Political Philosophy Fall 2022

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).

Principle of efficiency Difference principle
Equality as careers open to talents System of Natural Liberty Natural Aristocracy
Equality as equality of fair opportunity Liberal Equality Democratic Equality

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 inequality.

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 Equality.

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” (Rawls 1999, 63).

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 regulations.

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 productive society.

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 productive do.

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 society.

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” (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.

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 [1962] 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.1 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 second?

Main points

Here are the terms and concepts you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. Rawls’s 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. Figure 6 and the Difference Principle.

Jefferson, Harvard, and Natural Aristocracy

I am reasonably sure that the term “Natural Aristocracy” comes from Thomas Jefferson.2 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 Haven.

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 society. (Toch 1999)

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 adolescence.

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.


Friedman, Milton. (1962) 1982. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Toch, Thomas. 1999. “The Meritocracy’s Caste System: What’s Good and Bad about the SAT.” Brookings Institution. December 1. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-meritocracys-caste-system-whats-good-and-bad-about-the-sat/.

  1. Rawls says that each of his principles of justice has “lexical priority” over the ones that come later (Rawls 1999, 37–38). If you look it up, you will see that the word “lexical” means “of or relating to dictionaries,” which is not terribly helpful.

    The idea Rawls is trying to express is that individual liberty should take priority over equal opportunity and equal opportunity should take priority over the difference principle. Say you assign the letter “A” to individual liberty, “B” to equal opportunity, and “C” to the difference principle. In alphabetical order, “ABC” will always come before “BBBCCC” even though there are more Bs and Cs in the second. To put it his terms, the first principle of justice (which concerns individual liberty) has to be satisfied before a society considers equal opportunity (the first clause of the second principle) and opportunities have to be equal before a society tries to satisfy the difference principle (the second clause of the second principle).

    Rawls spends a lot of time on the priority of liberty over the economic principles (equal opportunity and the difference principle). In doing so, he issues some qualifications that make his position less stark than it seems to be; we will cover that in the upcoming week. He devoted very little attention to the priority of equal opportunity over the difference principle; it remains unqualified as far as I can tell.↩︎

  2. Jefferson was replying to a letter from John Adams. Adams offered his interpretation of a passage from Theognis as meaning, roughly, that people will prefer to marry into the families of rich bad people over poor good ones. The result, Adams fears, is that society will be ruled by wealth and birth rather than talent and virtue.

    Now, my Friend, who are the αρiςτοι [aristoi]? Philosophy may Answer “The Wise and Good.” But the World, Mankind, have by their practice always answered, “the rich the beautiful and well born.” And Philosophers themselves in marrying their Childen prefer the rich the handsome and the well descended to the wise and good. What chance have Talents and Virtues in competition, with Wealth and Birth? and Beauty?

    Jefferson’s reply notes that Theognis’s proposal to engage in selective breeding of human beings would be rejected in a society that believes in “the equal rights of men.” (Whew.) Consequently, he says, we will have to “content ourselves with the accidental aristoi produced by the fortuitous concourse of breeders.”

    Jefferson thinks this will be acceptable because there is a “natural aristocracy” based on talent that can offset the “artificial aristocracy” of inherited wealth.

    For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent it’s ascendancy.

    The letter ends with what is really at issue between them, namely, how to design political institutions to blunt the power of the artificial aristocracy while advancing the natural aristocrats. Adams seems to have favored something like the English House of Lords (a weak Senate, I assume) while Jefferson thought that the citizens in a democracy would select the natural aristocrats over the artificial ones.↩︎