Tuesday, December 17, 2002

More Rawlsian Nonsense

I’ve blogged on this before, here and here. Now Harvard professor Michael Walzer gives us another eulogy to Rawls in the latest (Dec. 16) issue of the New Republic. He cuts the chase: “If Rawls is right, the meritocratic assumption should give way to a more generous stance toward those less favored by fortune and circumstance.” The fact that you are talented and work hard does not give you a right to the riches people heap on you in return for your products and services. Because it is just a matter of luck that you happen to have talent and a lack of sloth. Furthermore, that the market has paid you handsomely for your deeds does not show that your deserve the earnings because it was mere luck that the market happened to like your offerings. “That a market society values the skills some people happen to have is their good fortune....” You don’t have a right to what they paid you, because it was luck that they wanted to pay you so much. Therefore, you ought to pay and pay poor people until paying them more won’t help them anymore (i.e., the core Rawlsian principle: “the difference principle”). Even if they are lazy and stupid, you must give them their money back. After all, who can help being born lazy and stupid?

So, there are the premises of the greatest political philosophy the left has to offer: The fact that you are talented and hardworking is a matter of mere chance, and no one deserves the fruits of chance. But this is silly because of course you have a right to keep what you acquire by good luck. Who would think that someone who finds a gold nugget in no man’s land does not have a right to it? It’s also silly to say that the poor have a right to the money they paid you because it was merely luck that they decided to pay you. It wasn’t luck. You had what they wanted. They decided to pay you. Furthermore, it is incomprehensible to consider the having of an industrious character “lucky.” Whether you work hard is up to you; it’s not at all a matter of luck but totally under your control.

All three basic premises of Rawlsianism are silly. Who would accept such silly premises? Probably someone who didn’t realize that although the fruits of luck are not deserved, this fact does nothing to show that others deserve to have you give these fruits to them. Indeed, that fact would show that they do not deserve to to have you give them. For if they they acquire them from you, it is merely a matter of luck that they do so. After all, what we acquire is entirely a matter of luck, according to Rawlsianism. Therefore, no one deserves anything at all. Rawlsianism is incoherent. Like any philosophy in the Marxist tradition, it does away with rights as mere products of cultural bias and then tries to reconstruct them. But once they’re gone, you can’t derive them from empty logic chopping the way Rawls does. Rawlsianism is therefore sophistry. It does away with morality (with the “veil of ignorance” and the “original position”) and tries to recreate it out of nothing. Of course, you can’t do that, and since what we get is leftism, one has to assume that all the hand waving is just a distraction away from leftist assumptions being smuggled in: No one has a right to anything, but poor people have a right to most of your money. What we acquire is a matter of luck, except when the government is redistributing from rich to poor, and then it’s moral, genuine, intentional action. At bottom, we have decided to respect people’s rights to what they acquire by luck. It's unseemly to whine about others' good luck. It's a mark of envy and a failure of courage and self-reliance. Rawls wants us to stop allowing people to keep the fruits of their good luck, to stop respecting private property, and to stop placing value on self-reliance. (Go here again.) But he offers us no reason to make this change.

Considered by the academic establishment as one of the greatest political philosophers of all times. Harvard. Dozens, probably hundreds, of Ph.D. dissertations on Rawls. Thousands of articles and books. Untold human energy wasted on silliness, sophistry, and nonsense. What could that man have accomplished had he set his sights on solving a genuine problem instead of trying to spin a web of sophistry? Walzer is at Harvard, having written his Ph.D. dissertation on Rawls. None of these emperors has any clothes.