Monday, November 25, 2002

John Rawls

John Rawls has died. His argument for redistribution of wealth is the foremost defense of liberalism in academia. Let's take a look at the argument. Here it is, the pinnacle of 20th C. liberal philosophy of social justice:

Rawls argued that if you had to be born into any society without knowing at which level of wealth or with what sort of opportunity you would have, you would, if you were rational, pick a society with the following redistributive scheme:

The situation of those on the lowest rung of the ladder of wealth is to be made as good as possible. No one is allowed to get richer than anyone else unless allowing this helps those at the bottom.

In other words, it would be irrational to gamble with poverty. You might be born into a lifetime of poverty, so if you have your choice, you should choose the society with the richest poor people. It might be a society of no wealthy people, but so be it. It is irrational to take a chance on wealth when this means exposing yourself to a chance of worse poverty than necessary.

Now, since that is the society you should choose when you don't know how well-off you are going to be, it is the just society. Justice is impartial. You can't rest your decision about justice upon whether you are rich. Suppose that you knew that in the next moment were going to be reborn as a new baby, such that where you were going to end up on the ladder of wealth and opportunity were going to be a matter of pure chance. If you would say, "Hang on a moment. Can we first put in place the most generous welfare minimum possible? I really don't like gambling," then you do not believe your present society is a just one. You believe the rules of the game are not reasonable or impartial. You don't think the wealthy in your present society do unto the poor as they would have others do unto them if they were poor. You know that only a society with the most generous welfare minimum possible would be just. This is Rawls's argument for an extensive, elaborate, cradle-to-grave welfare state. The rich should give and give to the poor until giving more won't do any more good.

There are two devastating problems with the argument. First, it's not irrational to gamble. If you have a good chance at fantastic wealth, you might reasonably accept taking it, even if it entails a real chance of pretty bad poverty. Therefore, other societies are rational besides the large, liberal welfare state.

Second, the argument entails that the following society could be unjust if its poorest people could be made better off by further redistribution of wealth to the poor from the rich: a society in which the poorest people own nice houses and two cars, and other such middle or upper-middle class things. But it's silly to think that such a wealthy society would be unjust. So, Rawls's argument must be flawed. Again, the flaw is to think that it is irrational to desire to live in a society in which you might very well get rich but also might end up with only minimal welfare support. Rawls thought this would be foolish risk taking. But clearly he was wrong about that. In sum, Rawls failed to show that the rich ought to provide the poor more than a minimal welfare net.

There's more. We value self-reliance and property rights. I wouldn't want to be such a burden on the rich as to have them give me more and more money until giving me more wouldn't help me any more. The Rawlsian society is inconsistent with my values. There is nothing inconsistent or irrational about my values, so Rawls's argument does not refute them. Viewed in this light, Rawls's philosophy is seen for what it is: an artificial game-theoretic approach to justice that is neither here nor there. His abstract method would have us decide what's right by first leaving our moral values aside. But how are you supposed to decide what's right without applying your moral values? Rawls's project, like that of any Kantian, was destined to fail from the start.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan today said, "Although Rawls's writing never, to my mind, plumbed the psychological, spiritual and moral depths of the great political philosophers, his bold attempt to re-think liberalism from first premises reinvigorated political theory in the 1970s and became the basis for much valuable and intricate criticism...." Jacob Levy said, "Rawls created a common disciplinary discourse within which arguments could be had...." Levy quotes Robert Nozick regarding "Rawls' systematic vision" that shows "how beautiful a whole theory can be." These are supposed to be words of praise. To me they fall flat. No political philosophy of any value has emerged from the ivory tower in the late 20th C. Sullivan and Levy like "intricate criticism", "disciplinary discourse", and "beautiful systems". Millions in grant money and salaries have been poured into these. But what use have we for these things in the political forum? They are out of sync with common sense and ordinary values. Neither the House nor the Senate has any use for them. No novel and interestingly true theories in political philosophy have emerged from American academia in the last 50 years. (No? Name one.) If the theory isn't common sense, it's not worth following. If it's common sense, we don't need professors to "discover" it.

UPDATE: John Jay Ray posts on Rawls. "Rawls is simply irrelevant. He is popular in academe only because his conclusions are Leftist," says John. Yes, but he is also popular because he is thought to have given the idea of impartial, unbiased reasoning to political philosophy. "Therein lies the greatness of Rawls," says Richard Epstein. Huh? Impartial and unbiased reasoning, the golden rule and such, are not new to political philosophy. Even Epstein admits, "The great engine that drove Rawls's analysis was, like all great ideas, not uniquely his." So, what's going on here? Just ivory tower nonsense. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? Get a guy with an IQ of 160, pay him to spend his life on that. You'll get ingenious results. Blah, blah, blah.