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Does Rawlsian Justice Require Anarchy?


Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and Methodology

04/18/2007Louis E. Carabini

In his famous book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls develops two principles that must be adopted as the framework for a just society. He claims that behind a veil of ignorance all members would choose such principles as the framework of their society.

I will explore whether a society that excludes coercion as its framework would satisfy those principles and whether a society that adopts coercion as its framework, such as a state, would violate those principles. I define anarchy as a society without a framework of coercion.

According to Rawls, the only just society is one that meets the following two principles:

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).

Rawls limits the application of his theory of justice to constitutional democratic states and only social and economic inequalities within a state and not inequalities between states. Using his state model, it would follow that, if a state were split in two, each social unit would be independent of the other relative to his theory of justice; only inequalities within each unit would be subject to his liberty and difference principles. A continuous division of each resulting unit would reach the point where the number of social units equaled the number of people. At this point the difference principle would disappear, as would equal liberty. But let's stop just short of this and leave two people per social unit, and let's call those in our sample "state" Joe and Tom. We will not discuss here the impossible task of comparing the social and economic advantages of each member of a society in order to identify who is the least advantaged. In our state, Joe is less advantaged than Tom, by whatever criteria one wishes to use for measuring social and economic inequalities.

Relative to the difference principle, there are two arrangements in which Joe (the least advantaged) will benefit in any social or economic transaction and thereby satisfy that principle. First, Joe can trade volitionally with Tom, in which case he will benefit each time, simply because he prefers that which he acquires from Tom to that which he relinquishes. Second, Joe can steal from Tom, since he will again benefit in the transaction, provided of course he doesn't steal enough to cause a reversal of relative advantages.

However, Joe's act of theft in the second arrangement will violate Rawls's first principle: Equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. The most extensive liberty in our Joe/Tom society would be no coercion at all, leaving us with the first scenario, where all social activity between Joe and Tom must be voluntary.

However, similar liberty for others can be interpreted to mean equal reduction of liberty to all, i.e., equal coercion. In equal coercion, we would have Tom and Joe each stealing from each other at equal levels; Joe can't steal from Tom unless Tom steals the same amount from Joe. In other words, Joe can't be the only thief, since that would violate the equal liberty principle, and both can't be thieves of equal proportion because that would violate the difference principle when Tom steals, which he must in order to keep liberty at an equal level.

Another point to consider, even though it will turn out to be meaningless, is the requirement by the difference principle that the benefit realized by the least advantaged must be "the greatest benefit." Even though Joe in this non-coercive society benefits in every social and economic transaction, if the benefit realized by Joe is less than the benefit realized by Tom, there may be a violation of the difference principle.

We can't ask Joe if his perceived benefit is greater than Tom's perceived benefit in a given exchange since Joe isn't privy to Tom's mental evaluation. Joe is simply not Tom. Each has preferences based on his subjective values. Joe's benefit is based on the difference between the utility value he perceives in that which he relinquishes and that which he acquires in a trade. This is true in Tom's case as well. So how can we determine if Joe's utility difference is greater than that of Tom's? We can't! To add to this conundrum, neither Joe nor Tom can quantify his own degree of such difference; they only know it is ordinal and not cardinal in nature. That is, Joe may value A more than B, but can't say he does so by X amount. Thus, Rawls's "greatest benefit" concept is meaningless, since no one can measure the degrees of advantages relative to his own preferences, let alone that of others.

This "greatest benefit" to the least advantaged is doubly meaningless, since the only society that would qualify as just is one in which the identity of the least advantaged is irrelevant. The same arrangements that satisfy all the principles relative to the least advantaged would also hold for the most advantaged. In other words, the only system that would satisfy both of Rawls's principles is a system that makes moot who is the least advantaged, since the same arrangements that benefit the less advantaged will simultaneously benefit the more advantaged.

If we add one person at a time to the Joe and Tom society, there is no point at which the adoption of coercion as part of the social framework will not violate one or both of Rawls's principles. We can increase the size of a social unit to include everyone in the universe and, provided there isn't a framework of coercion, we will have met Rawls's requirements for a just society.

So, what is the structure of a society in which there exists the most extensive basic liberty that is equal to all members and where all social and economic activity is arranged to the benefit of the least advantaged? The only society that meets all these criteria and thus qualifies as a Rawlsian just society is anarchy!


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