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Sunday, July 19, 2015


I have said as much as I want to say about Rawls for the time being, but before moving on to other subjects, I think I owe David Palmeter a response.  Here is what he said:
"This isn’t Rawls as I understand him. As I read him, he explicitly states that there is no right to ownership of the means of production, only a right to personal property. The means of production may be privately owned only to the extent that this can be shown to be to the benefit of the least advantaged. He also states that capitalism, including welfare capitalism, won’t meet his criteria. Only democratic socialism or a property-owning democracy will do so."

First, a confession.  It is forty years since I read A Theory of Justice, and in the intervening four decades, I have not been moved to return to it, so my memory could be a trifle hazy.  The book appeared in 1971.  In 1999, Rawls published a revised edition, which I bought recently in preparation for the study group on it that I shall be leading come the Fall semester.  In both the first edition and the revised edition, Rawls' remarks about socialism,  such as they are, appear in sections 42 and 43.  [The entire book is divided both into chapters and into numbered sections.  Sections 42 and 43 appear in Chapter V, titled "Distributive Shares."]  I did a quick comparison of the original and revised editions by comparing the lead words of each paragraph, and so far as I can tell, there were no revisions of those particular sections.

I find Rawls' discussion of socialism tone-deaf, if I may put it that way.  Let me offer an example.  In the third paragraph of section 42, he writes:  "The classical distinction [between "a private-property economy and socialism"] is that the size of the public sector under socialism (as measured by the fraction of total output produced by state-owned firms and managed either by state officials or by workers' councils) is much larger."  [Page 235 in the revised edition, page 266 in the original edition.]  Rawls then goes on to talk about the so-called free rider problem, as though that had anything at all to do with socialism.  This, and what follows, seems to me to show that Rawls did not have a clue about the nature of Marx's critique of capitalism.  He says, "questions of political economy are discussed simply to find out the practicable bearing of justice as fairness."  [p. 234/265]  Never mind that he exhibits no understanding or awareness of the role of ideological mystification.  He simply does not consider the possibility that private ownership of the means of production rests on exploitation, and hence is neither compatible with "our" intuitions about justice [whose? not mine!] nor would be chosen by rationally self-interested agents in the Original Position under the Veil of Ignorance who however knew the general laws of society. which include the fact that capitalism rests on exploitation.

In the flood of words that Rawls pours out, it is a little difficult to know what to make of what he says.  For example, on page 242/274, he writes "Which of these systems [i.e., capitalism or socialism ed.] and the many intermediate forms most fully answers to the requirements of justice cannot, I think, be determined in advance."  But three pages later [page 245/278] he writes this extraordinary passage:  "The unequal inheritance of wealth is no more inherently unjust than the unequal inheritance of intelligence.... Thus inheritance is permissible provided that the resulting in equalities are to the advantage of the least fortunate and compatible with liberty and fair equality of opportunity."   And then he calmly goes on as though that were a matter of uncertainty and relative unimportance!

I am sure Rawls moved his eyes over the pages of some works by Marx, but there is no way that he could actually have read Marx and then have written these sentences.

Now, it is obviously possible to read everything in Rawls through the lens of this passage, and conclude that, whether he knew it or not, his theory was a justification of revolutionary socialism.  There have been many odder readings of texts in the two and a half millennia of philosophy.  But why on earth bother, inasmuch as the fundamental theory [as I have demonstrated elsewhere in print] is wrong?


Jason Brennan said...

Does Marx have an argument for the essential exploitativeness of capitalism that doesn't 1) rely upon the labor theory of value, and 2) doesn't rely upon comparing all labor-market relationships to the employee-employer relationship under monopoly conditions?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not sure what you mean by the employee-employer relationship under monopoly conditions, but the answer is yes. See my article, "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value," archived on and accessible from my blog's main page. The answer in a nutshell is this: because workers are deprived of ownership of and access to the means of prodution, they are forced to sell their labor at a price that leaves the owners of the means of production -- capitalists -- with all or most of the surplus [what is produced over and above what is required to keep the economy going, including worker consumption]. That is exploitation. It is essential to capitalism. Without exploitation, there is no profit, and without profit there is no capitalism.

Ross B. Emmett said...

Robert: I'm sure Rawls had read Marx, but far more important to his understanding of capitalism and socialism was the work of Frank Knight. We've recently learned that Rawls was reading Frank Knight's The Ethics of Competition while working on A Theory of Justice. For a look at Rawls' dependence of Knight's understanding of markets and power, look at David Coker's paper:
"Rawls and Knight: Connections and Influence in A Theory of Justice"

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Many thanks. It makes a lot of sense ][and is also rather depressing, but such is life.]

n/a said...

Isn't there also G. A. Cohen's The Labor Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation regarding Brennan's point #1?

D. Ghirlandaio said...

Most academics who defend competition and adversarialism and the vagaries of the market live their own lives as academics abjuring the behavior they claim to celebrate: by the light of disinterested reason, they claim the universality of interested reason. Academics who argue against the model of adversarialism and for collaborative reason nonetheless spend their lives in endless competition and status seeking within the intellectual marketplace of the academy. Both claim for the academy a rightful near monopoly of intellectual authority; both are a model of what Kant referred to as "private reason" Rawls epitomizes the reversal of Kant's hopes. Rawls and Cohen abjured the practice of virtue ethics in favor of the search for ideal calculations and problem solving "machines" to remove the burdens of moral responsibility. The result are books manifesting a erudite sorrowful self-pity.

"It's difficult to expect a person who lives in a particular social niche to depress the circumstances of himself and his family below a certain level even for the sake of principles that he sincerely affirms....the transition from being wealthy to being not wealthy at all can be extremely burdensome and the person who has tasted wealth will suffer more typically from lack of it than someone who's had quote unquote the good fortune never to be wealthy and therefore has built up the character and the orientation that can cope well with it."

Pure unctuous sleaze.

Jason Brennan is a libertarian and explicitly opposed to democracy I can only assume because democracy is not "true". Robert Paul Wolff claims that "anarchism is 'true'". He fantasizes a utopia of equality if only some imaginary others would stop behaving as they do. The only truth I can see is that most people are shorted-sighted and self-interested, and that all of us are idiots much of the time. The only "values" I can imagine for myself -the explicit overlaying of metaphysics upon facts- is that greed is boring, a mark of the incurious, the lowest form of vulgarity, something to be outgrown.

The only person above who seems to understand this is Wolff, who seems to have chosen virtue ethics as a model of personal behavior while still spending his career spouting scholasticism. But actions being more important than words, the form of language taking precedence over "ideas", I salute him.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

The Cohen quote is from an interview

I transcribed the whole thing and I've posted bits of it ever the years. I seem to be the only person who paid attention to the subtext.

Subtext isn't an "idea" so those who prefer ideas like to pretend it doesn't exist in their own writings. Subtexts are for novelists and the "folk". Philosophers are serious.