Vinod's Blog
Random musings from a libertarian, tech geek...
Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - 08:37 AM Permanent link for John Rawls
John Rawls

(via Instapundit)   John Rawls passed away on Sunday.   Harvard's Gazette has the following remembrance.

Rawls is considered by many to be the most important political philosopher of the second half of the 20th century and a powerful advocate of the liberal perspective. His work continues to be a major influence in the fields of ethics, law, political science, and economics, and has been translated into 27 languages. 

...In "A Theory of Justice," Rawls sets forth the proposition that "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests."

In my halcyon college days, I was acquainted with the intellectual debate between Rawls and Nozick and, at the time, sided quite strongly with Nozick.  With more age and experience in the "real world" Rawls' arguments have had more relative sway and I've been eager to reengage....  if I only had more time. 

(In contrast to the Winston Churchill adage that youngsters with hearts are liberals and older folks with minds become conservatives, my own political development seems to be going in the opposite direction ;-)

However, I still don't necessarily agree with the popular characterization that Rawlsian justice is automatically Liberal.   Modulo a very literal interpretation of the Difference Principle, many of Rawls' arguments can just as easily apply to the classical Liberal as they do to the modern Liberal In particular, many (but not all) of Rawls' arguments about the nature of the "inviolability of justice", for example, echo the universalist beliefs of the "conservative" Fukuyama/Hegel.

The Boston Globe, for example, writes:

Utilitarianism, the belief that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should define how a society governs itself, had superseded classical liberalism in the 19th century. In the 20th, the rise of Marxism (in politics) and logical positivism (in philosophy) made traditional political thought seem the exclusive preserve of intellectual historians.

''A Theory of Justice'' changed that. While its commitment to egalitarianism and social justice clearly placed it on the left, its emphasis on individual rights and a social contract as the basis of society just as clearly placed it in the liberal - rather than Marxist - tradition.

In my mind, this is actually screaming for a type of "compassionate libertarianism." 

If we think of a broad definition of rights which encompasses both Social (e.g. the right to vote, to not be discriminated against, etc.) as well as Economic ones (e.g. right to make a living) and divvy 'em up using a Rawlsian world view, we get:

inviolable benefits -- things that no individual is allowed to trade away for other rights -- such as Hegelian-recognition and voting redistributable benefits -- things whose inviolability is compromised in some individuals in order to redistribute them towards others -- traditionally things such as $$$ and food

I'm intentionally using the phrase "benefits" rather than "rights" because it helps us think of these elements as things subject to a gradient rather than an all-or-nothing proposition.   This distinction becomes important later.  If you take this formulation -- one of the pillars of Rawls' world view -- there are two big questions that are the subject of immediate debate:

  • How are benefits partitioned between these two, diametrically opposed buckets.   Under what circumstances is a right (for ex., the right to bear arms) inviolable and when can it be abridged by others?
  • How are redistributable benefits, well, redistributed?  There are 2 sub questions of:
    • degree -- e.g. how much redistribution is necessary
    • how -- e.g. is redistribution via state coercion or can we gaurantee its effects via other options?

The first big, traditional delta between Rawls and Nozick-inspired libertarians, of course, is how many economic rights belong in the first camp vs. the second.  This has classically been the most contentious area of debate with the Nozick's seeing the product of your mind + hands as inviolable as your right to free speech.

The second question, however, I think still presents interesting intellectual ground.   Philosophical questions aside (a big brush off, I know), the operational questions associated with implementing distribution are often enough of a showstopper argument for me settle upon my own position  ;-)

However, even philosophically, we should consider a very libertarian-esque premise that many of the machinations of the state can be distributed amongst the individuals.   If we keep this alternative in mind rather than purely resorting to centralized state apparatus then we see a partial solution towards Rawls' redistribution.    We can have redistribution of benefits without physical coercion.  The state isn't the only agent of social action.

Gun proponents point to the positive externalities of self-defense as an example of individuals individually pursuing a policy which benefits the overall state despite NOT being a true "instrument of the state".   Similarly, the "compassionate libertarian" position encompasses a belief in a level of altruism baked into human nature.   Individuals vis a vis each other can then implement a "social contract" devoid of state coercion which accomplishes a Rawlsian distributed social justice solution.

Finally, while Rawls' social contract has a certain theoretical elegance, it seems to lack some fundamental prescriptivity.   It tells us that societies should take care of the weak -- a principle NO ONE these days denies.   It doesn't not realistically set bounds for how much we need to redistribute to care for them.   In many ways, it's analogous to saying "prices should be set by the intersection of supply and demand" which is a truism but not prescriptive for for someone managing either supply or demand without more data.

Permanent link for John Rawls   Comments [ ] :: Main :: Archives