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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Equality in Liberty and Justice

Antony Flew

4 2001
Volume 7, Number 4


Winter 2001; Volume 7; Number 4

One Flew Over Equality

Equality in Liberty and Justice by Antony Flew (Transaction Publishers, 200, xx + 224 pgs)

Like Gilbert Ryle, under whom he studied at Oxford, Antony Flew is ever alert to "systematically misleading expressions." Flew’s careful attention to the nuances of ordinary language, on full display in the present book, shows to best advantage the virtues of ordinary language philosophy. Flew cites a key passage from J.L. Austin, one of the great exponents of this philosophical movement, which sums up its approach: "Certainly, then, ordinary language is not the last word: in principle it can everywhere be supplemented and improved upon and superseded. Only remember, it is the first word" (p. 36, emphasis omitted, quoting Austin).

Abuses of language, Flew amply shows, characterize many anti-free-market arguments. One of the most popular arguments against capitalism, for example, relies crucially on a confusion of two terms. The argument proceeds in this way: The free market may well be more efficient than socialism or interventionism. But some cannot manage in a free economy. They have no services or products that others want: how then can they survive in a regime of complete market freedom? Gross inequalities of this kind cannot be tolerated; to remedy them, the government must correct the market through redistribution of wealth and income.

The line of thought rests on a shift from one word to another. It first speaks of people who, it is alleged, cannot survive in a free-market society. But this sad situation has nothing to do with how the income of these unfortunates compares with that of others. Why then the complaint about inequality? Of course if the government takes from the better off to help the poor, inequality lessens; but helping the poor and leveling income differ entirely as goals.

Flew skillfully identifies the misuse of language: "On the one side—call it the left—we have public policies intended to make the condition of all those subject to these policies in some respect (more) equal. On the other side—which may now be the right—are public policies aiming to insure that none shall fall below some minimum level. . . . The objectives of this left are thus essentially and intentionally egalitarian, in a way in which those of this right are not" (p. 184).1

An example helps to clarify Flew’s point. Suppose that in a community of one hundred people, eighty have annual incomes of at least $1,000,000. The other twenty unfortunates must make do with a mere $100,000. A policy that aimed to limit inequality here would not reduce poverty at all; there is no poverty to eliminate.

Radical egalitarians often use sympathy for the poor to foist their schemes on us. A prime example of such slippery propaganda is the much-vaunted difference principle devised by John Rawls. In a Rawlsian society, all inequalities in wealth and income must be to the advantage of the least well-off class in the society. By speaking of the worst-off class, Rawls conjures up images of destitute people. But in fact Rawls’s principle does not cover the truly needy at all. Rawls’s principles of justice concern distribution of the gains from social cooperation; those unfortunates who have nothing useful to offer do not come within their scope. Those "worst off" in Rawls’s sense are not very bad off at all, a fact that does not deter the eminent Harvard professor from use of this misleading language.

I have mentioned Rawls for ulterior reasons. For me, the highlight of the book is Flew’s mordant demolition of Rawls’s extravagantly overrated A Theory of Justice. For Flew, the assault on Rawls transcends ordinary scholarly controversy. Rawls’s lapses from proper standards of philosophical argument, all in the service of egalitarian propaganda, arouse Flew to indignation wonderful to behold. Rawls, he notes in a characteristic passage, "must thus have become the first person ever to produce what purports to be a treatise on justice which can find no room even to quote, much less to discuss, any version of the traditional distinction. By this misguided omission Rawls exposes himself to the objection that what he commends as a conception of justice is not, whatever its other merits, a conception of justice at all" (p. 120)2

Flew’s objections strike at the heart of Rawls’s theory; and I think it likely that his criticisms, along with parallel thrusts from Robert Nozick, have sent Rawls scurrying to buttress his shaky edifice with "public reason."

In his defense of the difference principle, Rawls makes a great to_do about principles of rational choice under uncertainty; but the key to his case lies elsewhere. He thinks that people do not deserve to profit from their superior abilities, because these are arbitrary from the moral point of view. If so, Rawls claims, equality is the default position and any departure from it requires justification.

I suspect that Rawls’s principle will strike most of my readers as alien; but an example will show what Rawls has in mind. If one says to Rawls, "Michael Jordan makes enormous sums of money, but of course he deserves to do so: People willingly pay him because they value his skills," he will shake his head. "No doubt he is phenomenally skilled," he might reply, "but he acquired his ability through no moral merit of his own. He is simply lucky enough to possess physical skills that exceed those of other players. Why should he benefit so greatly from the mere fact that he has ‘good’ genes?"

Flew, once more displaying his careful attention to conceptual precision, expertly locates the fallacy in Rawls’s contention. Rawls has moved from the contention that the category of desert does not apply to natural endowments to the much more controversial claim that these endowments are undeserved. The latter implies, as the former does not, that people should not benefit from them. As our author puts the point, "The reason why this argument appears to go through is that the word ‘undeserved’ does indeed usually carry overtones of outrage, calling for redress. What is needed now is to introduce a third category of the not-deserved to cover what is neither, meritoriously, deserved, nor scandalously, undeserved" (p. 150).

Michael Jordan’s income is safe. He may be entitled to benefit from his extraordinary talent, even though he did not acquire this talent by doing morally good deeds. And can we not go further? To some extent, he and other gifted people like him do deserve to profit from their abilities. In most cases, they must develop their potential through hard work: do they not then in part gain their benefits from meritorious activities? "Moral luck" does not suffice to account for what they have.

Rawls has to this point an incredible rejoinder. He acknowledges that people develop their talents through hard work. But this trait too must be attributed to moral luck: if you have an extraordinary capacity for work, this also is "arbitrary from the moral point of view."

Here Rawls has unintentionally reduced his position to absurdity. No properties of individuals that Rawls considers morally arbitrary entitle persons to wealth or income. But so extensive is his list of these properties that, when they are removed, nothing remains of genuine individuals. Flew notes the problem in his inimitable way: what we have left in Rawls’s system are "blinkered and de-individualized zombies" (p. 148). Rawls’s theory has no relevance to flesh-and-blood human beings.

As if this were not enough, Flew finds another problem with Rawls’s theory. Let us put to one side for a moment all the difficulties Flew has raised for Rawls’s notion of desert. Should he, per impossibile, be able to overcome them, Rawls would still confront a crucial obstacle. Even if individuals do not own, and deserve to benefit from, their special talents, it hardly follows that society does. 

Yet this is what Rawls without argument assumes: "It simply will not do . . . to collect up, in thought, all the wealth already produced and in the future to be produced by all the individuals and firms in society; to describe this as the total social product, conceived as the product of an hypostatized super-person, Society; and then take it for granted that this total social product is in fact now available, free of all prior claims, for redistribution among the members of that same hypostatized entity, Society, at its absolute collective discretion" (p.160).(I have quoted this at some length to convey the flavor of Flew’s wonderful rolling sentences.)

But is this not unjust to Rawls? What about his whole elaborate apparatus: the original position, choice behind the veil of ignorance, primary goods, etc.? Have we not dismissed without trial the essential elements of Rawls’s enterprise?

Not in the slightest. Flew has located a passage from A Theory of Justice that is devastating in its revelation of the nature of Rawls’s project: "We want to define the original position so that we get the desired solution" (p. 134, quoting Rawls). The difference principle does not stem from an impartial "decision procedure for ethics," as Rawls titled an early paper; quite the contrary, he has ensured egalitarian conclusions by his starting point. Flew ironically observes that given the "endearing frankness" of Rawls’s confession, "it should come as no surprise that the curiously deprived creatures" in the original position arrive at egalitarian conclusions (p. 134). Rawls has concealed from them any information that might have induced them to favor conflicting principles.

Though the massive campaign against Rawls occupies our author a good deal in the book, he by no means confines himself exclusively to it. Flew discusses in illuminating fashion many other topics, including the justification for natural rights and the fallacies of Rousseau’s political theory. I shall here confine myself to one more topic, in which Flew displays yet again his skill as an ordinary language philosopher.

Do we have free will? Flew responds to this traditional problem with a simple observation. We learn the concept of free action by becoming acquainted with typical situations in which people are said to act freely. Someone chooses freely, for example, if he considers with care various alternatives and, without coercion, picks the one he most prefers. In a fashion that would delight Mises, Flew contends that it makes no sense to ask if someone in this situation "really" enjoys freedom. How can he not be free, if we have learned the concept from cases of this kind and its like?

Once more the temptation to quote Flew should not be resisted: "For if the very ideas both of physical necessity, and of the ability to do other than we do, both are, and can only be, acquired by references to our abundant experiences of the two contrasting kinds of reality to which these ideas refer; then who but the most bigoted of behaviouristic psychologists could continue to insist that, really, even paradigm instances of the latter are covert cases of the former?" (p. 11). This may not be the last word on free will, but it is the first word.

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