Rawls on libertarianism Notes for November 21

Main points

Rawls walks his readers through a series of “systems” concerning the distribution of wealth and opportunities. These systems are defined by the way they combine different interpretations of two phrases in Rawls’s second principle of justice. Since there are two interpretations of two phrases, there are a total of four systems.

The system that most resembles Nozick’s libertarianism, the System of Natural Liberty, is consistent but wrong, in Rawls’s opinion. It does nothing to correct or compensate for what he regards as morally arbitrary influences on the distribution of goods. 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?

These systems are ‘unstable’ because someone who started down the path to one of them would not stay there. The line of thinking that leads from Natural Liberty to these two other systems also leads beyond them. Thus, Rawls concludes, only Democratic Equality is both consistent and correct.

A note on the text

There are two editions of A Theory of Justice: the original, 1971 edition (white cover) and the revised, 1999 edition (green and purple). There are substantive differences, but they aren’t important for our purposes. What is important is that the pagination is different. The pages I’m using are for the original, 1971 edition.

If you have the revised edition, you can do two things.

  1. Go by the section numbers (§) listed in the syllabus. Those are the same in both editions.
  2. Use the table in the back of the book to convert the page numbers.

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!

A few details about the systems

There are a couple of things about the “systems” that are easy to miss.

First, they all include the first principle, guaranteeing protection for what Rawls called “basic liberties,” such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the person (not sure what that means) and property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest (p. 61). What distinguishes the different systems from one another is how they distribute opportunities and resources.

Second, some of the systems include parts of the others. (Tip o’ the hat to Michael here.)

So what Rawls calls “fair equality of opportunity” includes what he calls “careers open to talents.” “Careers open to talents” means there are no legal impediments to taking a job. “Fair equality of opportunity” means that there are no legal impediments to taking a job and society will take steps to ensure that those of equal natural talents have the same chances of success.

In other words, the lower row in the table on p. 65 (of the original, 1971 edition) includes the upper row, but not vice versa.

Similarly, the Difference Principle, which requires that the worst off class be as well off as possible, is an efficient distribution of resources. When the Difference Principle is satisfied, there is no way of making anyone better off without making someone else worse off. (Though, of course, getting from a distribution that does not satisfy the Difference Principle to one that does will probably make some people worse off.)

So the right column includes the left column, but not vice versa.

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” (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” (p. 72). Why should it matter whether your success or failure is due to natural or social causes? If you fall to the bottom class in society because you have little natural talent or because your society didn’t develop your talents, it should all be the same from the ‘moral point of view.’ Neither one is more fair or unfair to the person behind the talents.

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. As Nathan noted, a society that develops the talents of its members will be more productive than one that does not. And 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. In a society like ours, they would have to spend a lot before coming close to achieving this goal.

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 am not saying that I 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: his arguments for moving away from libertarianism undercut his case for equal opportunity.

Even though I’m strongly in favor of making opportunity more equal, 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.

A factual interlude

This is the study I was clumsily trying to refer to. It involved searching the enrollment lists at elite English universities for unusual surnames. That gives us a picture of social mobility over a very long time because those universities are quite old. Here’s a summary from The Economist.

“The more important gauge of a meritocracy, however, is relative mobility, particularly between generations. In a society with broad equality of opportunity, the parents’ position on the income ladder should have little impact on that of their children. Economic historians use clever techniques to measure this. Gregory Clark at the University of California, Davis, and Neil Cummins of City University of New York, for instance, have tracked families with rare surnames. Looking at English census records since 1800, they picked out names such as Bazalgette and Leschallas and compared them with records of students at elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge universities. Their results show that even over 200 years social mobility has been rather limited. The wealth and social status of people with rare surnames in 1800 is strongly correlated with that of their descendants today.” (The Economist Oct. 13, 2012.)

And here’s an interview one of the authors did with NPR.

“If I just know that you share a rare surname with someone who was wealthy in 1800, I can predict now that you’re nine times more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge. You’re going to live two years longer than an average person in England. You’re going to have more wealth. You’re more likely to be a doctor. You’re more likely to be an attorney,” Clark says.

This finding was a big surprise.

So Clark and some fellow researchers checked results in other countries. They looked at records of elite status — top colleges, listings of doctors and lawyers. They checked how often certain names showed up in these places compared with how common they were in the general population. Then they checked how that comparison changed over time to see how names were moving in and out of elite positions.

They checked in England, Sweden, the United States, India, China, Japan and Chile.

“And astonishingly, there’s no more mobility in Sweden on these measures than there is in South America,” says Clark. “And that America looks just like England, looks just like Sweden.”

And, even more astonishingly, the numbers were the same in the Middle Ages as they are today.

I found at least two papers by Clark and Cummins on the web, if you want to look at their work for yourself: here and here.

And if that’s not enough, there’s a survey article on equal opportunity in the US published in this month’s Foreign Affairs. Here are some highlights from the summary.

there is no perfect way to measure opportunities. The best method devised thus far is to look at outcomes: college completion, gainful employment, and sufficient income. … Comparing outcomes is not foolproof, as differences in outcomes can result from differences in effort. But a person's effort is itself shaped by the circumstances he or she encounters.

To assess equality of opportunity among people from different family backgrounds, the measure of outcome that social scientists look at is relative intergenerational mobility -- a person's position on the income ladder relative to his or her parents' position. Social scientists don't have as much information as they would like …

Even so, there is general consensus among social scientists on a few basic points. First, an American born into a family in the bottom fifth of incomes between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s has roughly a 30 percent chance of reaching the middle fifth or higher in adulthood, whereas an American born into the top fifth has an 80 percent chance of ending up in the middle fifth or higher. (In a society with perfectly equal opportunity, every person would have the same chance -- 20 percent -- of landing on each of the five rungs of the income ladder and a 60 percent chance of landing on the middle rung or a higher one.) This discrepancy means that there is considerable inequality of opportunity among Americans from different family backgrounds.

Second, inequality of opportunity has increased in recent decades. …

Third, in a sharp reversal of historical trends, there is now less equality of opportunity in the United States than in most other wealthy democratic nations. … Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all do better.** Lane Kenworthy, “It’s Hard to Make it in America,” Foreign Affairs (2012).

The research on family names suggests to me that it’s going to be very hard to achieve what Rawls called fair equality of opportunity. The effects of social class run very deep. But maybe things aren’t so bad. If the US does worse than its peers, that suggests it could do better by emulating them without dire consequences.

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 nurture 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 that societies that do not rectify this unfairness are unjust. Nozick thinks all that matters is whether individual people are unjust to one another. There’s no such thing, according to him, as life’s being unfair or a society’s being unjust. So there’s an important sense in which they’re talking past one another.

Key concepts

  1. The four systems: Natural Liberty, Liberal Equality, Natural Aristocracy, Democratic Equality.
  2. What Rawls means by “factors so arbitrary from a moral point of view” (p. 72).
  3. Really, everything between pp. 72-75, the last six paragraphs of §12.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted November 21, 2012.
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