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The Law of Peoples, by John Rawls

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12/01/2000David Gordon

Rawls Unravels Himself

Mises Review 6, No. 4 (Winter 2000)

John Rawls
Harvard University Press, 1999; viii + 199 pgs.

For once, John Rawls has managed to say something sensible. When Rawls published A Theory of Justice in 1971, he soon found himself the most famous political philosopher in the world. With a few notable exceptions, e.g., Antony Flew and Murray Rothbard, critics declared his book a masterpiece.But a nagging worry threatened to undermine Rawls's carefully-built edifice. Like most leftist-inclined academics, Rawls professes egalitarianism: but his sort of equality has a distinctive twist to it. So long as inequality benefits the least well-off class in society, Rawls's notorious "difference principle" interposes no barrier to it.

Nearly everyone, it appeared, had what he wanted. The liberal academic elite, its conscience eased by Rawls's commitment to the worst-off, could rest easy. Its members would have to surrender only a small part of their wealth. Faced with lessened incentives, strict equality would hurt the poor. Who except supporters of the free market could challenge Rawls's subtle balancing act?

All was not what it appeared. So long as we restrict ourselves to a prosperous society, e.g., the United States, Rawls's low-cost equality does not at once collapse. Since even the worst-off in American society are not too badly off, redistribution makes only limited claims. But what if we extend our reach worldwide?

Some found this prospect ennobling; readers of this journal will recall Peter Unger, who favors massive wealth transfers of this sort. Our author could not adopt so radical a course. Were he to do so, his renown might suffer a setback. How many people really want sharply-lowered standards of life?

Rawls, accordingly, has to find an escape. The difference principle applies only within particular societies. Separate rules apply to relations between societies, or "peoples" as Rawls prefers to call them. Although he thinks that well-off peoples have a duty to assist others, this duty has strict limits. "[I]ts aim is to help burdened societies to be able to manage their own affairs reasonably and rationally and eventually to become members of the Society of well-ordered Peoples. This defines the `target' of assistance. After it is achieved, further assistance is not required, even though the now well-ordered society may still be relatively poor" (p. 111).

Why does all this matter? Why should we care whether Rawls has modified his difference principle so that it avoids unpopular outcomes? In the course of doing so, he advances some excellent arguments. His points, if extended, strike at the foundations of his own system.

Our author imagines a case in which two countries start out from roughly equal levels of wealth. One invests in industry, while the other prefers "a more pastoral and leisurely society. ... Some decades later the first country is twice as wealthy as the second. Assuming, as we do, that both societies are liberal or decent, and their peoples free and responsible, and able to make their own decisions, should the industrializing country be taxed to give funds to the second? According to the duty of assistance there would be no tax" (p. 117).

The industrial society has, through its own efforts, outstripped its lazier rival. Why, Rawls is asking, should it have to give away its gains to those who have worked less hard? Why does the same point not apply also within a given society? Why, in other words, should those who gain through investment be required to subsidize those who do not?

One can readily construct Rawls's reply. A society that is "liberal" or "decent" has freely decided how much to invest. Individuals within a society lack such freedom. Their status in life is, to a large degree, fixed rather than autonomously chosen. Thus, the advantages of the well-off stand subject to expropriation.

This imagined reply in turn falls before a point that Rawls himself brings out in his discussion of the "law of peoples." Let us grant the premises of the reply that people need a certain level of resources for autonomy. Why is any redistribution above this level allowable?

Our author puts the issue well: "Surely there is a point at which a people's basic needs (estimated in primary goods) are fulfilled and a people can stand on its own" (p. 117). Why does not an analogous point drastically limit the scope of the difference principle within a society? Why are not individuals, given their "basic needs," on their own? (I do not-heaven forbid-myself endorse Rawls's "assistance principle." Rather, I wish only to emphasize its force against Rawls's own basic system.)

The radical redistributionist is not yet ready to leave the field. Rawls takes for granted, he will say, a world composed of separate states. Why not amalgamate all societies into a single, world-embracing state? Then, Rawls's limits on his difference principle cease to apply.

In the book's best passage, Rawls decisively rejects worldly government. "I follow Kant's lead in Perpetual Peace (1795) in thinking that a world government — by which I mean a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central governments — would either be a global despotism or else would rule over a fragile empire torn by frequent civil strife" (p. 36).

Global redistributionists, unwilling to admit defeat, will probably adduce one last argument. Some countries are much better endowed in resources than others are. Is it fair, e.g., that Saudi Arabia is much wealthier than states less endowed with oil?

Rawls finds this line of thought unconvincing. Not natural resources, but the attitudes and ideas of a people, determine its achievement. Because "the crucial element in how a country fares is its political culture — its members' political and civic virtues — and not the level of its resources, the arbitrariness of the distribution of natural resources causes no difficulty" (p. 117). In support, Rawls cites the view of the economic historian David Landes "that the discovery of oil reserves has been a 'monumental misfortune' for the Arab world" (p. 117).

Rawls's effort to halt his difference principle at society's borders fails. In slaying one set of opponents, he exposes himself fatally to another line of attack. The very points that he raises against his globalist critics strike at his own position.

In like manner, Rawls's approach to foreign policy is embedded in confusion, but patient readers may detach a valuable insight from it. Our author follows fashion in holding that democracy is the key to peace. Democratic states, he holds, do not go to war with each other.

This popular view falls before two objections. First, it holds true only if the class of democracies is sharply restricted in its members. The Athens of Pericles does not qualify, nor does the United States before 1865, since both allowed slavery. But which states are left? Rawls does not tell us; but if few states qualify, the link between democracy and peace has little force.

Further, even if democracies do not war with each other, they manage to be quite belligerent enough. Rawls is constrained to admit that democracies often are less than entirely pacific: "given the great shortcomings of actual, allegedly constitutional democratic regimes, it is no surprise that they should often intervene in weaker countries ... or even that they should engage in war for expansionist reasons" (p. 53).

This admission of course does not induce Rawls to abandon his thesis. That is not the way of a Great Harvard Philosopher. Instead, he claims that "though democratic peoples are not expansionist" (p. 53), governments mask expansionist aims by invoking national security.

We have more here than a desperate attempt by Rawls to avoid refutation. An insight is struggling to emerge. Rawls correctly sees that in a commercial republic, people lack a key incentive to aggressions. "These people ... are not swayed by the passion for power and glory, by the intoxicating pride of ruling" (p. 47). Why not? Surely not because the government is democratic; rather, people in a commercial republic are peacefully engaged in trade. (Rawls himself comes close to saying this on one occasion, but then backs away.)

In a free-market order, the problem Rawls adduces for his notion of democratic peace fails to arise. Here, government lacks the power to "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Democracy, or the lack of it, has nothing to do with the case.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Cite This Article

Gordon, David. "Rawls Unravels Himself." Review of The Law of Peoples, by John Rawls. The Mises Review 6, No. 4 (Winter 2000).

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