Rawls on libertarianism Notes for April 14

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. What follows is his thinking about these four systems. It’s why he chose the particular interpretation of his second principle that he did.

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!

Why not natural aristocracy?

I said that Rawls should have stopped with Natural Aristocracy. A Natural Aristocracy follows the difference principle: it seeks to make the people at the bottom as well off as they possibly can be.

Rawls’s favored alternative, Democratic Equality, does that too. But the resources it has available are limited by the fact that it has to provide for Fair Equality of Opportunity, namely, ensuring that “those with similar abilities and skills should have similar life chances.”** Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 73.

Why would a society take resources from the poor to do that? After all, Rawls himself argued that the distribution of natural talents, abilities, and skills is “arbitrary from a moral point of view.”†A Theory of Justice, p. 72.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why a society that wants to maximize the welfare of the worst off class would try to cultivate the natural talents of its members. And, as Alan pointed out to me after class, there are many reasons why an education is a good thing, such that any decent society would want to have high quality education for its members. So Natural Aristocracy would have all these reasons for developing a good educational system.

But it wouldn’t be committed to the goal of equal opportunity in the way that Democratic Equality is. That matters. Natural Aristocracies will only spend on their educational system if they anticipate gaining greater social productivity or other benefits. Societies that follow Democratic Equality will keep on spending until they have achieved equal opportunity since that is a requirement of justice that cannot be compromised for economic gain.

What I’m saying is that Rawls can’t explain why equal opportunity is a requirement of justice. His remarks about the arbitrariness of having talents precludes him from doing so. So he should have stopped with Natural Aristocracy.

I don’t necessarily like that result myself. I’m all in favor of something like equal opportunity. My point is only about the relationship between Rawls’s premises and his conclusions. Still, I think we would do well to think about tradeoffs. Imagine a poor country. Is equal opportunity a matter of justice that takes priority over material welfare? Should a society strive for equal opportunity before indoor plumbing, air conditioning, or refrigeration are universally available? Imagine our country. Should equal opportunity take priority over ensuring that poor neighborhoods are safe from crime or environmental pollution? The general point is that there are only so many resources available to the state and the pursuit of equal opportunity is going to come at the cost of something else. I don’t think it’s obvious that equal opportunity always defeats other gains in material well-being.

What about Rawls’s basic argument?

I said that I was of two minds about Rawls’s basic argument. On the one hand, I find it persuasive. It is unfair that some people should have more than others due to factor beyond their control. On the other hand, I worry that Rawls has gone too far. We don’t think that the natural and social origins of our traits and behavior means that we aren’t responsible for the way that we are or what we do in general. No one thinks that their friends aren’t really worthy of friendship because all their good qualities are the product of either nature or nuture and outside of their control. So why should things be different when people claim to be responsible for the economic behavior and thus deserving of the rewards or burdens that stem from it?

Rawls himself probably didn’t mean to be as radical as his arguments sound. Choices will still matter in his theory. It’s just that there’s a floor at the bottom.

I ended with a remark about the difference between Rawls and Nozick. Rawls believes that life can be unfair and therefore unjust. Nozick thinks all that matters is whether people are unjust to one another.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 16, 2010.
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