Justice: Bigger than the State, Smaller than the World

David Gordon has an interesting discussion of Nagel's new Philosophy & Public Affairs article on “The Problem of Global Justice.” Apparently, Nagel defends Rawl's refusal to extend the two principles beyond the bounds of the nation state. I had always thought that those, such as Pogge, who attempt to extend Rawls to the global limit simply failed to truly understand Rawls's contractarian logic of reciprocity and mutual benefit. The possibility of political obligation is a function of shared partcipation in the cooperative enterprse for mutual advantage. Those outside our system of cooperation who are doing poorly cannot have a claim on those inside our system who are doing well simply because they are outside of our system. Neverthteless, Rawls's stipulation of a closed economic system and closed borders is not even a useful abstraction for the purposes of ideal theory. It's a disastrous distortion of socio-political reality. There is not intelligble sense in which “our” system of cooperation is coextensive with the borders of our nation-state.
Here is what Gordon says Nagel says:

In like fashion, Nagel holds, citizens of a nation are bound together. They share the obligation to obey their country’s laws; and, if they live in a democracy, they share responsibility for enacting these laws. In Rousseau’s term, they form the “general will.” Undue inequality interferes with these common bonds; hence we have egalitarian obligations to our fellow citizens. These we do not owe to citizens of other countries, since we are not bound to them in the same way. Justice, in this view, is not a “cosmopolitan” virtue, owed to anyone in the world; it is a “political” virtue that applies only to those subject to a common sovereignty. “The important point for our purposes is that Rawls believes that this moral principle against arbitrary inequalities is not a principle of universal application. . . . Rather, in his theory the objection to arbitrary inequalities gets a foothold only because of the societal context. What is objectionable is that we should be fellow participants in a collective enterprise of coercively imposed legal and political institutions that generate such arbitrary inequalities. . . . One might even say that we are all participants in the general will. A sovereign state is not just a cooperative enterprise for mutual advantage” (pp. 127–28).

Now, I hope Nagel is not using “general will” language in any strict Rousseauian sense, because I'm pretty sure that Rawls does not accept this, and doesn't get at the point of Rawls's argument for democracy. The point, somewhat deflated, is easy enough to understand, though. Obviously, two American citizens are tied together through their common relationship to a particular set of democratic processes and system of coercive public adminstration in a way that an American and a Canadian are not. Americans participate in the same elections, send their taxes to the same address, and drive on roads funded out of the same bank account, etc. Insofar as my tax rate, and the roads I'm driving on are a function of my participation in the same (system of) elections as other citzens, then I and another American might be said to bound together a special way. But Nagel seems to understate or miss a large problem when he says that “A sovereign state is not just a cooperative enterprise for mutual advantage.”
No doubt I'll have to read Nagel's paper, but it's not clear to me what being part of a “general will” adds that both legitimates the state, and reinforces state boundaries as the proper bounds of justice. (Why have lots of little general wills, and not just one big one?) In any case, one of Rawls's problems is that even if the boundaries of the state and the conditions for citizenship enclose and define one particular kind of cooperation for mutual advantage, the totality of morally relevant cooperative relationships are by no means contained by borders and shared citizenship.
John Tomasi likes to tell a story about a Martian anthropologist in a spaceship above Earth who is looking at a political map of our orb. (I'm embellishing on John's story, so don't blame him for stupid stuff I say.) Let's call it Glork to avoid the alien pronoun problem. Now, Glork is totally baffled about why Earthlings are so obsessed by these imaginary lines, because when Glork (with Glork's tentacle) presses the button on Glork's viewscreen to show the patterns of mutually advantageous cooperation among Earthlings, the relevance on political boundaries almost disappears. The geographical regions with the wealthiest and most physically robust beings areas are those where the patterns of cooperation are least constrained by political boundaries. Those places where cooperation is most limited to the inside of a region enclosed by political lines (as Rawls's closed system assumption requires) are the places where no compassionate Martian would wish an Earthling to live.
Now, suppose Glork presses a button to light up regions in different colors depending on their system of governance. Glork finds that the inhabitants of “liberal democracies” are more likely than inhabitants of regions governed by different systems to be engaged in systematic relations of cooperation with people outside their political unit.
Now, Glork aside, isn't this a big problem for Rawls/Nagel. The political system that they are eager to defend and justify is precisely the system where relations of cooperation are LEAST contained by borders and principles of co-citizenship. The American “general will” accounts for surpassingly little of American relationships of cooperative mutual advantage. Indeed, states are an enormous impediment to more extensive cross-border cooperation. On thing to be said in favor of liberal democratic states is that they are less of an impediment to cooperation than other political systems. Perhaps state-like jurisdictions are necessary for the stability of ongoing cooperation between people living in far-flung regions. Let's just allow that that's true. But if justice is the “first virtue” of a society, and a society is a fair scheme of cooperation for mutual advantantage, then I am in society with the people in Japan who made my computer. We traded on fair terms, and we're both better off. It seems just boneheaded to argue that the principles of justice apply can't apply extranationally simply because the Japanese don't vote in our elections and fund our highway system, etc.
But this line of thinking just doensn't get you to Pogge-like global justice, either. The principles of justice applies to people who are part of a shared system of cooperation. If I'm not part a shared system of cooperation with the Japanese and the Canadians, well I'll be damned. But the problem with folks, like wretchedly poor Africans, who globalist crytpo-Rawlsians want to send first-world money to on difference principle grounds, is precisely that they aren't sufficiently a part of a shared system of cooperation with themselves or the outside world. THAT IS WHY THEY ARE SO POOR. But that is also why contractualist logic implies that they don't have claims on the rest of us.
So, the contractualist logic of cooperation, reciprocity, shared benefits and burdens, identifies networks of trade as the main locus of a proper theory of justice, not the nation state or the whole wide world. Such a theory will need to be cosmopolitan, polycentric, and post-statist to track the moral reality of a globally interconnected world.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center