Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Theory of Justice, Part 3

I've made it through chapter 5 of A Theory of Justice, which deals with the problem of distributive shares and wraps up the discussion of the two principles for institutions. As such it represents the climax of the work; what I've read of chapter 6 so far leads me to believe that the rest of the book will be devoted to filling in the details and dealing with special cases.

Let me start by saying that I have fewer reservations about Rawls' general method now than I did in my previous post. His reliance on considered judgments isn't just convenient intellectual cover for a pre-determined outcome; there's plenty of evidence in chapters 4 and 5 that he's following the principles he's laid out to their logical conclusion. In doing so he comes out in favor of plural voting, comes out against the minimum wage, and flirts with eugenics, all positions which ran counter to common practice at the time the book was written. Nor are they particularly popular positions to espouse, which helps explain why some people seem to really dislike Rawls.

He also manages to reconcile the first and second principles in an interesting fashion, though not necessarily one with which I agree. In my first post I'd asked how he was going to make the second principle meaningful given some (apparently) strong statements about the right to property being one of the liberties protected by the first principle. As it turns out it appears that Rawls rejects a natural right to property; no one is entitled to the fruits of eir labors. This position is consistent with his belief that a person's lot in life is entirely the result of historical contingency. That being the case people are allowed to hold and accumulate private property at the sufferance of the state; the liberty of private property to which Rawls refers is the right not to have your property pilfered by your fellow citizens. On the other hand there appears to be little or no restriction on what the state may do with an individual's property. The only bound that Rawls places on taxation and other wealth transfers is that the cannot be so heavy as to prevent the appropriate rate of savings for the next generation (p. 286), presumably by discouraging productivity in the present generation. He's very clear in his discussion of taxation (p. 277 - 280) that there are two regiemes; one to fund the necessary functions of government and the other to address inequalities in income. It all hangs together very nicely in the end, though as I've noted previously I think that the fundamental premise is incorrect.

One thing that I'm starting to appreciate is that, in addition to this particular treatment of property rights, the edifice which Rawls constructs is greatly influenced by how risk is handled in the initial position. Though he mentions it only in passing, and it doesn't receive an entry in the index, the fact that his hypothetical contractors are incredibly (perhaps event perfectly) risk adverse wags the final solution to a large degree. They want to secure a minimum level of comfort for themselves and their descendants in perpetuity, and that's all they want. They're not interested in a greater upside with an accompanying greater downside.

This strikes me as unrealistic; no one is perfectly risk adverse. Moreover, different life plans entail different levels of risk. While it's true that individuals in the original position have no knowledge of their specific appetites for risk they do have access to the fact that such appetites vary. It strikes me that the logical thing to do in such a situation would be to agree to a set of rules which allow for such varying appetites. But such seems not to be the case; Rawls nowhere suggests that a citizen might forgo some or all of the social safety net in exchange for oh... say... a reduced tax burden or some such.

And this brings me to the point where I think I have a legitimate beef with how Rawls presents his theory. He states numerous times throughout the first 5 sections that the two principles are compatible with a wide variety of ends, but it's pretty clear that he's tailoring the system with a fairly narrow range of ends in mind. You get a hint of this on p. 256 in his discussion of the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness, but he comes right out and says it a little later on:

It is a mistake to believe that a just and good society must wait upon a high material standard of life. What men want is meaningful work in free association with others, these associations regulating their relations to one another within a framework of just basic institutions. To achieve this state of things great wealth is not necessary. In fact, beyond some point it is more likely to be a positive hindrance, a meaningless distraction at best if not a temptation to indulgence and emptiness. (p. 290)

Rawls' ideal society is composed of petite bourgeoisie who take their lunch at the Lions club. Apart from filling me with a sheer æthetic terror it's pretty clear that the two principles which Rawls has proposed permit a much wider range of life plans. For example, I see no reason to believe that a life of monastic contemplation violates either principle, but such a plan runs afoul of the above description.

I think this presupposition on his part explains why, though his theory of justice hangs together well from a purely logical standpoint, in the end the resulting society ends up feeling a little bit alien. He's constructed a cradle-to-grave welfare state which largely shields its citizens from the consequences (both good and bad) of their actions. They are free to pursue their meaningful work, provided its not too grandiose, unhampered by the material concerns that shape contemporary society. Its a seductive utopia, to say the least, but the devil is in the details. I have a hard time believing that such a system could persist as Rawls envisions for a prolonged period of time. It's easy to imagine the society assuming a stable, but totally unintended, configuration which calls to mind nothing so much as The Time Machine.


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