Randy and Libby Discuss Rawlsian Liberalism

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last minor revision: March 31, 2008

Dramatis Personae

Randy, the libertarian:
The basic standard of what is permissible and impermissible is non-interference rights (to life, liberty, and property). Randy is named after the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand.

Libby, the egalitarian liberal:
Everybody has basic human rights, including a mix of non-interference rights, political participation rights, and some social and economic rights to assistance from society. Libby has been influenced by writings of the political philosopher John Rawls.

Libby and Randy Discuss Rawls' Egalitarian Liberalism

For further reading, see Rawls on Justice
For a dialogue directly inspired by Rawls' ideas regarding the Original Position, see Strange Angels

Libby and Randy have just come out of Ethics class, where the professor has been explaining the elements of Rawls' political philosophy.

L. Well, Randy, what do you think of my man Rawls?

R. Apart from not agreeing with his second principle, I don't understand why he comes up with the Original Position. It's such an abstraction. The persons in the O.P. are so odd: they are ignorant of everything that makes them who they are, their natural talents, whether they are wealthy or not, their religious preferences, etc. Abstractions are all right if they are necessary, but it seems to me Rawls could just as easily start out with his two principles of justice.

L. The O.P. is just a way of showing why it is reasonable, if you accept that what is morally relevant is that human beings be free and equal, to accept something like the two principles of justice instead of some alternative, such as utilitarianism or some system that privileges a racial or religious group, such as Caucasians or Buddhists.

R. Oh, I see, you like the O.P. because you think it allows you to deal with philosophical disagreement, and it happens to prove the principles of justice you like to begin with.

L. It is a device that works on the principle that what you get out of it is determined by what you put into it, but the definition of the O.P. and the definition of the two principles are not exactly identical. A society organized by the two principles is more concrete than the original position.

R. It would still be pretty abstract.

L. Rawls never intended it to be the whole story. He sometimes imagines the thought experiment the prof just discussed to be performed first, after which delegates to a constitutional convention could use the two principles to guide their creation of a more detailed constitutional framework, which in turn would be filled out by laws created by a legislature.

Stage 1

In this stage, people perform the thought experiment involving the Original Position and Veil of Ignorance. They come up with principles of justice such as Rawls' two principles.

Stage 2

This is the stage of a Rawlsian Constitutional Convention. Delegates at this convention already possess the two principles of justice. They use them, and facts about the general situation their country is in, to design a constitution, a more detailed fundamental law of the land.

Stage 3

This is the legislative stage. At this stage, legislators already possess the constitution produced at Stage 2, which embodies the principles of justice derived at Stage 1. The legislators have far more detailed particular information than the delegates to the Constitutional Convention required or possessed. The task of the legislators is come up with a detailed body of law enabling a society to function. Because the detailed body of law conforms to a constitution chosen with the principles of justice as guidelines, the detailed body of law itself will be just.

At each stage more knowledge would be supplied. Delegates at stage 2 would not be behind a complete Veil of Ignorance. Legislators at Stage 3 would have a lot of concrete information, yet still try to pick laws that would be applicable for a long time.

R. Why would the persons in the OP know about sociological possibilities?

L. They would have to know that racial, gender, and religious discrimination are possible. Knowing that these practices are possible and reasoning that they could find themselves in a disadvantaged role, they have a motive to rule such discrimination out. They would thus favor the equal liberty principle and the equal opportunity principle. The job of the principles is to block the creation of unjust institutions that would otherwise be possible.

R. Am I right that there would be no opportunity to become rich in your Rawlsian system?

L. The Difference Principle allows people to benefit from bringing special talents and creativity to the table. It allows society to pay some persons more than others provided that doing so is part of an arrangement that benefits society generally, especially those who are least advantaged. No wealthy brain surgeons who are available only to service the needs of the rich.

R. You want to tie the situation of the least advantaged to the situation of the most advantaged?

L. Yes, other arrangements are likely to produce an unstable situation.

R. What do you mean?

L. Other arrangements are likely to permit a growing gap between those who have social advantages, such as wealth and power, on the one hand, and the vast majority who have fewer and fewer such advantages. This is a recipe for two societies within one border, and the likely result is social breakdown, even civil war, a war between rich and poor.

R. I don't see why you predict this gap.

L. Well, consider just one alternative, the one you libertarians favor. Anybody can make a deal with anybody else just so long as the non-interference rights of others are not attacked. Right?

R. That's a pretty good one-sentence summary of our view.

L. And it's your view that most people most of them time are going to act in self-interested ways.

R. A reasonable assumption, so long as people are not brainwashed by socialists and egalitarian liberals and Social Gospel Christians to think that they ought to sacrifice their wealth above the subsistence level to help the needy. As Ayn Rand says, there is virtue in self-interested behavior.

L. You wanted to know why I predict a growing rich-poor gap. I'm not going to discuss Rand's view of virtue now because it's not relevant. All I need to know is whether you admit it's a reasonable assumption that most people are going to act in self-interested ways.

R. Oh, I admit it.

L. OK, consider the kinds of deals people are likely to make in libertarian society. There are people who are rich and people who are talented and well-trained. And then there are the others who are less rich and less talented and well-trained.

R. Yea, roughly, this is correct.

L. Who are the rich going to deal with when they have needs?

R. Those best able to fulfill those needs.

L. And they are?

R. The talented and well-trained.

L. And who will the most talented and well-trained deal with (on the assumption that they are not making major sacrifices for the needy)?

R. The rich, of course, because they can pay well for the services they desire.

L. In general, then what you have is a mutual back-scratching arrangement between the rich, on the one hand, and the talented and trained on the other. The second group will itself become richer. In fact, if we consider both groups to be asset-rich (talents as well as money are assets) what will happen over time is that the asset-rich people will benefit each other. Asset-poor people, on the other hand, will have no choice but to exchange services for money with each other.

R. In a libertarian society, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

L. But from a perspective that's interested in social stability, there's plenty wrong with it, because those who are not asset-rich will gradually sink in terms of their capabilities. They will become poorer, will receive less education, will earn less income, be able to afford less adequate health care, etc.

R. Oh, I see where you're going.

L. This is an eventuality that the Difference Principle aims to rule out.

R. Anyway, at least we can agree about the importance of liberty. I think Rawls is right to give the Liberty Principle priority over the Difference Principle.

L. Actually, I was planning on bringing that up, just so you'll not be under any illusions about how close or far apart we are. The Liberty Principle as understood by Rawls, especially as he explains it in his later works, probably is too strong to satisfy libertarians. For myself, I think it has to be as strong as Rawls understood it later in life.

R. What do you mean?

L. In his later works, Rawls words the Liberty Principle this way:

Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all. (Rawls, Political Liberalism)
R. Well I notice a verbal difference. This version refers to "a fully adequate scheme." What's the point of that?

L. The point is that the political liberties cannot be merely formal: They must be backed by at least a modest amount of resources. There's no point, for instance, in saying that people have equal rights to free speech if some have no access to schooling that can enable them to communicate somewhat effectively with their fellow citizens. There's no point in saying that people have an equal right to run for political office and engage in the activities that precede an election if only the wealthy, or those to whom the wealthy are willing to contribute, have a real opportunity to run for office or give effective support.

I mean a real, effective opportunity as distinct from a formal, abstract, or merely legal right. A poor person has an equal formal right to justice in the legal system, but if the outcomes depend on the quality of one's legal representation, a poor person who cannot afford a good lawyer does not have an equal effective right to justice.

R. I don't like where this is going.

L. I'm not surprised. The "fully adequate scheme" idea means that, just to ensure that everybody really has effective liberty, and not just abstract or formal liberty, government must provide resources that give them some opportunity to use the liberty that they would have according to the law.

R. Like government funding of election campaigns, I suppose. I'm opposed to that.

L. The point of government funding of election campaigns, which Rawls and I support, is to give candidates who are not wealthy or financially beholden to the wealthy a chance to run for high office.

R. So even the Liberty Principle as Rawls advocates it would require taxation that takes from the haves and gives to the have-nots, robbing Peter to pay Paul again.

L. I think you are assuming that a person's gross income, her paycheck before deductions, is something that she "owns." I don't. I think that what we own is only what we have a right to, but we don't have a right to anything that justice requires be distributed somewhere else. Like Rawls I start not with na´ve ideas of ownership but with the idea of social justice.

Even intelligent libertarians do that sometimes. They admit that some deductions from gross income are justified, say those needed to pay for the police, courts, and prisons that are established in order to protect non-interference rights.

R. I suppose that Rawls tries to justify his later version of the Liberty Principle in terms of the Original Position?

L. Yes, he does. He points out that persons in the O.P., not knowing their position in the real, flesh and blood society, would be concerned that they might find themselves in a socially disadvantaged group. If the only liberty rights they had were formal rights, without resources to make them effective, they might as well not have any liberty rights at all. What they would want is effective liberty rights, at least a real opportunity to exercise them. So, because in the O.P. we all are rational self-interested persons, we would design into the Liberty Principle a notion of liberty rights stronger than mere formal rights. Such a notion would require some allocation of resources by society to ensure, so far as possible, that everyone has a real opportunity to exercise his liberty rights.

R. Thanks for clarifying that. I now see that the philosophical gulf between us libertarians and you liberals is even deeper than I thought.