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Monday, September 25, 2017


My remarks about Rawls sparked a quite interesting flurry of comments.  There is one point I want to make in response.  LFC says, “if in fact there are no inequalities that will work to the advantage of 'the least favored', or no inequalities that are necessary, for example, to induce talented people to take certain jobs, then his principle(s) will yield an equal distribution of income and wealth. “  That is correct, and it explains why some people have chosen to read Rawls as proposing, or at least legitimating, a radically egalitarian alternative to contemporary society.  

It is clear that Rawls does not think no inequalities are required to induce the right people to compete for the jobs for which they are superbly suited, but then, it is often the case that philosophers argue for theses whose implications and applications are other than what they expected.  For me, inasmuch as it is the logic of Rawls’ argument that interests me, the important point is that Rawls’ argument for the Two Principles requires that there be significant inequalities.  I do not want to go too far into the weeds to show that, but those interested can take a look at paragraph 6 of section 26 of A Theory of Justice and try to figure out why what Rawls says there has the consequence I say it does.


LFC said...

I'll take a look at that paragraph, thanks.

(What I have is the original edition of A Theory of Justice, not the revised edition, but presumably in this case it doesn't matter.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have the original edition also.

Jerry Fresia said...

At risk of being hammered for my ignorance of all things Rawls, my take is this: he is tweaking a market system of distribution and hence his schemes regarding justice turn on the assumption that we continue to live lives as market actors.

Am I wrong about this or might it be the case that those who see in Rawls "a radically egalitarian alternative to contemporary society" also accept markets as a given?

LFC said...

@ Jerry Fresia

This passage from Leif Wenar's long entry on Rawls in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the link is below) is relevant to your comment (the reference 'JF' is to Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001)).

"Rawls explicitly rejects the welfare state (JF, 137–40). Welfare-state capitalism leaves control of the economy in the hands of a group of rich private actors. It therefore fails to ensure for all citizens enough resources to have roughly equal chances of influencing politics, or to have sufficiently equal opportunities in education and employment. The welfare state therefore tends to generate a demoralized under-class.

"Laissez-faire capitalism is even worse for equality than the welfare state along these dimensions. And a socialist command economy would put too much power in the hands of the state, again endangering political equality and also threatening basic liberties such as free choice of employment.

"Justice as fairness, Rawls says, favors either a property-owning democracy or liberal (democratic) socialism. The government of a property-owning democracy takes steps to encourage widespread ownership of productive assets and broad access to education and training. Liberal socialism is similar, but features worker-managed firms. The aim of both systems of political economy is to enable all citizens, even the least advantaged, to manage their own affairs within a context of significant social and economic equality. 'The least advantaged are not, if all goes well, the unfortunate and unlucky — objects of our charity and compassion, much less our pity — but those to whom reciprocity is owed as a matter of basic justice' (JF, 139)."

On the notion of property-owning democracy, see, e.g., O'Neill and Williamson, eds., Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond. (I haven't read it.)

David Palmeter said...


A major difficulty I have in reading Rawls--apart from what, most-positively stated, is his pedestrian prose style--is that he frequently modified his views in response to criticism--both with Political Liberalism and Justice as Fairness. If there is a single work that gives Rawls’s definitive statement of his views, it is Justice as Fairness, but he died before completing it.

There is much more emphasis on property-owning democracy and democratic socialism in JaF than I recall seeing in his earlier work. He’s also very vague about what he means by these two forms of “ownership.” I took him to mean that in a property-owning democracy, workers would own the firms they worked for and in democratic socialism the political system would be democratic but ownership would be public. But, this was just my inexpert guess, and I suspect that Stanford has it right.

But even with the Stanford definitions, I don’t see how Rawls escapes the need for some kind of welfare state. If property-owning democracy simply means that there is wide-spread ownership of productive assets (but not government ownership) that would imply that workers may not necessarily own the companies they worked for, but just a piece of the action overall. If that’s the case, aren’t the present IRAs and 401(k)s heading in exactly that direction? I don’t think Rawls would have agreed to that, but it seems to me to follow.

Further, if we have management and ownership by workers, some firms will be managed better than others and some will fail. What happens to the worker/owners/managers then? Moreover, if he means something along the IRA/401(k) model, some will perform better than others. A few will perform very poorly and their owners will lose their shirts.

In both cases, some kind of welfare support--which Rawls does not--would have to kick in if the losers were not taken care of by some kind of welfare.

All of this might be a modified form of capitalism, but it’s capitalism nonetheless

Jerry Fresia said...


Thank you again for your broader summary; mea culpa!!!

LFC said...

@J. Fresia
Well, no need for 'mea culpa'. Over time R's views on certain points did seem to move in an increasingly 'left' direction, which doesn't necessaily mean he ended up in your preferred place, of course.

@ D. Palmeter
Some of your points I think are well-taken; I haven't really read JaF: A Restatement, but I took the Stanford Ency. reference to "rejection of the welfare state" to mean that Rawls rejected a welfare state roughly along current U.S. lines, not that he rejected the idea of welfare support in general. But the Stanford passage I quoted is not entirely clear on this, and R. himself might have left it less than crystal clear...