Rawls on libertarianism

Notes for April 15

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.

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. The part that we talked about today gives Rawls’s reasons for not asking them to consider libertarianism.

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” (73/63).

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. 72/63). 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 Ziqi noted, a society that develops the talents of its members will be more productive than one that does not.

But it wouldn’t be committed to the goal of equal opportunity in the way that Democratic Equality is. 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.

Why not break up the family?

Sean asked a disconcerting question. If raising children in families inevitably leads to inequalities, why not socialize child care. It worked for Plato! (In theory).

Sean’s point, I take it, was to ask just how far Rawls was willing to go with his theories about justice and fairness. If the family makes life genuinely unfair, maybe it should go. If that’s unthinkable, maybe we don’t care as much about fairness as we thought we did.

In any event, Rawls never explicitly said why this would be a bad idea.

A factual interlude

There is a really interesting study about social mobility that was published recently. 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.

Clark has published his research in a book called The Son Also Rises. It sounds interesting!

Mankiw and the Pareto principle

I said that I found the eminent economist Gregory Mankiw appealing to something like the Principle of Efficiency in a column in the New York Times. Here is what I had in mind.

In some ways, economics is like medicine two centuries ago. If you were ill at the beginning of the 19th century, a physician was your best bet, but his knowledge was so rudimentary that his remedies could easily make things worse rather than better. And so it is with economics today. That is why we economists should be sure to apply the principle “first, do no harm.”

This principle suggests that when people have voluntarily agreed upon an economic arrangement to their mutual benefit, that arrangement should be respected. (The main exception is when there are adverse effects on third parties — what economists call “negative externalities.”) As a result, when a policy is complex, hard to evaluate and disruptive of private transactions, there is good reason to be skeptical of it.

As I see it, the minimum wage and the Affordable Care Act are cases in point. Noble as they are in aspiration, they fail the do-no-harm test. An increase in the minimum wage would disrupt some deals that workers and employers have made voluntarily. The Affordable Care Act has disrupted many insurance arrangements that were acceptable to both the insurance company and the insured; these policies were canceled because they deviated from lawmakers’ notion of the ideal.

Mankiw is reluctant to raise the minimum wage or implement Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act or ACA) because doing so would make some people worse off or, at least, invalidate voluntary exchanges. That is very much like the Principle of Efficiency. However, it is only partly like the Principle of Efficiency because his case rests on uncertainty about whether there would be compensating benefits. A thoroughgoing advocate of the Principle of Efficiency should say that it does not matter how big the benefits would be, you cannot make anyone worse off in order to achieve them. (And that’s why there are almost no thoroughgoing advocates of the Principle of Efficiency!)

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. 63/72).
  3. Really, everything in the last six paragraphs of §12.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted April 15, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy