The legacy of John Rawls

The Ludwig Von Mises Institute Senior Fellow, David Gordon, recently wrote an article on the legacy of the political philosopher John Rawls. In this piece, he discloses some interesting information about the relationship between John Rawls and Robert Nozick:

“In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he had praised A Theory of Justice as a great work of philosophy, but he told me that he had polished off Political Liberalism in one lecture. Nozick, by the way, resented the frequent complaint that he did not respond to his critics. He wondered why people did not criticize Rawls for failing to respond, except very indirectly, to his arguments.”

Will John Rawls turn out to be the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century? If this turns out to be the case, it is doubtful that this reputation will reflect the general methodology of his work. Although John Rawls formulated his ideas in such a form that scholars with a background in economics and game theory can pursue some of the technical issues that Rawls raises as a fruitful research program, Rawls was not able to make his argument by staying within the orthodox rational choice framework.  Although usually not considered a political philosopher, the author that has done the most disciplined and rigorous work to reconcile reason and morality (and thus political philosophy) in contemporary thinking is David Gauthier. But the technical nature and the moderately libertarian implications of Gauthier’s work puts his work at a striking academic disadvantage compared to John Rawls.

If the question who should be considered the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century  allows for assessing the quality of the work, there will be a strong subjective component to it. Skeptical philosophers are usually not rewarded well in the history of ideas but one philosopher with at least an equal claim to being the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century (and perhaps the 21st century as well) is Anthony de Jasay for his focused and high-quality work on which economic and philosophic arguments (including those of Rawls) for political authority do not work. De Jasay and Rawls share a strong dislike of ultilitarianism in political philosophy, but in de Jasay’s work, the target of his skepticism includes most, if not all, justificationism in political philosophy.

Although John Rawls is often perceived as a liberal in the modern, “egalitarian”, sense of the word, it is not unreasonable to propose that libertarian principles would be chosen behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance. The line of reasoning here would be that strict property rights and freedom of contract are the best way to promote the interests of the least well off. How can we know? Because there is an empirical component to this question we would have to run history multiple times under different principles of justice to be able to make an evidence based decision. In absence of this, a decision would have to be made by public policy makers. As de Jasay has made clear in his work, such consequentialism ultimately collapses into a question of political power.

Another practical public policy issue in Rawls’s work is whether the difference principle should be applied on a national or international scale.  An international application of the redistributionist  interpretation of Rawls’s work would mandate massive wealth redistribution from wealthy Western countries to third world countries, a policy that some liberal philosophers may support, but that is unlikely to find much favor among most voters for liberal (and socialist) political parties. This issue highlights something that many politicians are hard pressed to admit; advocacy of redistribution of incomes may not necessarily reflect a sense of justice among voters, but (perceived) self interest. It also puts to rest the persistent myth in political discourse that “the Left” is concerned about justice and “the Right” is concerned about itself.

What distinguishes Rawls’s work from many other  advocates of income redistribution is that it does not provide much support for income egalitarianism as a value in itself. Redistribution of incomes (if warranted) follows from the dictates of impartiality, not from romantic, communitarian, or class based considerations. Another strength of his work is its implied methodological individualism. One may argue whether methodological individualism and rational choice would produce the same conclusions as Rawls, but his approach seems to be more immune against drifting in obscurantist directions than a lot of other political philosophy.

Although John Rawls and Robert Nozick may seem miles apart regarding the substance of normative political philosophy, the Rawls enterprise seems to be most vulnerable to a skeptical tradition in conservative thought that rejects the idea that public policy should be dictated by reason, and the kind of  normative philosophy that Rawls engages in, in particular.

In reality, “the inherent vagueness of the difference principle” needs to be resolved by intellectuals such as Rawls himself. For most of the 20th century intellectuals have argued against minimal government and for a politicized society. Whether because of self interest or temperament, it is doubtful that libertarian variants of Rawls’s philosophy will gain much popularity among academics. Notwithstanding its popularity, it is encouraging to see that some thinkers in the Rawlsian tradition are arguing that his philosophy may be less compatible with coercive redistribution as has been thought. One interesting line of thought would be to  question whether Rawls’s principles of justice require the existence of a state. From society as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage” to the establishment of a state is not a trivial step.