Rawls on Libertarianism

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. Two interpretations of each of two phrases yields 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 the case for believing either of them is unstable. If you are convinced that the distribution of goods should not be influenced by morally arbitrary factors, why address only some of those factors rather than addressing them all as Democratic Equality does?

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.

We did not give Nozick much of an opportunity to fire back. But I am pretty sure that one thing he would say is that Rawls’s assumption is wrong and the “unfairness of life” is only a metaphorical expression. As Nozick sees it, only people can be genuinely unfair. But no one treats you unfairly if you lack talent and so do not succeed. And it is not unfair for parents to favor their children. So, in Nozick’s opinion, neither the natural nor the social sources of inequality are necessarily unfair or morally arbitrary.

I think that is the argument that Rawls has to beat.

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 1999, 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” (Rawls 1999, 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 did not 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. So the only thing left to do would be to ensure that those at the bottom have as much as possible.

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. Such a society will be more productive than one that does not. My only point is that the commitment to equal opportunity prevents Democratic Equality from switching resources away from education to the worst off class when doing so would benefit the worst off class more than continuing to spend on education would. Natural Aristocracy would do the opposite: it would maximize the resources going to the poor even at the expense of equal opportunity.

What is my point here? Well, it’s not that I myself favor Natural Aristocracy. I like equal opportunity. I also doubt that a real aristocracy would transfer wealth to the worst off class; it never worked that way in the past, after all. And I certainly do not mean that Rawls favored Natural Aristocracy. He included it as an afterthought because it filled out the two-by-two box.

What I mean is that I do not think that Rawls has a good argument for equal opportunity. His insistence that natural and social features of persons are all morally arbitrary blocks him from explaining why it would be important, in my opinion.


There is so much interesting material on social mobility. Here are a few recent things that caught my eye.

First, research from Britain suggesting that investments in education have not improved social mobility. What people call improved mobility is the growth of better paying positions. In essence, some people can move up and no one has to move down. I suspect that is what a lot of us have in mind when we think we favor equal opportunity. If so, maybe the kind of society we really want is one that can sustain growth in productivity, such that each generation of workers can make more than the previous generation did and thereby enjoy improving standards of living. The problem is that we don’t know how to do that. Anyway, the article is interesting for the facts it presents as well as for clarifying exactly what it is that is involved in mobility. Plus, it’s a newspaper piece, so it’s short.

Second, research from the US on why talented black and hispanic students can go undiscovered. This is the kind of thing that even a natural aristocracy should care about: you want to identify and develop your talented members. And those of us who care more about equal opportunity than natural aristocrats do should be doubly concerned.

Finally, there is a really interesting study about social mobility that involves 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.

“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!

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” (Rawls 1999, 63).
  3. Really, everything in the last six paragraphs of §12.


Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


There was a handout for this class: 22.RawlsLibertarianism.handout.pdf