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Why is John Rawls coopted by progressives?

First, if we really didn’t know who we would be, we would want to protect our “basic liberties”, including personal freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion and sexuality, but also the political freedoms we need to play a genuinely equal part in collective decision-making.

Second, in addition to ensuring “fair equality of opportunity”, we would want to organise our economy so that the least well off are better off than under any alternative system (Rawls called this the “difference principle”). From this perspective, higher pay for some can be justified as an incentive to work, study or innovate, but only if this ultimately ends up benefiting those who have less – not just by a little, but as much as possible.

That’s therefore classical liberalism – Hayek and Friedman all over again. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just what the fuck is new with it?

19 thoughts on “Why is John Rawls coopted by progressives?”

  1. Isn’t the assertion that decision-making should be collectively made a personal belief? So it shouldn’t be imposed, whether it is done or not is a personal choice for each individual, and the belief that it shouldn’t be done must also be a protected belief.

    Similarly, the assertion that the economy should be organised to do X, Y, Z, whatever, is also a personal belief, and should also not be imposed, but be allowed to be chosen by individuals according to their individual beleif – again, also a protected belief.

  2. I think it was Rawls’s “Veil of Ignorance” that was a new idea (at least in the way it was expressed). If you were offered the possibility of reincarnation at a time in human history of your choosing, but with no control over the location or sex of the body in which you returned; assuming you wanted to optimise the likelihood of a long, happy, prosperous life, you’d be barking to choose any time other than right now.

  3. Chris, had a similar chat with my brother ten or so years ago. I asked him if you had no choice about who or what you were, where would you rather be born: a. Saudi, b. India, c. Brazil, d. Russia, e. Anywhere in the west, f. Africa.
    He said China, but as a BC Canuck he would say that. In his defence though, this was before the rohinga stuff came out. At that time the Chinks were only oppressing Tibet. And bullying the rest of South East Asia.

    I suspect most people would say e.

  4. Should have said ‘at that time, the Chinks were only buying up most of Chinada, including most of the politicians, oppressing Tibet’ etc……

  5. “you’d be barking to choose any time other than right now.” Maybe. Or maybe Southern California in 1962.

    Hm. No, for then you’d see much that you’d loved destroyed in your lifetime.

    Which illustrates a problem wth the “right now” argument. We don’t know whether we’ll all be nuked in the next year.

    Probably not: Lesgo Brandon will keep us all safe.

  6. I’ve not read Rawls, so I don’t know whether the representation of his positions/thoughts is correct.

    But there are …failures of logic… in the article.
    Simple examples: the world is chaotic and therefore making accurate predictions is very very hard. So “paying some folk more would be acceptable if it improved the outcome for the poorest” (paraphrase) is not a useful thing. Suppose doing so only improved life for 99.7% of the population; then the doing whatever would by the article’s logic be forbidden.
    Or the idea that there’s a global climate crisis, and further that there should be a centralized body to manage mitigations. Utter bullshit.

    If Rawls was speaking of classic liberalism, then the author has not yet understood much.

    But then, he’s a writer for the Guardian…

  7. dearieme

    True, we don’t know whether we’ll be nuked, nor if we’re about to be eaten by government response to yet another harmless plague, nor any number of other evils.

    But if you were, say, a French peasant in the Middle Ages, you’d never know either you were about to be burned alive as a heretic, or chopped up by marauding hordes, or dying of a real plague, or dying of a simple untreated wound obtained while farming, or…. True, not the same epic sense of drama as getting nuked, but dead is dead.

  8. Higher pay for some (hereinafter referred to as “the richer”) can be justified as a means to improving the lot of the whole population as long as some of that benefit accrues to other than “the richer”.
    That is a statement of fact [e.g. I can produce a justification]
    Under a free-market capitalist system, higher pay for some is a consequence of the imbalance of supply and demand for different jobs in the absence of pay differentials – emptying dusbins in a snowstorm is less attractive than sitting in a warm office pushing paper. Under a “socialist” system, higher pay for some usually reflects the power of the nomenklatura to award themselves a higher standard of living than those tat they command. In the first case it does improve the lot of the whole population as it leads to an adequate supply of labour for those jobs deemed most valuable by the people who pay for them.

  9. Someone on benefits and in period poverty today is considerably richer than a seventeenth century peasant. So if this description fits, why would she/zer/them care how much money someone richer has?

  10. philip

    Surely the struggle against oppressive capitalist patriarchy is sufficient reason to bitch about anything?

  11. “fair equality of opportunity”

    That is tautological.

    Is there unfair equality of opportunity?

    I suspect ‘fair equality’ means stack the deck heavily to the advantage of the current chosen, favoured group.

  12. @ JohnB
    “fair equality of opportunity” means non-identical external factors affecting such opportunity are balanced, either by each other or by society to achieve fairness.
    As “fair” in inevitably subjective (? is it fair that I cannot run as fast as Usain Bolt, is it fair that he’d be stumped by some of my maths homework), certain people will abuse the term to favour their chosen, favoured group.
    But the key word is “opportunity”, which the left would deny us, keeping us all confined to their grey caves as untermeschen

  13. @RichardT

    Your point is even stronger than you made it out to be because only 50% of ticket prices is returned as winnings. So people not only favour inequality, but they do so to such an extent that they are willing to pay a huge premium for it.

    @John B

    Unfair equality of opportunity would be something like an employer selecting a bricklayer based on how fast they can run. Although there is equality of opportunity, the criterion is wholly artificial and not relevant to the job, so it is unfair.

  14. Yes, and you can also read Rawls as stating that $1 for all, or $2 to $4 variable – well, prefer b, obviously. But, there are egalitarians who would reject that and prefer a. Further, you can stretch Rawls again. Say it’s between $2 and $4 now, but $5 to $10 for the children in 40 years time. Or $3 and $4 now and $3 and $4 in 40 years time.

    The classical liberal argument is – to an extent anyway – that some inequality of outcome now leads to that improved future. As to which the rational person would prefer from tbeihnd the veil of ignorance, well, that depends perhaps on how much value they place on the joy of their childrens’ lives. Something notably variable across humans…..

    Rawls does frame some interesting questions. But the answers are not obvious nor do they necessarily fall the egalitarian way.

  15. Two other things about Rawls.

    1. He’s a lot smarter than most everyone else. A lot of people who invoke Rawls to support their position haven’t in fact understood what he was saying at all. The veil of ignorance isn’t a licence to become a latterday Robin Hood, pinching willy nilly from the rich to sprinkle over the poor. Sorry, Spud, that’s simply a fact.

    2. He was so robust on free speech he very nearly got cancelled, which is quite an achievement given that cancellation wasn’t really a thing back then.

    If I were behind a veil of ignorance, I’m pretty damn sure I wouldn’t want to live in a world where a million baby-faced Hitlers sit in their dorm rooms trying to doxx anyone they disagree with.

  16. @dearieme
    “you’d be barking to choose any time other than right now.” Maybe. Or maybe Southern California in 1962.

    My ‘veil’ operates globally, you can’t choose a specific region. Who would want to be born in 1962 Lesotho, rather than the 2023 version (shithole though it may well be, it’s far less of a shithole). Even 1962 China (perhaps the most likely outcome of a random choice) wouldn’t be much fun.

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