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Sunday, September 24, 2017


A bit more than two years ago, on July 12, 2015, in a post discussing John Rawls’ well-known theory of justice, I introduced the notion of an inequality surplus, which I suggested lies at the heart of that theory.  On my walk this morning, I was delivering, in my mind, a talk that I called “A  Game-Theoretic Analysis and Critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice,” in which I made much of this notion of an inequality surplus and called it into question.  When I coined this term, my focus was on Rawls, not on the larger question of what a socialist society might look like, but the analysis I offered there is directly relevant to this very important matter, and it occurred to me that I ought perhaps to revisit my remarks and expand upon them.  Let me begin by quoting some of what I wrote two years ago:

“The centerpiece of the theory is the two principles for the general regulation of society that, according to Rawls, would be unanimously chosen by individuals engaged in what Game Theorists call a Bargaining Game.   Here is the passage in which Rawls first introduces those principles:

The conception of justice which I want to develop may be stated in the form of two principles as follows: first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone's advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The central idea of these principles is this:  Modern society consists of large-scale bureaucratic organizations -- corporations, universities, hospitals, government offices, armies, and so forth -- in which there are clearly defined roles to which attach specified duties and compensations.  The default baseline situation, we may imagine, is one in which all the roles receive the same compensation -- a situation of absolute equality.  However, if the ablest individuals with the best sets of talents and skills are drawn into certain key positions, the institutions will function much more efficiently -- to be put it as simply as possible, the net output of the institution will be higher.  Now, to ensure that these especially talented or well-prepared individuals end up in those key positions, it is necessary to pay them higher salaries, and this is an element of inequality.  But the gain from their greater efficiency will be such that after they receive their added compensation, there will be something left over that can be given to everyone else [or to the least advantaged representative individual, depending on which version of Rawls' theory we are considering.]

Let us call this something extra the "inequality surplus" [not Rawls' term, by the way.]  Assuming, as Rawls does, that the individuals in the society are "not envious," which is to say assuming that those getting less in the way of compensation than the key individuals do not begrudge them their higher salaries so long as they themselves are getting more than they would without the productive efforts of those key individuals, everyone will endorse this system.  And that, in a nutshell, without all the baroque elaborations, is Rawls' argument.

Since this is rather abstract, let me restate it by way of a hypothetical example.  Consider a manufacturing firm that makes washer-dryers.  The employees, we may suppose for simplicity's sake, are divided into executives who direct the operations of the firm, production line workers who assemble the washer-dryers from components delivered to the factory, and loading dock workers who unload the components when they are delivered by truck to the back door of the factory and load the finished washer-dryers onto trucks waiting to take them to retail outlets.

Clearly, the earnings of the company will be much greater if those with special skills, training, and talent for corporate management are assigned to the executive jobs, and that fact will make it possible to raise everyone's salary.  But there is a problem.  Rawls does not identify this problem, but his theory makes no sense at all unless we assume that the problem exists, so we are justified, I think, in assuming it.

The problem is this:  After the professionally administered aptitude tests are scored, and the individuals with special management talents are identified, they are offered jobs as managers.  But when the selected individuals are invited into the executive suites, they say, "Thanks, but no thanks.  I would rather work on the loading dock." 

"What is this?"  you say incredulously.  "Where on earth does Rawls say that in A Theory of Justice?"  Well, nowhere of course.  But he must be assuming it, even though he doesn't know it, because if those tapped for management actually prefer to be in management [or, technically, are indifferent between executive suite and loading dock, but never mind that], WHY PAY THEM MORE TO TAKE THE JOBS?

"But it is not just to pay them no more than loading dock workers, and Rawls says his theory is a theory of justice!” you protest.  "Ah," I reply, "you have not read Rawls as carefully as you ought.  Rawls does not start with a pre-systematic concept of justice that he assumes without argument.  He starts with a collection of rationally self-interested individuals who, according to him, will out of self-interest choose these two principles, and the fact that they will out of self-interest choose these principles MAKES THEM the principles of justice."

There is no reason for me, a rationally self-interested individual, to approve a system of unequal compensation unless I believe that doing so will draw into key positions individuals whose greater efficiency will end up benefitting ME.   

Does anyone at all really believe that offered a choice between corner offices in the executive suite and nine-to-five jobs on the loading dock, potential executives will opt for the loading dock unless they are paid hefty salaries well above that of their lesser brothers and sisters out back?  Rawls does.  He must.  Otherwise the centerpiece of his theory collapses.”

The central notion is the inequality surplus.  Unequal compensation, Rawls believes, is required to draw into key jobs those with special talents or acquired abilities, whose superior performance increases output more than what is required to compensate them, leaving a surplus that can be distributed to others in a manner that leads everyone to prefer the structure of unequal compensation to the baseline of equal compensation with lower total output and hence universally lower compensation.  In short, Rawls assumes, self-interest will lead everyone to prefer inequality, including those who get the short end of the longer stick.

Rawls’ focus is on the motivation of the losers in this competition.  They too must prefer the outcome in order for his argument to work.  But let us focus instead on the winners, those who secure the better paid positions.  Rawls, following virtually everyone in the field of Sociology of his day, simply assumes that higher pay is required to get the especially talented to take the demanding jobs.  Is this even notionally plausible?

Let us set to one side one irrelevant consideration, namely the cost in time and effort and money required to acquire the productive skills.  Clearly, the self-interested individuals assumed by Rawls’ theory will not spend many years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on special education or training unless they are in some way compensated for that expenditure.  But in a well-run socialist society such costs will be socialized, as indeed many of them are even in capitalist societies.

In effect, we can imagine talented young men and women being asked the following question:  Would you rather spend four or six or eight years learning to be a manufacturing executive or a doctor or a lawyer or a college professor, during which time your room, board, tuition, and pocket money will be paid by the state, after which you will work until age 65 [or whatever] as a manufacturing executive or doctor or lawyer or college professor, or would you like to start working right now as a garbage collector or office secretary or production line worker or truck driver, working until age 65 [or whatever], earning in either case the same salary with the same benefits? 

In order for Rawls’ argument to make any sense at all [even before we get into the arcana of the Veil of Ignorance and the Strains of Commitment and the rest], he must assume that the specially talented young men and women will in general reply, “Well, if the pay’s the same, I’d just as soon be a truck driver, thank you very much.”  In which case, a bidding war starts, with society raising the pay for doctors and professors and business executives until their indifference between those jobs and truck driving or garbage collection or whatever is overwhelmed by their desire for the higher salary, and they say, reluctantly, “Well, all right, if you put it that way, I will consent to spend my life as a Professor of Philosophy rather than as a departmental secretary in a Philosophy Department.”  I say “reluctantly,” because Rawls’ theory requires that they be paid just enough to get them to consent.  Anything beyond that would, he says, be unjust [which is to say, would not be chosen by the rationally self-interested actors in the Original Position.]

I suggest that put this way, the assumption, one that Rawls shares with the entire world of sociologists and economists, is downright nutty.


s. wallerstein said...

I agree with you that this is a clear case where sociology serves the ideological purpose of justifying social inequalities.

There may be cases, however, where paying more is an incentive to do certain jobs. For example, I have a friend, now retired, who was a dentist working the night shift in the emergency room of a public hospital. It seems that someone who does that should be paid more than a dentist who choses his own hours of work, so that he has more time to spend with his family.

It is interesting that my friend, who because of his work hours had little time for normal family and social life, undoubtedly earned less money than a dentist working the usual hours with an upper middle class clientele.

Unknown said...

Rawls doesn’t seem nutty to me at all. S. Wallerstein’s dentist friend is a good example. Some people are night owls and would prefer the night shift, but most are not. That’s why jobs with a night shift tend to pay more than the same job during more normal working hours. We’re all better off if the emergency room is staffed 24/7 and would be willing to pay more to see that it is staffed. Was Rawls saying anything more than that?

LFC said...

R. does assume that certain inequalities will work, at least in the long run, to the benefit of the least well off.

But 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. (Or so I'd suggest.)

Put in another way: The principles allow only those inequalities that are necessary to, or will in fact, raise the total 'social product' and thereby benefit the least advantaged (via what the post calls 'the inequality surplus'). If it turns out that no inequalities will have that effect or are necessary, then no inequalities will be allowed.

The assumption that execs and professionals will have to be paid more than dock workers for motivational reasons is just that, an assumption. If it is wrong, then the whole theory doesn't collapse. It simply yields a different distributional outcome than R. likely thought it would.

The basic injunction is: Maximize the prospects of the least favored. That would seem to me to come closer to the centerpiece of the theory than reading the whole argument as an effort to justify pay differentials.

Enam el Brux said...

If Rawls is saying that the rationally self-interested individual chooses the principles of justice that would benefit that individual, then it seems to follow that anyone who prepares for a career but for whatever reason is unable to find employment in it would be irrational to support the individuals who do find employment in that career. Supporting those more successful individuals would serve to compound their losses of the non-winners. The issue turns on rational self interest -- Rawls would have to appeal to some other form of distributive justice to declare ressentiment irrational in that situation. (I haven't thought this through entirely, so I deserve what's coming to me.)

Some examples come to mind: the 40-year old roadie who yearns to be a rock star but will never make it.

The eternal adjunct, or anyone who aspired to become a full professor who finds themselves on the outside looking in, face pressed against the glass...

Enam el Brux said...
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Enam el Brux said...
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Enam el Brux said...

I'm relying on this statement: There is no reason for me, a rationally self-interested individual, to approve a system of unequal compensation unless I believe that doing so will draw into key positions individuals whose greater efficiency will end up benefitting ME.

In that case, since our hapless subject spends a fortune on his education, and sacrifices family and friends only to fail to realize his ambition to either better qualified or better positioned individuals, he has no reason to approve of the greater compensation those individuals receive. And it would be irrational for him to add to their compensation, by doing the least favor for them, or enabling them in any way to advance in their careers. It doesn't matter that society may very well benefit in the aggregate if better qualified individuals are employed in the the career our subject trained for. This principle is concerned only with the benefit to the individual, who in this case loses out.

This is what I had in mind. It could be open to the objection that the non-winner has a distorted view and does benefit, but this is not obvious or automatic.

LFC said...

@F Lengyel
I believe Rawls suggests that envy or ressentiment is not ruled out as irrational in all situations. The baseline assumption is that parties in the original position are not motivated by envy, but e.g. when inequalities happen to be extreme, envy can be rational or 'excusable'. An article in Am Pol Sci Rev of a couple of yrs ago made this case. Cite in next box.

LFC said...

Jeffrey Green, "Rawls and the Forgotten Figure of the Most Advantaged: In Defense of Reasonable Envy toward the Superrich," Am Pol Sci Rev 107:1, Feb. 2013.

Jerry Brown said...

Well I have been mostly self-employed for the past 30 years but I still like to consider myself as part of society. So I don't like the assumption that modern society consists of 'large-scale bureaucratic organizations' because that excludes me and I don't like to be excluded all of the time. Totally aside from that- bureaucratic is one very difficult word to spell and I failed three times according to the spell-check thing, so please don't make me write it anymore.

Anyways, if you have ever seen that Mel Brooks movie where he discovers that it is 'good to be the King', you will understand that usually it is good to be the boss also, even without additional monetary compensation. Even if you hate 'bossing' people, and don't want the additional responsibility that comes with that, you generally have more control of your own life as well. So I think I agree with you that Rawls idea is a bit nutty, but I am not sure ALL economists share his view. And far less sure about sociologists, who generally seem 'less nutty'(?) to me, but I only know a few of them.

Jerry Fresia said...
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Jerry Fresia said...
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Jerry Fresia said...

Blogger Jerry Fresia said...
If I recall correctly, in one of your more recent explications of what socialism might look like, you weren't too keen on
the concept of the "new man." Yet, in this discussion it seems to me, at any rate, that Rawls is working with the "same old man"
central to Taylorism (as in Fredrick) and the mutilated, calculating, instrumentally rational master of nature that modernity
served up as the exemplar of freedom - an achievement, given Rawl's nightmarish concept of justice, that seems to be rather ambiguous.
I'll stick with Marx's concept of human emancipation (my favorite "new man") and/or the least ablest among us who wish to or need
to walk around a good part of the day looking at clouds,

What's with the fascination of Rawls?

LFC said...

@J Fresia

Rawls does not endorse one kind of activity or one set of ideas about a good life: there's a section in ToJ where he says, basically, that if what one wants to do is count blades of grass all day, that's fine.

You prob wouldn't call Prof Wolff's concept of anarchism "nightmarish" w/o reading his book on anarchism and you wouldn't call Marx's ideas nightmarish w/o reading Marx, so you shouldn't call Rawls' notion of justice nightmarish w/o having read Rawls, or at least some accurate summary of his basic ideas, of which many are now available. There's also a lot of criticism of Rawls that is available, but I'd be surprised if any except maybe a few on the right-wing or libertarian fringe call his ideas nightmarish.

Nozick, who was harshly critical of Rawls in Anarchy State and Utopia, praised ToJ before criticizing it. From a completely different direction, Gerald Cohen presumably wdn't have spent the time he did criticizing and engaging w R. if he didn't think the ideas were important. For Brian Barry, criticizing ToJ in his bk about it from the early 70s, ditto. And RPWolff also wrote a whole bk criticizing R.

People of this intelligence don't spend this amt of intellectual energy engaging w something that is transparently stupid, flimsy, or nightmarish.

s. wallerstein said...

Rawls represents something important.

A short while ago I made the mistake of getting into an argument online about healthcare with a group of so-called libertarians, where I affirmed that healthcare is a human right and that everyone has a right to healthcare as they do to a fair trial.

One of them contemptuously referred to me as a Rawlsian, which I am not, but I realized that for many even politically literate Americans, Rawls represents the left. For us, he's more like the center than the left, but it's important to be aware that for many, Rawls is a fellow traveler of the red menace.

Matt said...

It's night here in Australia, and I have to get up early to prepare a lecture tomorrow, so don't have much time now, but I'll say that LFC is largely right on this issue, in both of his comments. One need not take my word for it, of course, but I'll add that to the mix, as one who has spent a lot of time working on Rawls.

Jerry Fresia said...


Good points all. I chose the term "nightmarish" because I was inspired by Charles Taylor's use of the term "mutilated" to describe the concept of person that emerges from the Enlightenment. Pointed figuration has its place. Further, from what I glean from secondary and primary (admittedly I was unable to sustain such efforts) sources, the Rawlsian project simply fails to move me. Nor does "scripture" and any number of texts that mighty intellectuals consider sacred. Moreover, I consider "our" way of life to be somewhat nightmarish, as you probably do too; so I would probably sit up and dig in if I understood, as it seems you and the Professor do, how Rawls concept of justice informs a revolutionary vision.

S. Wallerstein:

No doubt for some Rawls represents the left as did Kissinger, for some, once upon a time.

s. wallerstein said...

"Our" way of life is certainly nightmarish.

Jerry Fresia said...


PS: My "looking at clouds" metaphor was intended to suggest that giving greater expression to play and/or a revitalization of wonder, as activities, ought to be available, regularly, to all in a just society. It was not intended to be an example of a useless or mindless activity and, therefore, it mirrors the Professor's critique, in that it makes no sense to reward someone who qualified for management when she is actually moved to work on the loading dock where play might be given greater expression. Further, she may very well be among the ablest and prodded to move into management, but given her interests and proclivities, the attendant notions of efficiency and "compensation" - or the attendant notion of the good life - just might seem wholly repugnant.

I must be missing something because this seems rather obvious.

Enam el Brux said...

@LFC Thanks for this reference. I would think that Rawls's argument would set the threshold of rational envy toward one's more successful and better compensated peers high enough not to turn universities into ressentiment factories. That would be a miscalibration. (To name one case.)

LFC said...

My "looking at clouds" metaphor was intended to suggest that giving greater expression to play and/or a revitalization of wonder, as activities, ought to be available, regularly, to all in a just society.

I have no disagreement w/ that. (And I tend to think Rawls doesn't either, though I can't really say more on this.)

I don't know whether Matt, who is much more steeped in R's work than I am, would agree w this, but I think R was not always well served by his writing style; it's sometimes more formal and perhaps circuitous than it needs to be. It's perhaps only in his lectures, which were eventually published, and maybe (?) in the posthumously published bk about religion that the style is more conversational.

p.s.: I first encountered A Theory of Justice as a college freshman (fall 1975). I could have taken a course with Rawls himself but I never did, though I seem to recall vaguely hearing him speak once (I think I audited one lecture or maybe it was a public talk). I wasn't a philosophy major; I've regretted a lot of my decisions, but not that one.

LFC said...

@F Lengyel
Yes, I think so.

There's probably already a fair amount of ressentiment in universities in 'the real world', so why make it worse by giving it a theoretical warrant? ;)