May 1, 2012 columns

Rawls the Irrelevant

As editor of Cato Unbound, I don’t actively take sides. Here, though, I’m going to be a bit polemical. My thesis is simple: If you want to square libertarianism with social justice, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is probably not a book you should reach for.

As the term is usually used, the advocates of “social justice” are not Rawlseans. You will not win them by quoting Rawls. You will not win them by thinking like Rawls. They know what they want, and Rawls isn’t it. Rawls is for the milquetoasts of the academy; social justice is radical stuff. Whatever their origins, the two have diverged, and there’s no sense denying it.

(This leaves aside Rawls’ effect on libertarianism proper, which Todd Seavey has aptly described as “attaching a washing machine to a soufflé.” The only way to improve would be to specify, more elegantly than I’m doing right now, that the free market is the washing machine, a durable good that benefits everyone; and Rawls is the soufflé, a fragile, delectable confection, enjoyed for half a minute by a well-stuffed class of elites.)

Now we may certainly debate the merits of Rawls’ system (I say it’s flawed) but we should recognize that Rawls is tangential to the debate about libertarianism and social justice.[1]

Rawls’ distinctive move in political theory was to recommend a shift in strategy. Those who are most concerned with the poor should reject both egalitarianism and utilitarianism, he argued. In their place he urged a maximin strategy, in which inequality of wealth would be tolerated, and even welcomed, on the condition that relative disparities in wealth always worked to the absolute benefit of the poor.

I’d like to ask the libertarians who are keen on Rawls: Have you ever tried pointing out the absolute wealth of the American poor? Have you ever mentioned this fact to a progressive? And did their hair not immediately catch fire?

A Rawlsean ought to love this report from the Heritage Foundation:

For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.

To a rounding error, this is what Rawls would demand. Note that the absolute wealth of our poor is virtually unprecedented in all of human history. It’s an accomplishment shared only by those countries that have adopted a significant measure of free market economics, or, at best, by a few others who piggybacked on the free market’s creative success while adding almost nothing of value themselves.

The overwhelming majority of the poor in the United States enjoy technological wonders that didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Outside the free market/liberal democratic synthesis, essentially no other social system has ever delivered as much — because almost none of them can produce a steady stream of new technological innovations in the first place, let alone distribute them to the poor.

It takes remarkable upper-lip musculature to sneer in such circumstances. But some do manage. “Let Them Eat Cake,” says one progressive commentator about the report — hardly an outlier.

Forgetting, then, that most American poor really do eat cake. Also forgetting that the very notion of the poor eating cake was unthinkably absurd for all of human history. That’s why it became a catchphrase — because it was absurd. And yet our poor eat cake while talking on a video phone and watching their choice of movies on a flat-screen TV.

This really ought to count for something, but somehow it never does. And if giving the poor a lifestyle that would have been the merest science fiction in the 1960s doesn’t count for anything — then what on earth would? 

In one sense, the poor are entitled to as much as possible. And I mean that sincerely. Were I able, I would give every American a salary of $200,000 a year — in real terms, not inflationary funny-money. I would put everyone in today’s much-hated one percent. And why stop there? Let’s have free clothes from Prada. Free meals from Le Bernardin. And biological immortality. And a fully functional U.S.S. Enterprise. Because hey, why not?

Where we could find all that wealth, God only knows. But the problems are technological, not philosophical. Nothing in justice forbids everyone from growing arbitrarily wealthy, provided they come by it peaceably and honestly.

But what is social justice, then? It’s the kind of justice demanded by socialism. We might want to say that market institutions can provide it. We might want to say a lot of things about markets. We think markets are good; naturally, we want to promote them. But we should not lose sight of what markets actually are. Or of who our real audience is. This stuff isn’t going to convince socialists, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it will.

The type of justice demanded by socialism is neither the type favored by libertarians — that of continuous, undirected, uncoerced economic activity — nor the type favored by Rawlseans — too complex to set off neatly with dashes. Social justice appears to mean (1) an ever-greater equality of outcome through forced wealth transfer and/or state-run economies; (2) a prediction — surely falsifiable — that forced transfers enhance the dignity and autonomy of the poor, (3) state-subsidized status enhancement for members of aggrieved groups, and (4) never mind about the absolute holdings of the poor, already.

That’s also why I will never be a socialist, and why I will always be skeptical of social justice.

The advocates of social justice do not like it that the poor have surprisingly large holdings in absolute terms. Point it out to them, and they grow resentful or condescending. (“Well… but… it’s not really very nice cake…”) All these consumer goods dull the sense of envy, and that sense needs to be sharpened if we’re going to force the equality of outcome.

But you never make more cake by slicing it up differently. When cake goes to the hungriest, you don’t encourage baking; you encourage whining about hunger. How do you make more cake? Even the baker can’t answer that question in any detail. It’s a product, so far as we can tell, only of the market process, of specialization and gains from trade, of local knowledge and market discipline.

That discipline now yields a productivity unheard of in all of human history. That’s something we and the Rawlseans both might learn from. But it’s not a thing beloved by the advocates of social justice.

[1] On that tangent: I find Rawls incompatible with libertarianism in part because Rawlsean thinking is too quick to bless the status quo. It is, as I suggest above, too conservative for libertarianism, which ought to be a radical political movement. Libertarianism should always begin at or near the question, “Why is there some government rather than no government?” Libertarians may be anarchists or minarchists, but they should never take government as either a matter of course or as one of indifference.