Pluralism and the Strains of Commitment

[Warning: This post assumes a lot of background, and may not be generally accessible.]

I’ve been re-reading bits of Justice as Fairness to try to nail down Rawls’ take on the relationship between the difference principle and the value of the basic liberties. But I got sidetracked.

The story on the development of the doctrine of “justice as fairness” is that Rawls saw that he initially grounded the argument for the stability of his ideal system on a particular comprehensive conception of the human good — one that is neither all that broadly shared, nor rationally mandatory. The argument in A Theory of Justice failed to take into account the inevitable pluralism in such conceptions in a free society. So Rawls famously changed the structure of his argument in Political Liberalism to better accomodate the unavoidable fact of pluralism in free societies.

It has been frequently pointed out that it’s pretty remarkable, and suspect, that this rather fundamental change in the argument entailed no really substantive change in Rawls’s conclusions. And that is remarkable, and suspect. Rawls just never does get his head around real pluralism, and his account of stability always seems to revert to the assumption that people brought up within a just social order will end up believing and valuing the same thing when it matters to the argument.

What I have in mind is his brief discussion of the strains of commitment in Justice as Fairness. The question is why won’t the rich always try to renegotiate the principles that govern our basic social institutions to their benefit? If they do clamor for more, the principles won’t last, and so won’t be stable, which they must be if they are to be adequate principles of justice. So why won’t the relatively rich try to get a better deal, if raised under the right institutions?

First, EVERYBODY shares an idea about the point of society and political institutions. Impossible. That idea — free and equal people engaged in mutually advantageous cooperation — entails a certain idea of reciprocity. Sure. And that principle of reciprocity is the difference principle, Rawls says. Remember, the idea is that all rich people raised under just institutions will think this. Unlikely. But it gets more implausible the more he drills down:

We also suppose that in addition to the reason which all have [that the difference principle is the principles of reciprocity implied by the abstract political conception everyone will allegedely share], the more advantaged have a second reason … The point here is that the more advantaged see themselves as already benefited by their fortunate place in the distribution of native endowments, say, and benefited further by the basic structure (affirmed by the least advantaged) that offers them the opportunity to better their situation, provided they do so in ways that improve the situation of others.

You know you’re in trouble if your argument (intended to be adjusted to the inevitably roiling pluralism of a free society) depends on all-but-universally-shared ideas about “the distribution of native endowments.” A bit earlier, Rawls notes that “this idea of reciprocity is implicit in the idea of regarding the distribution of native endowments as a common asset.” That’s also part of what, come the reign of justice, we’ll all understand.

I’m sorry. Even granting Rawls’ badly undermotivated framework stipulation that the strains of commitment cannot be expressed through emigration or capital flight, this is a total failure if the aim is to take reasonable diversity of thought seriously. These passages read like a reductio of the attempt to reconcile justice as fairness with the fact of reasonable pluralism. By Rawls’ own account, JAF seems to have no hope of passing the compliance/stability test without simply positing a level of agreement that makes a mockery of the whole idea of reasonable pluralism.

Remember, Rawls’ project is to outline a realistic utopia — a society that could really exist given actual human nature. So his stability arguments amount to predictions about, among other things, the beliefs and desires that would prevail among people brought up under institutions that satisfy his two principles of justice. The principle with the very highest priority here is an inviolable right to free thought and expression. And Rawls’ prediction is, what? That in that kind of society — in which freedom of thought, speech, conscience, etc. are paramount —  rich people won’t try to get a bigger piece because they will  all agree, more or less, that the “distibution of native endowments” is a common asset, that they’ve got it plenty good, and there could be no justification for wanting more.

We’ll never be in a position to see this prediction play out, but knowing what we know about the way actual human minds work, I would bet the farm against it. Even when he weakens his Kantianism, Rawls leans hard on it, and is undone by it. For all the talk about pluralism, he’s really depending on some assumptions about the universal structure of the “two moral powers” — rationality and the moral sense — that make his yearning for a kind of stability that is more than a fragile, contingent modus vivendi seem plausible. But it just isn’t plausible.

David Gordon on Rawls

In the latest issue of the American Conservative, David Gordon has written a smart and lucid essay on John Rawls and his use by libertarians, like me. I agree entirely with Gordon’s concluding suggestion that Rawls will be the Herbert Spencer of the 20th Century, though I wonder how we’re supposed to take this? That Rawls will simply fall out of fashion? No doubt. That Rawls will be dishonestly maligned and fall into underserved disrepute? Perhaps. Anyway, I have a few quibbles with Gordon’s piece.

For the most part, I think Gordon gives a fair account of Rawls’ view, but it seemed to me that at one point his account was inconsistent with itself. (The emphasis below is mine.)

Indeed, Rawls’s greatest critic was a libertarian, his Harvard philosophy department colleague Robert Nozick, who raises a key objection to Rawls in his classic 1974 work Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick notes that Rawls does not include property rights among the liberties protected by his first principle. To the contrary, Rawls starts off by assuming that the people in the original position have the task of distributing all the property in society. If one denies this, and, like Nozick, thinks that people start off with property rights, then there will be little or no scope for the difference principle to operate.

Then, later, while discussing what Hayek liked about Rawls — the generality of his proceduralism — Gordon notes:

In Rawls’s system, people in the original position do not assign shares of wealth to particular people: they set up general institutions for society. This fitted in with Hayek’s emphasis on the rule of law. When Hayek opposed “social justice,” what he had in mind was a system that gives orders to particular persons, ungoverned by general law.

The latter claim is correct. Principles of justice apply to the “basic structure” of society — the general institutional “rules of the game” — and do not identify patterns of property holdings. Hayek notes, correctly, that Rawls makes precisely his own point: that questions of justice apply to the rules that govern social cooperation, not to the patterns of holdings that interactions in accordance with those rules produce. If the rules are okay, then so is the pattern. But how do we know the rules are okay? Rawls says, correctly, that the basic rules of the game, including property law, have broad distributive consequences, and must be shown generally to benefit the least well-off class. Why? Because everyone needs to have reason to comply with the rules of interaction if those rules are going to define a social order that is stable in right way. The question whether the rules are okay is not independent of the kind of pattern it will tend to produce. My sense is that Hayek agrees with this.

It’s a common misinterpretation of Rawls (helped along by Nozick, I’m afraid) that the task of selecting principles of justice in Rawls’ system is “distributing all the property in society.” The task, part of it, is indeed to evaluate the basic rules in terms of their distributive consequences. If we “start off” with property rights for men, or property rights for white people,  we will find that the subsequent patterns of holdings will have something to do with how we’ve agreed to assign and enforce those rights. The fact that, under an order governed by such rules, women or blacks will tend either to be dependent or impoverished is grounds enough for those people to reject those rules, and grounds enough for any of us to reject those rules. If whole classes of people have reason to reject a basic rule of social interaction, that rule can’t be a principle of justice.  Counterfactual choice in the “original position” is an unwieldy and unnecessarily extravagant way of generating the incontestably desirable impartiality of the rule of law. But Rawls is not wrong to see that the basic institutional rules have distributive consequences, and that these consequences may provide reasons to reject some candidate principles of social cooperation.

I should say that by no means do I take my Rawls neat. Like Rawls, I am a kind of contractarian who thinks the justification of basic institutions involves their being generally to the benefit of everyone, especially the least well-off.  Like I said, I don’t think the original position/veil of ignorance business is all that illuminating in the end, if used as anything more than an intuition pump. Scanlon ends up distilling it down to what rules are and are not “reasonably rejectible” for a good reason. I think a strict interpretation of maximin (e.g., not okay for everyone else to to gain a million if the working class loses a dollar.) is crazy, and that talk of “justifying inequalities” in Rawls’ Second Principle is based on a mistake. I deplore Rawls’ completely unjustified analytic nationalism. And Rawls’ discussion of luck and desert has always struck me as flat-out confused, and I think has had a terrible influence in political philosophy. Rawls is a neo-Kantian, I am a neo-sentimentalist. I also disagree with Rawls at a profound level about the relationship between democracy and liberty. Let me say a bit more about that.

Rawls is genuinely a liberal thinker. Liberty has categorical priority in his system. Political equality via democracy, he thinks, is the best means for achieving and maintaining liberty. Rawls worries a lot that self-reproducing and/or widening economic inequalities threaten the conditions for democracy and therefore the conditions for liberty. I think Rawls is not really very careful here and is pretty poor on the political economy of democracy. I am a James Buchananite here, and I think a great deal more of the necessity of constitutional constraints on the scope of democratic government than does Rawls. But it is worth nothing that Buchanan, too, more or less buys in to Rawls’ general analytical framework. Richard Epstein is thinking much the same thing is his obituary of Rawls when he argues that adding “institutional realism” to Rawls “ironically” renders libertarian conclusions.

I’ve drifted away from Gordon’s essay, haven’t I? Gordon’s real beef with Rawls seems to be his later ideas about “public reason,” ideas that I like a lot. I’ll tackle that in another post. For now let me point you here.

Difference Makes No Difference in the Difference Principle

To reinforce the point that even Rawls’ difference principle isn’t really concerned with inequality at all, look at this excerpt from Leif Wenar’s SEP entry.

The second part of the second principle is the difference principle. The difference principle requires that social institutions be arranged so that inequalities of wealth and income work to the advantage of those who will be worst off. Starting from an imagined baseline of equality, a greater total product can be generated by allowing inequalities in wages and salaries: higher wages can cover the costs of training and education, for example, and can provide incentives to fill jobs that are more in demand. The difference principle requires that inequalities which increase the total product be to everyone’s advantage, and specifically to the greatest advantage of those advantaged least.

Consider four hypothetical economic structures A-D, and the lifetime-average levels of income these would produce for representative members of three different groups:

Economy Least-Advantaged Group Middle Group Most-Advantaged Group
A 10,000 10,000 10,000
B 12,000 15,000 20,000
C 20,000 30,000 50,000
D 17,000 50,000 100,000

Here the difference principle selects Economy C, because it contains the distribution where the least-advantaged group does best. Inequalities in C are to everyone’s advantage relative to an equal division (Economy A), and a more equal division (Economy B). But the difference principle does not allow the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor (Economy D). The difference principle embodies equality-based reciprocity: from an egalitarian baseline it requires inequalities that are good for all, and particularly for the worst-off.

Pay special attention to Wenar’s illustration with the chart. To correctly apply the rule you never have to look at the last two columns. That’s because they are irrelevant to the actual underlying principle obscured by the equality-centric language of the difference principle. (The last two columns are very relevant when we start thinking about the strains of commitment and stability in a dynamic context, but that’s a different issue.) The idea of inequality here is an idle conceptual gear that catches on nothing and does no intellectual work. Rawls’ real rule, cleared of distracting superfluities, seems to be: find the system that leaves the least-advantaged best off and pick it.

Rawlsians: what say you?

A Hypothetical Contract with People You Cannot Escape

If you’re looking for reasons to not be a Rawlsian, please read my colleague Tom Palmer’s terrific new paper “No Exit: Framing the Problem of Justice” [pdf] for a profoundly illuminating discussion of why Rawls’s theory justice makes sense only within his illiberal and fantastically unrealistic zero-mobility assumption.

There are a lot of good libertarian criticisms of Rawls, but I think Tom’s may be the most damning I have ever read, probably because there is nothing really especially libertarian about it, unless challenging deeply question-begging assumptions about the nation-state as the inevitable and inescapable framework of justice is essentially libertarian. If I were to make the argument in one sentence it would be this: Rawls provides accounts of liberalism and justice that are essentially nationalist/anti-cosmopolitan, but since nationalism and anti-cosmopolitanism are pretty obviously illiberal and unjust he fails at a very fundamental level.

Here’s a taste:

The sleight-of-hand involved [in establishing “justice as fairness”] is remarkably similar to that typically involved in specification of the choice situation governing the provision of public goods. Once a decision has been made to produce a good on a non-exclusive basis, it is then asserted that the good cannot be produced through voluntary, uncoerced cooperation. Or the demonstration begins by assuming the existence of a good from which consumers cannot be excluded (or can only be excluded at some cost), when the problem is to produce such goods in the first place. Assuming that the good exists is hardly a solution to the problem of how to produce it. Similarly, by excluding exit or choice among options as an option, the problem of distribution of rights and obligations is converted into a pure bargaining game, which sets the stage for Rawls’s voluminous writings and the many jots and tittles added by his followers. By eliminating such options, Rawls does not solve a problem of justice or fair division; he creates it.

Tom’s paper is limited to speaking to rights of emigration or exit from a polity, but it points to a rather more general lesson. That it is impossible to discuss questions about the (in)justice of limiting the right to travel across state borders, or to discuss questions of the justice of the distribution of national citizenships within a pure Rawlsian framework goes to show how useless is that framework for thinking about questions of equality and distribution in an increasingly globally interdependent world. It also goes to show just how captive is Rawlsian political theory to what I think are a set mistaken, distinctively 19th and 20th-century background assumptions about the nation-state as more or less co-extensive with society.

Added: Tom’s essay may be found in Ordered Anarchy: Jasay and His Surroundings, ed. by Hartmut Kliemt and Hardy Bouillon (London: Ashgate, 2008)

Pre-Tax Inequality and Distributive Versus Allocative Justice

Thanks to Tyler for linking the pre-tax inequality post below. Not unusually, Tyler’s comments are cryptic but suggestive:

This is all well worth knowing, and it does help counter the view that growing inequality of income is a poliical [sic] conspiracy. But oddly both the critics and the defenders here are missing one major inequality-related difference between Germany and the United States, namely social norms. We have weaker families, weaker social pressures to conform, deeper bayous, and as a result more flat out lunatics, losers, and violent psychopaths. (Did I mention we also have more innovation?) That’s inequality too, though the usual political recipes aren’t likely to provide the cure.

My gut tells me that I agree with Tyler about his conjecture that America has higher variance in sanity, though I’m not sure what to make of this. However, Ryan Avent thinks Tyler’s speaking nonsense:

I can only imagine that he added all that bizarre stuff about bayous to cover the fact that his first sentence makes absolutely no sense at all. If pre-tax inequality isn’t all that unusual in America, relative to similar nations, but income inequality after taxes and transfers is unusual, doesn’t that suggest that the tax and transfer process might be contributing to inequality in a fairly significant way? And mightn’t that be because American tax policies favor the rich to a degree unmatched in other developed nations? How does this, in any way, debunk the notion that political efforts to protect the rich are in fact protecting the rich?

If it helps, here’s what I had in mind while writing the original post: John Rawls’s distinction between distributive and allocative justice.

Nozick had accused Rawls of offering the idea that social justice is a pattern of holdings. However, if people are able to make whatever voluntary exchanges they like, they will constantly disrupt the pattern. And so, if Rawls is right that justice is a pattern, the state will have to constantly interfere with individual’s rights and liberties in order to reinstate the pattern that is constantly ruined by free exchange. There seems to be a conflict between liberty and justice-as-pattern. So said Nozick.

Now, Rawls said that this confused allocative justice for distributive justice — which is what Rawls’s theory is supposed to be a theory of. A theory of distributive justice is a theory about the way the “basic structure” of a society’s institutions distribute opportunities and goods. Once you’ve got the basic structure right, such that the least-well off are generally doing as well as they can given the feasible institutional alternatives, then whatever pattern that emerges from that is fine, more or less. It will not in fact require the constant, meddlesome re-allocation of goods from some people to others.

Rawls likes a system that he called “property-owning democracy” (which I still for the life of me don’t really understand) which he contrasts with what he called a “market welfare state” (or something like that — this is off the cuff). If I remember right, Rawls thought that market welfare states didn’t really fairly distribute opportunities and goods at the level of the basic structure, and substituted tax-and-transfer policies of material reallocation as a kind of pale approximation of the kind of true-blue social justice that comes from getting the basic structure right.

OK! So the reason that graph was interesting to me is that I had a strong sense from reading Rawls and his students that the European social democracies are thought to be much closer to a proper “property-owning democracy” than the U.S. market welfare state, and so I found it telling that the U.S. and Sweden, say, are only negligibly different in terms of pre-tax inequality. For whatever reason, their basic structures are generating similar levels of inequality. And so the difference in final inequality may not so much reflect a difference in distributive justice, in the Rawlsian sense, but a difference in policies of re-allocation, which Rawls did not consider central to justice.

However, reading Tyler’s addendum containing the thoughts of his “very eminent source,” I see the similarities in pre-tax inequality do have quite different underlying causes: in the U.S. people get really extraordinarily rich; in a lot of Europe, a good chunk of the working-age population don’t have jobs at all, and so basically have nothing before transfers. So, in terms of basic structure, it may well be: advantage America! In Rawlsian terms, a basic structure that creates a high ongoing unemployment rate is going to be denying many of the least well-off with “the social bases for self-respect,” one of the most important Rawlsian primary goods.

Now, I understand not everyone (anyone?) shares my special interest in applied Rawlsianism. So, to actually address Ryan’s point, here’s why the pre-tax numbers may seem to cut against a “conspiracy” argument. My original thought was that if greater U.S. inequality was a function of uniquely weak unions, uniquely shifting compensation norms (allowing CEOs salaries to rise, e.g.), uniquely wild superstar markets, uniquely high levels of opportunity hoarding by the already privileged, etc., then U.S. pre-tax inequality ought to stand out more than it does. But since it doesn’t, the relatively high U.S. level of post-tax and transfer inequality is more likely a reflection of the simple fact that high-ish levels of inequality bother Americans much less than it bothers Europeans.

I think the main reason for this, culturally, is that modern Europe emerged from a system of predatory aristocratic privilege and rigid class stratification, whereas the U.S. started out as a relatively egalitarian society. So, to caricature the difference, Europeans see inequality as a sign of intolerable exclusive advantages while Americans see inequality reflecting the fact that some people, who are to be admired an emulated, have made good on the abundant opportunities America affords. If the difference in post-tax-and-transfer inequality simply reflects different cultural attitudes about inequality, then remaining complaints about the relatively high U.S. level of inequality are really just complaint about what Americans believe.

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…

Rawls on Interdependent Preferences

While reading Randall Holcombe and Russ Sobel’s excellent paper “Consumption Externalities and Economic Welfare” (thanks to Michael Dennis, and about which more later), I ran across a cite to Rawls on interdependent preferences. It turns out that I’ve read this very important passage a bunch of times, but not since becoming obsessed with positional races, interdependent preferences, and suchlike. Here is what Rawls said:

[According to utilitarianism], [w]e arrange institutions so as to obtain the greatest sum of satisfactions; we ask no questions about their source or quality but only how their satisfaction would affect the total of well-being. Social welfare depends directly and solely upon the levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of individuals. Thus if men take a certain pleasure in discriminating against one another, in subjecting others to a lesser liberty as a means of enhancing their self-respect, then the satisfaction of these desires must be weighed in deliberations according to their intensity, or whatever, alnong with other desires. If society decides to deny them fulfillment, or to supress them, it is because they tend to be socially destructive and a greater welfare can be achieved in other ways.

In justice as fairness, on the other hand, persons accept in advance a principle of equal liberty and they do this without a knowledge of their more particular ends. They implicitly agree, therefore, to conform their conceptions of the good to what the principles of justice require, or at least not to press claims that directly violate them. An individual who finds that he enjoys seeing others in positions of lesser liberty understands that he has no claim whatever to this enjoyment. The pleasure he takes in others’ deprivations is wrong in itself: it is a satisfaction which requires the violation of a principles to which he would agree in the original position. The principles of right, and so of justice, put limits on which satisfactions have value; they impose restrictions on what are reasonable conceptions of one’s good. In drawing up plans and in deciding on aspirations men are to take these constraints into account. Hence in justice as fairness one does not take men’s propensities and inclinations as given, whatever they are, and then seek the best way to fulfill them . . . The priority of justice is accounted for, in part, by holding that the interests reqiring the violation of justice have no value. Having no merit in the first place, they cannot override its claims. [ToJ, 2nd ed., p. 28.]

Although I didn’t have this passage explicitly in mind, if you subscribe to Reason, you can see how deep in my system Rawls’s sensibility is in my review of Layard’s Happiness. There I said:

Layard’s account of economic success as “pollution” is a striking illustration of what philosopher John Rawls had in mind when he argued that utilitarianism fails to take seriously the separateness of persons. If it is legitimate to use the coercive arm of the state to discourage work simply because it makes other people feel bad, then our liberty to pursue our own ends, for our own reasons, is hostage to the way the brains of strangers happen to light up. The aims and beliefs that make us distinct persons are reduced to nothing, except as they count in the summing.

And my implied point is: if the happiness center of your envious brain happens to light up when I do less well, or the unhappiness center of your bigoted brain lights up when a minority family moves in next door, then, when deliberating about policy, we ought graciously to ignore your brain and its preferences in these matters.

There simply is no way to do policy analysis without making some normative ruling about permissible and impermissible preferences at the outset. The virtue of Rawls is that he tries to draw the distinction in a principled way, and at a high level of generality, without leaning too heavily on any one comprehensive conception of the good.

Just Savings and Dynamic Contractualism

I don’t understand the principal of just savings.

Rawls says that parties to the OP will pick a principle of savings that satisfies maximin, that maximizes the welfare of the least-well off group. But I cannot make intelligible to myself just who the least well-off group is here in the inter-generational context. It may turn out the best off person in generation 1 is much less well off than the least well off in generation 7.

So, OK, suppose I’m a party to the OP. I don’t know which generation I’m in. So, I’ve got to assume I’m in generation 1, on the assumption that later generations are better off because of the accumulation of capital. And I am suppose to ask how much I am willing to save, on the assumption that generation 0 has saved at the same rate, and that future generations will follow the same principle. I am assumed to have my children and grandchildren in my (primary goods maximizing) welfare function in order to ensure I don’t choose to save nothing. But it seems that there’s no firm place to stand.
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