. These influences are social or natural and the idea is that it’s unfair for your course in life to be determined by your family’s social class or your natural abilities.

Two of the systems make partial attempts to deal with the problem of morally arbitrary influences, Liberal Equality and Natural Aristocracy. But since they only go part way, they are unstable. If you’re convinced that the distribution of goods should not be influenced by morally arbitrary factors, why address only some of them? I called these views unstable because someone who started down the path to one of them would not stay there. The line of thinking that leads to these systems also leads beyond them. Only Democratic Equality is both consistent and correct.

Where does this fit in the book?

Rawls’s only significant discussion of libertarianism comes in the “informal” part of the book. By “informal”, I mean the part where he took himself to be explaining his ideas rather than arguing for them. The official arguments come later. They depend on what the parties in the original position would choose.

But the parties in the original position aren’t asked to consider libertarianism so this is the best we have. As it happens, there are some striking arguments here anyway. Even when he was trying to be loose and chatty, Rawls couldn’t help giving arguments!

What is morally arbitrary and why do we care?

Rawls’s reasons for rejecting libertarianism, liberal equality, and natural aristocracy all have to do with his claim that they allow too much influence for factors that are “arbitrary from a moral point of view” (p. 72). It’s both easy to see what he means and difficult at the same time.

On the one hand, the basic idea is that it’s unfair for one’s course in life to be determined to a large extent by factors outside of one’s control. It’s easy to see the appeal of that. It is unfair that some people are born with tons of advantages and others are born with lots of disadvantages.

On the other hand, it’s hard to keep your grip on the distinction given how far Rawls takes it. If our being responsible for what happens to us is undermined by all natural and social influences on our lives that are out of our control, well, what is left to be under our control? We started with a contrast between distributions of goods that result from factors in our control and distributions that result from factors outside of our control. The latter are unfair and the former are, presumably, fair. But it appears as though the latter swallowed up the former.

There’s some evidence that Rawls came at this issue from a religious perspective. This, in turn, might explain why the apparent elimination of our responsibility for the outcomes we produce wouldn’t have struck him as troubling. Some scholars have unearthed his senior thesis. They found that what he wrote about merit in the eyes of God in 1942 is strikingly similar to what he wrote about economic merit in 1971. If that’s where he’s coming from, then the elimination of this common sense distinction might not have troubled him so much. Nothing in this world is free in the way that the Deity is, so it could well make sense to think that all of our actions fall short of some supernatural standard of freedom or responsibility.** Added Sunday, April 26.

But we should probably leave out the religious interpretation of these ideas. However significant they are in Rawls’s biography, he didn’t present them as part of his argument. So, let’s start back with what seemed right: it just doesn’t seem fair that your lot in life should be determined by your social class or natural fortune. How far do we think this will go? We don’t think our responsibility for outcomes in other areas of our life is undermined by natural and social contingencies. For example, your friends still credit you for your good character and wit despite the fact that these are merely the products of nature and nurture. Why should our attitude towards your responsibility for the results of your economic behavior be significantly different?

It’s possible that Rawls didn’t mean to be as sweeping as he sounds. Under his system, there will be plenty of room for individual choice to determine outcomes. How hard you work will play a significant role in your income. The motivated and talented will still do better than others. The main difference is that there will be a floor for those who lack motivation or talent provided by the difference principle. And, of course, paying for that floor will limit what the high fliers can achieve. But the point is that your choices will still matter. They just won’t matter as much as they would in some of the other three systems.

Even so, you might not care. Nozick, for instance, doesn’t think the unfairness of life matters at all. All that matters, according to him, is if people are unfair, specifically by violating others’ rights. Of course, everything depends on what rights people have. But it would be a stretch to say that I’m violating your rights if you make less than I do because you lack talent or motivation. So Nozick can consistently deny that any of the factors Rawls points out matter. Whether that speaks in favor of or against Nozick’s approach is, of course, something you have to decide.

Why natural aristocracy?

I don’t think Rawls explained why his very demanding conception of equal opportunity is a requirement. It amounts to spending a lot of resources to ensure that the naturally talented poor have as many opportunities in life as the naturally talented rich. This comes at the expense of the naturally talentless rich, of course. But the possession of natural talents is a morally arbitrary fact about us, according to Rawls. So why should a society make their development its highest priority? Why isn’t it enough to devote the extra resources to the difference principle, making the worst off class, and perhaps others too, better off than it would otherwise be?

Seth and Wynn both pointed out that a society that wanted to make its members as well off as they could be would invest quite a lot in developing the talents of its members, regardless of social class. If so, there may not be much difference between natural aristocracy and democratic equality in practice.

The difference would be this. The system of democratic equality would spend money on its educational system for the purpose of equal opportunity beyond the point when doing so would generate surplus wealth for the society. The system of natural aristocracy would not.†† See A Theory of Justice, p. 84. It’s possible that a society governed by democratic equality would never reach that point, in which case the two would be equivalent. But it’s also possible that it would.

For instance, if you wanted to improve the skills of the labor pool in the US now, which would be the least expensive way to do so: try to nullify the effects of social class through the educational system or import skilled labor from other countries through immigration? I know which one I would look at first if I were just concerned with getting the most economic output for the least cost.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of equal opportunity. I just don’t see how Rawls can be in favor of it given the premises of his argument. Those should lead him to stop at natural aristocracy. That’s all I’m saying.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted April 25, 2009 and updated April 26, 2009.
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