John Rawls is best known for “A Theory of Justice” but his later work has important political implicationsby William A Edmundson / October 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
John Rawls is one of our greatest philosophers. His 1971 A Theory of Justice has sold more than 300,000 copies. This is remarkable for any academic work, and especially so for a rigorous, densely argued philosophical treatise.
None of his later works has attracted nearly as much interest, but to understand his thought accurately we should pay attention. Only then do we understand what his theory means for politics: Rawls has led us toward socialism.
A Theory of Justice is best known for two ideas. One is the “original position.” The original position was intended to harness the social contract tradition in political philosophy, which includes Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant. The core idea is that just and legitimate government is rooted in the free consent of those who are governed to the rules that define the basic structure of society.
The original position is a useful philosophical tool, especially as a way of establishing what is just. A kind of thought experiment, it asks us to choose principles to govern society but, crucially, from behind a “veil of ignorance”: the participant doesn’t know what his or her position in that society will be.
If, faced with a choice between alternative principles, choosers can decide which promises a better outcome for themselves, the bias will be toward their own interests. But if all particular knowledge about oneself is concealed behind the veil, then each will choose on the assumption that he or she is nobody special, but someone basically like all other citizens: free, equal, and with his or her own conception of the good.
Rawls argued that in this original position, choosers would prefer to prioritise certain basic rights, the paradigm case being liberty of conscience. Even on the assumption that everyone wants more of what Rawls called primary goods, they would not be willing to risk losing their liberty of conscience in order to become richer. Similarly, the choosers would not be willing to risk the loss of the political liberties, even if letting experts run the basic structure would generate greater wealth for all, and by the same token they would insist upon freedom of occupational choice.
The other idea for which Rawls is best known is the “difference principle.” Rawls asks us to conceive of society as a fair system of cooperation for mutual benefit. With the basic liberties and equality of opportunity already secure, what principle would the choosers in the original position adopt for distributing the fruits of their cooperative enterprise? A principle of equal division suggests itself; but an egalitarian principle would be rejected, Rawls argues, for it would be irrational (economists would say, “inefficient”) to forbid inequalities that leave no one worse off in absolute terms. Freedom of occupational choice entails that material incentives, and a labour market, must be permitted.
But the difference principle has been widely misunderstood. And this is where it is time to reassess what Rawls meant.
Because it can evoke the same “rising tide that raises all boats” imagery that stoked the Thatcher-Reagan era, Rawls was commonly mistaken as an apologist for welfare-state capitalism. But in his last systematic work, Justice as Fairness (2001), Rawls took care to explain that his theory of justice-as-fairness rules out capitalism in all its forms, from laissez-faire to welfare-state. Because of its subtitle—“A Restatement”— the book could be mistaken for a mere recapitulation of an earlier essay. It is not. In it, Rawls reformulates the original position procedure and clarifies and corrects numerous points that are crucial to understanding the scope and ambition of his thinking.
The crucial point is that justice-as-fairness accepts economic inequality that benefits all, but it insists on political equality. How is equal political power to be made consistent with unequal economic power?
Not all economic advantages entail political power. At one time, it was possible to imagine a world of politically equal smallholders, each in possession of, say, 40 acres and a mule, each doing better or worse depending upon effort, ingenuity, and luck.
The industrial revolution swept that world away as technologies made efficiencies of scale and network effects possible, bringing into being “the means of production.” In this world, a factory owner not only has the capital and incentive to lobby for political favours, but also the power to frustrate democratic decisions by shifting production elsewhere. Economic inequality today generates political inequality.
We arrive at “the property question”: is it reasonable to allow private ownership of society’s major means of production? If we agree to conceive political society as a fair cooperative system for mutual benefit, the answer must be No: these assets are such that private ownership inevitably endows the owner with inordinate political power.
Rawls was hesitant to state this conclusion. He wanted to leave open an alternative to liberal democratic socialism that he called “property-owning democracy.” These two “ideal regime-types,” as he called them, differ essentially only in how they answer the property question.
He left it to us to work out which type better manifests the principle of reciprocity: we’re all in this together, as free and equal citizens and freely associated producers. What would possess us to risk being dominated economically, and then politically, by private ownership of the commanding heights of our productive system?
To put the question in these terms allows Rawls’s reader to work out that it admits of only one answer.
William A Edmundson is Regents’ Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State. His new book is John Rawls: Reticent Socialist