Rawls: Theory rampant

If all men are equal, why are huge efforts to make them equal required?

By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)

Leftists do of course on occasions attempt to give their fundamentally confused ideas about equality some substance and the work of philosopher John Rawls is best know in that connection. There is a fundamental conservative objection to the Rawls edifice but I will start with some other points first.

For starters: Rawls is a good example of what computer people call GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). If you start out with crazy assumptions you get crazy conclusions and in Rawls's case Leftist assumptions inevitably led to Leftist conclusions. Like all Leftists, he was unable to deal with the complexities of the real world so he invented an imaginary and vastly oversimplified one wherein only Leftist criteria for a good world are even mentioned. So his basic proposition can be summarized simply: If I know nothing about myself and nothing about the world I am about to enter other than its degree of social and economic equality what sort of world would I choose? And the expected answer is? Wait for it! A world wherein everyone is as equal as possible. The compulsory Leftist conclusion has been reached! Good job, Johnny. So now let's make the real world as equal as possible.

But look at how crazy his criterion is. What if the "equal" world I chose turned out to be starving? Would it not make more sense to choose an affluent world, for instance? Or a world in which modern medicine and dentistry were available? Rawls of course would claim that he is speaking ceteris paribus but what if other factors CANNOT be held constant? What if very equal worlds turn out to be in general poorer or more tyrannical? -- as indeed seems generally to be the case.

But aside from that, we just do not live in the imaginary Rawlsian world. We DO know things about the world we are in and we DO know things about ourselves and that does and should influence the type of world we prefer. And even if we did not, it is one big assumption to say that we would choose an equal world. Gambling is a very human thing to do and it seems to me highly likely that many people would choose a world of IN-equality precisely because that would give them a chance of doing well and rising above the herd. And is not that in fact precisely the American Dream -- to start out at the bottom of the heap and by hard work and good thinking to rise to the top? Real people everywhere would like to get to good old unequal America so that they can have a chance of becoming rich. But none of the unreal people in the unreal world of John Rawls do. Funny, that.

Rawls is simply irrelevant. He is popular in academe only because his conclusions are Leftist.

When Rawls died in 2002 there were various comments about his opus on the blog of The Brothers Judd (post of Nov. 29th., 2002) and I particularly liked this comment put up on the Judd blog by Lou Gots:

I spent an interesting semester at Penn disecting A Theory of Justice in a course taught by Bruce Ackerman (!!!) A central part of Rawls' theory (and Ackerman's exegesis thereof) is the notion the the goods of the earth are "manna"--they just drop out of the sky. Thus social justice concerns itself only with distribution and not with production, because when you get up in the morning the manna will be there. Thus Rawls and his disciples make as much sense as a Melanesian cargo cult. We know from human experience that irrational systems fail because they are unproductive. Thanks to Rawls, many of our intellectuals start with the premise that productivity does not matter. As to the "veil of ignorance," it is Rawls' way of getting around this. Since no one is supposed to know that he will not be in the "worst-off class," the just society will always favor the worst-off. This is a sick notion, as such a society will tend ever downward, becoming less and less productive, until all are "worst off." On the contrary, I Would say that the poor in a free society (tempered by charity) are better off than they would be in an unfree. Rawls wrote that envy should not be a factor in these decisions, so relative deprivation should be irrelevant. Furthermore, I would hold that even if the veil of ignorance were more than just more cargo cult nonsense, a rational person would desire freedom because even if he were to be born to the "worst-off class" his wealth and his opportunities to improve his lot would be maximized. De mortuiis, etc., eternal rest and perpetual light, but the works are still meaningless socialist blather.

To expand a little on the first point of that comment, a major flaw in Rawls' theory is that people need to be rewarded for working harder. And since not everybody works equally hard all the time the outcome will be inequality. But why do they need to be rewarded for working harder? They need to be so rewarded both because that is what instinctive morality (which Rawls regards as authoritative) indicates and also because we know as an empirical fact that societies without that incentive (as in the former Soviet empire) are deeply impoverished and heavily reliant on coercion and tyranny to get anything done at all -- and nobody is (at least overtly) advocating either tyranny or general societal impoverishment. So the Rawls theoretical edifice ultimately undermines itself. (More on that in the amusingly-titled article If You Don't Eat Your Meat, You Can't Have Any Pudding by Micha Ghertner).

That leads me to the fundamental conservative objection to Rawls: It is just another arbitrary, dreamed-up theoretical edifice -- as is Marxism. ANY theoretical edifice is of only passing interest to conservatives. Conservatives go by what works and systems of enforced equality are invariably associated with tyranny and poverty. It is theoretical edifices in general that are the problem -- as Burke pointed out long ago. Reality is just too complex to be fruitfully described by any such system. And trying to force the real variety and complexity of humanity into any such systemic straitjacket -- as in the case of Communism -- has a history of failure, usually including mass-murder.

It can of course be argued (rather speciously) that the Rawlsian system of ideas is a moral or ethical one rather than a social or political one but that argument would seem to bring its protagonist into rather amusing conflict with another passionately held Leftist claim -- that there is in fact no such thing as right and wrong! Not an easy hole to climb out of! Conservatives, however, DO believe in right and wrong and a conservative account of morality which makes no mystical or unworldly assumptions can be found here.

Finally, American Nobel-winning economist Edmund Phelps lands a rather crushing blow on Rawlsian thinking by pointing out that it is concerned only with money. And, as Leftists would normally keenly argue, money is not everything. Phelps suggests that self-fulfilment is more important. What Leftist these days would argue with that? Yet, as Phelps shows, as soon as we admit self-fulfilment into the picture, the Rawlsian system justifies capitalism, not socialism! A few quotes below give the skeleton of his argument:

"The American and Continental systems are not operationally equivalent, contrary to some neoclassical views. Let me use the word "dynamism" to mean the fertility of the economy in coming up with innovative ideas believed to be technologically feasible and profitable--in short, the economy's talent at commercially successful innovating. In this terminology, the free enterprise system is structured in such a way that it facilitates and stimulates dynamism while the Continental system impedes and discourages it.....

I would, however, stress a benefit of dynamism that I believe to be far more important. Instituting a high level of dynamism, so that the economy is fired by the new ideas of entrepreneurs, serves to transform the workplace--in the firms developing an innovation and also in the firms dealing with the innovations. The challenges that arise in developing a new idea and in gaining its acceptance in the marketplace provide the workforce with high levels of mental stimulation, problem-solving, employee-engagement and, thus, personal growth. Note that an individual working alone cannot easily create the continual arrival of new challenges. It "takes a village," preferably the whole society....

Suppose the wage of the lowest- paid workers was foreseen to be reduced over the entire future by innovations conceived by entrepreneurs. Are those whose dream is to find personal development through a career as an entrepreneur not to be permitted to pursue their dream? To respond, we have to go outside Rawls's classical model, in which work is all about money. In an economy in which entrepreneurs are forbidden to pursue their self-realization, they have the bottom scores in self-realization--no matter if they take paying jobs instead--and that counts whether or not they were born the "least advantaged." So even if their activities did come at the expense of the lowest-paid workers, Rawlsian justice in this extended sense requires that entrepreneurs be accorded enough opportunity to raise their self-realization score up to the level of the lowest-paid workers--and higher, of course, if workers are not damaged by support for entrepreneurship

Phelps does of course at that point tend to lead us towards happiness studies -- which I treat elsewhere


Another rather amusing comment on Rawls appeared in 2007:

"David Lewis Schaefer's opinion piece on John Rawls ("Justice and Inequality," July 23) reminded me of an epiphany I had in college in the late '70s. Then, as now, social justice and inequality were big topics on campus. The conventional wisdom was that Rawls was right, that his nemesis Robert Nozick was wrong and that "justice as fairness" was the goal to be pursued. I proudly carried my thick, dog-eared copy of Rawls's "A Theory of Justice" under my arm.

Then, in an ethics class taught by a well-known professor, I was asked to write a paper on the lifeboat scenario--a thought experiment involving an overcrowded lifeboat entering a storm, where it is clear that not all will survive. A dedicated Rawlsian at the time, I decided to apply his theories to the assigned situation. But no matter how I construed them, his theories kept leading me to the conclusion that the only "fair" result was that everyone in the lifeboat had to die. Even as a young, liberal college student, this struck me as an unacceptable result.

Thereafter, I spent less time lugging around Rawls's volume, and looked for a more practical philosophy".

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