The Rawls Letter

Via Chris Bertram, I find this striking passage in a letter from John Rawls to Phillipe van Parijs:

It seems to me that much would be lost if the European union became a federal union like the United States. Here there is a common language of political discourse and a ready willingness to move from one state to another. Isn’t there a conflict between a large free and open market comprising all of Europe and the individual nation-states, each with its separate political and social institutions, historical memories, and forms and traditions of social policy. Surely these are great value to the citizens of these countries and give meaning to their life. The large open market including all of Europe is aim of the large banks and the capitalist business class whose main goal is simply larger profit. The idea of economic growth, onwards and upwards, with no specific end in sight, fits this class perfectly. If they speak about distribution, it is [al]most always in terms of trickle down. The long–term result of this — which we already have in the United States — is a civil society awash in a meaningless consumerism of some kind. I can’t believe that that is what you want.

I was aware that this was Rawls’s view, but it’s really something to see him say it. I agree with Rawls here about the meaningfulness of the separate cultural forms contained within the various European nation states. But it strikes me as woefully blinkered to see an open European market as primarly in the interests of, yes, bankers!

Although Rawls’s philosophy is at bottom based in the possiblity of cooperation, I don’t think he ever became reconciled to the idea that the political structure of the nation state never was, and never will be, the ultimate framework for cooperation. Free and equal people with diverse ends have reason to cooperate because cooperation advances each party’s ends. But the people with whom there are possible (morally good) gains from cooperation will never inhabit a single nation state with a single structure of institution. The ultimate institutions of cooperation are broader than states, and policies that decrease the barriers to cooperation set in place by states, such as policies creating a common market over a region of several states, strikes me as a straightforward moral advance. There simply is no liberal justification for prohbiting two people standing on opposite sides of a line from cooperating. Say that liberalism is impossible. Or say, trying not to sound too surreal, that only nationalist social democracy can achieve the goals of liberalism. But don’t say that liberalism says that two free and equal people standing on opposite sides of a line are not free to make each other’s lives better.

The source of so much of Rawls’s trouble is that he insists on putting his second principle of justice first, even though he knows that it is second for a reason. When you fetishize the second principle, it become hard to see how justice is possible without a single basic structure that contains all the parties to cooperation, and which ensures that the surplus of cooperation is distributed according the criterion of the second principle. But once you acknowledge that cooperation across state borders is just a fact of the world, generated by our moral nature, akin to the fact of pluralism, you have to accept that a minimally adequate theory of justice requires us to understand the interaction of state institutions, and the ways in which they facilitate and hamper cooperation across their borders are subjects of justice. Well-ordered cooperative endeavors for mutual advantage do not stop at political lines.

And this is annoying to the second principle-firsters, for there is no common jurisdiction, or common set of political institutions, in cases of international cooperative that can determine the distribution of the surplus in a principled way. But the fact of international cooperation is a fact—a morally good fact—and if your ostensibly liberal theory of justice has a hard time accomodating it—if your theory really requires a closed society assumption in order to work—then it is not really a liberal theory at all. Is it?
Rawls’s last point about “meaningless consumerism” is fascinating, in a puzzling way. What is the point? Americans are interested in distribution only in a trickle down way, and so Americans have, what? too much stuff?

Of course, I’ve never understood the beef against “trickle down” other than that it is sort of a bad metaphor. The idea is that people who most boost productivity, or reduce the costs of cooperation, can rarely internalize even a small fraction of the benefits they have generated, and so they make everyone else wealthier as a side-effect, whether or not they intended to (or intended not to). A basic structure that contains the incentives for people to undertake activities that produce huge positive external effects is, well, likely to be pretty much mandatory from the perspective of the second principle. You’d think.

My guess about what is going on here is that Rawls ‘s idea of basic structure includes, in addition to some distribution by coercive state reallocation, things like regulations on marketing and advertising and heavy restrictions on political speech pertaining to campaigns, etc., and he thinks that these things, in addition to positively affecting the ultimate distribution of primary goods, would have a salutary effect on the preferences of citizens and the character civil society. I think much of this is just contemporary academic liberal faith, what passes for wisdom in places like Cambridge. However, it is exceedingly difficult to see how this kind of thing even passes the sniff-test of neutrality with regard to the variety of reasonable comprehensive conceptions. And there we have the ever-fertile Paradox of Rawls. He gives us a powerful set of intellectual instruments with which to test the worthiness of our institutions, and then offers up institutions that fail his own tests.

On the shoulders of giants…

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center