Mises Wire

John Rawls's Theories Help Refute John Rawls's Theories

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Last week, I drew attention to the important work of Antony Flew as an opponent of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Flew exposes a fundamental fallacy in the famous “difference principle,” which says that all inequalities in wealth or income have to be to the advantage of the least well-off class in society. According to Rawls, it’s a matter of luck that you have talents that enable you to succeed. If the state wants to redistribute what you earn to help the poor, you can’t properly object that you “deserve” your talents. You just have them. Flew says that if Rawls is right about luck, all he has shown is that the category of desert doesn’t apply to distribution. It doesn’t follow that you don’t deserve to benefit from them, because this suggests that there is something wrong with the fact that you do.

Today, I want to talk about another effective critic of Rawls, John Rawls himself. After Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice, many philosophers thought he hadn’t gone far enough. He confines his theory to particular societies, such as the United States. Why not extend the theory so that it applies worldwide? If so, we would be asking about the globally worst off, not just the worst off in our own country.

Rawls doesn’t want to do this, as he makes clear in his book The Law of Peoples (Harvard, 1999). In defending his refusal to extend the difference principle all over the world, he raises some points that can be used against his own theory, even when it is confined to one country. Rawls thus becomes his own critic.

Rawls says that 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.”

Rawls 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.”

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

A defender of the standard Rawlsian theory might respond in this way. 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 chosen by themselves. Thus, the advantages of the well-off are subject to expropriation.

Rawls has the resources to respond to this objection, through a point he brings out in his discussion of the “law of peoples.” Let’s grant the premises of the reply that people need a certain level of resources for autonomy. Why is any redistribution above this level allowable?

Rawls puts the issue in this way: “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.” Why doesn’t a similar point drastically limit the scope of the difference principle within a society? Why aren’t individuals, given their “basic needs,” on their own? (I’m not myself endorsing Rawls’s “assistance principle.” Rather, I want to emphasize its force against Rawls’s own system.)

Global redistributionists, unwilling to admit defeat, will probably try one more 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.” 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.” Can’t this same point be used to combat those who complain that some people inherit much more wealth than others? If people have good attitudes and ideas, can’t they succeed even if they don’t start with much in the way of resources?

A radical redistributionist might raise another point. 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.”

Rawls’s doubts about global justice make him an effective critic of his own theory of justice. But I still prefer Antony Flew.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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