John Rawls, in his theory of justice, attempted to reconcile the two fundamental ideas of freedom and equality. This essay uses arguments from a right-wing perspective to illustrate how he has failed in his objective. This essay argues against Rawls’ theory of justice, by showing how it eliminates incentives, will put us on a slippery slope down the Road to Serfdom and how it arbitrarily treats people as common assets.
John Rawls was a people pleaser. But as we know, you can never please everybody, and those that try end up alienating themselves from everyone. While not a villain of political thought, John Rawls has come to be the prophet of what is called left-liberalism. Left-liberalism is one of the most popular ideologies of the modern era, despite its inherent contradictions and flaws. This article aims to pose a challenge to Rawls’ theory of justice, primarily from a right-wing perspective.
John Rawls, in his theory of justice, attempted to reconcile two fundamental ideas – that of freedom and equality. The theory has come under much scrutiny from a number of angles. This article will be presenting three arguments from the perceived political right. To clarify, the right-wing, in this article, is referring to the ideology that prioritises freedom, individualism and fiscal conservatism over the left-wing focus on equality. This article is aimed at those with at least some rudimentary knowledge of Rawls and his theory of justice.
Rawls’ theory of justice is fundamentally weak due to its nature as an unconstrained vision – an ideal that seeks to drastically change human nature. While Rawls’ allowance for limited inequality in the Difference Principle is thought to mitigate this unconstrained nature, it does not do enough to alleviate the inherent problems in demanding redistributionist policies.
The right-wing criticism of Rawls’ theory is found in its damaging of incentives, the fear of totalitarianism and its forcing people to become ‘common assets’. This article will find, ultimately, that each criticism makes a convincing case against Rawls’ theory of justice.
Before I move onto the main criticisms, I will be setting forth an assumption and extrapolation on Rawls’ supposition that all our circumstances are unearned and arbitrary. For the sake of this argument, I will be assuming that this is true, but will also be adding on a logical criticism of the theory, pointing out that this theory is a slippery slope that may lead to the complete deconstruction of what it means to be human. Without any of our circumstances being deserved, as the luck argument claims, we become nothing but pitiful custodians. This is a view damaging not only to our sense of fulfilment, but also to justice, as it leads to nobody deserving anything. With that in mind, we move on to the main objections.
Incentive is needed for a functioning and prosperous society. Rawls’ argument that the luck-based nature of our talents, labour and lives does not allow us to be deserving of reward, alienates us from incentive, and the Difference Principle’s redistribution damages incentive by taking away reward from those who worked for it. Humans need incentives. We are not merely content to strive for bare necessities or even material luxury; we want recognition for our work. Certain jobs require more skill (which requires training), more time and more stress. Jobs which contribute more to society should be rewarded more.
This allows people who work harder to, at least, feel that they are being recognised for their work. In Rawls’ Difference Principle, those who are ‘better off’, are required to aid those who are not. The reason for this is that we are, allegedly, undeserving of the means which we used to become a hard worker – as our talents and skills are arbitrarily distributed by mistake of birth or circumstance. Even if we assume that this is factually and morally true and that we are undeserving of our lot in life, there are still practical ramifications. People need an incentive to work and the possibility to earn their perceived value. As we can see from societies that eliminate or restrict incentive in the market, they tend to suffer economically and socially, as innovation and productivity diminish due to a lack of incentive.
Michael Sandel, although a critic of Rawls, argues that the Difference Principle mitigates the problem of incentive through allowing inequality to occur so that individuals will work hard, but this is not enough. It still demands that the perceived better-off work and give their labour to the perceived less-well-off. There are two problems with this, the first simply being that the well-off may be reluctant to work as hard, as they don’t want to give their wealth to those that are perceived as less-well-off. We can see this today under systems of progressive taxation. Many companies drop production in order to drop to a lower tax bracket. This may be due to the desire to mitigate higher financial losses, or a reluctance to subscribe to a system that promotes restraints on the harder-working. Regardless, a drop in production damages society through less product and wealth being generated and capable of being used to benefit any individual.
The second fundamental difficulty with Sandel’s defence is the Information Problem. There is no way to know who is factually deserving of their wealth, as there are too many factors to determine desert. In this sense, Distributive Justice, Hayek argues, relies on an arbitrarily applied sense of what people “morally deserve” – but “moral desert cannot be determined objectively” – all actions and their worth are subjective according to respective agents (Hayek, 1988, p. 118).
I play a card game that often sells cards for over R500 each. To me, this is reasonable as I gain worth from these cards and how they contribute to my hobby. To someone who is uninterested in this game, they would think that price of a small piece of cardboard ludicrous. There is no objective value here – as it would be arrogant to place a universal value on a product based on our own whims. Jobs, items and lots are valued according to their subjective worth.
Any state meant to enforce the Difference Principle, as it would have to be enforced, would be unable to determine who is truly deserving of reward. Instead of incentives leading to people working for reward, desert would be based on the arbitrary whims of an overlord. It needs to be remembered that morality or not, “success is based on results, not on motivation” (The Fatal Conceit). This leads to the second criticism.
The Road to Serfdom
The Difference Principle and Fair Equality of Opportunity are slippery slopes down Hayek’s titular Road to Serfdom – a totalitarian society. It has already been established in the previous section that the Information Problem leads to an inability to rightfully assign deserts and, in the same way, an inability to determine a scenario where individuals will have truly equal opportunities. Again, if we are to assume that all aspects of ourselves are arbitrary, a system of enforcing a Fair Equality of Opportunity would require heavy state interference and, even then, would be impossible, due to the aforementioned Information Problem.
Fair Equality of Opportunity implies that all people will have an equal opportunity to gain any position based on the right choices and not luck-based circumstance. It would require heavy state interference to bring everyone up, or down, to the same equal level. Structures such as the family and communities, and even the places you live, would have to be manipulated. Even if the state would somehow be able to conform every circumstance, people are still left with their physical genetics. The fact that some people may be short and others are tall immediately damages their opportunities to take on certain jobs.
To achieve Fair Equality of Opportunity, the state would have to genetically engineer humans along a uniform pattern, eliminating our individuality and creating a dangerous scenario where society lacks those individuals that we need for some professions, as different jobs need different physiques and body types – something that Fair Equality of Opportunity would need to conform. Due to this manipulation of circumstance, we would lose the freedom to pursue certain jobs and choices.
Some extreme proponents of equality may state that this is a worthy cost to achieve a just society, but Rawls is not one of these proponents. He is trying to reconcile freedom and equality, not achieve only one. In this way, Rawls may have to abandon Fair Equality of Opportunity in its extreme conception and rather approach what Edmund Burke had in mind when he said: “We cannot change the nature of things and of men, but we must act upon them as best we can”.
Rawls will need to accept that his luck-based approach to life is unworkable and its conclusions, dangerous. His Difference Principle seeks to mend this problem through the allowance of some inequality, but the other criticisms are sufficient to refute the merit of that.
Overall, Rawls’ theory of justice in practice would require heavy state interference that risks damaging our individuality and our freedom – two principles that Rawls claims to support. This shows the extreme nature of Rawls’ theory as an unconstrained vision.
Arbitrary Treatment and Common Assets
The Difference Principle and its inability to truly determine who are the well-off and who are not would arbitrarily treat people as Common Assets and public property. The Difference Principle aims to make the well-off work for the betterment of the less-well-off. But why? Just because the rich man does not deserve his lot doesn’t mean anyone else has a claim on it. One may claim that society helped one achieve that wealth, and in that case, there are two responses:
- In a market society, they are rich due to giving to society. Market agents gave him reward based on his providing a product or service that they chose to use. In this way, he has benefitted society already.
- The less-well-off still do not have a moral claim over that wealth, as they were not the ones to put him in that position or to create a society which benefitted him. In the Rawlsian conception, he only owes luck for his success.
The Difference Principle claims to be rectifying arbitrary lots, but treats people indiscriminately from the assumption that the rich do not have a moral claim over their wealth, but that the poor, apparently, have a claim over that wealth instead. The rich become Common Assets by virtue of their unchosen circumstances. In a way, the rich become politically unprivileged due to their allegedly unchosen material privilege. A society under the Difference Principle would treat people unequally, not from the implied allowance of material inequality, but in a sense of political and legal equality, as the rich are given less claim over their property than those who had nothing to do with it.
To summarise, just because a rich man may not be deserving of his wealth doesn’t mean the poor man is. If we are seeking to compensate those who led to those lots, we would need to give wealth to either a deity or unconscious system of infinite circumstances, both of which are improbable actions. What we can know is that even if a rich man did not earn the circumstances and genetics that led to his attaining wealth, he had much more to do with gaining it than the poor man, and thus has more claim over it. A redistributionist system like the Difference Principle arbitrarily assumes desert, rather than allowing the market to determine desert through the subjective actions of its agents.
While there may be practical reasons for redistributionist principles and even moral ones to justify a welfare state, Rawls’ theory of justice fails to achieve his reconciliation of equality and freedom. Instead, it falls to the problem of damaging incentives, leading to a totalitarian society and arbitrarily turning some members of society into Common Assets, to be used by the public for little reason despite their alleged unchosen lot.
Rawls fails because of: his unconstrained vision of justice, whereby he seeks to change human nature; the Information Problem, whereby he cannot determine human nature or how to change it; and his own conception of luck, where nobody has a reasonable claim over anything as nobody is responsible for their circumstances and lot in life.
Ultimately, Rawls’ theory is an inhumane theory that misunderstands what it means to be human and thus falls to its own idealism.
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- Sandel, M., 2009. Ch. 6, The Case for Equality. In: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. London: Penguin Books, pp. 140-166.
(This essay was originally written for a second year Philosophy assignment at the University of Cape Town and then was adapted for use by the Rational Standard.)