Rawls’s Distributive Justice 14:05

Brennan explains the political thought of John Rawls, one of the key figures in modern political philosophy.

Further Reading
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

G. A. Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality

Brennan: When we’re talking about property and it’s clear that property rights are important but one of the issues that many people have when you talk about justice is the fact that some people have a lot and some people have very little.  There’s a website right now called Global Rich List and you can go on there and input your income or your total amount of wealth and it will tell you how rich you are compared to all the other people on Earth.  And a lot of Americans complain about the 1%, but almost every American is in the global 1%.  It takes only about 37,000 dollars a year in current US dollars to be in the richest 1% of people alive right now.  Is that just?  Is that a problem?  Shall we fix that?  Who’s the “we” that should fix it if it should be fixed?

So many people think that when we’re talking about property and look at the vast inequality there is and the distribution of wealth or the distribution of income, this is some sort of problem that ought to be fixed, alright.  So what do we think about that?  So I’m going to say for now about John Rawls and his kind of view of how to think about distributive justice.  So he starts by noting that like we’ve talked about before that we live under a wide range of institutions.  Again, institutions are the rules of the game that structure our lives together.  And one of those institutions is private property. These institutions affect how our lives go.  Different institutions tend to privilege some lives over others.  Now it’s not the case that institutions direct result in you having the life that you have but they do influence in various ways.  So if you live under the institutions of say medieval England, then the kind of people who were good at fighting wars are going to have a much more elevated status and live better.  If you live under current U.S. institutions, then you tend to do better if you have a really high IQ.  So institutions privilege some people over others.  And he wonders if that’s okay.  So Rawls seems to just sort of assume that equality is a baseline from which departures have to be justified.  So by default, we should assume that we should pick institutions that would make everybody roughly equal but then we can maybe justify departing from that baseline if we have some really good reason.  An analogy for this might be using like a pie.  Like imagine we’re walking along one day in the woods and we happen to come across a pie and we said we want to eat it which I guess we probably wouldn’t if we found a pie in the woods.  But we find a pie in the woods and we want to divvy it up, the most natural thought of like “How should we divide up the pie?” is everyone gets an equal slice.  After all, no one has a prior claim to it, none of us made the pie.  It’s just sitting there.  So we would just think if we give everyone an equal slice, everyone will be really happy, no one will have a complaint and that seems fair.  We can go on with our lives.  So maybe there are reasons to make it unequal but it would depend if for some reason that we can justify it.  Now one of the main arguments people use for justifying an inequality is the idea that some people deserve more than others, some people work harder, some people are more meritorious.  Rawls is really skeptical of this, and the reason he is skeptical is he thinks that whether you deserve something is really ultimately a matter of luck.  So he would say, suppose Rawls himself was born to an upper middle class, quite privileged family in Baltimore, lived a very good life.  His parents could afford to pay for prestigious private schooling, and he went to Princeton and onward became a professor at Harvard eventually.  He did really well.  But partly that’s because he was just born to a very fortuitous circumstance.  Had he been born to a much poorer family, he likely would not have done as well.  So had if born the wrong side of the tracks to a worse off family, he didn’t likely to succeed as much.  So it seems like your family upbringing heavily influences whether your life goes well or poorly, and you didn’t do anything to deserve that.  It’s not like before you were born, your soul was up in like pre-embodiment heaven and you take a merit quiz and if you do well, they say, “Well you get to be born to a rich family and if you do poorly on the quiz, you have to be born to a poor family.”  It’s just luck.  But people say, “Yeah, Rawls, but what about working hard and being conscientious and choosing to think about the future?”  And even that Rawls is really skeptical.  He thinks, “Nah, that’s just really luck too because whether you’re conscientious or not, that’s going to depend upon either genes or good upbringing and you had high human capital parents that taught you to be like that, or you had perhaps genes that made you like that.”  So no matter what you cite as a factor that made you successful or unsuccessful, he ultimately just thinks it’s a matter of luck.  So he’s really very skeptical about whether people could be said to deserve anything.  That said, he doesn’t end up being an egalitarian at the end of the day.  He thinks that equality is the baseline from which departures have to be justified.  He thinks in fact they can be justified.  

So to extend that pie metaphor, suppose we’re on the woods and we find the pie and we decide we want to cut it up into equal slices.  Everyone gets an equal share.  Well that might be the thing to do but now imagine it turns out it’s a magic pie.  We realize that it’s this weird magic pie where if you cut it into unequal slices, it will grow larger or smaller.  Once we realize that, we might think, “Well what if there’s one way of cutting it unequally such that the pie becomes really big?”  Well for a rational, we’re not envious, then the thing to do would be to cut it up in a way that everyone gets an unequal but bigger slices as opposed to an equally small slice.  So Rawls thinks that seems to be a good reason to justify departures from inequality, if we’re all made better off, let’s do it.  So, so far that’s a common sense view of a lot of economists have.  But the question here is there’s lots of ways of divvying up the pie unequally.  So one way would be I mean imagine like the baseline is everyone gets a slice of pie that’s 5 ounces.  Well what if we can cut it up in one way where some people get a slice of pie that’s 10 ounces but other people get a 50-ounce slice of pie.  Maybe there’s another way of cutting up where the worst off person gets a 10 ounce slice of pie and the best off gets a 12 ounce slice of pie.  But Rawls would say starting from a standpoint of equality would make sense to pick either of those ways of cutting it up but which one’s better?  Is there a way in answering that?  So he thinks that there is.  He says what we need to do is kind of come up with a thought experiment to try to evaluate different ways of divvying up the pie.  And his thought experiment is called The Original Position.   So it’s a sort of hypothetical bargaining positions, hypothetical bargain where a bunch of people are going to come together and pick a set of rules like basically pick a set of principles of justice that are going to govern a society that they’re going to live in.  Now they themselves are going to live under whatever rules that they pick.  So if we were to have like kind of bargain like this like if we were to right now bargain about the rules that we’re going to live under, we would pick things that tend to privilege things that we already are good at.  It would be like, well, philosophers should get paid the most and people with brown hair should get paid the most.  And we’ll pick things that will kind of privilege us because we care about ourselves.  So what Rawls wants to do is imagine that this bargain is a fair and rational bargain.  And to do that, he strips people of information about themselves.  He calls this the veil of ignorance.  So he takes all the people at this bargaining table and they lose information about who they are, what they care about, what their conceptions of the good life are, what sex or gender identity they have, what religion they’re going to belong to, whether they’re male or female, etc, etc. They don’t know anything about themselves.  They just know what human beings in general are like.  They also don’t know things like whether they’re going to be born into a relatively high status position or low status position.  They don’t know whether they’re going to a high degree of natural talents or low degree of natural talents.  But they do know things about the basic facts about how society works, some basic economics and sociology.  So under this position, we’re picking principles that we’re going to live under, and we’re trying to maximize how well we do for ourselves.  We don’t know anything about ourselves in particular.  So he thinks “What principles are they going to pick?”  So the first principle they pick has something to do with liberty.  They decide to give everyone as extensive as free as liberty as they can compatible for like liberty for all.  This is what I’m talking about distributive justice now.  

I’m going to focus on the second principle they pick.  He says what they ought to do about inequality is pick one position and maximize it.  In particular, pick the representative member of the least advantaged class, working class, and maximize the gain that that person gets.  So one interesting thing about that is you’re saying working class.  So for Rawls, if you’re not helping to make the pie, you don’t have a claim of justice on that pie.  You don’t have a claim to the slice of the pie as a matter of justice.  But he says what we need to do is maximize the wellbeing of the least advantaged group.  So in principle, that means like we’re going to have inequality but when we talk about all the different kinds of inequality we can have, we’ll say, “Let’s make sure that the representative members of the working class are better off under this situation than in any other possible distribution.”  He thinks if you rationally are not envious, that’s the thing that you’re going to pick.  And his argument’s a little bit kind of complicated and involves a lot of game theory and stuff but that’s the basic idea.  Rawls, depending on where you’re coming from, he might sound like he’s a really hardcore egalitarian but in fact he’s not.  And that’s actually one of the complaints of leftists had about him because in principle, this idea, the difference principle, and inequality is permissible provided you maximize the wellbeing of the least advantaged group, that allows for radical inequality, more inequality than we’ve seen anywhere. I mean a way of illustrating that is just imagine that we have a rule right now that the poorest person has his income squared every minute and the next middle class has their income go up by a factor 4 every, like cubed every minute, and then after that like the richest have their income go up an even higher rate.  As that happens over time, people get richer and richer but the growth difference in wealth will become even more dramatic.  In principle, Rawls is okay with that as long as you maximize the wellbeing of the least advantaged group.   

So some people have like especially on the left have said that the problem with this is he’s sort of apologizing for capitalism, they think, because it allows for massive amounts of inequality.  So the Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen turns to Rawls and says, “Well what’s your argument for allowing inequality in the first place?  You have this pie example but what does that really mean?”  What Rawls is saying is the most talented people, we have to basically bribe them into working harder.  The thought is we’re going to give some people more than others because the people with more talents, they’ll get more, they’ll decide to work harder, and then that’ll be for our benefit.  We give them more stuff and they’ll invest it the right way and then we’ll all benefit from that.  And G. A. Cohen, the Marxist philosopher says the only reason you have to do that is because people don’t care about justice very much.  If they genuinely care about justice, they’d all be willing to work equally hard for equal benefit.  So he thinks Rawls has actually failed to justify inequality.  

So one of the interesting questions here is “Is it actually a good argument on behalf of inequality?”

Question: So Rawls said that as long as the pie was growing, that was always a good thing.  But is there a point where there’s too much inequality for Rawls?  

Brennan: Yeah.  With Rawls, there’s almost like what the theory officially says and then when he kind of wanted it to say.  So I think he came up with this account and pointed out to him that in principle, this allows for radical inequality.  A system which you’ll imagine like the poorest person, there’s the millionaire and the richest person is a quintillionaire.  That’s okay as long as that makes the worst off person as well off as possible.  Rawls himself I think was more egalitarian than his theory allowed and so a lot of his later writings were to try to make the theory more egalitarian than it really was.  So he’d look for other arguments on behalf of making it more equal.  So one thing he said was “I’m worried about having too much inequality because perhaps if we allow some people to have so much money, what will happen is they’ll buy political power for themselves.” That might be a reason to sort of limit the amount of money that people will have.  Or he thought there might be other kind of negative externalities of wealth inequality that would maybe forbid inequality that might otherwise be justified.  Now whether any of those arguments work or not is a question I personally don’t think they work but yeah, his theory really does in principle allow for radical inequality.  

Question: Okay, putting Rawls in an international perspective, would you say there’s a difference between being born into a wealthy nation or into a wealthy family?  

Brennan: Yeah, you know one of the problems with Rawls’s theory was that when he was trying to think about what justice was, he just sort of assumed, he called it as a modeling assumption, that we’re going to be talking about people who were born into a close society, you’re born to this society, you die in it, there’s no other societies, just imagining one society, and he kind of just imagines that to be the nation state.  And there’s maybe no particularly good reason to do that and it’s kind of unrealistic because of course, what you’re saying is right.  Being born in one side of the border greatly affects your life prospects.  A person who’s born in say Haiti who has the same talents that I have would have probably a 15th of my lifetime income at best just because he happened to be born in Haiti, not United States.  So some people when they think about Rawls’s theory think it should be applied in international level, this idea of like let’s maximize the wellbeing of the least advantaged, that should just be a principle that applies across the entire world and national borders just don’t matter at all.  Surprisingly, Rawls when he did write about international justice, he doesn’t go that way.  He ends up arguing that national borders matter quite a bit.  And there’s a big debate right now about why he did that, why he didn’t sort of extend his theory in the most obvious way.  And some people think it’s just because he thought that having a kind of international cosmopolitanism was infeasible so it wasn’t really worth talking about and he wanted instead to talk about peace between countries and the best we can do.  On the other hand, it might be that Rawls does think there’s something special about the nation because there are times when he says, “Well, society is about a bunch of people cooperating with one another” and he seems to think that has something to do with national borders.  And let’s face it, it really doesn’t.  And when I think about whom I cooperate with, my day to day life, I’m consuming things that are made by millions and millions of people from all across the world and the people that interact with face to face aren’t all Americans as a whole but a couple people in Virginia and D.C.  So yeah, this is a big puzzle as how to extend this sort of stuff to an international scope.

Topics Philosophy