Rawls on Libertarianism
Rawls walks his readers through a series of four systems for
distributing wealth and opportunities. These systems are defined by how
they combine two different interpretations of two phrases in Rawls’s
second principle of justice. Two phrases that each have two
interpretations yields four systems.
So we get yet another two by two box. I promise that this is
the last one.
The box presents four systems. These systems are defined by how they
interpret two terms in Rawls’s second principle of justice.
Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that
they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s
advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to
all.” (Rawls 1999,
53, italics added)
If you put the two interpretations of the phrase “to everyone’s
advantage” in the columns and the two interpretations of “open to all”
in the rows, this is what you get (Rawls 1999, 57).
|Equality as careers open to talents
||System of Natural Liberty
|Equality as equality of fair opportunity
Why Democratic Equality is the best
The idea of this box is that no matter where you start, you will wind
up with Democratic Equality. Rawls starts in the northwest box, with the
System of Natural Liberty.
The System of Natural Liberty is the one that most resembles Nozick’s
libertarianism. Rawls thinks that this is consistent but wrong. He
believes that it is unfair for the course of your life to be determined
by social factors, like your family’s class, or natural factors, such as
your abilities. These things, he believes, are “arbitrary from a moral
point of view” (Rawls
1999, 63). The System of Natural Liberty does nothing to correct
or compensate for either the social or the natural causes of
The systems in the southwest and northeast boxes make partial
attempts to deal with the problem of morally arbitrary influences on our
lives. Rawls argues that they are inconsistent. If you think you should
move from the System of Natural Liberty to either Liberal Equality or
Natural Aristocracy, then you will wind up moving to Democratic
Liberal Equality, the southwest box, seeks to correct the social
causes of inequality. It does so with an educational system that seeks
to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities in life as those with
similar natural talents, regardless of their social background. As Rawls
puts it, “those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and
have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects
for success regardless of their initial place in the social system”
Natural Aristocracy does nothing to correct for the social causes of
inequality but it compensates those who have less by implementing the
Difference Principle. The Difference Principle holds that inequalities
in wealth and opportunity are allowed only if they improve the wealth
and opportunities of the worst off class.
Rawls believes that Liberal Equality and Natural Aristocracy are
unstable compromises. 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? Someone who moved from Natural Liberty to one of these
other systems would not stay there because the line of thinking that
leads away from Natural Liberty also leads beyond them. Thus, Rawls
concludes, only Democratic Equality is both consistent and correct.
What is the Difference Principle?
The Difference Principle holds that a society should allow inequality
in wealth if and only if that inequality works to the advantage of the
worst off class. The idea is that people will produce more only if they
are allowed to keep at least part of what they produce. The poorest
people, in turn, are better off living in a more productive society that
is unequal than they would be in one that was strictly equal. They
benefit from the greater production that follows from inequality. So the
Difference Principle allows inequality because it makes everyone better
off. But it only allows inequality so long as the worst off benefit.
Once greater inequality ceases to benefit the worst off class, it is no
longer allowed; it would be confiscated by taxes or discouraged by
One way to put it is that the Difference Principle is the most
rational form of egalitarianism because it allows inequality when
inequality benefits the people at the bottom.
This figure illustrates how the Difference Principle works.
The two axes represent wealth that goes to representative members of
different classes: X1 and X2.
The origin represents what society would produce if wealth were
distributed equally between those classes. It is not nothing; it’s just
where the graph starts.
The curved line (OP) represents what society could produce
if it allowed inequality. X1 gets wealthier as the OP line
goes to the right and X2 gets wealthier as the OP line goes
up. In this case, the X1 class gets more wealth than the
X2 class. That is why the curved line is below the 45 degree
line: it moves more to the right than it moves up.
When the OP line is moving up and to the right at the same time, both
X1 and X2 benefit. A society following the
Difference Principle would seek to hit point a. That is where
the OP line reaches its highest point on the Y axis, meaning that is the
point where inequality benefits the members of the worst off class the
most. Anything to the left or right of a would leave people
like X2 worse off than they would be at point a.
Why does society produce more with inequality?
The OP line assumes that society will have more resources if it
allows inequality than it will if it insists on strict equality. That’s
why the OP line moves to the right and up from the origin.
Why does Rawls think that assumption makes sense? It is basically for
the same reason Locke gave in his theory of property rights: if people
have rights over what they produce, they will produce more than they
would if they do not have rights over what they produce. A society that
insists on strict equality would distribute anything extra that an
individual makes among everyone. So the individual’s incentive to
produce anything extra would be minuscule. By contrast, if you allow
people to keep a substantial portion of what they make, they will make
more stuff. That is why Rawls drew the OP line as he did.
What Would a Libertarian Say in Response?
This is Rawls’s only significant discussion of libertarianism and it
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.
The parties in the original position are not asked to consider
libertarianism. The part that we talked about today gives Rawls’s
reasons for not asking them to consider libertarianism.
If I were Nozick, I would say that Rawls’s assumption that society
should be concerned with the morally arbitrary influences on life is
wrong and that the unfairness of life is only a metaphorical expression.
As Nozick sees it, only people can be unfair. No one treats you
unfairly if you do not succeed because you lack talent 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.
That, in my opinion, is the argument that Rawls has to beat.
What Would a Radical Critic Say?
If I were a radical critic of capitalist society, one thing I might
do is question Rawls’s assumption that inequality is necessary for a
In Figure 6, the line OP represents what a society could produce. The
origin represents the goods available in a perfectly equal society. (It
is at coordinate 0,0 on the graph, but that does not mean it is nothing;
it’s just where the graph starts.) The amount of goods rises (it moves
up and to the right) as more inequality is allowed (the OP line moves
away from the 45 degree line).
The assumption is that people will produce more if and only if they
are allowed to keep at least a part of what they make. That is why you
get inequality: the more productive wind up with more than the less
But a radical critic might question whether this is really so. Could
people be motivated to produce for reasons other than gain? Could they
be motivated by artistic reasons, social solidarity, or something else?
It may be true that incentives are needed to motivate people to work in
our society. But, a radical critic may say, that does not mean
that all societies must work this way. In a different social
order, people would have different motivations.
Speaking for myself, I think Rawls is probably right. But he hasn’t
shown that he is right. He has just drawn a graph that
assumes that inequality is necessary for a productive
Do People Keep What They Make?
Suppose you think that people who work harder (or more productively)
should get more than those who do not. That is something that most of us
believe. Rawls agrees, in a way. People like X1 have more
because they produce more for society while people like X2
have less because they produce less.
But Rawls is unlike Locke in the following way. He does not think
that there is a natural relationship between working and having rights
to keep what you produce. People like X1 get to have more
because giving them more works to the advantage of the worst off class.
When letting them keep what they produce no longer benefits the worst
off class, they no longer get to do so. In that way, Rawls’s views are a
bit like utilitarianism. Your economic rights are derived from
considerations of the social good; they are not natural rights.
Does Everyone Have to Work?
The Difference Principle requires a society to maximize the resources
going to the people in x2 regardless of why they are
worse off than the people in x1. The graph says nothing about
why people wind up where they do in the income distribution.
It does not matter if the people in x2 are worse off due
to factors beyond their control or if they are just lazy and
deliberately choose not to work because they know they are guaranteed to
wind up at point a.
I think it’s obvious why some people would find this objectionable.
But when we talk about the Original Position, you will see why the
parties do not care. They do not have any more opinions and so they do
not find laziness or cheating bad. They just want to protect their
interests. And for all they know, they represent people who just do not
want to work. They have to protect people like that.
Why Not Natural Aristocracy?
Rawls thinks the equal opportunity should come before the difference
principle. That means that he thinks society should devote its resources
to ensuring that “those with similar abilities and skills should have
similar life chances” (Rawls 1999, 63). Only once it has
achieved this goal will it use the resources it has left over to make
the position of the worst off class as good as it can be.
Of course, the two projects often go together. A society can raise
point a by developing the talents of its members so that they
are more productive. So a society devoted to the difference principle
will also do quite a lot to counteract the influence of social class on
the development of talents.
But equality of opportunity as Rawls understands it is very
demanding. At some point, I suspect that the resources needed to move a
society closer to equal opportunity would go to the educational system
at the expense of improving its productive capacity.
A Natural Aristocracy follows the difference principle: it seeks to
make the people at the bottom as well off as they possibly can be
without being committed to equal opportunity. I think this makes more
sense for Rawls. When spending on the educational system does not
improve the productive capacity of society, a Natural Aristocracy will
stop putting money into it. But a society devoted to equal opportunity
will keep going: it will devote resources to the educational system
until equal opportunity is achieved, even if that comes at the expense
of transferring wealth the the poor. In my opinion, Rawls made a better
case for the difference principle than for equal opportunity.
Why? Well, Rawls himself argued that the distribution of natural
talents, abilities, and skills is “arbitrary from a moral point of view”
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.
Here is Milton Friedman making the same point.
Inequality resulting from differences in personal capacities, or from
differences in wealth accumulated by the individual in question, are
considered appropriate, or at least not so clearly inappropriate as
differences resulting from inherited wealth.
This distinction is untenable. Is there any greater ethical
justification for the high returns to the individual who inherits from
his parents a peculiar voice for which there is a great demand than for
the high returns to the individual who inherits property? …
Most differences of status or position or wealth can be regarded as
the product of chance at a far enough remove. The man who is hard
working and thrifty is to be regarded as ‘deserving’; yet these
qualities owe much to the genes he was fortunate (or unfortunate?)
enough to inherit. (Friedman  1982, 164–66)
I am not saying that I am opposed to equal opportunity. My point is
only that I do not think Rawls has an explanation of why equal
opportunity is valuable and, in fact, his arguments undercut the case
for thinking that it matters. The point is about what the arguments
show, not about my own moral beliefs.
That said, I do think that giving absolute priority to equal
opportunity when compared with improvements for the welfare of the less
talented is unwise. Why should society always
give priority to securing opportunities for the naturally talented over
improving the welfare of the less talented? Suppose, for instance, that
society has to choose between improving the quality of life for
intellectually disabled people and making sure everyone can afford to go
to the best college they can get into. Should it always choose the
Here are the terms and concepts you should know or have an opinion
about from today’s class.
- Rawls’s four systems: Natural Liberty, Liberal Equality, Natural
Aristocracy, Democratic Equality.
- What Rawls means by “factors so arbitrary from a moral point of
view” (Rawls 1999,
- Figure 6 and the Difference Principle.
Jefferson, Harvard, and Natural Aristocracy
I am reasonably sure that the term “Natural Aristocracy” comes from
Thomas Jefferson. However, for Rawls, the source would
have been James
Conant, the President of Harvard between 1933 and 1953.
Though today’s high school seniors may find it hard to believe,
Harvard, Yale, and other leading universities weren’t exactly bastions
of the best and brightest before World War II. They educated primarily
the progeny of the upper class—white, Protestant, male students, the
products of New York and New England private schools, who were often
more interested in debutante cotillions and sporting events than in the
life of the mind. Many brought servants with them to Cambridge and New
James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University and one of
the most influential men of his day, wanted to replace this aristocracy
of birth and wealth with what Thomas Jefferson called a “natural
aristocracy” of the intellectually gifted from every walk of life, who
would be educated to high standards and then be given the responsibility
of governing society. The creation of what Conant called “Jefferson’s
ideal,” a new intellectual elite selected strictly on the basis of
talent, and dedicated to public service, would, he believed, make
America a more democratic country.
In 1933, he gave two Harvard administrators the job of developing a
nation-wide scholarship program for gifted students. The key to the
administrators’ work would be the creation of a single standard for
evaluating the astonishing diversity of the country’s high-school
students. And the test Conant ultimately selected for that purpose—the
newly developed Scholastic Aptitude Test—would become for many students
a narrow path to the best opportunities—and richest rewards—in American
A natural aristocracy selects those who are the most talented,
regardless of their social class, for universities and then, presumably,
leading positions in society. Rawls finds this deficient because it does
not take any effort to develop the talents of children in lower class
families. It just selects those whose talents are observable in late
I do not think that Rawls thought through the differences between
his definition of “Natural Aristocracy” and what Jefferson and
Conant meant. The natural aristocracy in the northeast corner of Rawls’s
box includes the difference principle, so any inequalities favoring the
natural aristocrats in his system would have to be to the advantage of
the worst off class.